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Star Trek: Into Darkness   Leave a comment

So, last night I finally got around to watching the latest installment of the rebooted Star Trek franchise. It was, in a word, an insult to the franchise and another step forward in the long march of mediocrity the series has been stumbling with ever since the Next Generation movies heralded the age of thoughtless sci-fi and tepid action that has since become routine in the Trek franchise.

The movie starts with a ridiculous opener: Kirk and McCoy have stolen what appear to be the Holy writings of some nameless alien race and are being chased through the woods, Indiana Jones style, while Spock and Sulu fly a shuttle around the planet. There’s a volcano about to blow, and their object is to detonate some device which will prevent the volcano from completely destroying the planet and its native inhabitants. There’s some ensuing banter between various crew members about such trivial things as The Prime Directive and how they’re going to get out of their present predicament — by now there have been some complications to their plan. The shuttle carrying Spock has dropped him onto a lava flow to setup the volcano-killing bomb, and during their drop-off the shuttle itself was hit was a lava burst, forcing them to fly away so they don’t crash onto the planet…

At this point, one would simply think that the shuttle would go back to the Enterprise. Unfortunately, no. At this point we learn that the Starship Enterprise is, in fact, submerged beneath the waves of this planet’s ocean, because on a delicate mission like this, where the Prime Directive risks supreme violation, it’s important to place your ship in a place where maximum visibility is assured and the ship’s ultimate utility is minimized.

Needless to say, everyone survives the mission and the only downside is that, as the Enterprise emerges from the ocean to leave the planet, the natives quickly sketch the ship in the dirt and begin worshiping the icon.

That opening only takes about 10-15 minutes of the movie, but it perfectly sets the tone for what follows: lazy writing, hair-brained schemes, and insults to faithful Trek fans.

The next interlude sets up the main plot and sub-plot points for the movie to follow: Spock and U’hura are fighting, a nameless man makes a deal with the devil to save his sick daughter’s life, and Kirk has to deal with the fallout from the opening mission. In Kirk’s report, the mission to save the volcano planet essentially didn’t happen. In Spock’s report, it did, with minute detail to the particulars. Kirk finds out about Spock’s report, only during a sit-down with an admiral, at which point he finds out he’s being demoted and having his ship taken away from him.

Kirk’s sense of betrayal, however, seems completely ludicrous, as only an idiot would think that only the captain’s report is reviewed by Starfleet. Here we find one of the first major character betrayals in this movie: in both the classic and the reboot universe, Kirk is a brash risk-taker who doesn’t mind breaking the rules when it suits his purpose. However, he’s not so retarded as to be ignorant of the hierarchy he’s up against, and he’d certainly not be caught flat-footed by mere bureaucratic procedure of having a subordinate’s report damn him without practicing some form of futuristic CYA.

Anyways…

The movie’s plot starts moving in the aftermath of Kirk’s demotion. The nameless man, who earlier made a deal with a mysterious stranger to save his daughter, now fulfills his part of the bargain. He goes to work and sets off a bomb — completely destroying his workplace and killing many.

A meeting of local Starfleet commanders is called as soon as the dust settles. They’ve discovered that the bombing was caused by a rogue dissenter who has fled to the Klingon homeworld to avoid retaliation. The assembled captains at this meeting represent the main command of all the ships around Earth, and they’ve been given their orders to track down the dissenter before he gets to Klingon space.

In a turn that seems incoherent from a man who’s just been undercut by his subordinate’s routine filing of a report, Kirk is the first to question why the bombing happened at the place it happened. Why bomb a library if your aim is to cripple the Federation? Well, it turns out it wasn’t just a library. It was a cover for a Section 31 archive.

As a brief aside, I did like the brief continuity between this movie and Deep Space 9. On that later show, Section 31 has evolved into a seedy intelligence service which has been largely forgotten about, but still has the funding, connections, and operatives to run roughshod over the Federation charter to mete out and deal with the perceived enemies of the Federation. Here, in Section 31’s infancy, its mission is to procure whatever data it can in order to prepare the Federation for what it views as an inevitable war with the Klingon Empire.

So, forgiving my aside, it’s Kirk who asks the questions that gets the answer about Section 31. At this point, he uses his knowledge of Starfleet protocol to become suspicious of this current meeting. Protocol in this situation calls this meeting of the local captains together, in one place, to determine their course of action. Kirk immediately looks out the window, just in time to see that there’s a drone outside which begins shooting everyone in the meeting place.

The only notable casualty from the meeting is Admiral Pike. Kirk was demoted to his Pike’s first officer, so luckily he can have the Enterprise back!

What follows is complete absurdity. The villain in the story turns out to be KHAN, and he does succeed in fleeing to the Klingon homeworld. With most of the local Starfleet commanders sidelined by the drone shooting at Starfleet command, Kirk is given broad authority to go get Khan back. The admiral giving the orders is a military hard-liner, and he’s convinced that there’s a war coming with the Klingons one way or another, so he doesn’t care if Kirk starts a war by going after Khan.

In a completely ridiculous sequence, the Enterprise is sabotaged in mid-space, and Kirk and a few others take a shuttle to finish their journey to the Klingon homeworld. Khan is hiding in an “abandoned” part of the Klingon homeworld, where the shuttle goes to capture him. It turns out that this “abandoned” part of the Klingon homeworld is some supremely industrialized area, which is useful for making a chase scene between Kirk’s shuttle and a Klingon patrol in what looks to be the interior of The Death Star.

Kirk eventually dodges his pursuers, and brings the shuttle down long enough to try to capture Khan. He then gets quickly surrounded by Klingon ground forces, and a shoot-out ensues. Luckily for Kirk and friends, Khan basically single-handedly kills all the Klingons, and then surrenders himself to Kirk.

After more nonsense, Khan explains to Kirk that he’s a superhuman from a bygone age of genetic experimentation from Earth’s past. The same Admiral that gave Kirk his orders to go after Khan (Admiral Evil, henceforth) has been using Khan to build new weapons and defenses for what he’s convinced will be the soon-to-occur Klingon war. Furthermore, to learn more about Khan, McCoy has been studying Khan’s blood, which has almost miraculous regenerative properties…

Upon hearing that Kirk didn’t kill Khan as ordered, but instead captured him, Admiral Evil decides he has to take out the Enterprise before his secret gets out. He’s built a private warship with Khan’s weapons, and he now turns his full might against Kirk. By this point in the movie, Kirk had managed to get the Enterprise mostly functional again, and he high-tailed it to Earth. Admiral Evil overtook and attacked the ship at warp speed, and theEnterprise is left adrift just within Earth’s orbit… some 200,000 miles or so. (which makes it damn close to Earth)

So, here is where everything comes completely off the rails in my view. Admiral Evil’s ship continues beating the shit out of the Enterprise (within full view of Earth, mind you). Scottie had managed to sneak onto Admiral Evil’s ship with Khan’s help, and this ship which had been built exclusively for war cannot seem to locate a single man inside it… Kirk and Khan decide to take a space run from the crippled Enterprise to the Admiral’s ship, and they board it when Scottie opens a hatch for them. Khan quickly kicks a lot of ass and ends up taking control of the ship. Spock lands a ruse which ends up blowing up Admiral Evil’s ship. However, Khan survives the explosion and the ship’s onboard computer listens to his voice commands as he uses what’s left of the thrusters to plow his ship through San Francisco. Khan survives this too, and then Spock, in an illogical but thoroughly vindictive move, chases him through San Fran and fights him atop garbage drones flying through the city as if nothing crazy had happened.

Meanwhile, the Enterprise has a rapidly decaying orbit and is crashing to Earth because it doesn’t have the power to stop itself. Kirk does what Spock did back in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and sacrifices himself to radiation poisoning in order to fix the ship’s engines. Once the engines are back online, U’hura (of all people) beams to the Spock/Khan fight and shoots Khan until he can be subdued.

It’s a somber funeral for James T. Kirk, where Spock has to give the eulogy for his human mentor who has shown him the short-comings of logic and the value of “gut” instinct for making the best of impossible situations. However, none of that happens. Instead, McCoy gives the dying Kirk a shot of Khan’s vampiric blood, and Kirk survives his malady! All’s well that ends well, and we’ll see ya next time folks!

I liked J.J. Abrams work with Lost, although I’m not too sure how much direct involvement he had in that project once it got off the ground. But with every subsequent work he does, especially with something dear to my heart like Star Trek he’s just making me more and more certain that he was just a flash in the pan success story. I guess the box-office returns ensure that he’s a success, but he’s just killing something I love whilst people who don’t know any better cheer him on. It’s tough writing a sci-fi story, especially trying to do so without plot holes. Star Trek is often riddled with them, as it’s become something of a convention that the futuristic technology is always a slave to the whims of the writers.

Perhaps ironically, I have far less problem with that happening in the show versus a movie. The show has tight turnaround times, and they also need shit on the paper week in and week out. The movie, on the other hand, is a more singular entry, which should have more polish and attention to detail present therein. But, in this movie, there is neither attention to technical nor character details. Kirk gets waylaid by Spock’s report but intimately knows procedure regarding post-terrorist attack? Sink the Enterprise during a planet saving mission rather than keep it in orbit where it can function entirely as a starship is intended to do? Invent an admiral that’s hell-bent on causing a Klingon/Federation war, and then have a massive fight right outside Earth between a Federation starship and an unknown craft (where the Federation ship is clearly losing) AND NOT A SINGLE FEDERATION SHIP SHOWS UP OR OTHERWISE INTERFERES WITH THE FIGHT OUTSIDE THE HUMAN HOMEWORLD!?! This admiral’s character is pretty certain that the Federation is more than capable of winning the war with the Klingons, yet in this single-ship skirmish the Federation couldn’t muster ANY defense!

Even Spock, probably the easiest character to write for, gets betrayed in this movie. In the end, once Spock heard that Kirk is going to die and Khan is running lose through San Fran, he just quits logic and sense and chases after Khan, which even the movie telegraphs as a complete revenge seeking action by Spock. At no point is there any hint of what I would expect the aftermath of that decision to be — whether it take the form of superb rationalization after the fact or Spock succumbing to some form of shame for discarding the ways of his people. Nope! He simply acted emotionally and that’s that.

And if that isn’t enough, there’s the matter of Khan’s blood. In the original Wrath of Khan they at least had the courage to kill off a main character and let that moment happen and deal with it for what is was. Here, they try to do some fanciful shifting of roles (by making Kirk do the heroic deed) and then they rob the story of the aftermath. Going forward, it’ll be no wonder that Kirk acts like a baby, because there’s never a fucking consequence to his actions! It’s easy to be a hero when you don’t have to die for it! Do what you need to do, and then take a dollup of Dr. Bones’ Khanderful Blood Tonic!

It’s Indiana Jones all over again…

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Posted February 3, 2014 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

Moby Dick   Leave a comment

At such times, under an abated sun; afloat all day upon smooth, slow heaving swells; seated in his boat, light as a birch canoe; and so sociably mixing with the soft waves themselves, that like hearth-stone cats they purr against the gunwale; these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang. 

Herman Melville is not an easy author. He is capable of great beauty in language, as per the above, but he is far more fond of terrible droning about his esoteric interests… which, in the case of Moby Dick, is whales, whales, and more whales.

I get it. Melville was a whaler, and he obviously fell in love with the pursuit and the prey of whaling. There are several instances in the book where you can hear Ishmael speaking in Melville’s voice: at one point, he chides captains not to put meditative people on the lookout post, because it’s the ideal place for introspective day-dreaming, and whales could be fluttering all over the horizon and these dreamers would be none the wiser. I get it. He loved whales and whaling, and Moby Dick is his gift to the world to put whaling on the pedestal it deserves.

Unfortunately, this gift is blubber-wrapped shit.

“But this is an American Classic!” So it is, and it’s classics like these that make children curse their literacy. Melville did do something amazing with Moby Dick, but it’s nothing he intended; he managed to make the story of one man’s obsessive quest for revenge, playing out over the seven seas, where no man, beast, or God could stand in his way into something boring! One would be fair in assuming, that, with this style of work, you could expect lots of action, or, at the very least, deep delving into the nature of obsession and vengeance. Instead, Melville offers us a personal encyclopedia entry for the types of whales he’s encountered, and how he thinks they should be classified among species and each other. Instead of exploring the politics of the ship’s crew, where men from all walks of life will be living together (conceivably) for several years, we get superficial character sketches and far more pages of text devoted to rope purposes and locations on small, row-able, whaling craft.

We should be thankful for one aspect of Moby Dick. In Melville’s constant talk of rope, he reminds his readers that there is still a way out, and that, were he with you, he would have no problem tying the knot to get your job done. 

I have a good eye for language. I have no problem reading past the words on the page into the realm of the symbolism and metaphor. Speaking objectively, I admit it’s possible that my sheer boredom with the book blinded me to it’s greater symbolism. But I don’t think so. The book I read had a little over 600 pages. I swear to you, you could safely cut at least 200 pages right out of the book, and while you may be sacrificing the occasional motif set-ups, you would sacrifice little story and enhance the meaning of what remains. It’s very tedious to hear someone speak about sperm-whale this, sperm-whale that… and then repeat almost verbatim the same shit but involving multiple other kinds of whales. Again, I get it. Melville wanted to bring whaling home to the greater audience of the American public, but instead of making me want to harpoon a whale, I want to harpoon Melville and break his writing hand.

Now, I think I’ve established that I didn’t, on the whole, enjoy this book. However, it wouldn’t be fair to say I hated the whole thing… it’s probably the most frustrating aspect of the book, but it can be brisk and entertaining. Ismael and Queequeg meet as complete aliens to each other, socially and culturally. However, in a very short time they become very affectionate and close to one another, and that entire turnaround is handled deftly and succinctly. In addition, the Sermon of Father Mapples (youtube the scene from the Gregory Peck movie, Father Mapples is played amazingly by Orson Welles), is a fantastic confluence of religious and oceanic imagery (come to think of it, the part of the book that occurs on land might be the most efficient part of the book). Also, the other bookend of the book, Ahab finally getting close to Moby Dick, plays straight and readily enough. It’s that horrible middle, where eyes glaze, and words roll off the page like so much blubber from the skin of a sperm-whale, that the story flounders like the sails of a ship in windless seas.

I’ll give Moby Dick three stars. If you can stomach the tedium, there are some excellent passages that can move you. In addition, you do have to give props to the guys who actually did this shit for a living, as it seems like anything but an easy job. But at the end of the day, there are just too many problems with the book to move it any closer to “masterpiece” level.

Posted April 19, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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Reviews: Guns of August and Clarence Darrow   Leave a comment

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman 

The Guns of August is an entertaining chronicle of the preparation and opening battles of World War One. In its pages, Tuchman describes the politics and the personalities of the principle people driving “The Great War.” In England, we have Edward VII, whose life seemed to be one of mending fences with charm and diligence — he started the detente between the classic enemies of France and England, and helped bring Russia into their good graces. In Germany, we have Kaiser Wilhelm, who is growing increasingly paranoid about the British alliances encircling his country. In Russia we have the hapless Romanovs, who are somewhat worried about crushing anti-monarch sentiments in the country, but don’t seem too concerned about actually rooting out the country’s rampant corruption or modernizing its deplorable military. In France, we have a civilian government so humbled by the nation’s defeat in the last German war that they’ve abdicated military responsibility almost entirely to the nation’s military elite.

The Guns of August, perhaps more than any other work I’ve seen, proves the wisdom of Eisenhower’s brilliant observation:

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” 

From the early 1900’s until war’s eventual outbreak in 1914, both France and Germany heard the sabers rattling and began to plan accordingly. The Germans had a richly detailed plan for invading France by marching through Belgium and encircling the French army’s flank, hoping to perform the deathblow inside of a month. The French believed that their enemy would very well attempt such a maneuver, but in doing so would stretch their own lines so thin that the French could break through the German lines and hit their supply lines.

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.” 

Churchill said the above decades later when referring to WW2, but I’m sure he learned the lesson the hard way during the days of WW1. Both the French and Germans had made these elaborate plans, but almost from the get-go their plans went to immediate shit. The Germans had expected to railroad through Belgium, meeting only token resistance along the way… only to discover a surprisingly energetic defense. Likewise, the French expected to be able to break through German lines in multiple conflicts, but instead find themselves constantly being pushed back closer to France. In addition, they practically begged Russia to open a second front in the war as soon as possible — which the Russians did, only to have their armies more or less completely defeated in the conflict’s opening days.

The Guns of August does wonders to show the human elements involved in the complex machinations of nations at war. The German commander, Moltke, has a chief order countermanded by the Kaiser, only to be reinstated a few hours later. During the interim, Moltke has something approaching a nervous breakdown which completely saps him of offensive vigor for the remainder of the conflict. The French commander, Joffre, thinks that any general under his command who isn’t advancing must be guilty of unmanly cowardice, so routinely pulls men out of their commands to replace them with someone else. All the while, both men are still formulating their attacks and battle plans based on their original plans — which are now so utterly compromised that following them amounts to nothing short of insanity. Meanwhile, the soldiers on the ground are being thrown into the death mill of machine guns and heavy artillery, while civilians are being round up and summarily shot.

The Guns of August earns a four star rating from me, though it was easily capable of getting the coveted fifth star. While its scholarship is top-notch, it does several things which annoy me: first, it throws down foreign phrases without any translation. The context provides hints as to what that translation may have been, but the lack of actual translation renders the quotes meaningless. Also, the book doesn’t contain enough maps of what’s going on, and what maps it does include are typically ruined by drowning vital information in the binding of the book. As I am not from Europe, I have no idea what rivers lead where, and as a result some of the battles become harder to conceptualize. 

One stray observation before moving on… British arrogance seems to be running rampant at this point in time. The Ottomans had commissioned the British (and paid them!) to build two modern battleships. These boats are basically finished when the war breaks out, and the British decide to steal them for their own use, with barely any regard or consideration to the Turk’s reaction. It’s probably the single biggest factor in the Turks joining the German side.

Clarence Darrow: Attorney of the Damned by John Farrell 

I started reading this book with only the faintest of knowledge about Clarence Darrow, and having finished it, I feel as if I’ve only added a few scraps of meat to the skeleton. 

Darrow follows the classic American advice and, “Goes West, Young Man.” He came from an overflowing family, and was raised to be someone who questions authority. He enters the city of Chicago and becomes a protege of J.P. Altgeld, a Chicago politician who can navigate the Underworld and get things done. Darrow quickly falls into the leftist crowd of Chicago, though constantly throws them into a loop because they can’t reconcile his leftist leanings with his going to bat for big business.

Fortunately, Darrow doesn’t bat exclusively for the established interests, and does so increasingly less as his career continues. He begins to be an influential Labor lawyer, and he represents workers in countless cases — the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902 probably being the one closest to my heart.

To condense most of the biography, Darrow represents plenty of villains. He represents bombers, rioters, terrorists, murderers, and other despicable people. In general, he takes any case where the death penalty is on the table, and in the worst cases considers himself victorious is he saves his client’s life. However, in many cases where his client is a Union man, Darrow works magic on the jury by humanizing the Labor struggle, so that it’s essential humanity shines through to the jury and that they put themselves into the shoes of these poor workers. His oratory, and his keen sense of people’s personalities during the jury selection process, often allows him to get many of his clients freed.

However, it would seem his legacy is tarnished by allegations of jury bribing. They tried him twice for it, and he got off both times, but his friend’s diaries and personal knowledge of the man seem to suggest he was guilty as sin. As one of his mistresses put it, “…pay a man to save another man’s life? He’d do it every time!”

The best parts of the book come when it reviews some of the tricks that various lawyers would use to help illustrate their points or sway the jury. Perhaps the most dramatic example was furnished by the lawyer defending Darrow during his jury bribing trials. In another case, his client was accused of killing a man at a poker game. The witnesses described his client as pulling a loaded and cocked gun at the table, and then playing several hands until his victim finally provoked him into shooting him. During his closing statement, the lawyer pulled a .38 on the prosecuting attorney, who immediately dove under the table. Darrow’s lawyer then argued that that, running as soon as the gun is pulled, is the only sensible reaction, and as a result the other witnesses must be lying! The jury found his client not guilty.

Darrow himself had two favorite tricks he used, and I thought them both funny and elegant in their subtlety. For his first, he would wait until a witness was about to come to the stand whose testimony he thought would be particularly damaging. He would insert a thin wire into a cigar, and light it. He would puff along on it, and by the time the damaging witness would start testifying, he’d have a mile of ash hanging on to his cigar. The effect was that members of the jury would be paying far more attention to the cigar, watching the ash get longer, getting more interested in watching it fall, that the testimony of the witness often went by them without anyone paying much attention to it at all. His other trick was to keep a broken pocket watch on hand, and under similar circumstances, wind it during the entire testimony of a witness to drown out the words under the incessant rhythm of the winding. 

The tricks of American justice…

The biography often veers course into Darrow’s personal life of mistresses and free-love ideology. I found these digressions to be more distracting than insightful, as he invariably describes circumstances and not ramifications of the affairs. We’re left with a collection of tawdry tales of impropriety, but nothing that plugs into Darrow’s greater worldviews or personal growth.

Overall, I give this book two stars. It had some interesting anecdotes, but for so influential a man as Darrow, I have to assume there are far more compelling biographies out there. Too much of the book read as simple laundry lists of who-what-where-when-why on a case by case basis.

Why I Love Alpha Centauri   Leave a comment

“Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden. He drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.”

The Conclave Bible 

I’ve always enjoyed the video game as a medium for ending the tedium of modern life. There is a lot of crap out there, but every once in awhile you find a game that rises above the level of petty entertainment and becomes a work of art in its own right. 

Alpha Centauri is one example of this. The premise is straight-forward enough; in 2060, mankind launches a ship (U.N.S. Unity) to Alpha Centauri with the hopes of finding a habitable planet for colonization. The Earth the Unity leaves behind is an icy world of dwindling resources — the colonists of the Unity leave behind a planet on the edge of all-out nuclear war. The colonists are put into stasis to awaken when the Unity arrives in Alpha Centauri.

Forty years into the trip, the Unity fusion core malfunctions, causing a premature awakening of the crew to fix the problem. The problem gets solved, but someone takes advantage of the situation to assassinate the Unity’s captain. The ensuing chaos of the situation allows seven people to claim leadership of the people aboard the Unity:

CEO Nwabudike Morgan, an ardent industrialist, believes that mankind’s destiny lies in the pursuit of wealth and unfettered capitalism. 

Colonel Corazon Santiago believes that the only real power is the power that grows out of the barrel of a gun. 

Lady Diedre Skye is the Unity’s chief biologist, and she believes that the native ecology of humanity’s new home must be preserved and protected.

Academician Prokhor Zakharov believes that the true expression of the human condition lies in working to understand how the universe and its components work. 

Sister Miriam Godwinson believes that humanity must conduct itself as true children of God.

Chairman Shenji-Yang believes that the common man cannot be trusted with conducting his own affairs and must be tightly controlled. 

Commissioner Pravin Lal strives to uphold the original mission of the Unity — to secure human rights and prevent the continued disintegration of the last vestige of the human race.

The crew of the Unity invariably casts its lot with whoever among these leaders they happen to agree with. These leaders in turn attempt the monumental task of establishing a human presence on a hostile alien world.

“Our first challenge is to create an entire economic infrastructure, from top to bottom, out of whole cloth. No gradual evolution from previous economic systems is possible, because there IS no previous economic system. Each interdependent piece must be materialized simultaneously and in perfect working order; otherwise the system will crash out before it ever gets off the ground.

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
“The Centauri Monopoly” 

Most of the story of Alpha Centauri is told through quotes. Whenever a building is built, a technological breakthrough occurs, or a Secret Project completed (the equivalent of a Wonder for the Civ players out there), there is a small quote or other expression. Taken as a whole, these quotes trace the framework of the game. Over the course of the game, you start to get a feel for the strengths and deficiencies of each faction (and each faction has VERY different styles of play). 

Your faction begins its existence on Planet (as this new world comes to be known) with a simple city. In the style of most triple-X games (eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate), you have to grow your empire, fend off its enemies, and work on developing the territory you occupy. 

On that last point, humanity catches a break on Planet:

“Planet’s atmosphere, though a gasping death to humans and most animals, is paradise for Earth plants. The high nitrate content of the soil and the rich yellow sunlight bring an abundant harvest wherever adjustments can be made for the unusual soil conditions.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“A Comparative Biology of Planet” 

Sadly, though Planet is a paradise for Earth plants, it is a finite resource. As such, humans will inevitably clash over it and other pointless bullshit.

“Man has killed man from the beginning of time, and each new frontier has brought new ways and new places to die. Why should the future be different?”

Col. Corazon Santiago
“Planet: A Survivalist’s Guide” 

The game is set up such that certain factions are destined to be enemies. Most factions have a significant other whose ideological concerns are contrary to the core of their own. Diedre and Morgan can’t both pursue their goals for planet without violating the sanctity of what the other believes to be the “right” path. For example, it is very hard to find a middle ground between these statements:

“Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.”

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
“The Ethics of Greed” 

“I shall not confront Planet as an enemy, but shall accept its mysteries as gifts to be cherished. Nor shall I crudely seek to peel the layers away like the skin from an onion. Instead I shall gather them together as the tree gathers the breeze. The wind shall blow and I shall bend. The sky shall open and I shall drink my fill.”

Gaian Acolyte’s Prayer 

So, as Santiago pragmatically puts it, “why should the future be different?” Well, Planet has one ace up its sleeve. 

“The Mind Worms are the natural defenses of the living Planet–the white blood cells, if you will. In a world in which unassimilated thought represents danger, the Mind Worm seeks out concentrations of sentient mental energy and destroys them, ruthlessly and efficiently.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“Mind Worm, Mind Worm” 

So herein is the genius of the game. The human factions each behave like nation-states, pursuing their own agendas, waging wars, and pursuing their own diplomatic initiatives, but all of them share an enemy in the form of Planet’s native life, which can easily over-run entire cities if you aren’t careful. 

However, early research into Planet’s ecology reveals something:

“Observe the Razorbeak as it tends so carefully to the fungal blooms; just the right bit from the yellow, then a swatch from the pink. Follow the Glow Mites as they gather and organize the fallen spores. What higher order guides their work? Mark my words: someone or something is managing the ecology of this planet.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Planet Dreams” 

Meanwhile, you’re still playing this game. And you notice your head starts churning around all these ideas which are subtly working their way into your subconscious. Whether it is the stark pragmatism of Yang, the smug confidence of Morgan, or the contemplative tone of Lal, as you play the game you truly get a feel for what these people are all about.

“The righteous need not cower before the drumbeat of human progress. Though the song of yesterday fades into the challenge of tomorrow, God still watches and judges us. Evil lurks in the datalinks as it lurked in the streets of yesteryear. But it was never the streets that were evil.”

Sister Miriam Godwinson
“The Blessed Struggle” 

“Man’s unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true rather than what the evidence shows to be likely and possible has always astounded me. We long for a caring Universe which will save us from our childish mistakes, and in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary we will pin all our hopes on the slimmest of doubts. God has not been proven not to exist, therefore he must exist.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“For I Have Tasted The Fruit” 

“Human behavior is economic behavior. The particulars may vary, but competition for limited resources remains a constant. Need as well as greed have followed us to the stars, and the rewards of wealth still await those wise enough to recognize this deep thrumming of our common pulse.”

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
“The Centauri Monopoly” 

“In the great commons at Gaia’s Landing we have a tall and particularly beautiful stand of white pine, planted at the time of the first colonies. It represents our promise to the people, and to Planet itself, never to repeat the tragedy of Earth.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Planet Dreams” 

“As the Americans learned so painfully in Earth’s final century, free flow of information is the only safeguard against tyranny. The once-chained people whose leaders at last lose their grip on information flow will soon burst with freedom and vitality, but the free nation gradually constricting its grip on public discourse has begun its rapid slide into despotism. Beware of he who would deny you access to information, for in his heart he dreams himself your master.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“U.N. Declaration of Rights” 

“Learn to overcome the crass demands of flesh and bone, for they warp the matrix through which we perceive the world. Extend your awareness outward, beyond the self of body, to embrace the self of group and the self of humanity. The goals of the group and the greater race are transcendent, and to embrace them is to achieve enlightenment.”

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Essays on Mind and Matter” 

“Superior training and superior weaponry have, when taken together, a geometric effect on overall military strength. Well-trained, well-equipped troops can stand up to many more times their lesser brethren than linear arithmetic would seem to indicate.”

Spartan Battle Manual 

As the game continues to develop, the mysteries of Planet start to reveal themselves. 

“I believe Planet will talk to us if we are willing to listen. These fungal stalks behave as multistate relays: taken together, the neural net connectivity must be staggering. Can a planet be said to have achieved sentience?”

Lady Deirdre Skye
Arguments in Council 

“The fungus has been Planet’s dominant lifeform since about the time of the Lower Paleozoic on Earth. But when, once every hundred million years or so, the neural net at last achieves the critical mass necessary to become sentient, the final metamorphosis kills off most of the other life on the planet. It is possible that we humans can help to break this tragic cycle.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Planet Dreams” 

So humanity is left fighting itself and the random attacks of Planet’s native life on this hostile alien world. Somehow, over the decades since Planetfall, some factions have been able to carve a civilization out of the wilderness and establish themselves on Planet. But there’s a twist here:

“The prevalence of anoxic environments rich in organic material, combined with the presence of nitrated compounds has led to an astonishing variety of underground organisms which live in the absence of oxygen and “breathe” nitrate. Likewise, the scarcity of carbon in the environment has forced plants to economize on its use. Thus, all our efforts to return carbon to the biosphere will encourage the native life to proliferate.” 

Lady Deirdre Skye
“The Early Years” 

It becomes something of a cosmic joke — the more entrenched humans become on Planet, the more likely Planet’s native life can suddenly overwhelm the colonists and exterminate them. Eventually, the concept of a plan for dealing with Planet’s native life presents itself. 

“Imagine the entire contents of the planetary datalinks, the sum total of human knowledge, blasted into the Planetmind’s fragile neural network with the full power of every reactor on the planet. Thousands of years of civilization compressed into a single searing burst of revelation. That is our last-ditch attempt to win humanity a reprieve from extinction at the hands of an awakening alien god.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“Planet Speaks” 

Once the Planetmind is “enlightened” to the realization that humans are a sentient species and not an explicitly evil threat to Planet, Planet reigns in its mindworm armies and holds off on exterminating humanity. During this interim, the human factions realize that they have an opportunity to imprint their own ideals into the Planetmind, and essentially merge themselves into Planet itself. 

“No longer mere earthbeings and planetbeings are we, but bright children of the stars! And together we shall dance in and out of ten billion years, celebrating the gift of consciousness until the stars themselves grow cold and weary, and our thoughts turn again to the beginning.”

Lady Deirdre Skye
“Conversations with Planet” 

On a personal level, I can say that there have been few games which have influenced my overall thinking as much as this one. There is a lot of *deep* material concealed in the game, from the societal impacts of government policy to the more philosophical concerns of the new technological developments. 

For example:

“My gift to industry is the genetically engineered worker, or Genejack. Specially designed for labor, the Genejack’s muscles and nerves are ideal for his task, and the cerebral cortex has been atrophied so that he can desire nothing except to perform his duties. Tyranny, you say? How can you tyrannize someone who cannot feel pain?”

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Essays on Mind and Matter” 

How do you argue against this? Sure, there are all kind of moral objections to completely tailoring a person’s genes to suit your desires, but on the same token, if the person involved doesn’t give a shit, who are we to say otherwise?

“In the years since our arrival, we have foolishly disrupted so many of Planet’s ecosystems that entire species may vanish without our ever having understood, or even known them. We must halt this plunder, and halt it immediately, for our own survival as a species depends on our ability to strike a balance on this world.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“Mind Worm, Mind Worm” 

This goes doubly for us, being we don’t even have the ability to travel between the stars like they could. We fuck up this planet, and we sign our own death warrants. 

“We have reached an informational threshold which can only be crossed by harnessing the speed of light directly. The quickest computations require the fastest possible particles moving along the shortest paths. Since the capability now exists to take our information directly from photons traveling molecular distances, the final act of the information revolution will soon be upon us.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“For I Have Tasted The Fruit” 

To me, this is just a very prescient quote. Assuming we last long enough to figure out the important questions between here and there, it seems to me that there would have to come a time at which that barrier HAS to be crossed, allowing the synapses of the human race to “fire” at the fastest speed possible.

So there you have it, my explanation for why I love Alpha Centauri, told through the voices of the game whenever possible. A game which gives you control of a unique faction with real obstacles to overcome. An interesting setting where the stakes are high — fail at your task, and your civilization and the very ideology you expound are wiped from the human experience. A game which broadens the mind and helps explore gray areas of human existence.

If that ain’t art, what is?

Here are some quotes for the road:

“If our society seems more nihilistic than that of previous eras, perhaps this is simply a sign of our maturity as a sentient species. As our collective consciousness expands beyond a crucial point, we are at last ready to accept life’s fundamental truth: that life’s only purpose is life itself.

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Looking God in the Eye” 

“We are all aware that the senses can be deceived, the eyes fooled. But how can we be sure our senses are not being deceived at any particular time, or even all the time? Might I just be a brain in a tank somewhere, tricked all my life into believing in the events of this world by some insane computer? And does my life gain or lose meaning based on my reaction to such solipsism?”

Project PYRRHO, Specimen 46, Vat 7
Activity Recorded M.Y. 2302.22467
TERMINATION OF SPECIMEN ADVISED 

“There are two kinds of scientific progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn nonetheless for the latter.”

Academician Prokhor Zakharov
“Address to the Faculty” 

“Some would ask, how could a perfect God create a universe filled with so much that is evil. They have missed a greater conundrum: why would a perfect God create a universe at all?”

Sister Miriam Godwinson
“But for the Grace of God” 

“Why do you insist that the human genetic code is “sacred” or “taboo”? It is a chemical process and nothing more. For that matter -we- are chemical processes and nothing more. If you deny yourself a useful tool simply because it reminds you uncomfortably of your mortality, you have uselessly and pointlessly crippled yourself.”

Chairman Sheng-ji Yang
“Looking God in the Eye” 

“I hold a scrap of paper in the darkness and light it. I watch it burn bright and curl, disappearing into nothingness, and the heat burns my fingers. Where has it gone? What has it become? I cannot shake the feeling that I have witnessed a form of transcendence.”

Commissioner Pravin Lal
“The Convergence”

Employment: Exit Edition   Leave a comment

I really hated my job.

At first, it had been a job, like any other. Standard office drone, with hierarchies organized to explain when best to eat, shit, smoke and chat. There were people there who were fun, there were people there who were pricks, there were people there I could spend a day laughing with, and one I could picture having a life with. 

But, as time went on, the character of the place began to change. The occasional perks (free lunch, free ice cream etc) became rarer until they vanished altogether. The atmosphere, which had previously been more or less informal, began to stratify into a stifling mess of corporatism (for example, before no one cared if you wore a hat to work, but it became an dischargable offense). New department heads were chosen, apparently based on their unique lack of inter-personal skills. In addition, the highest management seemed to be making directives which created a culture of departmental back-stabbing — I personally witnessed, for example, one of the managers from the third floor coming onto the forth floor (my floor) to steal boxes from other departments. As you can imagine, such actions created a culture of lies, deceit, and antagonism.

For my own part, I knew I was working a dead end job and was more or less able to stay above the fray. I couldn’t care less if the project I was working on was compromised, because they invariably were compromised by mismanagement; I worked on an old scanner, which the company stopped paying maintenance for a long time ago. As a result, through no fault of my own, the thing stopped taking paper correctly. I might scan twenty thousand images one day, though the machine grabbed twenty two thousand papers. The surplus paper was inevitably double-fed into the machine, and disappeared back to the box from which it came. At first I voiced my concerns that things were wrong, but those concerns fell on deaf ears. 

If they didn’t care, why should I?

So it continued. It then became something of a game. Layoffs were happening at this point, and I could NOT WAIT to get one. I endeavored to do as little as possible, and make sure what little I did was fucked up. That didn’t work. I then upped it a notch, beginning to be mildly obstinate to the managers. 

The company believed in “town-hall” style meetings. These were meetings where the company would assemble in the art gallery on the first floor, and a top manager would conduct a meeting talking about new directives and other bullshit. At one such meeting, the manager Steve Boudihas (the architect of many inter-department feuds), introduced a new schedule for bonuses, which was a sore topic among many employees who hadn’t received a raise in 2+ years. At the meeting, he introduced this new two-part bonus series. If departments made their quality goals for the month, employees were eligible for a TEN DOLLAR BONUS. If departments made their productivity goals, employees were eligible for a further bonus of TWENTY FIVE DOLLARS. This was also on top of him suggesting, straight-faced, that if you see a temp isn’t needed on a particular job, to alert a manager to send them home early to save the company money. 

During this particular meeting he made slight mention that he himself would receive a bonus if the other departments got their bonus. I raised my hand.

“So, if I understand you right, you said you get a bonus if we get a bonus.”
“That’s right!”
“Is your bonus more than $35?”

That question made the town hall erupt in laughter. In fact, there were only two people who weren’t laughing or smirking, and those two people were me and him. After a brief recovery, he immediately dismissed the meeting. The rest of the day was spent receiving compliments on the power of my question, as well as the generous size of my balls.

But even these efforts at obstinacy delivered no reward. Instead, months dragged on, and eventually Steve himself was fired. I continued to walk the path of apathy, essentially creating a cushy position for myself where I had no set schedule, no real job duties, nor any set hours. In fact, one of the dumbest things the company did was to outsource their time clock to a web-based company. I don’t think the general body of employees understood the ramifications of that, because it allowed you to punch in and out from the comfort of your smartphone or wherever you had an internet connection. I took advantage of that, though not to the extreme of others, some of which earned ample over-time from the comfort of their home. 

Earlier in the week, I learned via the web time card that my supervisor had changed. The next day the new guy came over to tell me about the change: in short, he worked document destruction, and my new job would be to move boxes around. I could finish my normal duties for the day, but the next day we’d start doing the warehouse work.

The next day came, and I greeted it with a button-down shirt and tie. I read once that Hitler said that, at the negotiating table, every price should be paid to pomp and vanity to placate people’s egos, to make them more pliable to your demands. As the day started, I found the new guy and asked for a sit down. I complimented him on his straight shooting the day before, and asked if the new position offered any additional money incentives. He heard me out, and said he needed to take it to his people. I went back to my standard duties.

A few hours later, his boss came down with him and sat me down. They told me that they couldn’t offer me more money, nor could they continue to have me at my current position. If I refused to work the warehouse job, I would be terminated. They said the warehouse work, and the work I did, were essentially the same, which is why there wasn’t any bonus bucks attached. I respectfully replied that calling a cat’s legs tails doesn’t give a cat five tails. I was working a clerical job, at a computer with a desk and chair, and the other requires standing for long periods slugging heavy boxes around. 

“The jobs are the same. If you don’t accept the new position, we consider it a termination.”
“I will happily go back to my standard duties. If I’m leaving, it’s because I’m being forced out.”
“Your old position is terminated.”

I was then escorted from the building. I gathered my things, said goodbyes to my friends on the floor, and walked into the world. Sunshine rarely feels so sweet. 

Posted March 29, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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More Reviews   Leave a comment

Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Patriot by Charles Cerami

I was in the library, fresh from dropping off my newest slate of returns, when I took the chance to wander through the biography section. It’s rare that I ever go to the library with any specific intent on what I’m going to pick up (I believe the last time I did that was to pick up a copy of Cesar Milan’s Be A Pack Leader, which was excellent), and this time was no different. I was rummaging through the shelves, and nothing in particular was catching my eye. I was about to pack it in when my eyes finally fell on Banneker. I had no specific memory of the name, but it rang a bell. A cursory glance of the inside cover told me all I needed to know, “… he humiliated Jefferson…” SOLD!

Benjamin Banneker was born a free man in Maryland in the early 1730s. From an early age he was regarded as something of a whiz, and local people from all over town were asking him for his help with their accounts at the tender age of six. His family wasn’t well-off, but nor were they destitute. His parents ran a small but growing tobacco farm and instilled in him a healthy respect for work, and allowed him to pursue his intellectual pursuits so long as he still did his work on the farm. His mother was a freed indentured servant, and made sure that her children would be able to read.

Benjamin’s first love was the mystery of space and the stars. Until racial prejudices became more extreme, it was common for young Benjamin to do his farm work, sneak a quick nap, and then spend most of the night making observations about the stars and later, notes about movements and his personal theories about what was what.

As Benjamin grew older, his family came to depend on him more and more. By this point he was somewhat obviously a prodigy (he had hand-crafted a clock with wooden gears), and perhaps with an eye toward exposing their son to greater horizons, they sent him to Baltimore one summer to sell the family’s tobacco at market. This trip would bring both tragedy and salvation to young Benjamin.

The tragedy would occur in the form of being truly exposed to the wide world of racism. To help with the wagon and animals, Benjamin’s uncle came along with him on the trip. In an episode whose horror I can’t begin to imagine, they’re beset by slave catchers. Now, Benjamin is able to convince them that he’s free and that his papers are genuine — but his uncle isn’t so lucky. His uncle is beaten and taken away by the slave catchers, never to be seen by Benjamin or anyone in his family ever again. As if that wasn’t enough, upon bringing his tobacco to the Baltimore market, the merchant more or less says he’d be within his rights to throw Benjamin in irons for stealing such excellent tobacco. As a result, Benjamin is forced to sell the crop at a fraction of its value to avoid imprisonment. 

Understandably, for the rest of his life Banneker seemed riddled with fears that everything could be taken away from him at any time.

But, it was in Baltimore that Banneker made a connection whose impact would forever change his life… it was here he was introduced to the Ellicotts, a prosperous family of Quakers whose sons had an interest in everything scientific and mechanical. This family became something of a surrogate sponsor for Benjamin’s education, as they were constantly lending him their books, and their old equipment (such as old telescopes), and these things would allow him to achieve a depth of understanding that seems absolutely impossible for such a humble scientist in the early 19th century.

As Benjamin grew older, he seemed to embody the idea of the absent-minded professor. He toiled on his farm only as long as needed to assure his survival, and then spend the rest of his time reading books, following planetary movements, watching the Ellicotts build water mills, and writing what notes he could. 

His big break occurred when he was drafted by the Ellicotts to assist in the surveying of what would become Washington, D.C. The idea that a black man would be part of such an important undertaking certainly produced a lot of uncertainty, but Ellicott had complete faith in Banneker as his chief assistant. Banneker apparently had the most important job — the job of making sure that the lines struck the day before were continued exactly the next day. In order to do it, in once again required staying up late hours into the night to make sure that the measurements of the stars were where they should be and that the work could proceed apace the next day.

After the surveying of the Washington grid, Banneker decided to follow one of his lifelong dreams, again with the helping influence of his friends the Ellicotts. Banneker long desired to make his own almanac, complete with tide charts and other astronomical information. He had spent most of his life compiling the data, and with the Ellicotts willing to go to bat to secure some printers, Banneker decides to go ahead and write the damn thing. The Almanac becomes a surprise bestseller, in large part because of the uniqueness of the author. He almost instantly becomes something of an abolitionist hero, and Banneker is suddenly inundated with visitors and letters. It is also around this time that he starts hearing gunshots right outside his door in the middle of the night.

Perhaps it was something about Jefferson’s hypocrisy that made Banneker write a letter to him. Perhaps it was a new-found pride from the success of his Almanac. Perhaps it was simply a reaction to the constant racism he’d experienced that finally needed expression; whatever the case, he sent Jefferson a handwritten copy of his almanac with a note which said in part:

“…although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” 

Jefferson, with his standard two-face, welcomes the letter and forwards it to a friend in Paris while later writing about how much of Banneker’s “achievements” were probably just Ellicotts’.

I alluded earlier to Banneker’s uncanny knowledge of the cosmos. It’s absolutely impossible to know how much knowledge Banneker was able to accumulate, because shortly after his death his cabin was burned down, taking with it everything he’d written that hadn’t been on loan to Ellicott at the time. I, for one, find it absolutely incredible that he had correctly deduced that most stars likely had planets around them, and that there could even be life on those other planets. That is some serious out-of-the-box thinking for a humble astronomer farmer. I only wish we could have had a deeper look into the life’s work of a man who was so capable of rising above the conventional expectations to see what might be.

Four Stars

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I grabbed this book the same day I picked up Banneker as it was actually a featured bookend at the edge of the young adult section. I was actually shocked at how faithfully the book followed the movie (previously reviewed). It did have the welcome addition of fleshing out the character of Harry Wotten, but otherwise was more or less exactly as depicted in the movie.

It’s an easy read, and an entertaining one at that. Four Stars, same as the movie which it spawned

Hamilton by Ron Chernow

As a starter, if you could only read one book about Alexander Hamilton, this is the one you want to pick up.

Having covered a good cross-section of Hamilton’s life in the previous review, I’ll only add a couple salient points here.

The book does an exquisite job of establishing the team of Washington and Hamilton as a whole far greater than the sum of its parts. During the Revolution, Washington routinely trusts Hamilton to get jobs done, going so far as to allow Hamilton to issue orders on his own initiative as if they came from the hand of Washington himself. As the French become more involved in the war, Hamilton acts as the prime translator between Washington and the French, also being sure to communicate the spirit of the meaning of the words and not just the rote translation. There is such a multitude of uses that Washington trusts to Hamilton, and no other, that when Hamilton decides to leave, Washington goes almost to the point of saying the war might be lost without him. But Hamilton is young, eager to prove himself, and desiring a chance to prove himself in battle, not work a desk for the war. Washington reluctantly releases him from his service, and they begin a largely benign estrangement which lasted a few years.

One thing that the Revolution taught to both men was the complete inadequacy of the Articles of Confederation. Wars take a lot of logistical support, and so much of Washington and Hamilton’s time was spent begging for supplies and money that they became, in my words, hateful of the government as it stood. Wars are tough enough, but then combine those difficulties with a government incapable of providing more troops, furnishing supplies, or paying their soldiers, and it becomes no wonder they might harbor negative feelings about the sovereign.

One thing that constantly astounds me reading books on Hamilton is how prolific he was. He was, for example, running a thriving law practice, and organizing the Federalists in New York when he wrote his share of The Federalist Papers. As the Secretary of the Treasury, he managed to organize his department from scratch into a functioning whole seemingly overnight (interesting side note: Washington had an aid as President, Jefferson had four secretaries at the State Department, Hamilton had over 200 employees). In addition, Chernow describes Hamilton as, essentially, Washington’s Prime Minister, because Hamilton certainly had the President’s ear, but seemed to have his hands involved in absolutely everything. 

One thing I want to add here is that Hamilton’s time at the Treasury seems to be above reproach. He’s definitely a polarizing figure, and the Republicans in Congress got it in their heads that he was stealing from the Treasury. They ran several investigations against him (at one point trying to get him dismissed by making him do a full audit in a tiny deadline, which he managed to do with no trouble), and never once found him guilty of any wrong-doing. In fact, his time in public service only served to bankrupt him, because he felt that continuing to work while working in public service would only lead to compromising conflicts of interest. He even went so far as to sacrifice his own pension to avoid having a conflict regarding the Revolutionary War debt speculators.

Also, and I know I beat this poor horse to death, but Jefferson is a piece of shit. Again, this book laid out loads of hypocrisy by Jefferson — as Governor of Virginia during the war, he abandoned office and ran from the British, yet calls Hamilton a coward. Jefferson owns slaves, yet calls Hamilton lazy! He hates everything Washington is doing in foreign policy, but he won’t resign his job at State, and pays State funds to a publisher to talk trash on Washington… There’s plenty more, and a lot of them seem completely petty, but I’d like to move on to a few closing points.

When Jefferson becomes President, he still hates the Bank and the Treasury, and appoints his friend Albert Gallatin as Treasurer and tells him to look into things and see how corrupt Hamilton made it. Gallatin was no friend to the Bank, nor Hamilton, but his final report should remove any doubt about the corruption charges:

” [this is the most amazing department in government]… Hamilton did such a perfect job organizing the Treasury that it will be a sinecure ever after for whoever holds it.” 

This book was easily a five star masterpiece. Eminently readable, with a great cross-section of stories about many different Founders, it does wonders to make the wide cast of characters seem knowable on a personal level. We still might not be able to understand why a genius like Hamilton would allow himself to be blackmailed and destroyed by a whore, but no one knows anyone well enough to understand every impulse that goes through their head. In the end, it’s a great biography that shows a man all too human.

One final anecdote that made me do a genuine laugh out loud.

Hamilton, in his final years, is designing his dream home. As he so often does, he goes into exact details of minutia, from number of bricks for the walkway and number of trees for the yard. In his customary thoroughness, he writes to a botany professor for advice:

“… I admit, I am as unfit on this topic as Jefferson is to helm the nation.”

Thanks for reading, next up we’ll have The Guns of August and Clarence Darrow.

Posted March 21, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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TV Reviews   Leave a comment

Deadwood 

There’s a lot of uncertainty, even now, whether Deadwood ranks as an excellent show or an alright show. Speaking for myself, a few years ago I was solidly in the latter camp, but after re-watching the show recently, I’m now committed to the excellent camp.

Deadwood centers around the people and events of an illegal prospecting camp in the middle of Sioux territory in the late 1800’s. The town is more or less completely lawless, as no official governing body recognizes its existence… which means that the old powers of Might Makes Right rule this mining camp. The show’s primary leader is Albert Schwarengen, a brutal brigand exquisitely played by Ian McShane. Al established himself in Deadwood very early, and operates the town’s primary saloon. Most of the early season works to establish him as a man losing his absolute grip on the camp — as the town becomes more prosperous, competing interests begin moving in, and he can no longer rule as absolutely as he did the day before. Indeed, in the camp’s early days, he need only find an opportunity to literally slit his competition’s throat in order to solve the problem, but as the town becomes more established, the risks of doing so become more hazardous. So he must resort to “doing business” with these “cocksuckers.” 

The other main character of the show is Seth Bullock, played by Timothy Olyphant. Bullock came to Deadwood after quitting his job as a sheriff in Montana, in order to open a hardware business. His hardware business does quite well (as you’d expect in a mining camp), and he moves to buy the lot of land in order to establish an actual store instead of selling his goods out of a tent. This brings him into contact with Al…

These two characters are the guts of the show. While the show literally has dozens of characters splitting the screen time, Seth and Al are invariably the axles that everything revolves around. At first they absolutely hate each other, as they tend to be more similar than they’d like to admit. However, as the show progresses, they needs of the camp force them to find a working relationship, which evolves into something approaching friendship. The evolution is one of the better arcs in the show, and it progresses in an authentic way.

I think one of the reasons Deadwood works so well is because it traces rise and fall of the Western. Most of the characters in Deadwood went to Deadwood for one of two reasons… they either wanted to strike it rich, or get the hell away from the law of the East (or both). So you get this diverse group of people living together, but once they have something up and running, their own needs prevent them from operating in the cutthroat manner that was the de facto rule of the beginning. Indeed, once the town realizes that the Sioux have surrendered their claim to Deadwood, the town “elders” hold a meeting to organize a municipal body in order to better pay bribes to territorial politicians to make sure that their land claims are found to be legitimate. As the show progresses, there are increasingly larger forces outside of any of their control which come into play, and all of people in camp have to figure out how to make the best of their situation when the bigger players come to town. 

The biggest criticism is that it doesn’t really end, because it was prematurely canceled by HBO before its ending was planned. This was the chief reason that I wasn’t a big fan on my first viewing. However, with that caveat being there, because it is something of a bitter pill, the show as a whole is still an excellent thing to see. There’s some excellent acting throughout the show. McShane and Olyphant deserve particular applause as absolute masters of their characters. Brian Cox is a late arrival, but might win the prize for Most Charming Character in Fiction, as his portrayal of Jack Langrishe is perhaps the most lighthearted influence on the show otherwise dark subject matter. There are many more characters who could get honorable mentions for compelling or humorous moments, but none that would make sense outside of their context. For now, all I can say is that, if you have the time to watch it, do yourself the favor and do it. It’s three seasons, and you’ll enjoy the ride.

5 stars

The Ricky Gervais Show 

If you had asked me what, if anything, was worth checking out during the summer of ’10, I’d have pushed you in the direction of the Ricky Gervais podcasts. These podcasts follow Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (of England’s Office fame) conducting a series of interviews with Karl Pilkington. Now, Karl Pilkington is hard to describe. To call him an idiot makes irrelevant his unintentional bursts of genius, yet to call him a genius is to ignore the fact that he’s an idiot. However you describe Karl, his views and theories have a subtle pull which makes you want to listen to more of what he has to say, and the show works best when Merchant and Gervais probe Karl’s head without resorting to calling him an idiot (which they can’t resist doing for too long, albeit for obvious reasons).

Myself, I find that the more you listen to Karl, the more you can sort of understand where he’s coming from. Make no mistake about, a lot of what he says is retarded and ridiculous, but every once in awhile he hits on something, oftentimes without even realizing it himself, that strikes you as being absolutely on point. It’s one of the more interesting facets of the entire series, that while Karl can opine (for example) about how difficult things would be if his doppelganger suddenly entered his life, he can’t answer the simple question of how old he is without a long pause to figure it out.

I think the chief charm to this show is that, the more you listen to their banter, the more interesting it becomes. This project never comes off as a job by any of participants, and instead seems to be a very fun way for them to pick Karl’s brain. Gervais, in particular, seems to gain a healthy respect for Karl as the podcasts progress. You do have to give Karl credit, I think most Americans would probably just shut up when you have two people calling you an idiot, but I suppose the dickishness of the British immunizes one’s ego to the ridicule and he soldiers on with his outlandish theories and “true” stories of internet bullshit which he buys hook-line-and-sinker.

The animation of the HBO show can be entertaining, and I don’t think it does too much to distract from the meat of the conversation it’s replicating, but that being said I don’t think you miss much by simply checking out the podcasts themselves if you’re interested in listening in on, “the ramblings of a maniac.”

4 stars

Posted February 14, 2012 by fatmoron in Uncategorized

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