July 31, 2005
The Wife and I had friends over Friday night before they had an early-morning flight on Saturday. We live very near the airport so it makes sense for them to stay here where airport access is easy as they live about an hour from the airport. We're also watching their dog, who is an adolescent Labrador Retriever. Abby is cute, cute, cute! But she's also packed with more energy than The Wife, I, and all four critters put together. So we've had our hands full with this guest critter.
Saturday almost the entire day was spent shopping for cars. We think we've found a good second vehicle, an older SUV with lots of room for cargo and critters. Now it's a matter of lining up the right financing.
Last night, Abby tripped me up while I was refilling the critters' water dish, and I spilled water all over Jordan The Pest. There are few things so forlorn to look at as a soaking-wet cat. She is already quite afraid of Abby the Hyperactive Labrador Puppy, and getting water spilled all over her made it even worse for the poor little beast. You should have heard this little creature hiss!
Today was spent caring for the critters, working in the kitchen, cleaning, working in the kitchen again, caring for the critters some more, teaching my class online, going to Wally-World, and then hooking up the replacement DVD player (for the one that burned out during last week's lightning storm). This took me from the time I woke up until after nine. All I really wanted to do, almost all day, was sit down and veg out playing a computer game. But that was not to be; I only half-watched the Netflix that The Wife wanted to watch so I think she was a little disappointed with that. But the fact was, I was still kind of bitter about not having the new DVD player hook up correctly for a long time -- not until I completely disregard the instructions was I able to get the sound and video working.
So now it's getting close to bedtime, and I still have to control the doggies, all of whom are much more rowdy than they usually would be. The dogs are fun, but having such active dogs is exhausting. And I'm concerned about a cut on Sassafras' mouth that does not seem to be healing. The dogs wrestle and play, and sometimes they will get cut so when I first saw it, I didn't think much of it. But it's been more than a week and today it looked worse than ever. The Wife was right about this issue a long time before me -- I've got to take some time this week to take her to the vet this week and figure out what needs to be done to heal my beloved dog.
And, to add some delicious country gravy to the mix, I'm off antihistamines for ten days. I have an appointment to see an allergist in a week and a half and taking any medications to relieve the symptoms will interfere with the diagnosis. So I've got ten days of sneezes, runny noses, inhibited smell, and watery, itchy eyes to look forward to -- even on those days I'm not cutting the grass.
July 29, 2005
(Follow-up: Looks like she's good, too. Or at least fast -- I asked for a demand package in an auto case, and on her own initative, she ordered medical records missing from our file, called the client to gather information and discuss strategy, ghost-wrote a demand letter, assembled photographs and exhibits for it, and gave it back to me for my review before 4:00 the same day I gave it to her. I'm very pleased.)
July 28, 2005
I present the deponent with a letter written by my client accusing him (the deponent) of an act of racial discrimination. The deponent's face screws up, he gets red and flushed, and indignantly says that the accusation is "absurd." Then, he abruptly asks for a break in the proceedings. I look outside a minute later and see him pacing on the sidewalk, smoking and shouting into his cell phone. I guess no one at the defense counsel's office told this guy that he had been personally named as a bad actor in a gigantic race-discrimination case.
His reaction doesn't affect my evaluation of the merits of the case one way or the other. After all, he was hardly going to admit the accusation. But I can sure understand why the guy was upset. He should have been told that sort of accusation was going to be flying his way before the deposition, so he could prepare himself emotionally for my questions. The defense attorney did not adequately prepare his witness for what was coming, and the guy took it in the kidneys as a result.
That left me wondering: which would make me angrier? A) Being accused by a former colleague of racism? or B) Not knowing about the accusation until I was being cross-examined by the plaintiff's attorney? It's hard for me to say.
The good news: the deadline for the opposition got kicked back a week thanks to the defense producing a new piece of evidence at the last minute.
The bad news: very little got done. Why? The predicted rains took the form of a violent electrical storm. For about fifteen minutes, we were in the middle of a ferocious storm. Very strong winds blew, knocking over the gas grill outside on the deck and blowing debris all over our yard. We were also treated to a spectacular display of thunder and lightning. Lightning strikes were happening within our field of view out the basement window on pretty much a continual basis. The strikes were near, and bright. The thunder did not stop for fifteen minutes.
It was an awesome, frightening, and humbling display of nature's raw power.
Within about sixty seconds of the lightning strikes -- too short a time for us to turn off our computers, thanks to the excessively long shut-down time built in to Windows XP -- power cut out everywhere. We were without electricity for seven hours.
About five minutes into the storm, The Wife and I were in the basement, when we heard a very loud crack, which sounded a lot like a gunshot. Then another, just a few seconds later. During the second gunshot sound, The Wife reported seeing white sparks flying around in the fireplace. From this I infer that we took a lightning strike on the chimney; the sparks were the tail end of the electricity overflowing from the grounding cable.
If I'm right about that, I'm extremely glad that Dad and I took down the old aerial television antenna this winter. That thing would have been an ungrounded metal pillar resting directly on the wood frame of The Estate at Louisville -- and a sure attractant to the lightning. The stone, mortor, and wire ground in the chimney were able to more or less absorb the lightning strike and divert it harmlessly into the ground. But the old aerial antenna would have diverted the energy of the lightning strike into the wall of the house itself, at minimum blowing a hole in the side of the house and starting a fire.
None of this, I knew, was going to change the fact that the next morning, I had to depose a critical witness in a large race discrimination case. So I tried getting ready for the deposition by reading exhibits and other evidence using candles, and later, an hand-sized oil lantern. The lantern was considerably safer and brighter than the candles, but for about an hour after the lights went out, The Wife and I forgot that we even had them. It was very tiring on my eyes to read by this light, and I am amazed at the stories of the young Abraham Lincoln studying law by candelight.
Note that I said that the grounding cable "more or less" absorbed the power of the lightning strike. A wall of the basement, and the entire garage, is still without power and none of the outlets work there. No amount of fiddling around with the circuit breakers has restored power, which I think got blown out during the lightning strike. We had to manually open and shut the garage door to go to work this morning, and presently I have to get electricity to my computer through a heavy-duty extension cord set up through a working outlet. We'll need to get an electrician out to look at the basement and garage. (Maybe while he's fixing the busted outlets, the electrician can also re-wire our switches so they activate lights more intuitively than the present setup.) Who knows how long it will take to actually get someone out to the house to make this happen, I wonder -- look how long it took to get the air conditioning fixed.
July 27, 2005
Help, I'm drowning!
July 26, 2005
The file turned out to be in the Eager Young Law Clerk's office -- I had given it to him to refer out for review. I never heard about it again until just now. Eager Young Law Clerk recently dropped the ball on one of Happy Bachelor Lawyer's cases (with whom the blame for this ultimately rests is somewhat unclear to me), and now I need to step in and make sure the same thing doesn't happen on any of mine.
This chills my bone marrow to sub-glacial temperatures. I should have a better handle on when statute dates are coming up than that. I should have a better idea of what's going on with the files I'm handling than to need a reminder call from my own clients. So, I'm begging the Great Man to give me some support. When I asked before, his idea was that I could be assisted by the paralegal (who I just met yesterday) who has been working for Son-Of-The-Great-Man, but she has indicated that she needs as much as sixty days to get caught up on all of his cases before she can help me with anything. So I'm not getting the help I need to do my job. It's very frustrating and now, more than a little bit scary since this happened.
I'm trying to get Bird Lady and Bad Attitude Paralegal to help with my lobbying efforts here. Eager Young Law Clerk may well whine about it, but this isn't about him -- and his political star is not exactly in the ascendant right now. I'm going to have to make sure I don't get in a similar position. This is about making sure I don't let down any of my clients.
Tomorrow there will be a comprehensive review of everything I've got and what I want done with it all. I don't much care how things got the way they are but I do care how they progress in the future. I have no idea what to do if I don't get the support I need.
The Federalist Society is not exactly a dangerous, subversive organization dedicated to tearing down civil liberties and transferring power to Halliburton. I mean, they're not all Robert Bork over there. There is a good ideological mix there of political conservatives, social conservatives, economic libertarians, and the American equivalent of the Tory Party. The big thinkers at the Federalist Society (much like the big thinkers at the ACLU) actually agree on very little, if you take the time to study their writings and learn about them with an open mind. And keeping and open mind about your adversaries does not mean that you are dooming yourself to becoming like them.
So hey, Democrats, guess what? You lost last year. Maybe it was a really close loss, maybe it wasn't (depending on what map you read) but Bush won and that means Bush gets to pick the next Supreme Court Justice. Deal. You want things to be different? Get out there and win for a change.
So, Senator Schumer and other members of the Judiciary Committee, grow the f*** up already. Make sure the guy isn't a Nazi and move on.
July 25, 2005
Also, as most people know, when a heavy vehicle is set in "reverse," and given power, it will make a beeping noise. It's so that people know to get out of the way of the vehicle because the operator may not be able to see them. This is a safety feature. The law generally approves of safety and precautions that can help people avoid grievous bodily injury -- which is why such equipment is mandatory on heavy vehicles.
Heavy vehicles, that is, like the construction trucks that are parked up and down the street refurbishing the office building next door to my office so some developer can sell overpriced lofts to single urban hipsters to live in with their little snack dogs and ficus trees while they listen to jazz and drink overpriced iced coffee.
It is for this glorious objective, then, that I've been listening to a safety beep from a construction vehicle right outside my window, more or less continuously, for SIX GODDAMNED HOURS today.
Don't mind me -- I'm only trying to take a deposition up here. I don't need to hear myself think, no-o-o-o-o-o! Much less hear what the witness is saying. Please! You just go on about your business. D'ya think you could obstruct some traffic while you're at it, too? People other than me deserve to be inconvenienced, too.
Dude! Are you that freaking oblivious to your surroundings? If you don't want the truck to go anywhere while you're working, put the fucking thing in neutral already before some of the old-timers around town confuse your noise for an air raid siren and shoot out the street lights in case the Japanese Navy is getting ready to bomb us.
During this time, I tried to log in to the office computer and could not. Very frustrating, with motion responses due soon.
At about 11:00 the repairman pronounced that he had seen all the signs of low freon but could not confirm the charge until all the ice on the blade fins melted. He showed me the fins and they were indeed encrusted with inches of ice. We left the unit turned off and I came to the office to take telephone depositions and work on my motions. So now I await a call for my telephone deposition and we'll just see what the future brings.
July 24, 2005
After much work -- and we're still feeling the pain in our sore muscles unused to this kind of manual labor -- the side of The Estate at Louisville now looks like this. Not bad.
July 23, 2005
I did figure out how to get the edge trimmer working again (after navigating through an awkward online system to find the manual) and was able to edge and trim out almost all of the areas of the lawn that I cannot get at with the tractor. And the belt lasted through about half of the front yard, so we can at least walk through the front yard and the thickest growth has been conquered (for now).
After finding the worn belt, I assisted The Wife in her rockification project for the side of the front yard. The dogs continually dig in the planter next to the porch, and that gets dirt into the fountain we installed largely for their drinking and temprature convenience. So we bought a bunch of rocks and moved a bunch of other rocks from the house around the area. It now looks really nice, but both of us are paying the price in lethargy and sore backs. Well, at least I have a valid excuse to not mow the lawn tomorrow.
The first was a blues power trio including one of her colleagues from work. They did a few white-boy blues jams; they covered "Lucille" and "Tore Down" among a few other tunes that I was not familiar with. I enjoy blues music quite a bit so the entertaiment was quite agreeable to me. The Wife likes it because her friend from work is the bassist and the lead singer. The setting was a bit strange -- it was like a coffeehouse and biker-bar combined. There were lots of nice bikes on display and the walls were decorated with old newspapers. No beer or booze available; just coffee drinks and light snacks. It was like a biker bar for guys who didn't want to slip out of their twelve-step programs (and some of the patrons looked like exactly that). We enjoyed hanging out and talking with other friends of the band who showed up and I kind of regretted leaving early.
The second was an cover band that does 80's music. The setting was not so agreeable to The Wife -- they played at a popular nightclub in the Old City, which was packed to the gills with people looking to party. I have a higher degree of tolerance for crowds and smoke and heat than she does, so I think that the setting took a lot away from her enjoyment of the show. I enjoyed the ability to have a beer while listening to the band. The band itself, The Breakfast Club, was fronted by an alleged Scotsman wearing a kilt, but the dude had about the worst Scottish accent I've ever heard so I rather suspect he's a native Knoxvillian using the Scottish bit to make the band more interesting (and maybe to get girls). They played a lot of recognizable 80's pop tunes passably well, although their level of technical proficiency really requires a well-inebriated crowd. The guitar player went to the Stevie Vai school of fast-scale solos, which is fine for most of the 80's songs they were playing, although it was weird to hear a guitar solo of that nature in a cover of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" for the opening number. I also very much enjoyed the second show but when The Wife asked to leave at midnight, after a moment of reflection and consideration for just how dry my eyes were getting under my contact lenses, I was not unhappy to go home.
It was exceptionally difficult to get up this morning, and since my reward for doing so was yardwork that made for some bitter chocolate.
July 22, 2005
Simply put, Batman Begins is the best Batman movie – the best Batman media – that has yet been made. This is saying something, since Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns impressed me as a remarkably good piece of fiction despite its "graphic novel" (read: grown-up comic book) format. It's also the best movie, of any subject matter, I have seen in the theaters this year (sorry, Star Wars fans, but I really did like this better than Revenge of the Sith, which is saying something). Even for those who do not typically enjoy superhero fiction, this is a seriously good movie and this is one that is well worth the full-ticket price for a theaters. The effects -- both sound and visual -- will not be the same on a small screen.
My review contains a few minor spoilers, most of which those who already are familiar with the Batman character should already know.
Bruce Wayne, convincingly played by Christian Bale, grows up tormented by the memory of having witnessed the brutal murder of his billionaire parents. Unlike any other Batman story I have seen or read anywhere, however, this movie explores the origins of his transformation into the enigmatic superhero-vigilante that we know all along he will eventually become. The movie opens in media res, with Bale, not yet become Batman, in a Nepalese prison, and tells the character’s story in a series of flashbacks.
In addition to a strong script and good direction from Christopher Nolan (the writer-director of the still-amazing psychological thriller Memento), the movie is enhanced by its many well-known actors in supporting roles. Sir Michael Caine (a perfect choice to play Alfred the Butler), the compelling Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, and the marvellously understated Gary Oldman as Sergeant (presumably to eventually become Commissioner) James Gordon all have prominent roles. Impressively made-up and presented, Rutger Hauer is barely-recongizable; at first I seriously thought he was Jerry Springer. Other names from the lower ranks of the A-list include Ken Wantanabe as the ninja mentor, Tom Wilkinson (of The Full Monty fame) as a crime boss, and Linus Roache as the ill-starred Dr. Tom Wayne. Most of these actors are of sufficient skill that they can show their chops and have good screen presence -- without taking center stage from Bale, who is after all the focus of the story.
There is one bad cast: Katie Holmes plays Christian Bale’s romantic interest – in a different movie I would like the pairing of the two but here there is not only not a lot of chemistry between them but the fetching Ms. Holmes looks far too young for the role. While there is no doubt she is attractive and pleasing to the eye, the movie is not about her character and the camera lingers on her too long during the too-frequent moments when she is not serving as a foil for the plot's forward momentum. While the screenwriters may have wanted to inject some female energy into the movie to soften it and enhance its emotional impact, Batman is ultimately an icon of masculinity, and stories involving Batman are properly focused on masculine images.
The heavies in the movie are more realistic and human than the classic comic-book bad guys from comic books or the 1960's television show. The villains, too, have human frailties; granted, those include hubris, sociopathy, and hatred as well as physical weaknesses -- but these are bad guys we're talking about. The only villian with “super powers” has those powers credibly explained; they are as within the realm of what can be believed in a movie as are the ninja skills Batman and some of his adversaries use.
I’m not saying that the movie should be enjoyed for its slavish adherence to true physical possibility; but the technology and tools and training that the characters undergo and display is within the realm of what a movie viewer can comfortably encompass within one’s willing suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy a movie in the first place. Yes, it's a comic-book kind of danger that Gotham City is placed in, but well-presented. Because the movie keeps its storytelling within those boundaries, the story itself is greatly enhanced.
Serious in its approach, the script injects just enough wit and levity along the way to avoid becoming heavy (although the emotion does become strong at times). Nolan's story is dark and violent, and this is not comic-book or cartoon style violence. There is grit and pain (but as it turns out, not a lot of blood) and this Batman is far from invulnerable. We get to Bruce Wayne train to become Batman and acquire or create his trademark crime-fighting toys. Visually as well as narratively rich, the movie uses its locations in Chicago, the UK, and Iceland to as stunning effect as the stunning special effects and stunts -- particularly the plentiful hand-to-hand combat.
Perhaps this movie is not all that groundbreaking from a cinematic perspective. Still, I really, really liked it and I look forward to the two sequels already in the works (link contains significant spoilers to this movie and sequelae). The first sequel will necessarily cover a lot of ground similar to that covered in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie, which I know has a lot of fans for its vision of a warped, nightmarish urban dystopia. It will be interesting to see who is cast as the Joker – Jack Nicholson left some pretty big shoes to fill. But as for the title character, Christian Bale has taken firm possession of both Bruce Wayne and Batman. Where Michael Keaton, George Clooney, and especially Val Kilmer just “worked the suit,” Christian Bale captures the character and makes it his own.
Burton's Batman was fun because it was magical and nightmarish. Nolan's Batman Begins is better because of its dark realism, character buildup, emphasis on plot, and its continuing reference to Nietzchesque moral theories. At the end of the movie, there are some understated questions for the thoughtful viewer to mull over: Is Batman successful in his attempts to be morally superior to, and different from, a high-tech vigilante? (Personally, I think not.) How corrupt and ineffectual does the state need to become before vigilante justice becomes preferable to that dispensed (or not) by established governmental authorities? What is the proper response of a moral person who has been the victim of a violent crime? But one need not ponder these issues to enjoy this exciting, visually gripping, well-written, well-acted, well-directed movie.
So when The Wife got home yesterday, she took a look at it and wanted to know what was going on. I showed her where I had seen frost buildup and where the circuit breaker were. I turned the breakers on, and then we turned on the thermostat and the fan. Cold air started coming out the vents almost immediately. By the time we got home from seeing our movie (to be reviewed later, maybe this afternoon at lunch) the house was at a tolerable temperature.
Cost: A day away from the office doing some work at home (not that I minded that part of it) and some aggravation. No bucks. No idea of what caused the problem in the first place. For this cost, we seem to have a working air conditioner again.
July 20, 2005
Several days ago, I blogged about the Scopes Monkey Trial. Now we have some idea of what it looked like, thanks to some pictures recently discovered at the Smithsonian Institution.
This picture was taken of the famous cross-examination of Bryan. On that day, it had been anticipated that closing arguments would be delivered, and the judge knew that demand to hear the arguments would be high, so he moved the trial out to the courthouse steps on the town square.
One lender thinks we could qualify for a special loan and get us moving sooner -- so maybe we can get into a place we own faster. As newspapers say, "story developing."
But for now, I'm going to focus on a) budgeting for savings towards that eventual purchase, and b) getting a second vehicle with a fairly imminent acquisition date targetted, as in before the end of the month.
On a similar note, why do people invest emotion in having (and displaying) possessions? Aside from cars, there are houses, clothing, jewelry, art, and a bunch of other things -- things -- that in the final evaluation are simply not all that important in life yet which people, myself included, have strong emotions about. People even have an emotion about the possessions of others; the emotion is called envy and its effects are almost never good for anyone. When it comes time to part with something -- even something worthless like an old pair of pants that no longer fits -- there is an emotional response one has that makes one hesitate to let go of a possession.
Material things are incapable of providing happiness to anyone. The BMW gave me pleasure but not happiness. Acquiring more material things will not make me happy; at best, they will create utility that will indirectly lead to happiness, but even so, the amount and quality threshold needed to create that utility is quite low. I do not need another BMW when I buy a car -- I need something that is reasonably reliable and reasonably safe, and all the rest of the things associated with a car are luxuries which can only provide pleasure, not happiness. The love between the Wife and I is a source of happiness, and to compare that emotion to a material object seems base and crass. I love my parents, I love my friends. I love learning and teaching. I love accomplishing challenging tasks. These are the things that create happiness and joy.
What is more important -- the quality of my car or the quality of my marriage? What counts for more -- the extent of my education or the extent of my equities portfolio? When I die, will people remember my taste in humor or my taste in shoes? Yet despite the obvious answers to these rhetorical questions, why are people, myself included, so worried about stuff? It does not make me or anyone else happy to worry about material things; indeed, happiness is often the opposite of what happens when excess emotion is invested in the acquisition of material objects.
I shall try hard to remember that things are just chattel and not worth emotion. Money is important strictly for its utility and has no inherent value. Happiness is not derived from objects.
A: Sweat. Swear. Wonder why the damn HVAC fails every three months.
July 19, 2005
The right wing is beside itself with its throes of self-congratulation. Again as I predicted, the left wing is reflexively opposing him. I'll go the next step now and predict that the Senate will confirm Roberts by a healthy margin, with at least 10 Democrats voting to confirm him before the first Monday in October. This, however, will not happen until after an unnecessarily lengthy hearing before the judiciary committee has taken place.
July 18, 2005
And if that's the case, then the next question is, "Shouldn't you do something about that?" Yes, of course I should. If I am not enthusiastic about my job or the place I live, well, these are things that can be changed. But what would I change -- and how would I do it? And, of course, The Wife is involved in making those decisions, as well.
The Wife is anxious to start having things that are truly ours, and I agree. Since my parents own The Estate at Louisville, it isn't really our house. So we're thinking pretty seriously about finding the money to buy a place, even if it is a step down in terms of quality of life from our current situation. (Should we later have a need/desire/ability to relocate, we can always sell whatever we buy and since we'll be tinkering with the house and adding value to it along the way, hopefully we would do so at a profit. Other people do that.)
There's also the issue of a second vehicle. Still don't have one, still need one. That means paying for it and we haven't got the scratch handy to get anything halfway decent. The Hunk-O-Junk is on its last legs, so there is some pressure to get this done.
Another big issue is The Wife's ongoing education. I would much rather she got her undergraduate degree from UT than the online college, since the prestige difference between the two is great and that affects her career marketability and earning potential. She is also interested in pursuing an MBA, an ambition I wholeheartedly support. At UT, that would mean nineteen months of full-time graduate school (and that's an accelerated program). She supported me during my period of unemployment so I kind of owe her, and I'm more than happy to support her should she get in to the B-School at UT. It's an investment in her future. But it's looking like two years of full-time school for her if this happens, and in the short run that means I cannot allow anything to disrupt cash flow into our new family. If I can start ringing the bell on some of my cases, that could help financially as well in terms of bonuses, but there's no guarantees there so I'll have to plan on not getting any.
In the long run (meaning more than two years from now), it would mean I would have a law license in two states and the ability to easily get one in a third, and my wife would have an MBA, which would make us a high earning potential couple with no kids and some equity built up in a house that hopefully will have appreciated in value during our ownership of it. That's a pretty sweet spot to end up in, and it would permit us to relocate to pretty much anywhere we chose after selling the house we buy here.
So until then, I'm kind of resigned to just go to work, put in my time, deal with Tennessee's peculiarities, enjoy the low cost of living here, and go a job I'm not really all that in love with. It just doesn't seem like we'll be able to get out of here until after The Wife gets her MBA, which would be in early 2008, with all of these items on the agenda. There's plenty of politics and drama to be had at work, but for myself, I'll just work the files and see what happens. I'll also keep one foot out the door since the Great Man can be volatile in his temperament (largely depending on the financial status of the firm at any given moment) and the whole point of being ambivalent about a job is the ability to switch it painlessly -- assuming the switch is possible without significant cash flow disruption.
I'm also more enthused to have a healthier lifestyle. I packed four days' worth of salad lunches last evening and ate one today. I ate the salad for lunch and nibbled on the cheese, nuts, and fruit all afternoon long (except during my client meeting, of course). I found that I was quite full all day long even as the day came to a close. There was the additional benefit of not having to pay for food at a restaurant, so it saved some money. Later tonight, yardwork obligations permitting, I'll put in some elliptical trainer time -- even if it's only ten minutes a night, that's still ten minutes' worth of exercise.
Next week, I have an online class starting, which is good; it gives me something else to occupy my mind. (The extra money won't hurt, either; we can plow my online college paychecks towards house or vehicle payments.) I don't think I'll relate the existence of the blog to my students, at least until the class is nearly over. While I'm anxious to increase the blog's readership, students may spend too much time focusing on my random thoughts and opinions in an effort to please me and not enough time doing their classwork, which is what I want them to be doing.
July 16, 2005
July 15, 2005
After that, we decided to visit an Italian market in Providence. There is a huge Italian-American population in Providence, and the Federal Hill neighborhood was quite interesting to look at.
Wow, do people drive bad in Providence. It was nearly as bad as Atlanta.
July 14, 2005
To commemorate the long and bloody struggle of our fellow democrats from France, my father and I played nine holes of le golf and ate cheeseburgers. Well, okay, we would have done that whether it was Bastille Day or not. I played pretty well -- although mostly I was playing double bogey golf, my game felt good and I had some pretty nice shots. It seems that it's really just a matter of practice before I actually get reasonably good at the game. That's just a matter of finding the time more than the money.
July 13, 2005
It was certainly time to remake this movie; its earlier incarnation was fifty years old. The story is simple and not a huge departure from the century-old H.G. Wells novel upon which it is based despite its contemporary setting. Bookend narration by Morgan Freeman is taken almost exactly from the novel and despite Freeman's stentorian and authoritative voice, the text he is asked to read weigh heavily with Victorian hubris.
Tom Cruise is a divorced father of a fifteen-year-old boy (Justin Chatwin, whose earlier work has been mostly on television) and a ten-year-old girl, Dakota Fanning. When their mother (the radiantly beautiful Miranda Otto) and stepfather drop the two off for a weekend with their father at his run-down New Jersey rowhouse, while she and her new husband spend the weekend with her parents in Boston, no one has a clue of the disaster about to happen. Aliens invade, and the movie follows the efforts of Cruise to reunite his family. Along the way, they spend considerable time in the second act of the movie in a basement along with a crazed Tim Robbins. The special effects are brilliant, credible, and often quite scary -- but it's a big-budget Spielberg film and the audience knows that Spielberg is not going to let anything awful happen to his primary characters, particularly the children.
The movie is in essence a clone of director Steven Spielberg's two decade-old sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. One danger after another must be overcome, and there is little development of plot. Character growth occurs along the way and seems largely forced. Spielberg is much more interested with placing his characters in harm's way and watching them overcome the physical adversity than he is in explaining why Cruise's children have grown so distant from his father. This is mostly appropriate, but some attention to plot and background would have been useful and such plot development and background as is offered has a strong verisimilitude.
Many gaping holes in the story are unresolved. Why would Cruise have assumed that the aliens would have attacked only New York and not other major cities like, well, Boston? The aliens' method of invasion is never wholly or even adequately explained, nor are other significant facets of their efforts at planetary conquest. Other scenes, like one taking place at an upscale suburban house after the invasion begins, are spectacular to look at but not credible. The ending was also just a touch too saccharine for my taste, but again, it's Spielberg, so what did I expect?
So overall, the movie is good eye candy and if that's what you're in the mood for, it's probably worth a matinee price. Otherwise, wait for the DVD.
July 10, 2005
It's amazing how close things are to one another in Connecticut. Mystic is near the Rhode Island border, but less than an hour from Manchester near the center of the state. We spent about three hours in the car today and have covered a substantial fraction of Connecticut -- mostly on regular highways, not expressways or freeways. Connecticut is just a small state, I suppose.
July 9, 2005
Apparently we're going down to somewhere near Long Island Sound tomorrow for lobster rolls and there is talk of a four-state jaunt through Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. A glance at the map reveals that Rhode Island would be more difficult to get to than one would have thought. But I'm at a loss for things to do; I really don't know what's available to do here. Not that too much to do is necessary; relaxing and not worrying about much of anything is one of the points of going on a vacation.
July 8, 2005
Daily, scientists discover more information about genetics, and with the still-recent completion of the human genome project, more and more is being learned about human genetics. High-level mammals have been successfully cloned, for commercial purposes. Animals have been genetically manipulated at the embryonic stage to enhance particular traits. It is really only a matter of time before human embryos are similarly manipulated – regardless of the significant ethical problems inherent in such endeavors. This thought-provoking movie explores some chillingly likely ramifications of this inevitable march of technology.
Gattaca is set in the “not-too-distant future,” when genetic manipulation of humans has become commonplace. Ethan Hawke is one of the few people born naturally, without the benefit of genetic manipulation prior to his conception because his parents, Elias Koteas and Jayne Brook, have moral reservations about tampering with the genes of their children. Society no longer discriminates against people on the basis of their race, but rather their genetic makeup. Babies’ genes are sampled immediately and analyzed at birth. Only the genetically superior are worth investing in, and thus society realigns itself, with the “God-children” having genetic flaws like imperfect teeth, myopia, or predispositions to obesity are relegated to the economic underclass.
Hawke’s character is diagnosed at birth with a weak heart and a short year life expectancy; he also has myopia. Although he is smart, good-looking, and has a driving ambition to become an astronaut and participate in extraterrestrial colonization, society has changed to the point that no one wants to invest significant resources and training in him because of the diagnosis.
The big theme of the movie is set out early in the first act, when "L.A. Law" alum Blair Underwood, playing a geneticist, "sells" the process of genetic selection to the skeptical parents. What parent does not want the very best for his or her child? What parent wouldn’t want to give whatever advantage they could to their children? If the parents could afford to, why wouldn’t they bless their children with perfect vision, perfect teeth, good looks, and a long, healthy life? So, the parents agree to genetic engineering for their second child, but they still have a “God-child” to raise.
In flashback scenes, the makeup is well-done to show aging in the actors playing the parents, and the parents convincingly convey the tension inherent in both loving their son and the frustration of knowing that he will probably die before them. The young actors who play Ethan Hawke’s character and his brother as children and as teenagers are also well-cast to look like younger versions of the young men on two divergent career tracks who they become. Along the way, pro-volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, and accomplished actor Ernest Borgnine have cameos; Borgnine’s role is a little more than a cameo and has interesting and memorable lines, but it is actually unremarkable to the plot.
To pursue his dream, Hawke hires a broker (a well-understated Tony Shalhoub) to hook him up with a member of the genetic “elite,” played by a sarcastic, sullen, and utterly convincing Jude Law. Shaloub teaches them how to use elaborate series of exercises to enable Hawke to pose as Law despite the pervasiveness of the use of genetic markers as identification, thus Hawke is able to penetrate the elite layers of society – in particular, finding work at a company engaged in the commercial colonization of one of Saturn’s moons, under the direction of Gore Vidal (for once not reeking of modern political progressivism) and staffed by (an again well-understated) Xander Berkeley. There, he meets and begins to romance Uma Thurman, and his career takes off. That is, until there is a murder, and detectives including an over-the-top Alan Arkin find one of Hawke’s real eyelashes and, discovering his genetic imperfection, incorrectly link him to the murder. This first act of the movie sets up the society, the setting, and the mood for the rest of the surprisingly tense movie.
Society as portrayed in Gattaca is recognizably American, and credible. Not all of our social, economic, or geopolitical problems have been solved in the future. Dress codes, hair styles, and other implements of life are recognizable but subtly different. The only incongruous part of the backdrop of the movie are the cars; while they add to the mood somehow, the styling of the futuristic cars along 1940’s and 1950’s lines is not really believable.
Most chilling about the movie is not the portrayal of the insidious and unintended effects of genetic engineering on society but rather the casual disregard all of the characters have for civil liberties. No one is in the least bit concerned about the invasion of their zones of personal privacy that a society which routinely scans their genetic codes and medical information – it is taken for granted that this information can be obtained and used not only by law enforcement but by corporate interests. As with the unremitting and unstoppable advance of genetic science, the disturbing process of transforming society to this is already underway, although not without criticism.
The movie is excellently-written, well-acted, and richly detailed. It was not a major box office success, perhaps because it was quite cerebral and morally ambiguous. Hawke’s character does not do what a standard Hollywood movie hero would have done in the situation, and while this is satisfying to me, perhaps this and the moral ambiguity caused the film to lose mass appeal. Or maybe it is the disturbing discussions which the movie will inspire, and the grim realization that perhaps the transformation of our current world into the one depicted in the movie is inevitable.
This review contains no significant plot spoilers.
One of the reasons I do not read a lot of fantasy fiction is that it all is more or less alike. It generally falls in to one of three categories of broad plot arcs, all of which can be found in well-known movies:
- Category 1: Hero comes of age and learns how to be a man. He fights the bad guy and wins by dint of new-found knowledge and wisdom. Example: Star Wars
- Category 2: Hero must recover a dingus to become strong enough to defeat bad guy (sometimes outracing bad guy to dingus). He then fights and defeats bad guy with the help of the dingus. Example: Clash of the Titans
- Category 3: Hero must destroy dingus so bad guy is vulnerable. He then fights the bad guy, and destroys the dingus and/or the bad guy. Example: Lord of the Rings
A common variant to category 2 and 3 stories is that the bad guy gets the dingus but is destroyed by it – for example, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Often, one can insert the phrases “meets girl,” “loses girl,” and/or “wins girl back.” Sometimes the hero is a heroine requring transposition of “boy” where “girl” is otherwise used for romantic plot elements; sometimes the hero loses a preliminary fight in order to win a bigger fight later on. Sometimes the dingus isn’t an object but a person, perhaps the girl herself. There are sometimes “B” plots involving the dingus or other dinguses or secondary characters and their dinguses. (A secondary character coming of age is never a “B” plot.) But at the end of the day, it’s all pretty much about finding a way to fight the bad guy and win – no matter how you slice it, it’s still bologna.
At its best, fiction provides an insight not into the nature of magic and dragons and such, but instead provides a look into the human character. Star Wars resonates on an emotional level with its powerful images as a backdrop to a coming-of-age story. Lord of the Rings provides an epic backdrop to a series of powerful statements about the flow of history and the difference that determined and morally upright individuals can make amidst the forces of powerful evil. The fantasy setting becomes secondary to the human story that is being told – one does not care about dragons and wizards and elves or spaceships and laser beams and technical do-dads.
At its worst, fantasy fiction becomes enmired in its setting and the trappings of a fantasic universe to no narrative purpose. The story exists simply to be a literary landscape in which the events are secondary to the setting in which the events take place. The story winds up being more or less about nothing important and is really just a way for the author to ruminate about his or her thoughts about a world different from our own. This sort of “elf opera” is the literary equivalent of an “eye candy” movie. (An interesting exception from this rule occurs in the world of “hard” science fiction, where the story explores some interesting facets of an unusual technical possibility; alas, deep explorations of scientific flights of fancy are only rarely translated into good movies.)
Somewhere in the middle are found books like Eragon. Eragon is the first of three novels in a series called “The Inheritance Trilogy.” It is pretty clearly an example of category 1 fantasy fiction, and it frequently comes perilously close to crossing the line from story-driven fiction to setting-driven fiction. The setting is richly-imagined and detailed. It is filled with tongue-twisting place and character names which get mentioned more and more frequently as one progresses through the book. The reader is initiated into the ways of this fantasy world, the ways of magic and swordplay, and the ways of dragons and other fantastic creatures, along with the eponymous hero. And although the author clearly enjoys inventing obscure-sounding, strangely-accented words, the hero bears a name that is only one letter removed from the word “dragon,” which is odd considering that dragons figure so prominently in the story.
The novel is essentially an extended chase sequence. The action sequences are well-written but use longer prose than the short, simple sentence structure I would have expected for combat scenes; the more contemplative, coming-of-age elements are not so well-fleshed out. To some extent, this can be forgiven in that the book was begun when its author, Christopher Paolini, was only fifteen years old. An author that young is busy coming of age himself and lacks some of the perspective necessary to adequately describe what is going on in a coming-of-age story. Structurally, the book is set up in a series of short chapters with cliffhanger endings, which is a good device for keeping reader interest up and tension high.
The story is absorbing enough to make the novel a good piece of escapist fiction. Eragon is not a great piece of writing – it does not provide any real insight into the human condition. In his defense, the author does not really aspire to that level – Paolini is only trying to tell an engaging (and marketable) story. He does so serviceably well, and I would not be averse to reading his second and possibly third books in the series.
Good sales of this originally self-published book have not hurt his prospects; the second book, Eldest, is to be released this August. Apparently the movie rights have already been optioned to Fox, which is rumored to have sunk $100 million into making the film in Hungary this year. While not the biggest fantasy story being sold today, I expect that the movie will turn out to be profitable despite its high price tag. Unlike that of the book’s many fans, it will not be a high priority for me to follow up with the story, but since The Wife really liked this book, I expect I will wind up reading the sequels anyway -- and maybe the movie will be really good.
Blair has withstood substantial criticism from not only the opposition parties in Britain but from within his own voter base, his own party, even his own cabinet. He has led his country to be America's most steadfast ally in recent years when the easier, safer, and probably politically wiser course would have been to stand back, not participate, and criticize us from the sidelines. We Americans have had many friends and much help from around the world -- from the Spanish, the Italians, the Poles, the Canadians, the Pakistanis, the Turkmens, the Uzbekis, the Russians, and many others. But we have had no truer or stronger friends for the past four years than the British.
It's obvious, but it should be said anyway: It's time for us to return the favor. To Blair personally, in the form of unflinching, unambiguous, and unrestrained political support; and to the UK as a whole, in the form of unreserved sympathy and consolation, such assistance as it may need rebuilding from the damage of yesterday's attacks, and in the form of intelligence, assistance and support for finding the bastards responsible and tracking them down so that they can be brought to justice. They should be tried in a British court and punished according to British law.
We owe the Brits all the help we can give to make that happpen. They did it for us.
July 7, 2005
Laws banning the teaching of evolution are now unconstitutional but laws mandating the teaching of crypto-creationist theories alongside scientific evolution, presenting those ideas as the equivalent of science, and condemning evolution as “just a theory” are still quite fashionable despite being unconstitutional. Disturbingly, this is so in places very near to me and affecting people I interact with on a daily basis.
The theory of “intelligent design” has been systematically debunked by logic, evidence, and the forces of science. It is founded upon a single fallacy, or worse yet, a deliberate misunderstanding of how logic and science work. For something to be elevated to the level of a “theory” in science is to indicate that substantial evidence suggests the truth of the theory – but science does not exist to prove that something is true. That the “theory” of evolution has survived more than two hundred years of scientific criticism is testament to the validity of the basic idea. “Intelligent design” defenders need to include within their embrace those who believe in the creation mythos of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which is, after all, within the scope of what “intelligent design” embraces as long as His Noodly Appendage was acting with conscious intent. Yet they have as of yet been strangely resistant to this idea.
There is also still a lot of misunderstanding, if not deliberate misrepresentation, about what evolution really is. No, there is no such thing as a “cat-dog.” But evolution does not suggest that the world works like The Isle of Dr. Moreau.
That early scientists who studied evolution, famously including Charles Darwin, (Darwin’s own grandfather suggested the concept well before Charles began his scientific career) have had their ideas repudiated and improved upon does not mean that the underlying concept is invalid. Isaac Newton suggested a law of gravity, and his ideas and theories about how gravity works were largely superceded by Albert Einstein. That does not mean that gravity does not exist. So just because Stephen Jay Gould has suggested that evolution takes place “suddenly” (in geologic terms) rather than gradually, or because some scientists now suggest that animal behavior as well as external stimuli may affect a species’ evolutionary path, does not mean that Darwin’s core idea – that species change over time to better adapt and survive – is wrong. Christians disagree with one another sharply about interpreting the Bible, too.
The problem goes back to the need some people feel to insist that the Bible is literally true. This school of thought was what William Jennings Bryan tried to give voice to during the Scopes trial. Among other concepts at odds with science are not only that God created the universe and man, but also that the sun revolves around the Earth, that the world is flat and has four corners, and that a man was swallowed and later regurgitated, undigested and healthy, by a large fish. I’ve heard one amusing suggestion for anti-evolution literalists to put their money where their mouths are. But seriously, why do the faithful feel the need to dress up their beliefs in the clothes of science? Faith, after all, does not require proof; once proof is offered, faith is unnecessary. Science is the realm of logic, evidence, deliberation, careful observation, experimentation, and reasoning. Religion is the realm of faith, mysticism, and belief; often of ceremony and dogma; sometimes but sadly not always the realm of morals, ethics, compassion, and forgiveness.
I suppose the problem is that both call themselves the “truth” and Biblical literalists need that truth to be exclusive unto themselves. The Gospels explicitly discourage skeptical inquiry and demands for proof. (Science invites such inquiry.) Those two facts should raise a warning flag to those who truly yearn for the truth -- anyone who claims to possess "the only truth" and also discourages independent thought about that "truth" probably has an ulterior motive for making such a claim.
For my more religious or spiritual friends, please note that I do not now, and never have, denied the powerful moral teachings of Jesus found in the Gospels. While I do not share a belief in Jesus' ressurection or divinity, I praise his efforts to effect social, moral, and political reform during a very troubled time of world history, and I acknowledge that a study of his teachings and life would profit anyone today. But I do condemn in no uncertain terms the use (misuse? abuse?) of religion to attack science; religion should promote wisdom, not ignorance. Thinking back to 1925, I would have wanted to have been right alongside Clarence Darrow at the defense counsel's table, and not just for the chance to work with one of the most brilliant lawyers of the day. The Scopes Mokey Trial was a battle between right and wrong, and the prosecution's tissue of Biblical truth did not then, and does not now, bestow the mantle of righteousness upon those who would destroy knowledge and learning in the name of a far-from-universally held vision of religious orthodoxy.
The whole London Underground, and apparently the whole bus system as well, has been shut down. How people will get home from work in about four or five hours is completely beyond me.
It certainly makes my morning of reviewing another set of disappointing depositions, heavy rain, and a broken elevator seem trivial by comparison. No one's blown up my subway this morning. However, it does make me think about what's going on up in Anderson County, and the security breaches that have recently come to light out there. Working on the cases that I have been, I have so far seen little cause to be confident that the people who are actually supposed to be protecting a rather sensitive national security asset are doing a good job.
While the official word as of nine this morning (Eastern time, 1:00 p.m. in London itself) is that the responsible parties have not been identified, it's obviously a foregone conclusion that ultimate responsibility will be tracked back to the same sons of bitches who attacked New York, Washington, and Madrid. That ordinary people have learned the signature marks of an attack like this -- one timed to kill the maximum number of civilians, aimed at a financial center with symbolic value, and with the mechanism of near-simultaneous explosions at multiple locations -- is horrifying.
I've optimistically compared the campaign against terrorism to historical campaigns to eradicate slavery and piracy. But when the slave traders and the pirates fought back, more innocent people whose only goal was going to work in the morning didn't die. It makes me wonder if these kinds of attacks will sap our political will to fight or enervate a marginal desire to make the world safer for civilization. 9/11 had the latter effect on the U.S. (and the world) but Madrid had the effect of swaying the Spanish elections to the anti-war party and the withdrawal of our Spanish allies from Iraq.
The impulse to vengeance feels overwhelming, as it did after Madrid and especially as it did after 9/11.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- if you're in for a penny, you're in for a pound. Our leaders, for better or for worse, have moved us down a path of using our national security assets, most prominently including the military, to eradicate terrorism. This cannot be accomplished by half measures or by giving up before the task is complete. It also will make things worse than they were before. This morning's attacks in London are grim proof of that. So though I fear where it will take us and the price we will pay to get there -- both in terms of loss of life and in loss of liberty -- there is no other reasonable choice but to continue prosecuting this "War on Terror." And we add another city to the list of homes of those victims and their families, for whom we will seek redemption and the promise that those they love have not shed their blood in vain.
July 5, 2005
This despite several hours of running errands after work including picking up a new water filter for the refrigerator, getting river rocks delivered for work on the lawn, and running to Target for kitty supplies. Annoyingly, my debit card appears to be demagnetizing or otherwise malfunctioning. If that doesn't get cleared up, I'll need to figure some way out to get money for lunch tomorrow, because I have zero cash.
But that's for tomorrow. Right now, I'm going to try to get more, and better, sleep than last night. The first day of the week is always rough for sleep, in terms of both quantity and quality. So maybe I can make up for it tonight.
I think the likeliest choice is John G. Roberts. The Washington Post's profile of him describes a reliably conservative, judicially-experienced yet not-widely-written candidate with experience clerking at the Supreme Court (for Chief Justice Rehnquist) and arguing frequently before it. On the down side, he has advised reversal of Roe v. Wade; but on the up side, he has voted to limit Congress' power under the Commerce Clause. He's also only 50 years old, and so likely to be able to stay on the Court for a long time and would have a big impact on the law for a long time to come. Most politically liberal groups will reflexively oppose him, but let's face it, they'd oppose Mahatma Ghandi, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, or Martin Luther King if President Bush nominated any of them, so that isn't really a very useful or credible indicator of his potential acceptability as a judge on the nation's highest court.
Back in California, people had first names that were traditionally gender-appropriate. "James," "Pedro," and "Greg" are boys; "Debbie," "Tatiana," and "Lisa" are girls. Yes, there are ambiguous names like "Pat" and "Chris" that one finds everywhere, but that's something that most people can take in stride. And yes, there are nicknames that can be ambiguous -- "Sam" is sometimes short for "Samantha" instead of "Samuel," or "Alex" is short for both "Alexander" and "Alexandra," but again, that somehow seems to resolve itself pretty quickly.
It's particularly puzzling when you only get told a person's name verbally, and do not have a written version of the name to provide a clue. When I hear of someone named "Tracey," I just automatically assume the person is a girl, just as I automatically assumed that "Jimmie" was a boy. In the latter case, I stood on the precipice of serious professional embarassment since "Ms. Jimmie" is an opposing lawyer in a case I'm handling, and I only saved myself by seeing a photograph of her before having to meet with her.
Don't get me wrong, it's kind of cool that there are unusual names like "Mayford" and "Delmar" which seem to be unique to the area. There's no one named "Alger" in California that I ever came across. And some celebrities cruelly give their kids unusual names, too, like "Scout" and "Rain" and "Dweezil." But gender identification is important to social interaction, and I've been embarrassed more than once by gender-bending Southern first names.
July 1, 2005
There is a lot of speculation as to who will replace her and many dire predictions of what will happen to this or that area of jurisprudence (particularly the issue of abortion). I for one did not always agree with Justice O'Connor's reasoning or results, but I have also always respected her search for nuance and meaning in the law, and her steadfast refusal to see the Constitution in terms of black and white moral absolutes, but rather as the embodiment of guiding principles of the political and legal thought that underlies the nation. Perhaps no other member of the Court has been so concerned with balancing tests when confronted with significant Constitutional questions, and for good reason -- she clearly saw her primary job as reconciling competing rights with our shared national ideals.
Her concern with balancing tests, her status as a "swing vote" on many critical issues, and her commitment to finding a middle way between extreme views, has on more than one occasion led me to believe that the Supreme Court for the past several years has been guided by her vision of the law more than any other Justices', and thus to think that it would be accurate to speak of the Supreme Court of the past eleven years as the O'Connor Court. That she was the first woman to serve on the nation's highest court seems to be an insignificant footnote on her long and distinguished career -- as it should be. Her legacy will be that of an intelligent, and confident judge who handled a position of great power well. On balance, I was (and will remain) a fan of Justice O'Connor.
Her successor will almost certainly be more politically conservative than she was, given the political beliefs of the President; and her successor will almost certainly not vote the way she would have on whatever issues come before the Court, and thus guide the future of the law, as she would have. This is inevitable and the result of democracy in action; as the Chief Justice correctly said this January in defense of his colleagues' independence from political pressure, "the gradual process of changing the federal Judiciary through the appointment process" is the manner in which the courts are held accountable to the people as a whole.
Regardless of the inevitable political hurricane that is sure to follow this news, I hope that Justice O'Connor's successor will maintain her concern with balancing the rights of the individual against the power of the state, and reconciling the law and the Constitution with the myriad of competing visions of our ideal society that are presented to the courts daily. This is not a conservative or liberal view of the role of a judge; it is rather a view that the law is, in many ways, a thing apart from political concerns in that it represents the ideals of a society and of a people. Those who like her possible successor Edith Jones, accuse O'Connor of becoming a "mandarin of the law" and who decry that "we all live in Justice O'Connor's America" seem to forget that due to her efforts to find a moderate way through the difficult questions that divide us between competing versions of the good, we have found ourselves in a society with laws and social conditions that everyone has been able to thrive within, even if not every detail of that world is exactly as one would have it.
"Justice O'Connor's America" was, for the most part, an America for all Americans, and the law to her served as both the guarantor of individual rights and the defining force limiting the government's power. This is as good an epitaph for her jurisprudence and vision of the law as she could ask for.