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John Fitzpatrick

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Movie review: Star Trek Into Darkness [Sep. 23rd, 2014|10:17 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
As a sequel, "Star Trek: Into Darkness" has a few things going for it. It is better than the previous movie ("Star Trek") in terms of plot and storytelling.

But.

The first movie (of the new series) was dismal, and the second movie is still quite bad. Oh, it's a great action movie with lots of big-screen special effects. It had potential with the characters of Kahn and Carol Marcus. It had potential with Benedict Cumberbatch as Kahn.

But it delivers only an action movie with big-screen special effects, and nothing more.

"Star Trek: Into Darkness" is a collection of ideas from "Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn" and "Star Trek: The Search for Spock". There is Kahn, of course, and Carol Marcus. There is the dreadnought starship -- which Scotty sabotages. There are photon torpedoes. There is the notion of "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few". And there is a long "Kaaahn" screamed (this time by Spock).

But the collection is an amateurish assembly of ideas, things pasted onto a skeleton of special effects. One can only think that the writers started with the action scenes and then added plot and characters as afterthoughts.

Benedict Cumberbatch is wasted in this movie. The character Kahn appears, causes chaos, and disappears all too quickly. What little we know of him comes from our knowledge of earlier movies, not the exposition of this one.

The movie suffers from an arrogance. I'm not sure if the source is the director or the writers. It is an arrogance that ignores the wealth of science fiction literature, not just Star Trek but every science fiction movie and TV show and book and story. "Star Trek: Into Darkness" is all action and special effects with no underlying subject.

The arrogance extends to the seriousness of the presentation. A brief reference to the "Mudd incident" and a tribble in sickbay tell us that the encounters with Harry Mudd have already occurred, and we can expect no movie about them. These movies are about serious science fiction (or so the writers may think) and light fare like tribbles have no business in these movies. What the writers fail to realize is that the lighter comedy of "The Trouble with Tribbles" is harder -- much harder -- to create than an action movie.

(Note to Benedict Cumberbatch: To prove your acting chops, you should have taken the role of Harcourt Fenton Mudd.)

"Star Trek: Into Darkness" is a pell-mell tumble through asteroid fields and phaser battles and running and jumping. It has no time for introspection, for the characters or the audience. There is no time for philosophy, no time for self-examination. (Without such introspection characters cannot improve themselves.)

One wonders if the writers and director have seen "The Wrath of Kahn" or the original episode "Space Seed". "Star Trek: Into Darkness" and "Star Trek: The Wrath of Kahn" both run about two hours, yet the former is a long journey and the latter zips by quickly, due to the storytelling.

I observe that in the two movies of the "rebooted" series, the antagonists are driven by revenge and hate. This was not the case for the original movies, and certainly not the case for the original series. (Or even "Star Trek: The Next Generation".)

Where is the science fiction? Where are the new ideas? Where are the philosophical questions about our society, our culture, and our existence?

Take away the motives of revenge and hatred, take away the special effects, take away the running and jumping, and what's left is very little. A lump about the size of a dead tribble.

I rate this movie 3 cans of spam, out of a possible 10.
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Harlock: Space Pirate [Sep. 20th, 2014|07:08 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
Netflix was kind enough to let me view "Harlock: Space Pirate".

I liked it. I found it to be solid science fiction.

Lots of folks have given the movie bad reviews. I suspect that they were expecting an superhero action movie, something along the lines of "Ironman" or "Captain America". "Harlock" is very different. There is some action (mainly space battles with lasers!) and the ethics of all the major characters are questionable (everyone lies). The story has a lot of moral ambiguity; there is no clear "good guy vs. bad guy" story.

It is quite possible that people have not seen the earlier TV series (way earlier, like 1974 and probably a comic book before that). I owe my appreciation of "Harlock" to the TV series "Galaxy Express 999" which I stumbled upon in the early 1980s. "Galaxy Express 999" and "Harlock" both come from the same studio (and there was a small cross-over in the "Adieu Galaxy Express 999" movie).

"Galaxy Express" and "Harlock" are Japanese inventions and have a very different set of sensibilities. Watching "Galaxy Express" was an exercise in decoding another culture.

I liked the movie.
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More on Star Trek: The Next Generation [Sep. 14th, 2014|06:05 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
Yet more ramblings on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I have completed the series. I have watched every episode, from beginning to end. (Except perhaps one. I think NetFlix burped at one point and showed me "The Dauphin" twice, in season 1 and again in season 2 (its proper place), so perhaps I missed an episode from season 1.)

TNG is much better at character development than TOS. TNG has much better sets and production quality.

TNG (at least, season 3 and after) was written for a very specific group: teens and college students.

TOS episodes were about social issues ("The Cloud Minders", "Wink of an Eye", "Let That Be Their Last Battlefield") or hard science fiction ("All Our Yesterdays", City on the Edge of Forever"). Many episodes were written for adults ("Conscience of the King", "Court Martial")

TNG episodes were about science. Many episodes were mysteries. (Some with rabbits pulled out of the hat at the end.)

The TNG final season contains several good episodes, including "Below Decks" and "Preemtive Strike". The episode "Emergence" sees Wesley Crusher ... advance? ... to the form of Charlie X, which cycles back to TOS.

TNG has the bookend episodes of "Encounter at Farscape" and "All Good Things...". Both feature the character Q, and the combination makes the series worthwhile.

Of all the characters in the series, Q is the one honest voice. Q says what he thinks, indeed, what everyone thinks but is too polite to say. I like to think that Q and Spike (from "Buffy") are kindred spirits.

I think that TNG's accomplishments are these:

- Star Trek could exist without Kirk, Spock, and McCoy
- character development
- the need for an arc story

I've started watching "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine", and can see a marked improvement in writing, characters, and arc story. I'm looking forward to it.
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Movie review: Three Days of the Condor [Aug. 18th, 2014|07:10 am]
John Fitzpatrick
The 1970s version with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway continues to please. (Is there a remake? Seems a pity.)

"Three Days", while running for 2 hours, delivers a taut drama with no excess. It is a product of the 1970s with 1970 technology. (The dialling of phones plays a role, along with DTMF signals. At some points, one notices that the plot and character actions would be quite different had cell phones been available.)

So with your mental time machine, one can travel to an earlier age and experience a story of spies, intrigue, and a touch of paranoia. The special effects are minimal; gunshot wounds are obviously fake and not at all like today's effects.

The limited special effects are more than made up for the location shots. Filmed in New York, there are scenes in Times Square and in lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers dominate. (Several shots of the towers, for those who are sensitive.) There is even a scene in Hoboken Terminal.

Despite the limited effects, movies were violent in the age. Early in the film, we meet a crew of analysts and begin to like them. Shortly thereafter, the entire crew (sans Redford) is brutally gunned down. I challenge anyone to watch and feel no compassion for the victims.

Worth watching, especially in today's "Snowden" era.

I rate this movie 9 cans of spam, out of a possible 10.
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Ferguson MO adds stress on conservatives [Aug. 17th, 2014|05:06 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
The protests, looting, rioting, police actions, and politics of Ferguson MO have provided more stress for conservatives.

In short, there are two subgroups of conservatives and they react very differently to the events in Missouri.

One group is the "law and order" group. They are for the police actions in Ferguson. They tend to view the protesters as an unruly crowd (which, admittedly, some were) and deserving of a forceful response.

The second group is the libertarians. They view the actions of the police as undue and unconstitutional. They see the forcible disbursement of protesters as a trampling of first amendment rights, and the killing of a protester as blatant police overreach.

It is interesting to note that the libertarians are relatively quiet on Ferguson. Especially interesting after their support of Cliven Bundy and his stand against federal forces.

It is also interesting to note that the "law and order" group was quiet during the Cliven Bundy affair, and now makes all of the noise.

These two groups have little in common. Put them in a room, and I suspect that they best result would be two clusters, separated like oil and water.

Liberals have a long history of disorganized politics. Disagreements exist and are accepted, with an eye on the larger goals. (See Will Rogers.)

Conservatives have yet to accommodate internal disagreement. Even today, the comment I see posted most frequently on right-leaning message boards is "there is no middle ground". A recipe for purity, but not political effectiveness.
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(no subject) [Aug. 3rd, 2014|02:12 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
Us geeks like to think of ourselves as a rational lot, not subject to the capriciousness of religion. We accept evolution and the heliocentric view of our solar system. We're fans of Bill Nye, Carl Sagan, and Niel deGrasse Tyson.

Some of us look down on those who hold alternate views. It's easy to categorize the hard-code conservatives as non-thinking religious ignorami (or is that 'ignoramuses'?), people who believe what they are told and have no skills at critical thinking.

Yet it is not that simple.

A lot of what we think of as science is really faith.

I "know" that the sun is ninety-three million miles from the Earth. I don't know it for certain, because I have not measured it myself. It is a fact that was told to me, by a number of people (many of whom were teachers). I do now know the true distance from the Earth to the Sun but I believe the figure I have been given. Is this so different from religion?

One can argue that the distance from the sun has been calculated with scientific techniques, that it has been measured by people who know and therefore it is true. But how do I know any of that? How do I know that the measurers used scientific techniques? How do I know that their methods are sound? How do I know that there are people using scientific techniques? (Perhaps it is all a fraud committed by the people telling me the figure.)

Science is different from religion in that it allows for mistakes and corrections. (Or so I am told.) Science has peer-reviewed journals that use editorial processes to ensure that articles are correct -- or as correct as possible with our current knowledge. (Or so I am told.)

Now, I don't want to go too far down the rabbit-hole of philosophy. I don't need to end in a solipsistic universe with just me questioning the existence of everything I perceive. But I do want to draw attention to the illusion of our certainty.

Lots of people will accept the figure of ninety-three million miles as a scientific fact and scoff at those who accept the "Earth was made in six days" story from Genesis. Yet these two groups are behaving in the same manner: they accept what they have been told by people they trust.

Us science geeks accept a lot on faith. We believe things told to us by people we trust. (I'm one of the believers.) In today's fractured society, let's remember that we are all (well, mostly all) working on beliefs. We are more alike than different.
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Conservatives want to kill their neighbor's cow [Jul. 31st, 2014|09:59 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
A peasant had a hard life. He had some land and grew crops, but struggled. A neighbor, also a peasant, had a better life. He had some land and grew crops but also had a cow. One day, a magical genie appeared to the first peasant and offered to grant him a wish. After thinking a bit, the peasant answered: "kill my neighbor's cow".

Conservatives are besides themselves with joy at the recent "Halbig" decision that disables part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

It seems the conservatives, after a perceived series of losses (I say "perceived" because recent policies and judicial decisions have gone both ways) have lost their ability for strategic thinking. They prefer governance by majority to compromise, they prefer victory to majority, and they prefer a defeat for the other guy to victory.

Conservatives have approached legislation with a "my way or the highway" attitude, and found that they won no victories. Now they celebrate wins in the courthouse.

I find it an odd strategy for conservatives. Judicial decisions can swing either way, and can have wide-ranging effects. A truly conservative path would be small, gradual changes.

The strategy also creates uncertainty for the economy. It's one thing for liberals to fight for marriage equality in the courts; victories or losses have little effect in the business world. It's another for conservatives to shake up the economy with changes to the insurance industry. Court decisions are rapid; better to handle things in the legislative branch where matters can be discussed and lobbyists can be consulted.

Conservatives hate the ACA with such passion that they have become blind to strategy. Reliance on court decisions is a symptom of their desire for a win (a defeat for the other guy) at any price.

If Republicans could pull together the various factions within, they could easily gain some wins against the ACA. Perhaps not a complete repeal, but then what do they have now?

Here's what they could do:

- Start with the elimination of the "employer mandate". This is the section of the ACA that requires employers to offer medical insurance to their employees. It has not yet been enacted, few people like it, it is complicated to enforce, and one can argue that it is not necessary. A permanent deferment is likely possible, even with the Democrat-controlled senate.

- Ease the individual mandate. Few people like this section (and some abhor it) and it is also difficult to enforce. It cannot be eliminated wholesale - the economics requires that people pay for insurance even when they don't need it. But one can require that people, once they do sign up for insurance, commit to a multi-year plan.

- Isolate the subsidies and prepare to gradually reduce them. An immediate cancellation of subsidies would be unpopular (and also a shock to the economic system). Instead, arrange for a slow reduction of subsidies to individuals. The current law already has this; as people's income increase, their subsidies decrease.

These are all possible improvements to the law. They are within the reach of compromise.

Republicans won't take them, though. Their base has been educated ("trained"?) to demand nothing short of complete repeal, and that base is keeping the politicians "honest". Thus, conservatives do not wish for improvements, but instead want a complete victory -- by which they mean a defeat for the other guy. They would rather the genie kill their neighbor's cow.
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Star Trek TNG [Jun. 11th, 2014|11:37 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
I'm almost at the end of "Star Trek: The Next Generation". I am half-way through season 7, the final season.

ST:TNG can be divided into two groups: seasons 1 and 2, and seasons 3 through 7. All seasons have decent sets and special effects. The first two seasons have poor writing and acting. The second group (seasons 3 through 7) have better writing but they are limited in scope.

The later group of episodes all follow a set of rules, with the result that the episodes are constrained to a narrow band of storytelling. Every episode looks, sounds, and feels like every other episode. (Also, with the exception of a few episodes, one can re-sequence the episodes with no ill effects.)

I suppose that "Star Trek: The Original Series" could be considered just as formulaic. And the episodes can be just as replaceable (with a few exceptions).

Yet I must observe that ST:TOS was a bit bolder with the cinematography, and broader in its writing. The earlier series took more risks with camera angles, lighting effects, and lenses; ST:TNG is conventional and uses "safe" techniques. ST:TOS stories were written for a wide audience, with material that works for a range of ten to sixty. ST:TNG stories focus on a narrow demographic, perhaps 15 to 20 years of age. Some controversy, but nothing radical. Little in the way of social commentary -- or social commentary done with such finesse that I do not see it.

As I complete my journey through ST:TNG, I cannot help but think of it as a chore. Not as harsh as an ordeal, but by no means a joy. I am considering the other "Star Trek" versions, all of which are available on Netflix. Perhaps they will be different.
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Movie review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [May. 31st, 2014|10:42 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
Any review of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" must consider its predecessor "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory". So let's begin.

"Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", the 1971 musical with Gene Wilder was, in short, not that great of a movie. The special effects were obvious. The movie took significant liberties from the book. The first half of the movie (prior to the entry to the factory) was dreary, with the one exception of the song "The Candyman", a catchy tune that saw a bit of popularity. The movie have two great scenes ("Pure Imagination" and "I Want It Now!") and lots of mediocre scenes.

So the re-make (titled "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") had a very low bar to pass.

It accomplishes the amazing feat of failing.

Technically, the movie is superb. The special effects are smooth and pretty. The movie stays with the book -- although Burton adds a distracting side-story of Wonka's relationship with his father. And the glass elevator is propelled by rockets; any reader will recall that the glass elevator us upheld by a skyhook. (Where, exactly, the other end of the skyhook attaches is never explained.)

But "Charlie" is utterly devoid of charm. "Willy Wonka" was a light bit of fluff and one enjoys it (once past the first half). "Charlie" is a mere exposition in special effects. The acting is a shadow of the over-acting and camp in the earlier work.

Not only do the later versions of Charlie Bucket, Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Mike Teevee, and Veruca Salt stand shorter than the originals, the parents are blander. Johnny Depp gives Wonka a maniacal twist, at odds with Dahl's eccentric but harmless Wonka.

In the end, I think Tim Burton, while talented, is not up to the genius of Roald Dahl. Burton knows what frightens adults; Dahl knows not only what frightens children but also what enchants them. (Dahl also knows adults; refer to his short story "Taste".)

I rate this movie one can of spam out of a possible ten.
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Christianity and democracy [May. 26th, 2014|08:41 pm]
John Fitzpatrick
What follows is some random and ill-formed thoughts. I'm sure that others have researched this more than I. Please take it for what it is: a collection of ideas that may or may not be right.

Democracy is all about compromise.

The United States is a democracy, and therefore compromise is important. (Okay, technically we are a constitutional republic with democratic elections of officials, but compromise is just as important.)

The New Testament does not teach compromise. Perhaps the closest it comes is Jesus:
"Give to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and give to God that which belongs to God". But even that is far from compromise.

Evangelical Christians quote Paul. Paul was all about total and absolute faith. He had to be, given the time and situation. Evangelical Christians have absorbed this mindset. Their worldview is based on a black-and-white arrangement of good and evil.

They have no notion of compromise. There is no example in the Bible (at least not the parts that they read) and they have no role model. Talk to a hard Christian and they will tell you that they cannot compromise on their core beliefs.

The problem (as I see it) is that the "win all or lose all" mindset for faith can bleed over to other decisions. Unconsciously, hard Christians lose their ability to compromise on any issue. Everything becomes polarized.

Without the notion of compromise, without the idea of a middle ground, hard Christians view events through a filter. Things are either going for them or going against them. They either win in total or lose in total -- there is no third option, no way for them to be content a portion of their objective.

For matters of faith, this is certainly true. For mundane matters, I'm sure hard Christians can compromise. They can agree to disagree on small matters (perhaps the color of parking meters) but on matters of faith -- or anything connected to faith -- they can accept no compromise. School prayer is a matter of faith and they can accept no compromise. Abortion is connected with conception which is connected to the soul and therefore they can accept no compromise.

Any loss is considered a traumatic loss, and leads to claims of persecution (something that does exist in their worldview, with examples in the Bible and in history). Thus we can easily here about "The War on Religion", or "The War on Christmas".

It is interesting that they do not quote the later theologians: Aquinas, Augustine, ... anyone. It's as if they are locked in the first century. This is significant. It means that they are resistant -- possibly immune -- to any expansion or modification of their beliefs. They would most likely consider a modern-day theologian to be a heretic.

Hard Christians, being very social conservatives, can align themselves with the Republican party, which has courted them. They cannot ally with the Democrats -- Democrats have shown that they tolerate other faiths, that they tolerate other ideas and debate, and worst of all they accept compromise. The Republicans are the lesser of the two evils.

But their alliance must be an uncomfortable one. Republicans have compromised. (Fewer of late; consider the "I won't raise taxes even if we get a 10-to-1 reduction is spending" fiasco of the 2012 elections.) Republicans have failed to deliver on socially conservative legislation, promised during election campaigns.

Uncomfortable as it is, hard-core conservative Christians have no other place to go. They are stuck with the Republicans, and the Republicans are stuck with them. I'm pretty sure that the establishment Republicans want the hard-core conservatives on the bus, but not driving the bus.

The hard-core uncompromising Christians do not want a democracy. They want a Christian nation. They will allow democracy for mundane issues (the color of parking meters, and perhaps fuel efficiency standards for automobiles) but any issue related to faith must conform to their beliefs. They allow no debate, they accept no compromise.

I've talked about Christians in this post. Some may think that I have singled them out for treatment. (Perhaps they feel persecuted.) Let me say this: it is only the hard-core evangelical "our way or nothing" Christians that have this mindset. There are people in all faiths (Jewish, Catholic, Islam, etc.) who accept compromises. There are people in all faiths who reject compromises. I know too little about other faiths to comment on them. I have met and talked with a number of uncompromising Christians, and they are consistent in their mindset.

I'm not sure how we as a nation move forward. I'm pretty sure that we need to make trade-offs. I'm pretty sure that we need to listen to many voices. I'm pretty sure that we need to find common ground. I'm pretty sure that we need compromise.
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