Archive for the ‘books’ Category

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I finally saw the conclusion of the “Atlas Shrugged” movie trilogy

January 17, 2015

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NOTICE: Spoilers will appear in this review! If you ever read the book by Ayn Rand, you know already how the plot progresses. If not, you may want to avoid reading this.

(ABOVE: The “gold” “Steelbook” of the Part III Blu-ray, available directly from the movie website.)

First, I have to admit that just getting this made at all is a tribute to the vision and persistence of John Aglialoro, CEO of exercise equipment manufacturer Cybex International. The story of how the films were made is very interesting reading. I’ve read bits and pieces in a variety of places, but I don’t know of one place where you can find the whole story.

The 1000+ page novel is not only too unwieldy for one film, but really, even for three, but the book breaks into three parts nicely, and that is how the films were written. Unfortunately, the limited funding available meant that each subsequent film had half the budget of the previous installment – $ 20 million, $ 10, and 5 million for the finale.

Aglialoro and company decided on something that I thought was a very poor idea: each film was made with a completely new cast. Now, there were no guarantees even Part II would be made, so I suppose securing commitments from the first cast for a project that would take five years was impossible. Still, one of the flaws of the film series is that each subsequent cast and director seemed less able than the one before.

Part I was pretty watchable. With Taylor Schilling as Dagny Taggart, and Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden, the main cast members were, if not A-list, certainly B list folks, all good at their craft. I didn’t really expect Schilling to be as good as she was, but she sold me on being Dagny. (Of course, she is a big star of Orange Is The New Blackshe got an Emmy Award for it last year so getting a commitment from her for all three films may have been particularly difficult.) The rest of the cast pretty much lived up to my expectations as well, with particular standouts in Rebecca Wisocky as the Lillian Rearden you love to hate, and Graham Beckel as an appropriately-blustery Ellis Wyatt.

There were problems with updating the story to the present day. Rand gave no year for the story, except that it was assumed to be in the future; some folks who have studied it and her far more than I  believe it was set in about the mid-1970s. It could have been an excellent period piece, set a few years or even a decade after the 1957 publication of the book. In that time period the railroads were the major lifeline moving goods from one end of the US to another. Today, while they certainly are still a major means of shipping, trucks and aircraft have become much more important.

Placing it in the present day, or in the near future, meant a little hand-waving for making the railroads so vital to the welfare of the country. That was accomplished by making one of the effects of the stifling socialist federal government be to raise oil prices so high as to ground planes, trucks and most personal vehicles. In Rand’s world, pretty much every country outside of the US is socialist or communist, their economies are failing, and we are shipping aid to many of them – even though our own people need things just as much, or more.

Analyzing the book’s themes is beyond the scope of this little piece. What I mostly want to talk about is how I thought the final installment was successful in achieving Aglialoro’s (and Rand’s) aims, and places where it seemed to be lacking.

On the plus side, screenwriter/director James Manera (who wrote the screenplay with Aglialoro and Herman Kaslow) did a pretty fair job of taking hundreds of pages of dialogue, plot and description and distilling it down to its essence. I think a movie of 99 minutes is too short, but whether that length was determined by money, time, or intended pacing, I have no idea. The essential themes are there. Galt’s broadcast speech (which takes about three hours to read out loud) was cut to a few minutes, but still achieves most of the intention of the original, I think. The cast – most of whom certainly are of the category of “where did I see that guy before” delivered the lines with conviction. Rand’s prose doesn’t translate to the contemporary vernacular very well, so it sounds a little stilted; but some of it reads that way in the novel, as well. Rand’s Producers are not like most film characters – they think before the speak, they can make well-reasoned arguments, and they are pretty adept at leaving emotion out of their discussions. That’s rare in TV and film nowadays, where action and emotion are the keys to success in the big blockbusters that are rolled out every summer.

Trouble is, that kind of dialogue isn’t enough to grab the audience. I knew it was coming, but I’ve read the book, a couple of times. A viewer without that experience could think the characters to be cold and dry. They are passionate people, but about their work, and the things they create – that’s harder to bring out, I think, in the time available in the film.

Pacing was odd. The movie is a series of short scenes, with some connective narration. There’s a lot of plot, and not enough time to show it to you. The narration helps to move the plot along but the depth is missing. When the Taggart Bridge collapses, we learn about it after the fact, and it is more of an intellectual problem for the cast than something that essentially cuts the entire country in two. Short-scene pacing can work, but to make the end of the film exciting, it would need to be picked up there, and instead, the final scenes feel longer and not very dramatic.

I happen to think Rand’s ending wasn’t optimal, but through the book she describes the continuing degrading of services of all kinds – food, electricity, fuel, and makes a point in the final third of the book that the skyscrapers of New York City are only lit on the lower few floors. There is too little electricity to light the upper floors, let alone run elevators. The skyline at night should gradually be getting darker over the course of the three films, and we don’t see that. In fact, the way the final loss of power to New York (and apparently, the entire eastern seaboard) is by showing a scene from the air where blocks of lights go out one at a time. It takes a few seconds instead of minutes, and was obviously much less expensive, but it doesn’t make the audience feel the darkness that is overcoming the entire country – a darkness people feel powerless to stop.

The torture scene at the end, and Galt’s subsequent rescue, was hard to watch. It wasn’t as well done as on any one of dozens of TV shows, and gave a very B-movie mad scientist vibe. In 1957 such a torture device might have been new, but making a big deal about Project F as a secret crash program and then showing it as something better done in 1970s TV was laughable. In the book, at least the rescue has a feeling of urgency and drama. This film had none of that. Of course Dangy & Co. are going to save Gault!

I think I put my finger on the biggest flaw in this film and in the other two as well – and it’s not Rand’s fault, and not really so much the fault of the writers or directors, either. Unfortunately, much of what she warns us about is already here. The story is no longer a cautionary tale about what might happen – in some ways, what has already happened is worse than what is described in the book. If over half the voters in the US are willing to vote for bread and circuses already, we’ve lost. In 1957 I don’t think that was the case. The amount of money flowing back to certain segments of American society today is almost beyond imagining. Instead of the audience thinking, “We can’t let that happen here,” at best they are thinking, “It’s happening here just like that now. How can we possibly change it?”

The use of companies named after their founders – Taggart, Rearden, Wyatt, etc. – was deliberate. Like the original US car makers and many other manufacturers, these are companies built and driven by the vision of a single man. I think Rand was watching those kinds of companies begin to disappear around her in the 1950s, and without a single founder at the head to fight for a company, the kind of mergers and acquisitions in the book (and in real life) go on at a faster rate. Nationalizing those companies is the last step before their destruction.

Rand believed strongly in the power of individuals, and the free use of their minds to create. She saw the Communist takeover of her Russian homeland firsthand, and as the Soviet Union dragged itself out of the ashes of World War II and became a world power I am sure she feared the worst for all other countries. I don’t know what would happen if all the creative people in technical and artistic fields “went away” today. The globalism we see now is both a deterrent and a curse. Of course, if our scientists went on strike, those in China or Singapore or eastern Europe would still be creating. But could the US stand it? Right now we are seeing one of Rand’s predictions coming true – Wyatt’s shale oil has been so successful in the central US and Canada as to actually drop the price of oil to less than half of what it was two years ago – despite the efforts of the Federal government. We produce enough food to feed ourselves and others as well. Our country is considered still to be enough of a beacon of freedom to attract immigrants, legal and otherwise, in great numbers. But we are engaged in a constant battle with the Nanny State and the reach of the Federal Government. Rand said the only way to break that stranglehold was for the people who were running the motor of the world to stop. Of course, we never find out if Rand’s USA rises free from the ashes of its socialist government. That is the part of the book we must help to write.

Short addendum: One thing that could have helped this film immensely would have been a better score. A composer was hired – Elia Cmiral, who also scored Part I, but the mix put the score so far down, and the score itself was so uninteresting, that it didn’t help bring the audience through the emotional points at all. For more films that we realize, the score is so important as to be essential for us to feel with the characters. Unfortunately this score didn’t do that at all.

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Alternate Universes that we don’t think of as alternate universes

December 5, 2013

There are many books and short stories having to do with”alternate universes” – timelines similar to our own but in which a single historical even changes, and over time the results of that action have large consequences. There are the Sidewise Awards, given in both long and short form.

I won’t bore you with a history of alternate history. You can google it faster than I can write about it. However, you might want to check out the work of Harry Turtledove and Robert Conroy, at least.  Maybe one of these days I will list some of my favorites.

But here I’m talking about something else, primarily television shows. Almost all political series that take place in the present day could be called alternate history. Take “The West Wing,” which was running when the 9/11 attack took place. There wee references to it, but not much, and it did not profoundly effect the timeline in the show after that – even though it did in our timeline.

But here’s my favorite: “In the universe of “Star Trek,” no “Star Trek” ever aired.” I don’t remember where I first read that, but I’ve pondered it over the years in idle moments. For example, apparently manned space exploration continued in ST timeline more extensively than in ours – it was good enough to loft a sleeper ship in the late 1990s to get rid of Kahn Noonian Singh and his motley crew. There was that pesky nuclear war around that time, or after; and the Genetics War before Kahn was exiled, but even that didn’t keep Zephram Cochrane from building a warp ship from an old Titan missile.

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Some like to say that ST inspires us toward that sort of Utopian vision apparently held by Gene Roddenberry. It’s more complicated than that, but I think it is safe to say that ST didn’t really inspire us to maintain manned exploration of space – the Trekkers couldn’t even get NASA to name a real space shuttle after the Enterprise. (The one they named was a test article used for glide tests.) Perhaps a series taking place in the nearer future would have done so more effectively.

Sherlock Holmes, in all his manifestations – novels, stories, films, plays, radio shows, television – existed in a particular world. Usually, as in the original, it was very close to actual history. Later versions had him fighting Nazis and working in a more steampunk Victorian England. The two contemporary versions – “Sherlock” in the UK and “Elementary in the US – apparently take place in a world in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about other things. Perhaps his medical practice took off faster, or maybe he decided to stay in London rather than moving to Southsea, and became involved in other activities.

Still, every time someone in “Elementary” is introduced to Holmes, their lack of surprise at the name, except for its odd sound, seems very strange to me.

Some interpretations of quantum physics imply that there is a multitude of universes. Maybe in one of them Barak Obama lost the Senate election to Jack Ryan, and he stayed in the Illinois General Assembly…

 

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More new stuff at “Keep Americans Free.”

October 16, 2013

I wrote a couple more new posts over at Keep Americans Free. I invite you to take a look.

And go out, right now, and buy Mark Levin’s “The Liberty Amendments: Restoring the American Republic.”

MarkLevin_LibertyAmendments_Cover__33917.1373489734.1280.1280

 

No, I mean it. Go buy it. Now. It may have the answer to the only way we can get ourselves out of this Washington mess, once and for all.

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Few posts over the next few weeks

February 28, 2013

Sorry, campers, I know you hang onto my every word. Family medical issues will keep me away most of the time until about May 1. I know you can hang on that long without my observations!

I really recommend that you check out Jerry Pournelle, at www.jerrypournelle.com. I think he’s the original blogger, and his commentary and that of his readers covers science, science fiction, politics, music, health care, education…a very wide range of topics. He is a very wise man and a kickass hard science fiction writer. In fact, he and Larry Niven owned most of the hard science fiction real estate for about 20 years, and both are still writing, together and separately!

See you around the intertubes. Keep your heads down.

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A few comments about why novels don’t get finished

February 16, 2013

I remember a couple of the rules for writers Robert A. Heinlein had, and two of them were:

You must finish what you write, and

You must keep it out there until it is sold.

(I hope I recall those correctly. I confess I’m too lazy to go look ’em up right now. If it wasn’t RAH, it was either Jerry Pournelle or Larry Niven. The second one sounds like Niven.)

Still, my point: none of that rearranging of electrons or scribbling on paper means anything unless you finish it. Okay, sure, you might learn some things from abandoning a project or two – if the idea wasn’t good enough, dump it and find another.

But I’ve been writing the marching band arranging book for a year now, and it’s out for first reading by some band director friends of mine, so I can start looking at something else. I have commitments to write two marching band shows for clients but I can’t write music all day every day. I have to assemble some ideas in the back of my head and then get them committed to notation.

The first novel I wrote takes place in S.M. Stirling’s Drakaverse. It is titled The Righteous Stuff, and as I was writing it bits and pieces appeared on this blog, a few years ago. I finished it three years ago,  I think, submitted it to Baen (who published Stirling’s Draka novels back in the 1990s) and waited for it to be rejected.

Which it was. I wasn’t surprised. I started writing it around 2000 or so, when the Draka novels were still fairly well known. Stirling hadn’t written the Nantucket series yet, or Dies The Fire and the rest of that series, and the concepts in the Draka novels were so unsettling that it was still bouncing around the internet a bit. I got about 50K words done and then didn’t touch it for years. Once I pulled it out I had it finished in about a year, writing off and on. I have two more books in the back of my head in that series.

Besides, I knew that the Draka novels always made Jim Baen uncomfortable, because SPOILER ALERT! the bad guys, essentially, won in the end. I didn’t submit it until after Jim Baen had passed, but even if the story was good enough, and I don’t know if it was, it would have required Stirling’s approval. His books are now published by Tor, I think, so maybe that would have been an issue as well.

Once it was officially rejected, I submitted it to the main Stirling fanfiction site. It’s run by a friend of Stirling’s, one of his first readers, and she handed it off to two other folks who were more familiar with the Draka. They provided me with a couple of pages of great notes on how I could make the book more consistent with the Drakaverse.

And…I’ve not touched it since. I should, since the changes aren’t that big, and it would only take me a month or so to get it finished so at least the book would see the electronic light of day. I toyed with the idea of “Fifty Shades of Gray”-ing it; no, not sexing it up, you dirty-minded readers – but taking out the Draka references and converting it into a stand-alone alternate history novel.

But the Draka are just such damned fine villains! I couldn’t figure out how to take them out and still make the book work. All the alternate universe US people and events are influenced by the presence of the Draka, past and present.

So maybe I will make the changes and submit it to the fanfic site. At least that way people could read the thing. I learned a lot writing it, but I don’t know that it would be worth my while right now to write the sequels. And the bad guys do win in the end, dammit.

My second novel, not related in any way to the Draka book, is about half done and I got stalled. Not for lack of a plot line, or because I was unhappy with the characters, or any of the usual reasons writers stall out on a book. It’s because the physics keeps changing.

See, there’s a major plot point that involves the creation of, and control of, a micro-sized black hole. I was going to have it created in the Large Hadron Collider, and confined and carried off. Now I’m not even sure the LHC can make micro black holes, or if it can, if they exist long enough to capture them. This long-term search for the Higgs boson has caused several reevaluations of quantum physics, apparently. I’m no particle physicist, that’s for sure, but I’ve tried to read all the relevant polarizations of the concepts of a reality with at least eleven dimensions, how some could be “rolled up” and therefore not perceived, how string theory works, and a lot of associated stuff.

And my major plot idea is dissolving because of the physics. I could do some hand-waving and ignore the last couple of years of research that’s gone on since I started the book. I could do the science-fictiony thing and postulate some new force or discovery that would make my story work. I could ignore logic and go ahead anyway. I’d still like to make it sound at least a little bit plausible.

See, the story is really about a crisis and how a group of people handle a potentially dangerous situation that no one understands. There will be no cable-company employee who quickly writes a virus that will drop the defensive shields on an alien ship, and do it in twenty minutes on an old Macbook. There’s no one super-smart person who is the only one who sees the answer while everyone else acts like fools and gets in the way. There are super-smart people, because those are the ones you need when you are dealing with the real unknown, but in this case they have to work together, use each other’s strengths, and behave like adults should.

In other words, a completely implausibly situation, right?

I’m happy with the character mix, and their backstories. I liked where the plot was going, and how quickly it was getting there. I wasn’t having to pad anything to stretch out the dramatic tension.

But I don’t believe my own physics. Part of it involves “force fields.”

Force fields have been used in skiffy for nearly a hundred years. Call them what you will, but tractor beams, repulsor fields, defensive shields, containment shields, all of these things have one thing in common: so far as I know, we don’t know how to project any of them.

Electromagnetic fields, sure. But to do so, we usually need some kind of conductors, and those are physical structures. A magnetic field requires something to shape and contain it. Nobody can project a directed magnetic field over a long distance, in a confined beam, except Magneto.

If I’m wrong about this, for God’s sake tell me! I admit my physics training is severely lacking, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write space opera, where nobody worries about such things.

I need a confinement field for gravity. Nobody really understand gravity, except maybe Roger Penrose or Misner, Thorne and Wheeler. If Penrose understands it, then the rest of us don’t; he has a completely different view of how the universe is put together. But the little I understand of twistor theory doesn’t help with what I need.

Not to reveal too much, I need to be able to control a “beam” of gravity, from a micro black hole, and have the ability to point it in one direction, so it attracts to a specific point, but not omnidirectionally. I’m faking it by confining it in a sort of makeshift Faraday cage right now, but that won’t work as the story develops.

Maybe I should do the hand-waving, finish the book, and then figure out the physics. But I could miss a completely good plot device or seven if I don’t understand the physics first.

So – you see why novels don’t get finished. It’s not laziness, or lack of inspiration. The universe gets in the way!

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John Adams knew his stuff…and knew us.

January 16, 2013

John Adams was never my favorite of the Founding Fathers. His antipathy to the Roman Catholic Church, in particular, seems to be at odds with his beliefs in Religious Freedom, and bothers me. He was not, however, as many have suggested, a Deist, not in the mold of Thomas Jefferson. He did seem to believe in the active participation of God in the affairs of men.

However, ponder these:

There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other. This, in my humble apprehension, is to be dreaded as the greatest political evil under our Constitution.
Letter to Jonathan Jackson (2 October 1780), “The Works of John Adams”, vol 9, p.511.

Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.
Letter to Zabdiel Adams (21 June 1776).

The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.
Letter to Abigail Adams (12 May 1780).

All the perplexities, confusions, and distresses in America arise, not from defects in their constitution or confederation, not from a want of honor or virtue, so much as from downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation.
Letter to Thomas Jefferson (23 August 1787), The Works of John Adams.

The History of our Revolution will be one continued Lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklins electrical Rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod—and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War.
Letter to Benjamin Rush, 4 April 1790. Alexander Biddle, Old Family Letters, Series A (Philadelphia: 1892), p. 55

While our country remains untainted with the principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world; while she continues sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy, we shall have the strongest reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned us by Providence. But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation, while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candour, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world. Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken, and so solemnly repeated on that venerable ground, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.
Letter to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, 11 October 1798, in Revolutionary Services and Civil Life of General William Hull (New York, 1848), pp 265-6. There are some differences in the version that appeared in The Works of John Adams (Boston, 1854), vol. 9, pp. 228-9, most notably the words “or gallantry” instead of “and licentiousness”.

Property must be secured, or liberty cannot exist. But if unlimited or unbalanced power of disposing property, be put into the hands of those who have no property, France will find, as we have found, the lamb committed to the custody of the wolf. In such a case, all the pathetic exhortations and addresses of the national assembly to the people, to respect property, will be regarded no more than the warbles of the songsters of the forest. The great art of law-giving consists in balancing the poor against the rich in the legislature, and in constituting the legislative a perfect balance against the executive power, at the same time that no individual or party can become its rival. The essence of a free government consists in an effectual control of rivalries. The executive and the legislative powers are natural rivals; and if each has not an effectual control over the other, the weaker will ever be the lamb in the paws of the wolf. The nation which will not adopt an equilibrium of power must adopt a despotism. There is no other alternative. Rivalries must be controlled, or they will throw all things into confusion; and there is nothing but despotism or a balance of power which can control them.
No. 13, Discourses on Davilia, 1790

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Mac Microsoft Word 2011 save problem – solved?

December 14, 2012

I’ve been working on a book about how to arrange music for marching band, and I’ve been plugging away at it for about a year. I’ve been writing it in Word, mainly, and embedding images as I’ve gone along. There are a lot of music notation examples in the book, so I have been creating them and placing them along the way.

I didn’t originally know if I would complete the book in Word or convert it to something else. Last summer I got Adobe Creative Cloud services for another project and so I have access to the newest version of InDesign. I was a PageMaker guy from way back, and I’ve used InDesign CS3 to do concert programs and the like, but never a large (100+ pages) document.

I decided to move the text to InDesign and I’m in the process of doing that. However, what prompted that decision was the trouble I’ve had with Mac Word 2011.

Lately it’s been switching the document to Read-Only and refusing to save. There have been dialogs popping up about the file being used by another process. I’ve done a little research and I found that others with the same problem have (a) been using large files, in excess of 20 MB; (b) they have been using images embedded in the file, and (c) they have Time Machine backup turned on. There were a lot of suggestions to fix permissions (the generic Mac OS X fix) and I did that, daily, for a while…it didn’t help.

Since I have the first 40+ pages transferred to InDesign I decided to delete the images in that part of the document. The file went from 22.5 MB to 19.9. I’ll see if that helps. I hate to turn off Time Machine if I can avoid it. Maybe it’s the images.

If so, that’s kind of stupid. I’ve worked with documents in Windows Word 2010 that were of similar file sizes, with lots of embedded images. I used to write a lot of computer training documentation and those docs were full of screenshots – and I did nothing to optimize those images one bit. There’s obviously some kind of bug in Word and how it works with Time Machine or some other background process. I’ll report back on this issue in a few days, and let you know if the situation has improved.