Sunday, September 28, 2014

Book Review: "Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain", by Aya Katz

I promised to give a fair critique of this second book in the series, even though the author is a friend, so I'll start with technicalities.  First, the cover painting is disappointing;  Impressionism and Fauvism are all very well, but they do require that the artist draw well -- and I've seen talented 10-year-olds do better.  On the other hand, the book being a Trade-sized paperback like its predecessors, the Perfect (hot-glue) binding is both sturdy and flexible enough to last indefinitely. The printing, even the Antiqued chapter-heading fonts, is good-sized, very crisp and clear -- wonderfully easy on the eyes.

The story itself is a continuation of the fictionalized biography of Aaron Burr's daughter, and her theorized lifelong romance with Jean Lafitte the Privateer -- not pirate, as he insists.  This volume takes us through Lafitte's founding of Galveston, and the embarrassment this caused the fledgling American government.  Besides having to play a delicate balancing act between the empires of Britain, France, and Spain -- not to mention the new South and Central American republics that sprang up in the footsteps of Simon Bolivar-- the United States government still hadn't worked all the bugs out of the democratic-governing business. Despite the ideals of the founders, the people staffing the new government were still affected by the feudal and corrupt assumptions of the earlier British government, complete with its class arrogance.  They were acutely embarrassed by having had to rely on independent privateers for their early navy, and tried to blot out that shame by turning on their former allies -- including Lafitte -- as soon as they could build enough ships to do it.  The novel is an account of Lafitte's slow retreat, under pressure from the US government, from the city he saved, the settlements he founded, and the countries he helped liberate, until he's obliged to fake his death and forsake the sea altogether, to settle down as a respectable gunpowder-merchant in a suburb of St. Louis.

Of course there are plenty of lively and romantic details: Lafitte's daughter and her disastrous first marriage, the vengeance Lafitte takes on her brutal husband, the routing of the nasty Inquisitor by Theodosia and her children and neighbors, and the cunning escapes by the Lafitte brothers from the embarrassed governments that keep trying to hang them.  There are also surprising viewpoints and pithy comments on the politics of the early republic, and foreshadowings of their future course.  For instance, Lafitte's veneration of property rights offers an alternative to the slavery problem that could have avoided the Civil War -- if only the federal government and the Abolitionist movement had chosen to take it.  Revelations of Alexander Hamilton's shady character and practices, and the financial disaster of his national bank, prophesy the economic woes of the present day.  The barely-excused thievery of tax and customs officials foretells two centuries of scandals and petty -- or not so petty -- injustices.  And through all this Theodosia struggles to keep her family alive, keep her husband's love, and keep her philosophical integrity.

Despite all this intricacy and intrigue, "Theodosia and the Pirates" is a smooth, fast read.  The inclusions of actual letters and announcements from the period don't slow the action but illuminate it, and the brief but colorful physical descriptions likewise move the action along.  I particularly liked the historical question-and-answer session at the end of the book, just ahead of the respectable bibliography.

Altogether, "Theodosia and the Pirates" -- both volumes -- illustrate a little-known but fascinating and formative period in American history while telling a lively and original love story.  Look for it on Amazon soon.

--Leslie <;)))><              

Friday, September 19, 2014

Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged, part 3

How do you make a movie with a cause, without being preachy?  There are ways.

First, you heat up the love-story angle.  In the first third of the film, where John Galt is showing off his little free-market haven hidden in the mountains and trying to persuade Dagny to stay there, it's obvious that he's madly in love with her and wants her to stay with him for more reasons than just philosophical ideals.  It's also clear that the feeling is reciprocated.  The sexual tension between them sizzles, all through the film, augmented by the really brilliant camera-work. 

It doesn't hurt that Galt is played by Kris Polaha, who comes across as a hunky, cheerful, Working Class Hero: a brilliant electrical engineer with solid ideals, but also playful enough to toss gold coins around to impress his girl, or sneak up on her in a crowd just so he can grin at the look on her face when she recognizes him.  It's a tribute to his acting – as well as the screenwriting and direction – that he projects an irrepressible sense of humor that Ayn Rand herself never possessed.  He's the kind of guy who can laugh at his captors when they offer to make him head of the government-controlled economy, or tell his torturers, when their torture-machine breaks down, that all they need to do is replace a fuse – and then laugh, either because they're too incompetent to repair their own invention or because he knows that their running it has overloaded the system and started a city-wide blackout. 

Indeed, there are sly little flashes of humor all through the film, nice contrasts to the grim subject and theme.  Ron Paul has a ten-second cameo, in which he stands alone and points out that compelled compliance is always less competent than willing compliance – but Sean Hannity's and Glenn Beck's ten-second cameos are together, and they argue with each other.  That's a neat little comparison of Libertarianism with Conservatism – in twenty seconds flat. 

Second, the film has a tight, fast-paced, dense and multi-layered script that does a fine job of showing, more than telling, its arguments – often with parallel scenes that evolve into their own symbolism.  For example, Dagny's reason for refusing to stay in Galt's Gulch is that she loves and means to save her railroad – built by her grandfather, who also built the great Taggart railroad bridge over the Mississippi.  On her return to New York, as she discovers just how much the corrupt government is ruining her railroad – along with the rest of the economy – her growing disillusionment is paired with shots reporting the steady deterioration of the Taggart Bridge.  As in the first two films, this speed and density is necessary in order to pack all the plot threads and information into less than two hours' running-time. 

As for the infamous John Galt's Speech – originally a 50-page white elephant that kept the film from being made while Rand was alive – it's been brilliantly boiled down to a clear and concise five-minute denunciation of the decayed-Socialist philosophy of dependence and sacrifice.  It's not played on an empty screen, either;  Galt boldly shows his face to the national audience, a tactic which pays off later when sympathizers recognize him.  In parallel shots, we see the reactions of citizens on the street and the dismayed politicians whose broadcast Galt hijacked – a three-layered approach that packs in a density of information and plot-development. 
This is especially needed to make AS3 an effective stand-alone film while relating it to the first two.  The only weakness in the script is a minor comment, that Reardon Steel was forced into compliance with government policies by attacks from "government unions";  anyone who's studied the history of labor unions, or observed the altercations in Wisconsin last year, knows that governments are not and never have been any friend to the unions, or vice-versa.

Third, the camera-work is totally brilliant – in composition, range, speed, color and texture.  The sex-scene where Galt and Dagny finally get it on – on the desk in a tunnel office of the railroad terminal – is actually brief and shows nothing to keep the film from a PG-13 rating, but is hotter than many an outright X-rater I've seen.  Not least of the technical brilliance is the seamless matting with stock footage, as likewise was done in the first two films.  Nearly all the establishing shots are stock footage, which is understandable given the tight budget of all three films, yet they're blended perfectly with the action shots.  The final shot, of a blackout spreading across all of New York City except for the Statue of Liberty – which in fact has its own generator – was done with minimal special effects, possibly no more than simple matting, but it's wonderfully effective.  Despite Hollywood's enmity to Rand and Libertarianism in general, the film deserves at least an Oscar nomination for cinematography – and editing.

Altogether, AS3 is a fitting companion and completion to the previous two films, despite its unavoidable changes of cast.  Its technical solutions to its restricted budget, as with the first two films, in themselves support Rand's theme of the value of the unrestricted mind.  In fact, I have to claim that the Atlas Shrugged movies are better than the book they sprang from.  Simply as film, they invite repeated viewing to appreciate their technical brilliance.  Whatever your politics, you really should see this film – and its predecessors.

--Leslie <;)))><         

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Breeding for Brains: the Latest Cat Report

Ever since Moondancer died, his son Furrocious has been the undisputed top tomcat of the family.  Since we got the fence completed, his tomcatly duties have been a lot easier: patrolling the 'territory', chasing small game (small lizards and the occasional pigeons), and driving off interlopers.  He's become a lot more tolerant of Roderick's big dog, Jake, since Jake chased off an invading tomcat whom Furrocious would otherwise have had to deal with personally (Jake has a very keen sense of who belongs on the 'territory' and who doesn't).  It's not surprising that he spends most of his time outdoors, even in this weather (there's good shade on the back porch and under the trailer), only coming in for dinner and during rain-storms or dust-storms.

When he does come in, of course, he has to make sure that there's at least a trace of his, ahem, scent-marks in the house, just to remind the indoor cats who's the top tom around here.  He keeps me busy cleaning up after him with Lysol and Urine-B-Gone. 

And then there's his young nephew, Silverfrost (because he got the rare silverdust-color coat), whom I've earmarked to be the next breeding tom.  Rasty's nicknamed him "Trouble" because he's so good at getting into it;  any closed door is a mystery he just has to explore, which is why we've had to put a hook-and-eye latch on the kitchen cabinet.  He's about eight months old, which makes him the equivalent of a young teenager, and he's beginning to feel his oats.  He has better sense than to challenge Furrocious to a duel;  Furrocious is so muscular that we've nicknamed him "Gladiator" or "Spartacus", and he's half again Silverfrost's size.  When Furrocious is out of the house, little Frosty does his best to mount the queen-cats, but they're lamentably uninterested -- because they're still nursing their new litters of kittens, but he doesn't know that.  He seems to assume that the problem is with his approach;  he just isn't  impressing the females enough.

It's what he decided to do about that that's interesting.  When I let Furrocious in last night, after he'd eaten his fill he strolled about the house, checking it out, and he found a good spot for leaving his "mark".  He let fly, and made a fine puddle on the carpet.  I saw, and yelled and grabbed for the water-spray bottle, and he took off for safety.  I stomped off to get the Lysol and Urine-B-Gone and paper towels, and barely noticed Frosty flitting past me.  'Twas when I got back with the supplies that I saw Frosty deliberately rolling in the puddle, rubbing his fur in it from head to tail.  I shooed him off and started pulling paper towels off the roll, but I wondered why on Earth little Frosty had done that, so I followed him and watched.

What Frosty did was to trot into the kitchen where the females were taking a break from kitten-tending and parade himself past them, head and tail high, ears and whiskers spread, rolling his shoulders like a lion, casting sidelong glances at the queens.  You could almost see him thinking: "Do you like me now that I smell like a real grown-up tomcat?"  He made three passes, just to make sure they didn't miss anything 

Well, the females noticed, all right, but they weren't impressed.  Comet got up and pointedly walked away.  Nascar visibly sneered, and hissed.  Dejected at his failure, Frosty ran off into the bedroom.

Well, I let Furrocious out the front door, finished cleaning up his "signature", then took up some baby-wipes and went after Frosty.  I found him hiding in the laundry-basket, looking miserable.  I petted him, picked him up (noticing that, yes, he smelled of adult tomcat pee), petted him much, cleaned him off with the baby-wipes, then petted him some more until he started purring.  He's a very people-oriented cat, and petting will usually cheer him up.

Later I caught him consoling himself by trying to hunch a kitten (no luck) and then a shaggy small pillow -- which at least didn't hiss and run away.  I can understand his frustration, but he'll just have to wait until one of the queens comes into heat again -- and then try his luck by himself.   


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Race, Shmace

I get extremely tired of professionally outraged "spokesmen" -- like Rev. Al "Mighty Mouth" Sharpton, for example -- reliably harping on any "racial" aspect of crime or political troubles.  Most people have recognized that the trouble in Ferguson, Missouri happened more because of the militarization of the cops than the usual racial troubles.  Indeed, there are several political movements afoot to stop the army's practice of dumping old tanks, rocket-launchers, grenades, etc. on local police departments, which should do a helluva lot more to prevent cop excesses than all the "racism" speeches that reliably get on the 6 o' clock news -- speeches that usually end on a theme of "you owe me, Whitey" (and imply "gimme the money").

Look, what we call "race" is 90% illusion and 10% culture.  Yes, different bloodlines of humans have slight physical differences -- skin and hair and eye color, height, allergies, details of bone structure, weaknesses or immunities to different diseases, etc. -- but in fact there are fewer differences between "races" of humans than between breeds of dogs, or cats, or horses.  There's less difference between an African Pygmy and an African Watusi than between a Shetland pony and a Clydesdale draft-horse, less difference between a "white" man and a "black" one than between a Persian cat and a Siamese, or between a Chihuahua and a St. Bernard.  Any geneticist or biologist could tell you as much.

Certainly minor physical differences -- skin color, eye shape, even length of ear-lobes -- have been used throughout history as excuses for one group of people to dominate and exploit others, but (as Aesop pointed out nearly 3000 years ago) evil will take any excuse: "race", religion, land of origin, language, last name, or any other human characteristic you can think of.  Why?  Because it's fun -- and profitable.  It's very flattering to believe that you're naturally and automatically superior to a whole slew of other people, without any effort on your part.  (If you've ever seen pictures of a modern neo-Nazi rally, you'd have noticed how stupid and ugly most of them look;  one has to be a pretty nowhere human being to have nothing to be proud of but the color of one's skin.)  It's also wonderfully useful to have an identifiable bunch of people whom one can order around at will, and use for cheap labor and unpopular jobs.  So long as humans indulge in arrogance and thoughtless greed, we'll continue to see eruptions of niggerization -- under any excuse.  We'll also see opportunists making political and financial hay out of the resistance -- likewise, under any excuse.

The real irony to this story is that the modern "races" are no more than 15,000 years old, and that the breeds of humans have diverged and converged once before this.  Thanks to DNA and archeology, we now know that Neanderthals, Cro-Magnons, Java Man and Denisovan Man were not different species of human but different breeds -- races -- and Neanderthal was probably the oldest of the lot.  Just when they diverged is difficult to tell, but they eventually re-encountered each other -- and interbred -- somewhere around 30,000 years ago.  So, for at least 10,000 years there was just one "race" -- human -- wandering around the world, slowly improving their survival techniques, always looking for better hunting-grounds, until their wanderings took groups of them far enough apart that they began genetically diverging again.  In other words, we're all the result of "race mixing", "mongrelization", and all that.

Yes, different bloodlines can have various genetic strengths and weaknesses, culture exacerbates the differences, and politicking makes it worse, but "race" itself is a joke -- a joke that's outworn and overdue to be forgotten.

--Leslie <;)))><