Archive for the ‘politics’ 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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My letter to Patti Bellock, Illinois State Representative

July 30, 2014

My state representative for the 47th district is a lady named Patti Bellock. She seems to be a nice lady, and she’s been in the position for quite some time. She is at least nominally a Republican for certain values of Republican. However, she recently sent out an email to her constituents that included these two paragraphs:

Illinois Supreme Court Decision on Retiree Healthcare

In a 6-to-1 decision on July 3 in the case of Kanerva v. Weems, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that health care benefits for retired public employees are protected under the pension clause in the state constitution, which says public worker benefits “shall not be diminished or impaired.” The ruling came in response to a class-action legal challenge to a 2012 Illinois law that gave the state the right to require retired state employees to begin contributing to their own health care costs in a manner commensurate with their ability to pay. 

This ruling will definitely impact putting Illinois back on the path of fiscal stability.  We will continue to keep you informed as developments occur.

I got a little steamed. She put this entire email out for two paragraphs of incomplete and slanted information. So here is what I sent to her:

Ms. Bellock – In your recent email newsletter you discussed the Illinois Supreme Court ruling on Kanerva v. Weems. I hope you did not mean what I think you meant when you stated, “This ruling will definitely impact putting Illinois back on the path of fiscal stability.”

It seems to me that statement implies that “fiscal stability” is sufficient reason for violation of the Illinois State Constitution. My concerns about all of the ways the legislature has addressed the “crisis” have to do with the fact that the public employees retirement systems are set up in the Illinois Constitution. Making significant changes would require an amendment to the Constitution, not just legislation.

I am a retired public school teacher from Hinsdale District 86. I pay ALL of my own medical insurance, although I am nominally included in the group through the district. The implication in your email was that this affected all public employees, when it certainly did not. Putting out an email to let your constituents know about the ruling is one thing, but to then cover it in two short paragraphs seems a waste of time at best and an attempt to affect public opinion without telling the whole story at worst.

Unfortunately, using terms like “in a manner commensurate with their ability to pay” sounds like liberal-speak nowadays. It is not a direction I expected you to take.

I hope you and your colleagues will look at the “fiscal crisis” as something that needs to be corrected through more frugal spending practices, while keeping in mind that legislation in violation of the Constitution is no more legal in Springfield than it is in Washington, D.C. The public employees retirement systems have been systematically (and illegally) plundered by the state government on many occasions over the past four decades, and that created this “crisis” as much as the rampant overspending – it should not be corrected by even more attempts to circumvent the Constitution. Thank you for your attention.

Remember, the entire “fiscal crisis” in Illinois started after the economy took a dive in ’09. The state legislature had been “borrowing” from the retirement funds since at least the early 80s. The investments in the funds were well-managed and they were paying well enough to stay ahead of the theft and still make the retirement payouts. This time, the State went to the same cupboards and found that they were finally at a point where they couldn’t steal any more without breaking the bank. So it was now a fiscal crisis and the retirees were at fault because of their excessive retirement plans – which nobody complained about at the time.

Unlike most states, the setup of the public employees retirement systems were decreed in the 1970 Illinois State Constitution, not created by legislation. Therefore, the state can’t just screw with the systems without problems like Kanerva v. Weems. They are trying all kinds of sleight of hand, like telling the local school districts they have to pony up more money. That was met with a resounding “screw you guys and the horses you rode in on.” There is a new law in place, but it’s been challenged and will no doubt end up going to the Supreme Court for review as well.

If you are a union official and you steal from a pension fund, like the Teamsters, you go to prison. If you are a state senator and/or representative in Illinois, and you steal from the public employees’ retirement funds, it’s “sound fiscal management.” Bah. And while Governor Quinn is an incompetent boob, Bruce Rauner, who is running against him, seems the type to throw the Constitution out just because he’s going to “shake up Springfield.” Double bah.

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Fifty years from now we will be wondering why everybody thought the world was warming

July 7, 2014

In Forbes, of all places, there is an opinion piece by James Taylor (no, not that one) that talks about NOAA data showing the US as cooling by 0.4 degrees in the last decade, not warming as we are told to think. And in the UK Mail there is a piece that states that there is more Antarctic ice, not less.

What surprises me about the whole global warming meme is how easily it took hold, and how hard it is to shake it off, even with substantial evidence that the planet is not warming right now, and has not been for at least ten to twenty years. I know it was pushed by a bunch of folks who depend on government grants for their livelihoods, and rising seas, superstorms and other Roland Emmerich-style phenomena make for better copy than “well, the Earth is getting a little bit cooler, now, but not much.” Still, it amazes me that the kind of blatant cooking of data sets and backstage dealing to squash dissent we have seen has gone on for so long.

The sun is a variable star. Not much of one, thank goodness, or life couldn’t exist. But vary it does. We understand the sun less than we understand our own weather. For some reason, for example, the number of sunspots has been far less lately than expected. There are theories that say the sun doesn’t even use nuclear fusion, as most scientists believe. Neutrino counts from the sun are lower than predicted, but they are elusive little bastards, and it may be that our understanding of them is flawed.

In any case, what we have learned is that there is a lot we don’t know. Water vapor is a better greenhouse gas than CO2, but the Earth naturally regulates the amount of water vapor in the air. It may be doing the same thing with CO2, but the last I read the mechanism is not fully understood.

I would expect, however, that in 2064 we will be looking back on those silly scientists and politicians from fifty years before and shaking our heads at how they thought we were going to all be inundated by rising oceans and killed by superstorms. Do you remember a book called The Population Bomb? How about Silent Spring? 1960s and 70s doom-and-gloom predictions didn’t happen, and even the fear of civilization being destroyed by nuclear war went away, thanks to Ronald Reagan. I would like to be around to see what folks say about our silliness then. Maybe humanity will have matured enough to know not to run around crying “the sky is falling” when we don’t even know what the sky is made of.

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Do we need to keep the ISS?

May 13, 2014
Bigelow's design for a commercial space station

Bigelow’s design for a commercial space station

First, Putin invades Ukraine. Then, Obama imposes more sanctions on Russia. Putin sneers and goes about his empire-building business. Then, more sanctions. Then, NASA says it is suspending cooperation with Russia.

So, Russia says we can’t get onto the ISS as of 2020. Since the only ride we currently have is on Russian rockets, they don’t exactly have to change the locks. Trouble is, I don’t think they own it – we paid way more of the actual development and construction costs, and most of the big parts were taken up there on Shuttles. The actual cost of construction is pretty hard to estimate, apparently. But I think it is safe to say that we built most of it, some ESA, some Russian, a little Japanese, etc.

So how can the Russians say they are going to lock the doors? Well. because our manned launch capability is still a mess. Sure, Lockheed is building the Orion, but it is kind of an artisian thing – small batches, made slowly, by a few skilled folks. There’s no mass production – not even like the Apollos were built in the 1960s. Those are going to be the only NASA-owned manned vehicles by 2020, unless they buy or lease some from Sierra Nevada or SpaceX. They will probably opt to just buy seats, like they are doing with Russia now. On $ 17 billion a year they don’t have a lot of cash to throw around.

So, let’s say 2020 rolls around, and we have no better relations with Russia than we do now, and they say, sorry, comrade, but no, it’s ours now. Are we going to take it by force? Probably not.

Much as an orbital assault sound kinda cool, everything in space is just too damned fragile. You would lose too much space on a DragonRider if you had to armor the thing. Russian took firearms on the Almaz secret stations in the 1970s; I would expect they would find a way to put some weapons on the ISS, or maybe have a hunter-killer Soyuz variant ready to dispatch.

Frankly, blowing the ISS up in orbit would be easier than trying to board it, but it would leave a lot of pieces in orbit that would be terrible hazards to navigation. I don’t know which would get us into more hot water with the rest of the world – blowing up the ISS with Russians on board, or shredding everybody’s satellites with chunks, like in “Gravity.”

Fact is, the ISS costs over $ 3 billion a year just to keep it going. I say, if they want it, let ’em have it. It was a fairly good idea thirty years ago, but let’s build some purpose-specific stations based on Bigelow modules that don’t have to be all things for all people. We have learned a lot from building the ISS, and we can leverage that in building the new stations.

See, if the Russians have to shoulder the cost of the ISS completely by themselves, they may decide not to keep it running. Can it be deorbited safely? How much will that cost them? What if something lands on some guy’s house? Putin doesn’t seem to fear “world opinion” as much as we do, but the fireball in the sky caused by deorbiting the ISS will still be considered a massive waste, even by countries that have no designs on building a station of their own.

So let’s give Vlad the responsibility of figuring out what to do with the thing. That kind of decision comes with being Emperor.

And let’s get started designing some second-generation stations. Russia is giving us a chance to dump what will soon be a giant shiny white elephant. We can end up in better shape, for less money, and maybe even start building some stations that could really be prototypes for interplanetary vehicles.

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SpaceX signs lease with NASA for Pad 39A

April 16, 2014

falcon_heavy1

After a bunch of fussin’ and fightin’, NASA finally signed a lease with SpaceX for the use of Pad 39A for the Falcon 9 Heavy. The first launch of the big booster is supposed to take place next year. It needs a better name, though.

The Falcon 9 Heavy is supposed to be able to lift 117,000 pounds to LEO; more than the old Saturn 1B and about half of what the Saturn V could lift. It will be the biggest launcher in the world when it’s operational, though; there isn’t as much demand for payloads that large in the commercial satellite market.

The boringly-named Space Launch System NASA has been pushing for the last several years should have a much larger payload capacity, but when are we going to see hardware? Elon Musk says he could develop the Falcon XX concept for $ 2.5 billion, about one-quarter of what NASA thinks it will cost to develop the SLS. I say pay the man.

 

Comparison of Saturn V and the various SpaceX proposals

Comparison of Saturn V and the various SpaceX proposals

And the Falcon XX would be an impressive beast. It would be worth it just to see that thing launched!

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How Obama’s executive orders threaten us more than anything else

February 15, 2014

I just did a piece on Obama’s executive orders over on Keep Americans Free. I invite you to read it.

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“Who is John Galt?” Asked. Answered.

January 25, 2014

lreganSo finally some of the cast of “Atlas Shrugged, Part III” has been announced. The previous two installments had completely different casts, and this final chapter is no different.

This time around Dagny Taggart will be played by Laura Regan (above), who is, if anything, less known that the previous two actresses who played her. I liked Taylor Schilling from Part I a lot, Samantha Mathis not so much.

And Hank Rearden will be played by, of all people…

rmorrowYep. “Northern Exposure” Rob Morrow. This guy is about as unlikely a Hank Rearden as I can imagine. He’s a well-known actor, but either Grant Bowler (Part I) or Jason Beghe (Part II) would be better. (Beghe is currently starring in a new network tv show, “Chicago PD.”)

Francisco d’Anconia, who should be a couple of years older than Dagny, will be played by experienced character actor Joaquim de Almeida. He’s almost twenty years too old, but a good actor. I liked him in “Clear and Present Danger.” He’s been in a million things before.

But the big question is: who will be playing John Galt?

This guy:

kpolahaI didn’t recognize him either. His name is Kristoffer Polaha, known for shows like “Ringer” and “Made In Jersey.” He has the look, and he is, in real life, the same age as the new Dagny. But he and Francisco and Ragnar Danneskjold were supposed to be about the same age, attending Patrick Henry University together. That part of the storyline will probably be downplayed in this film.

I liked other two films pretty well…I preferred the casting of the first one better, and the script of the second one.

The film should be out before the November 2014 elections. I look forward to how they finish it out. The book ends fairly depressingly, I cannot see how the film could end in another way. It’s a cautionary tale, after all. Too bad that generally, only those who already know that will watch it.