Star Wars: JJ Abrams Gets It

December 18th, 2015

I just watched The Force Awakens, and I'm going to get my thoughts out while it's fresh on my mind.

First off, it's good.  Not "good," as in, "well, maybe it wasn't a total trainwreck."  No, it's "good" as in, "tons of kids are going to emulate the new characters like my generation did with Luke and Han" good.

The visuals are impeccable.  Abrams doesn't feel the need to clutter every inch of screen real estate, so the creature and building designs really stand out.  The dogfight sequences are kinetic and exhilarating.  Poe Dameron is absolutely the man.

Which brings us to the dialogue.  The earliest comedic beat in the movie comes from his back-and-forth with Finn (actually, "FN-2187").  It the kind of dialogue at which Joss Whedon excels, and a minute worth of witty banter sets up their characters perfectly.

The humor?  There are no fart jokes or awkward mascot characters.  This is old-school Star Wars humor, and it comes off naturally.  The only real "cute" character is the droid BB-8, and she comes across as charming rather than slapstick.

John Williams' score continues to be an integral part of the films.  If you never noticed, every character has their own theme.  Rey's theme is a meditative one that feels like Ralph Vaughan Williams, while Kylo Ren's theme has an undercurrent of Wagnerian violence with just a touch of the Imperial March in the brass.  There was one spot in the climax (something big blows up) when the music felt a bit generic, but it's otherwise spot on.

The characters returning from the original trilogy all have good plot reasons for being there, and the Leia/Han dynamic…well, it's heartbreaking.  How much so?  Well, I'm going to spoil it from here.

Continued »

Due Process and "Terror"

December 13th, 2015

The gun-control lobby is attempting to use the San Bernardino shooting for political fodder.  The problem is that the incident occurred in California, a state they consider to be a model laboratory for gun restrictions.

They've chosen to sidestep that issue, and they're proposing a new solution:  bar anyone on a terrorist watchlist from owning firearms.  If we don't look too closely, it seems sensible.  It also makes for good soundbites about security.

In practice, it's a terrible idea, and it's something that should offend anyone interested in civil liberties.

Consider the "no fly" list.  One has no way of knowing whether they're on it until they try to board a plane.  If they are, it's nearly impossible to find out why they're on it.  Aside from a feeble DHS program, there's no way to redress the situation.  Even that venue places the burden of proof on the accused.

It also bears mentioning that neither Farook or Malik were on the list.

It's troubling enough that such a system is used to interfere with air travel.  If it's used to strip enumerated rights without due process, it becomes something much worse.  Of course, gun-control advocates aren't letting that slow them down.  Consider Senator Dianne Feinstein's feelings on the situation:

(…) only individuals who are charged and convicted of a crime should be denied a firearm. That would be a critical mistake.

This is what comes of the "just do something" mentality.  It really has nothing to do with public safety–this is about getting a gun law, any gun law, passed while they can rely on public outrage.  Any rights trampled in the process are collateral damage.

…which is pretty much how we got the no-fly list in the first place.

Life on the Road

November 15th, 2015

I recently switched careers, and I'm now training as an over-the-road trucker.  So far, it's been an intense learning experience.  Here are a few observations I'd like to pass along.

I'm driving a vehicle that can weigh as much as 80,000 pounds.  When that thing is moving at 65mph, it can't stop on a dime.  Physics doesn't work that way.

If you want to go faster than me, by all means pass me.  No, I want you to.  I'm travelling as quickly as conditions and the vehicle will allow.  If you do choose to pass, please make sure to leave some space before cutting in front of me.  See the previous paragraph for an explanation.  Your best bet is to wait until you can see the marker lights above my windshield in your mirrors.

If I can, I'll let you merge in.  Sometimes I can't.  I'm not going to slam on my brakes to do so.  On-ramps are called acceleration lanes for a reason.  Either get in front of me or fall in behind.

Don't tailgate me.  It won't make me go faster.  In fact, driving on my butt leaves you in one of my main blind spots.  That little underrun bumper with the reflective tape?  It's not very sturdy.  If I have to make a sudden stop, there's a good chance your vehicle is going under mine.

Stop texting while you try to drive.  Yes you are.  My seat rides much higher than yours.  Holding the phone in your lap doesn't hide it.

Did I mention that trucks are heavy?  I think I did.  Sometimes we have trouble in the mountains.  Gravity slows us down on upgrades.  That's why we're in the right lane with our hazard lights flashing in places like Monteagle.  We might lose speed.  What we can't do is go faster.  Take the left lane and pass.

Speaking of the flashers, they have a purpose.  If we turn them on, it's because there's a hazard present.  Pay attention.  Either we have a problem with the vehicle, or we've spotted a dangerous condition ahead.

So, who drives well and who doesn't?  Tennessee has generally courteous drivers.  The same goes for Kentucky, though they could be a bit better about using turn signals.

Folks in Missouri are good as well.  When there aren't traffic conditions, their overhead signs are programmed to read things like, "leave tailgating at the football game" and "the steering wheel is not a hands-free device."  Nice.  Sorry about East St. Louis, though.

Iowa…I like you guys.  I wish the roads weren't so craggy, but I understand the havoc constant ice wreaks on pavement.  Same for Wisconsin, though I wish they'd put reflectors on the white lines.  Those roads get dark at night.

Ohio drivers are OK.  That is, until you get into Cincinnati.  Seriously, two cars cannot occupy the same space at the same time.  I'd also appreciate you not attempting to prove that statement wrong directly in front of me.  The state has the nicest rest stops I've ever seen, though.  The entire east coast could learn from them.

Chicago is a festival of traffic suck, made even worse by aggressive and distracted drivers.  The rest of Illinois is pretty good.

New Yorkers seem to have an odd conditioned reflex.  When their left foot hits the brake, their right hand hits the horn.  I'm pretty sure they don't even realize they're doing it.  Perhaps they'd do it less if they weren't so obsessed with seeing just how close they can get to the driver in front of them.

The worst I've encountered?  Georgia.  Seriously.  Screw Georgia drivers.  No lane discipline, a complete unwillingness to use turn signals, and utter refusal to pay attention to surroundings.  I'm from Georgia, and I can honestly say it's the most dangerous place I've driven.  Note to the Camry driver who almost hit at least eleven cars in a two-mile stretch:  you can't eat a bowl of soup and drive at 80mph the same time.

With that out of the way, the open road is something I've always loved.  It's nice to have a job that lets me enjoy it.

An Alternative to Gun Control

October 3rd, 2015

In the wake of this week's mass shooting, we're going to hear calls for more background checks.  This, despite the fact the shooter underwent and passed several background checks when he purchased his guns.  This, despite the fact that Oregon passed more strict background check legislation only a couple of months ago.

Background checks don't stop these tragedies.  With the exception of Newtown, every mass shooter in the last two decades has purchased his weapons at retail and passed a check.  The lack of a deterrent effect is obvious.  Any other social policy that has failed this utterly would have been abandoned by now.

Of course, whenever I point this out, it's implied that I'm somehow obligated to provide a solution.  Well, OK.  Here's one that might actually help.

In 2013, Dan Roberts conducted a study on mass shooters.  Every single one of them had been on Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors. That category includes the ever-popular drugs like Zoloft and Prozac.  We hand them out for everything from generalized anxiety to sexual dysfunction.

So, here's my idea.  Any time a doctor prescribes one of these drugs, he must report it to law enforcement.  If the patient wants to own a gun, he has to show proof of a psychiatric evaluation.  While he's on SSRI's, he has to take further periodic evaluations.  If he doesn't comply, he's disqualified from possession until he's either off the drugs or resubmits.

Parents who'd rather dope their kids up than raise them correctly have a choice.  If they have a child on these drugs, they must ensure he's current on his evaluations.  Otherwise, they don't get to keep guns in the house.

The gun control lobby will scream discrimination.  Tough noogies. The dangerous side effects of these drugs are well documented.  Though we've yet to establish a causal relation to mass shootings, the correlation is impossible to discount.

That, or we can keep trying the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.  There's a word for that.

Trigger Warnings

September 27th, 2015

I went to high school in a somewhat rural area.  Local politics were steered by religion and conservatism.  Therefore, it should have come as little surprise that our library's copy of Catcher in the Rye had been subjected to extensive redaction by some busybody.  In fact, entire paragraphs of the book had been blotted out with magic marker.  The school librarian wasn't the least bit surprised or disturbed when I pointed this out to her.

I used to assume that book banning was the province of the Right.  That's no longer the case.  Liberalism has bred its own version, and it's just as reprehensible. In essence, the belief is that people should be sheltered from anything they find unsettling or even distasteful.

Case in point: the whole concept of trigger warnings.  The original idea was that victims of trauma shouldn't be confronted with statements or imagery that might provoke or aggravate emotional shock.  It won't do to make a veteran with severe PTSD sit through a screening of Apocalypse Now or force a rape victim to watch The Accused.

But we've now gone far past that.  Students in our colleges want Greek mythology and harmless statues removed from the environment because they represent "sexual assault."  The works of William Shakespeare should have warnings about racism and suicide.

It's gotten to the point that one can refuse to study just about any literature or history if it offends them.  They simply have to claim that a given work violates one of a rapidly-expanding list of "triggers," including legal drug use, skeletons, or "slimy things."

The counterargument is that it doesn't constitute censorship because advocates aren't demanding the removal of such works from the curriculum.  They are wrong.  It absolutely does.  If enough students refuse to read Ovid or Chaucer, professors will remove those works from the program.  The effect is the same.

And for what?  Are we to believe that a disproportionate percentage of millennials have been subjected to traumas that necessitate this?  How are our psych wards not overflowing with affluent suburbanites?

The answer is simple:  they haven't.  Political correctness has been taken to its logical extreme.  Combine that with a generation of people who've been raised to believe that their comfort and sense of fulfillment overrule everything else, and this is what we get.

Is Jenny really unsettled because of David's penis?  Does it inflict the male patriarchy on her?  No.  But she doesn't like it, and she's been raised to whine until she gets what she wants.  Combine that with a compulsion towards self-righteous meddling, and the calls come to take the statue down.

There was a time high-school students read Fahrenheit 451.  I don't know if they still do (images of things burning might trigger fears of…something, I suppose).  Reilly tells us that the banning of books didn't start with the government; it was demanded by the people.

We can slap as many pseudointellectual labels on it as we want.  This is no different than Southern fundamentalists burning Beatles records.  Only the framework for justifying it is different.

We're meant to learn from history, even when those lessons are unsettling, especially when they're unsettling.  Art is at its best when it forces us out of our comfort zone.  If we continue on our current course, we will lose all of that.

Crocodile Tears

September 27th, 2015

There's a sad-sack story being circulated by gun-control advocates about Lonnie and Sandy Phillips.  In essence, the claim is that they're being bankrupted by an evil gun retailer who knowingly armed the Aurora movie theater shooter.

The truth is something altogether different.

The lawsuit itself [pdf] was an attempt to hold online dealers culpable because they sold ammunition without a background check.  There is no law in Colorado, or on the federal level, mandating such a practice.

Notice the "should have known" clauses:

Defendants in this case knew, should have known, or knew that it was substantially certain, that in his state of mental instability Holmes would present a danger to society if he were allowed to possess dangerous materiel. Nonetheless, Defendants negligently supplied and entrusted him with the materiel he used to launch his assault.

As an experienced ammunition seller, The Sportsman’s Guide should have known or knew that it was substantially certain that ammunition should not be supplied to persons who may pose a foreseeable risk of harm, including persons with dangerous mental illnesses such as Holmes.

By their logic, nobody should sell anything online, because it might be used to hurt somebody.  They should also have magic telepathic powers to know the intentions of buyers.

When they needed the publicity, the Brady Center claimed to be the actual plaintiffs.  If you'll check the top of the complaint, that is a lie.  Lonnie and Sandy Phillips were the plaintiffs.

Why is this important?  Because they lost.  Senior District Judge Richard Matsch threw the case out since it violated the PLCAA.  Considering the lawsuit frivolous, he ordered that the plaintiffs pay the defendant's legal fees.  The Brady Center doesn't want to be on the hook for that, so they're dumping it in the Phillips' lap.

That should be the real story.

But there's more.  The plaintiffs aren't just concerned citizens recruited at random.  Lonnie Phillips is the Operations Manager for the Brady Campaign, and Sandy Phillips is their Campaign Manager.  If the Phillips are going to hold anyone responsible for their legal bills, it should be their employer, who railroaded them into this irresponsible lawsuit.

I've asked this question of gun-control advocates before:  if your cause is just, and if you claim the support of the majority of the American people, why do you have to lie in order to further your agenda?

I have yet to receive a cogent answer.


August 29th, 2015

I get it:  Donald Trump is rich.  He managed daddy's real-estate business with some degree of competence, and it made a great deal of money.  Good for him.  That doesn't qualify him to be the President of the United States.

He has yet to articulate a single coherent policy position.  He says he'll "build a wall" and "make Mexico pay for it."  OK.  How is he going to get that done?  He won't say.  He claims he's going to "make America great again."  What steps does that entail?  No clue.

He claims to have learned about foreign policy by watching generals on television.  Let that one sink in for a moment.

If he thinks Megyn Kelly's question to him in that silly Fox debate was tough and unfair, wait until he has to deal with someone like Putin, Rouhani, or Lukashenko.  He has yet to face a real bully.

He spends all of his time chanting calculated and vague slogans, and he treats every speaking engagement like he's doing a standup comedy routine.  Who does that remind me of?

Yep, Sarah Palin.  Youbetcha.  What piece of weirdness has this whole farce been missing?  An interview between her and Trump.  I dare you to sit through all eleven minutes of surreal mutual fawning and grandstanding.

One thing stuck out for me.  She refers to Trump's campaign as "avant garde."  I really doubt she knows the meaning of the phrase ("it's a French thing, right?"), so she probably doesn't realize how utterly precise that description is.

Trump's campaign is a brilliant piece of postmodern performance art.  It's the comedian as political aspirant.  He's not just doing a sketch.  No.  He's actually making a show of running for the Presidency and gaining real support.  This is sharper commentary than anything Sacha Baron Cohen has done.

In the process, he's exploring how ludicrous the electoral process has become.  It's been fun, but he needs to go back to normal reality television, because it's getting hard to tell if he's satirizing the process or really running for the Presidency.

New Hampshire is only six months away, and the Republican party needs to get its act together.  It's time for him to bring his antics to a close and let them run.

Here Comes Biden

August 25th, 2015

It's been reasonable to suspect he'll run for the Presidency, and that now appears to be confirmed.  He's run twice before.  This time, he's been Vice President for 8 years.

If he does, Clinton is done.  Biden doesn't have any major scandals or suspicion to overcome. He's been in politics for nearly four decades, and everybody knows him.  He's got the lock on New England and he'll sweep the labor unions.  He's safe, charismatic, and connected.  He doesn't even really have to campaign for it.

Clinton will fall by the wayside.  Bernie Sanders isn't going to happen.  The party is going to nominate Biden in the primaries.

We can make all the jokes we want about Biden's gaffes.  The fact is, this guy gets stuff done on gun control.  He wrote the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which we know as the "assault weapons ban."  Though the Act had a whole slew of provisions, Biden made it clear that it was about "guns, guns, guns."  He broke the four-year Republican filibuster against it and managed the compromises leading to its passage.

After Sandy Hook, it was Biden the administration chose to take point on gun initiatives.  There's a reason for that.  We underestimate this guy at our peril.

So, what's to be done?  Here's the answer folks won't like.

Vote Republican.  No matter who it is.  Don't ☠☠☠☠ing vote for Rand Paul and prattle about conscience.  This is politics.  Don't tell me you're not going to vote as a form of "protest."  Suck it up and realize that this is really going to be about the lesser of two evils.

While we're at it, pay attention to your Senators and Representatives.  The balance in the legislature tends to change in a President's first midterm.  If Biden wins, he could pull them to his side in 2018.  If a Republican wins, he could lose the Senate at that point.

Unless the Republicans run a real winner (ehh…), the next four years could be really tough for gun rights.

Oregon: Universal Background Checks and Datamining

August 8th, 2015

Oregon recently passed a bill to mandate so-called universal background checks on private transfers of firearms.  One of the arguments we've made against the concept is that it will result in the creation of a gun registry.

This isn't just a "slippery slope" argument.  The only way to enforce background checks on private transfers will be to know who had the guns before they were transferred.  That entails a registration.  Supporters of this legislation claim we're full of hot air.

Well, it looks like that's exactly what's happening in Oregon.  Background checks are done on the state level there, and their system has been amended to require information on the transferor as well as the recipient.

The federal NICS system must purge all information on a check within 24 hours of a resolution.  It must be emphasized that this is not the case in Oregon.  According to the bill itself:

The department may retain a record of the information obtained during a request for a criminal background check under this section for the period of time provided in ORS 166.412 (7).

According to section (7)(a), that period is five years.

Furthermore, the seller is required to keep a copy of the state firearms transfer record for an unspecified period. Federal law requires dealers to retain their forms for a minimum of 20 years, and there are strict rules about the custody and release of those forms.  I see no such safeguards under Oregon's law.

What's the concern?  If I buy a gun in a private sale in Oregon, I'm filling out a form with enough information to make identity theft a trivial task, and I'm leaving it in the hands of someone who could easily lose or sell it.

So, yes–this is registration on the state level, and there's a very real problem with the way the paperwork is handled.

Lamenting the Inevitable

July 24th, 2015

I suppose the rifle open-carry guys needed something to do.  They haven't been in the news the last few months, so they decided to strut around recruiting offices in the wake of the Chattanooga shooting.

In Lancaster, Ohio, a guy named Christopher Reed had a negligent discharge in the parking lot.  Apparently, someone asked to see his rifle and he fired it while he was trying to clear it.

He has been charged with discharging a firearm within the city limits.  As it turns out, this isn't his first rodeo.  He was convicted and fined $50 for a similar incident in 2013.

Way to go, Reed.  You're on a roll.

“I’m nobody special,” Reed said in a telephone interview on Thursday.  “I’m just a guy doing my job because my own government wouldn’t do it.”

He downplayed what happened.  “It is what it is,” he said. “Nobody got hurt.”

Oh, OK.  No biggie, right?  Wrong.  His cavalier attitude is going to get someone hurt or killed.

Needless to say, the management of the shopping center has banned people from carrying rifles there.

In retrospect, I'm relieved we didn't have an incident like this during the whole Starbucks/Chipotle orgy last year.  Seriously, guys…you're not protecting anything.  You're only making the rest of us look bad.  Knock it off.

(Bonus content: what federal offenses is this guy openly advertising?)

SETI Gets Real Funding

July 21st, 2015

Through most of our history, we've assumed we occupy a privileged and unique place in the universe.  In the 16th century, Copernicus paved the way for the understanding that we orbit but one star among many.  Over the last two centuries, we've found that we're a small part of one galaxy, and that ours is but one galaxy among billions.  If we look at those numbers, it seems ridiculous to assume ours is the only planet in that whole universe to host intelligent life.

Until the 1990's, the main counterargument was that planetary formation appeared to be limited to our sun.  That changed in 1995, when radio astronomers were able to infer several extrasolar planets.  The Kepler observatory was launched in 2009, and we've now verified the existence of nearly 2,000 exoplanets in more than 1,200 solar systems.

In 1960, Frank Drake decided to turn a radio telescope to the sky and listen for signals from possible alien civilizations.  The experiment was underfunded and limited in scope.  NASA took interest, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) was funded in 1971.  It went through several iterations before funding was cut in 1992, with politicians calling it a "Martian chase" and a waste of money.

The Luddite claim was, "we haven't heard anything yet, so we must be alone."  Light (and therefore, radio) travels at a finite velocity.  We've only scanned a small part of a universe that's 13.7 billion years old and 46 billion light-years across.  It's a bit like pronouncing evolution a sham after observing only one species for one generation.

For the last two decades, the SETI project has worked on a reduced scale and with fewer resources.  It is currently funded by donations.  Much of the data analysis is done through distributed computing via the SETI@home program.

Things took a turn for the hopeful this week, when Russian investor Yuri Milner announced he'd be donating $100 million to the project over the next decade.  This gives SETI the resources to cover the sky in a breadth and depth they've never been able to manage.

Does this guarantee we'll hear something?  No.  Does it have monetary value?  No.  But we really need to stop thinking in those terms.  We live in an age that's stopped valuing the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.  It's nice to know some people won't accept that mentality.

Bloom County Is Back

July 19th, 2015

Bloom County was a comic strip that ran in newspapers through most of the 1980's.  If you don't know what those things are, I pity you.

It was both a product of the times and a commentary on them.  Our culture was refracted through the lens of a vomiting Garfield parody, an incompetent scoundrel of a lawyer, a boy whose anxieties literally lived in his closet (the purple snorkelwacker!), and a neurotic penguin (actually, puffin) named Opus.

It touched on politics, but it wasn't an overt political cartoon.  What's more, it had a huge heart and endearing characters.  It was a tremendous part of my childhood.

(I still have the promotional Billy and the Boingers record somewhere.)

Berkeley Breathed discontinued the strip in 1989.  There would be two spinoffs, Opus and Outland.  Both ran limited runs.  In 2008, he retired from the business.

Word comes this week that he's bringing the strip back.  Apparently, it has been 25 years:

Bloom County

There's an interview with Breathed here explaining his motivation for bringing the series back.  I still have my theory that he just wants to remind us that Bill the Cat and Miley Cyrus are actually two different people.

I've gone back to reread the old strips, and many are still relevant today.  Apparently, Donald Trump jokes never get old.

« Previous PageNext Page »