The Bloom is off the Rose

July 11th, 2008

Well, Obama voted "Yea" on the FISA / wiretapping / retroactive immunity bill. Damn.

I admit, I had been enthusiastic about Obama for president. He seemed like a grown-up, a startling contrast to most other politicians: he panned the moronic gas-tax holiday, for instance. He didn't go in for the stupid catch-phrase gotcha games that are the staple of American news-politics.

But now he's tacking to the right so violently he's doing dumb things, such as the FISA bill vote. The cynic in me is embarrassed to admit to feeling disillusionment. Yes, in the absence of evidence I projected my own positions onto him, and now he's revealing that, although intelligent and moral (unlike, say, a Republican), he's also just a politician, with the flexible principles that entails.

Oh, he's head and shoulders - no, he's multiple entire bodies - above McCain. But I had hoped to vote with some enthusiasm, rather than muted hope. Ah, well.

Reviews: Iron Man, Prince Caspian, Indiana Jones v 4.0, Kung Fu Panda, Mongol

July 8th, 2008

We've gotten out to a fair number of movies in the last few months. Back in May we saw Iron Man, which was excellent. Of course, Hollywood has in the last decade or so proven that they can get the super hero origin story movie right, and they do so here. The graphics are wow but never overshadow the story, or Morton Downey Jr., who does a superb job as Tony Stark. Sequels are another matter entirely.

We followed that up with The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, which was good but not awesome. I was a huge Narnia fan as a child, and the movie does alright, but it never excels. The same can be said for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which veers a little too far into new-age space-alien weirdness and general pulp fiction silliness. That said, it's certainly an Indiana Jones film, and a fun ride.

In June we got to Kung Fu Panda; I dislike Jack Black in most cases, but he was good here, and overall it was a fun film with only one truly awesome scene, but no let-downs either.

Just last week, at my urging, we went to see Mongol. It was just too damned slow. The characters were good, the cinematography was excellent, the scenery was awesome. Having been to Mongolia it was really neat to see it again on the big screen, and the wife and I kept giggling as we watched the characters drinking airag, remembering the true awfulness of that beverage.

But none of that could save the fact that the movie was agonizingly slow. Some two and a half hour films feel like fifteen minutes; this one felt like about six hours.

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The New-Fashioned Way

June 30th, 2008

We stayed at the cabin this weekend. On the family ranch down near Santa Cruz we have a cabin, built by my grandparents and extensively refurbished over the last few years by my mother and uncle. It's two rooms and a bathroom, running water and electricity, no phone. To get cell reception you have to walk the thirty feet to the top of the hill.

The cabin is locked when no one is there, and the keys are in a nearby location with a combination lock. I arrived friday night at eleven. As is typical in the country at night, it was pitch black - any ambient light was rendered moot by fog. The cabin's exterior lights are all turned on from inside the cabin.

The miniature mag-lite I keep on my keychain was dead, and I had to open a combination lock.

So I fired up my iPod and used the light from the screen to open the lock.

Not quite the way my grandfather would have done it...

Reviews: Augustus, An Island to Oneself

June 30th, 2008

Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor by Anthony Everitt - 5/10
Fired up by Goldsworthy's Caesar, I followed with a biography of his successor. Sadly, where Caesar was triumphany, Augustus fell flat. Perhaps the sources are less insightful, perhaps Julius Caesar was simply the more interesting character... but more likely, the writing in Augustus just wasn't as good. Oh, the facts were interesting, but there was little insight into the men behind them, just the most superficial sort of speculation, and I finished the book feeling like I had passed through a dark room full of interesting things.

An Island to Oneself by Tom Neale and Noel Barber - 8.5/10
Read this in two days. It's a memoir of a man who lived for many years by himself on a tropical island, hundreds of miles from the nearest other human beings. It has both the advantages and drawbacks of a true memoir: it's the exact experience conveyed by the man who had done it, but it's fairly short and leaves great spaces of time where the reader can only wonder what went on.

It certainly conveyed two things: first, living by oneself on a desert island requires specialized knowledge that takes years to obtain (Tom Neale was 50 when he went to Suwarrow the first time, and knew how to weave a roof, spearfish, raise breadfruit and chickens, etc etc), and if anything goes wrong, you're screwed. A few years into his first stay and he threw his back out - had some yachters not come by completely by accident a few days later, he would have starved to death, unable to move. And the average incidence of a boat stopping in was about one in eight months.

If you hold that secret childhood fantasy about being Robinson Crusoe, this is a definite recommendation. Well-written and fascinating.

Reviews: An Army at Dawn, Dark Fire

June 6th, 2008

An Army at Dawn : The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 by Rick Atkinson - 9/10
Yes, I'm giving it the rare and coveted nine out of ten, which I have given to perhaps half a dozen books I've read since I started "formally" rating them in 1998. It's that good - a war story that captures the great sweeps and movements of the war but at the same time engrosses us in the details, the anecdotes, the feeling and human presence of war. A great book, which both brings home the horror of war without self-indulgent condemnation; at its foundation a very human narrative, recognizing the imperfections and the nobility, the errors and the triumphs. A great war novel, and I look forward to the next two.

Dark Fire by C.J. Sansom - 8/10

Another winner. This is the follow-up historical mystery novel to Dissolution, and really kicks it up a notch, evolving from a slow beginning into a serious page-turner. It's not perfect, using inappropriate colloquialisms (e.g. "out of your league") and erroneous terms (no one before the 19th century ever called Constantinople "Byzantium"), but in general it captures the aura of 16th century London, and has a compelling story and worthwhile characters. Sometimes they are a bit inappropriately stupid, but overall I recommend the novel and plan to read the next one shortly.