The observations and opinions of a person who has no discernible insights or ideas.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Lessons learned from my trip: 

25 minutes isn’t enough time for your luggage to make your connecting flight, even if it is enough time for you to make it.

If I don’t eat breakfast or lunch, I am more prone to motion sickness, even on a plane, and especially when reading.

A bottle of water in the trunk of a car can still get pretty hot.

Food service people can very easily misspell my name. For example, if I spell it out over the phone, they can still manage to cut to something with half as many letters, and only half of those are actually letters in my name.

Florida is insanely hot in June, or else I’ve got a fever.

Make summertime reservations to vacation areas as far in advance as possible. People are sometimes crazy enough to go to places that are way too hot.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

"These are the Days we remember" 

I’m in Florida on business this week. I didn’t pick my hotel for this trip. The convoluted laws and regulations that I face on a regular basis decree that, under some circumstances, I have to make my reservations through another organization. During my last trip, I did this and got the same hotel I’ve stayed at every other time I’ve come here, but this time, almost everything was full, and I’m not in what I would have picked if I had a choice. The room isn’t all bad. For example:

Good: Free high-speed wireless internet. Bad: The signal comes and goes, varying from 80% sometimes, to no signal at all most of the time.

Good: A phone in the room. Bad: There are two different room numbers on the phone, and neither one is my actual room number.

Good: A microfridge. Bad: Chipped porcelain fixtures

Good: Basic cable, including HBO for nearly 80 channels. Bad: Half of the channels are nearly unwatchable due to static.

I sometimes almost like this place. Maybe if my room were closer to the front desk, I’d be okay with it.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Coincidence? I don't think so... 

I don’t believe in astrology, fortune telling, or anything of that sort. That said…

We had Chinese for dinner tonight, and I picked out a fortune cookie with the message “You will travel far and wide, both pleasure and business.” Monday, I’m taking off to travel on business, and I have two or three personal trips planned over the summer, with the possibility of more business trips. How apropos.

Friday, June 17, 2005

The final Exam 

The following is the body of an email forwarded to me. A few people had added comments when they had forwarded it, which I deleted, along with the name of the original sender (who probably was just the last person who took any effort to clean up the excess tags). I also added one quotation mark and fixed a number of spacing errors. The same content can be found with little variation on a variety of websites.

Do you think that education has made great progress? Would you pass? Remember when grandparents and great-grandparents stated that they only had an 8th grade education? Well, check this out. Could any of us have passed the 8th grade in 1895? (LOOK CLOSELY... THAT'S EIGHTEEN NINETY FIVE!!!) This is the eighth-grade final exam from 1895 in Salina, Kansas, USA. It was taken from the original document on file at the Smokey Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, KS, and reprinted by the Salina Journal.
Subject: Actual 8th Grade Graduation Test from 1895

8th Grade Final Exam: Salina, KS -1895

Grammar (Time, one hour)
1. Give nine rules for the use of capital letters. 2. Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications. 3. Define verse, stanza and paragraph. 4. What are the principal parts of a verb? Give principal parts of "lie,” "play" and "run." 5. Define case; Illustrate each case. 6. What is punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of punctuation. 7 - 10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.
Arithmetic (Time, 1.25 hours)
1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic. 2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold? 3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50cts/bushel, deducting 1050 lbs. for tare? 4. District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals? 5. Find the cost of 6720 lbs. coal at $6.00 per ton. 6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent. 7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $20 per metre? 8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent. 9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods? 10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.
U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)
1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided. 2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus. 3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War. 4. Show the territorial growth of the United States. 5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas. 6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion. 7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn and Howe? 8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.
Orthography (Time, one hour)
1. What is meant by the following: Alphabet, phonetic, orthography, etymology, syllabication? 2. What are elementary sounds? How are they classified? 3. What are the following, and give examples of each: Trigraph, subvocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals. 4. Give four substitutes for caret 'u.' 5. Give two rules for spelling words with final 'e.' Name two exceptions under each rule. 6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each. 7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: bi, dis, mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono, sup. 8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last. 9. Use the following correctly in sentences: cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays. 10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.
Geography (Time, one hour) 1. What is climate? Upon what does climate depend? 2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas? 3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean? 4. Describe the mountains of North America. 5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba, Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco. 6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S. 7. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each. 8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude? 9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers. 10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give the inclination of the earth.
Notice that the exam took SIX HOURS to complete. This gives the saying "he only had an 8th grade education" a whole new meaning, doesn't it????

As a well-educated individual of the last half century, I have something to say about the relevance of comparing this test to a modern education.

I would like to point out that I wish I had learned enough as a student to do most of these problems. Some few of them are truly obsolete, but most of the problems merely relate to learning that we don’t often do these days. I will consider each section of the test in turn.

Grammar (Time, one hour)

This section is brimming with pedagogical rote learning. It’s one thing to capitalize correctly, and it’s another thing to be able to give nine rules (several of which are likely quite similar to each other) for capitalization. Questions 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 all are quite specifically of this type. Question 3 is a semantic question, which almost certainly was covered while the children were learning about poetry. Question 5 seems to be incorrectly transcribed. Why is the word “each” used when there is no other indication that there might be more than one case (upper/lower case? The Case of the Missing Bologna?). The question is just so vague and awkward as written. Problem 7(-10) looks to be a pretty good type of question for determining a student’s mastery of grammar, although the text being written would almost certainly be self-selected, making it easier for a student to fake. The emphasis with the whole section seems to be specific knowledge of the detailed minutiae of grammar.

Arithmetic (Time, 1.25 hours)

While this section also touches on the pedantic type of learning found in the grammar section, it only does so for one question. I don’t think that the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic are still taught as such, although I’m certain that they are taught in some form. The rest of the questions relate to examples of everyday problems that students are likely to encounter. Most of these are not really difficult, except that they require students to know conversions between units that modern students rarely have to deal with (cubic feet to bushels, lbs of wheat to bushels, board feet to metre (possibly misspelled here), and square rods to acre). Problem 8 deserves special mention because it is not complete as written. Interest cannot be calculated unless you can know how often it is compounded, unless it is simple interest, and even then, the length of time isn’t clear (8 consecutive months can range between 242 days and 245 days in length, depending on when it starts). The form filling section is not only not arithmetic, but it is also outdated since we typically don’t write many promissory notes these days (receipts and bank checks are quite common still, especially the latter).

This entire section is quite different from the rest of the test in that it focuses entirely on practical use of arithmetic (or some vaguely related field like banking), while the rest of the test is quite abstract, focusing not on usage but rather on memorization of rules (or dates and places in two sections). I believe that this reflects a long held belief that mathematics are only useful when they can be immediately applied to real-world problems, while the subtle nuances of grammar are so inherently valuable that they should be learned on some higher level, distanced from the language to which they apply. While I know that grammar is important, I don’t believe that it is more important, even for people who will never formally work with numbers, than mathematics. To say that a journalist doesn’t need to be comfortable with mathematics is like saying that an engineer has no need for familiarity with writing. Neither could do their job well without being well educated with both letters and numbers.

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)

This is a section on which most well-educated people could do reasonably well. Sure, we don’t know what specific epochs the authors of the test have divided U.S. history into, but many people could give some reasonable answer for most of the other questions (the Kansas question may have to be changed to match the test taker’s home state). One major issue with this section is that it would certainly take far more than 45 minutes to answer adequately. The grammar section, which can be answered almost entirely in short words or sentences, had a while answer, while this section which requires about 20 answers varying in length from a few sentences to entire essays (what if I could write 20 pages on the history of Kansas?). The version of the test that I received stated that the whole test took 6 hours, while the times for the individual sections only added to 5 hours. Either they had 15 minute breaks between sections, the person who compiled this test really is an idiot product of a fundamentally flawed 20th century education, or this section should have taken 105 minutes rather than 45. Other versions of the test that I have found seem to agree with the 45 minute limit. Apparently they didn't want students to answer the questions in any sort of detail.

Orthography (Time, one hour)

While I feel that this section is even more pedagogical than the grammar section, I feel more comfortable with it. Parts of this section refer to ideas (the listing of elementary sounds, and diacritical markings) that are either specific to the curriculum or fairly outdated, or both. Most students don’t learn any sort of diacritical markings these days (at least not well enough to convert words to them), and even if they did, there are many standard ways of spelling words out phonetically. Actually, I wish that more students these days could tell the difference between various homophones and near-homophones (moot and mute, for example).

Geography (Time, one hour)

As a former geography junkie, I feel quite comfortable with this section, and yet it occasionally stumps me. Problems 1, 3, 4, 6, and 10 seem a little too vague to me. Answering them could take years of research and a lengthy series of technical papers, or at least there could be a wide variety of answers that would meet requirements of the problem as stated. I’m also unclear as to why they ask for students to “name” all the places named in question 5. Monrovia’s name is Monrovia. It is the capital of Liberia. I don’t know where Hecla, Juan Fernandez, or Aspinwall are, but the others are (in order), the capital of Liberia, the capital of Ukraine, the capital of Colorado, a Canadian province (capital is Winnipeg), a Canadian territory, a Mediterranean island (I believe where Napoleon was eventually banished), and a South American river. Also, nobody cares as much about the sources of rivers anymore. I think it’s a little arbitrary anyway (since how do you know which branch of a river to follow when seeking its source?)

Most of these problems can be classified as one of three types. The first kind are problems that reflect some exhaustive rote training. Almost all of the grammar and orthography questions are of this nature, and would likely be quite easy for a student educated in their system. The second kind are problems that require some specific knowledge that has fallen out of common use. The arithmetic problems mostly require knowledge of some conversion factor (cubic feet to bushels, rods to acres, pounds to tons, ect.), and one requires knowledge of how to fill out forms that are not commonly used anymore. A third kind of problem relies on some specific information that would have been taught in their classes.

I doubt that this is a faithful translation of the original test. For one thing, there is no way that any student in any age can address the U.S. history section in 45 minutes. Judging from the comment about the test taking 6 hours and the fact that the posted times add up to 5 hours (an error which takes away from my confidence in modern learning), it seems that the U.S. history section should be 1:45 long. Also, the arithmetic section time limit is 1.25 hours, and the U.S. history is listed as 45 minutes, which is an inconsistent use of units. The interest problem in the arithmetic section fails to specify how often the interest is compounded (which can dramatically change the solution). Several of the other problems don’t really look like they are complete, as they don’t make any sense as written (for example, problem 5 under grammar). TruthorFiction.com also doesn't feel sure that it is entirely legitimate, but they question the purpose of the test, suggesting that it was for older students or teacher applicants, which would certainly make sense.

I find it interesting that the arithmetic section reflects an attempt to apply learning to useful everyday sorts of situations, while the other sections, especially grammar and orthography, were extremely pedagogical with little hint of how the information might ever be useful to a layman. Apparently even then people felt that math was only useful as a tool, while the esoteric nuances of language were of great inherent value.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The relative dangers of driving 

I just read an article that discusses yet another study showing that cell phone use while driving leads to accidents. This one actually gives some breakdown between accidents that occur while dialing and ones that occur while talking (although it doesn’t give numbers for both), and it provides numbers for accidents from other distractions.

The study has a number of problems, although it looks like it is better than most. This study videotaped 100 cars and their drivers for a year, and the results are compiled from examining the video. As such, they can analyze “events” that would normally not make it into police reports or other sources of data collection.

There are a number of issues to be had with the study. They found that “wireless devices” (presumably cell phones) were involved in 644 events, including 6 crashes. During most of these, including all 6 crashes, the driver was talking on the phone, rather than dialing, indicating that talking on the phone is more dangerous than dialing. Except that it doesn’t indicate that. We would need to consider how many events occurred relative to the amount of time a phone was in use. It is likely that less than 5% of the time a person spends on the phone is spent dialing (especially with speed dial), so if only 6 crashes occurred and they happened randomly and unrelated to cell phone use, it is quite reasonable that none of the 6 crashes occurred while dialing.

Similarly, what percentages of the crashes or other events occurred while using a cell phone, and how does that compare with the percentage of time people are on the phone? Merely having accidents occur while someone is on the phone does not mean that the accidents are phone related.

The study found that passenger distractions (noisy kids, conversations, etc.) were the second most common factor in events. This too must be considered relative to how much time passengers are interacting with drivers. I talk on the phone about 10 minutes a day while driving on average, but I only spend about 30-60 minutes a week talking to another person in the car with me, so it is reasonable to expect half again more events to occur while I was on the phone than while I was talking to a passenger.

My point is that people will look at this raw data and come to the incorrect conclusion that it is far more dangerous to talk on the phone than to dial a number or talk to a passenger in person, when the study might not give real evidence to that effect at all. If all events and accidents had occurred randomly (which is likely the case, since they typically involve interactions with other drivers who are not influenced by what is happening in your car), then the results mentioned in the article could very likely have been obtained in spite of no actual correlation (much less causation) between cell phone use and “events” or accidents. In any case, it is unlikely that talking on the phone while driving is any more dangerous than having a restless kid in the car with you.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005


I checked here this morning and found that the comment fairy had been by, and with a vengeance. Most of my recent posts had comments to them. Most of the comments were made Saturday afternoon from a Simpson’s fan who I had assumed to be an acquaintance of mine, but who might just be some other acquaintance of mine instead, or else a stranger (I asked the suspected poster, and he denied involvement). The comments are reasonable, although I disagree with them on some level. This is to be expected, since the commenter disagreed with me enough to comment. The sometimes insightful comments do provoke some thoughts, a few of which I have written down, and others of which I may do so later. I probably will not address the individual’s hatred for pretty celebrities. It’s an understandable conceit, even if in the particular case here I don’t share it (Jennifer Lopez is another matter though).

I also found another comment that I’m fairly certain was from somewhere else because, unlike the stuff written by the former individual, this comment 1) was much shorter, 2) made no useful or meaningful point, 3) WAS WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPS, 4) was dated 5 days earlier, and 5) used a rather colorful vulgarity. This inciteful comment also has got me thinking. What was their point? Why do they bother to read what I write (since this is probably the writing of a stranger)? Why all this unsolicited animosity? How can a person write in all caps and then sign without any capitalization whatsoever? Their comment was about a rather mundane account of an adverse drug reaction, and one could even guess from the title of the post that I had been fired over it (not the case). I would think that such an entry would elicit pity rather than contempt. So, to my devoted fan, I say to you, “Belgium off.”

Heroism Revisited 

A comment was made to a recent post of mine about heroes. The commenter's point was that behavior that could be reasonably expected of a person isn’t really heroic. Heroism requires some greater action, beyond what any decent person would do in the same situation.

I think that the distinction between our views is somewhat semantic. I had assumed that heroism was more inclusive, while my reader chose a more exclusive definition. Both views have validity. I would think that actions that put one’s self at significant personal risk in order to help another person are heroic. This would include the woman who puts herself in front of a bullet to save a stranger, and it would also include firemen and soldiers who (through whatever motivation and after whatever training) choose a line of work where they will be exposed to possibly life-threatening danger.

The passengers who thwarted the hijackers on United flight 93 would be heroic by these standards. While, unlike the passengers on the other three planes hijacked that day, they knew that inaction would lead to their deaths, their actions still went beyond what many might have done in their shoes, and at personal physical cost. I think that their actions were heroic, even if they don’t fit so clearly under my new definition, or at all under the commented definition of heroism.

The comment about superheroes was especially interesting. Superheroes do represent a new Pantheon of demigods. I’m not sure that any of them can replace the omnipotent/omniscient/omnipresent Christian God, but they certainly are on par with Hercules, Perseus, and their ilk, as well as many of the lesser gods of mythology. I’m not sure if the declining character of superheroes reflects the decline in divine belief among people and the rise in a more humanistic individual spirituality. I do know that I enjoy the more tragic heroes that we have today.

Friday, June 10, 2005

A Few Thoughts on Socialism 

Socialism is all the rage these days. It’s come a long way from the bloody days of socialist revolts, and become the kinder, gentler way to coddle a populace.

I’m an opponent of socialism. I don’t think that it works. The inherent flaw of socialism is that it takes motivation away from its beneficiaries. Anywhere that you see socialism in action, you can see it sapping away at the wills of the people it is supposed to help.

The essential goal of socialism is to provide some minimum standard of living for all people under it. This is typically carried out through some sort of monetary compensation for people who are unable to attain that level, although it often includes various “benefits package” kinds of programs, such as health care.

Consider the effect of socialism on a single individual. Let as assume that the socialist program provides that all people will have an income of at least $15,000 per year. If our individual can only earn $12,000 in a year, then he could go work and then also collect $3,000 in supplemental income from the government, but by doing so, he gets the same compensation as someone who does nothing. Since the marginal return for his work is $0, he chooses to stop working and enjoy the extra time. The $12,000 that he would have earned now becomes an extra burden on the system.

Under the same system, another individual is capable of earning $18,000 in a year. After 10 months of work, she has earned $15,000, and during those last two months, she makes the remaining $3,000 of her total income. Then, she stops to think about it and realizes that she is working full time to increase her income by only $3,000 per year. She considers the increase too small to justify the work, and decides to quit her job and live on the $15,000.

In both cases, the people have insufficient economic incentive to work. While other factors, such as pride or a sense of responsibility, might encourage people like these to work, they are not driven to make a contribution to society. It then falls on the strained backs of others to carry the additional burden of supporting these.

Even under socialism, some individuals are encouraged to excel. A person who can earn $50,000 a year under our hypothetical system still gets $35,000 marginal return on his efforts, and can reasonably hope to improve that amount by working hard to get ahead. Even if a large portion of this income goes to support social programs, there is still marginal gain for additional effort, and so there is economic incentive to try to improve.

Note that I do not assume that all people are created equal. Some people are inherently better able to make a living than others. When I suggest that working harder can improve one’s financial situation, that doesn’t imply that the $12,000 person is lazier than the $50,000 person. While the former individual can most likely make some improvement through better work, it is unlikely that he will reach the same incomes of the latter person.

From a marginal return perspective, socialism is flawed, but yet it is rapidly becoming the de facto social policy in the western world. I believe that this is driven by another factor. Policy makers benefit from creating socialist programs. They earn the support of the beneficiaries, who still have voting power, and who have some rather vocal lobbying groups behind them. The power of the lobbying groups come from the second policymaker motivation, which is tenderheartedness. It sounds kinder to be giving help to the downtrodden, and failure to do so is easily portrayed as cruelty and heartlessness.

This perception is not entirely wrong. The problem is that socialism does not help its intended beneficiaries. It would be like feeling good for giving a kid candy, only to have the child silently choke on it as soon as you walked away. There has to be a better way to help people without giving a handout or significantly degrading the system for others. This has proven to be nearly impossible. The best programs either would require excessive (and expensive) management and oversight, or would be prone to abuse (or both). This is why church charity programs have been so relatively successful. They tend to not give out money (indeed, they rarely have much to give), but rather provide other forms of aid, often all carried out by dedicated volunteers who are rarely truly compensated for their work.

A good system would provide limited financial support, and only for relatively short periods of time. It would focus on training, both vocational and personal (such as how to manage finances). It would try to limit the scope of exceptions, to avoid the kind of policy creep that can occur as individual exceptions are made and then expanded to broader groups. In this digital age, it should make use of computer database tracking to help reduce the need for intense human oversight, while still keeping some personal interaction and human involvement to help detect fraud and other problems. Time and dollar restrictions should be in place and followed in order to limit participation and encourage people to work to graduation from the system. There should not be too many quotas, and the ones used should be limited to areas that are difficult to improve without following the system properly.

I don’t know if a system that meets those criteria can even exist. I only believe that the current system is broken, both in this country, and to a far greater degree in other places where socialism has already taken a much greater hold (read: Europe).

I have lived in a socialist land, and I can assure you that the people were not better for it. I saw people working for just enough weeks each year to collect unemployment benefits (which were better than welfare) and then promptly quitting, handing the job off to someone else to do the same. I saw people go to the emergency room for a checkup, because it was easier than trying to make an appointment with a particular doctor. I actually went to an emergency room after being in a car accident, and having to wait for long periods of time (often an hour or more) between the brief moments when the doctor would poke his head in. The fact that their health care is provided free to their citizens does not make it better than ours. Rather, they have waiting lists for anything scheduled (which is why it’s quicker to go to the emergency room for a checkup, even if you have to wait for hundreds of other people and even some actual emergencies), and the quality of your care, once you get it, isn’t any better than here. However, they continue to support their national health care system because they see it as the egalitarian thing to do.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

What makes a hero? 

People have been asking this for some time, and I don’t really want to retread all of their work. I ask this because I was talking to a coworker and discovered that he doesn’t like the superhero movies that have come out in the last decade or so, from Batman to Spiderman. He makes a few exceptions, but that was for more classic superheros, like Pixar’s The Incredibles.

His point was that superheroes used to be exceptional. In addition to their super powers, they would be flawless representations of Truth, Justice, and The American Way. Today’s heroes are much darker. They are played by relatively weak and flawed individuals who are struggling with personal demons and not always winning. While I appreciate the qualities of a flawless hero, I believe that the darker heroes of modern lore can be just as inspiring.

Consider a few examples. Batman used to be a (sometimes silly) fun, goofy, boy scout. What wasn’t in that utility belt? Now, he’s a Dark Knight, haunted by his troubled past and trying each night to atone for a multitude of sins, not all his own. As a wealthy man, he has the means to carry out his own personal war, and we are inspired by the way he selflessly puts himself in danger to protect a city that gives little in return. We can believe that, had we the means, we would do the same.

Spider Man, in the recent films, is a good kid trying to use his unwanted gift to make a difference. Driven often by guilt, he manages to improve the lives of many, but he is always held back by the multitude of challenges in his own life. Amid his nearly crushing poverty and otherwise crumbling personal life, Peter Parker is a hero that we all can identify with. Aside from having a series of powerful enemies, we all face challenges like Spider Man’s. With his great power, he reminds us all of the great responsibility that we have to all of humanity.

Superman was a perfect Man of Steel. He was incorruptible (except by tainted Kryptonite). He saved kittens and airplanes, all in a day’s work. Today, you can watch a young Clark Kent struggle with his newfound powers, often becoming more evil than young Lex Luthor.

One challenge with modern heroes is moral ambiguity. When they were perfect, you could count on them to be good, and the villains to be evil. Modern heroes all have a potential for evil, even if it is inadvertently so, while their enemies have some good in them. Sometimes they even are capable of acts that in some small way help to atone for their other misdeeds. In some cases, their actions seem entirely justified from some reasonable point of view, and their conflict arises less from the inherent morality of their situation, and more from the specific conflict between two parties.

In a way, I do agree with my coworker. A good hero stands for something. While modern heroes may no longer be paragons of virtue, they should still make significant progress towards overcoming their failings and becoming their best selves. It is that conquering of one’s weaknesses that makes many heroes. I watch Superman, and I see a Greek statue, but I watch Spider Man, and I see a guy like me who chooses to make a difference, and it inspires me to be better than I have been.

Since September 11, 2001, we have been quicker to identify with regular people who engage in extraordinary, heroic acts. Few people would wish to enter a burning building, only to have it collapse on them, or to force their own plane to the ground to prevent a greater catastrophe. How many of us would have acted as bravely if we had been there? I believe that, faced with extraordinary circumstances, that many, many people would stand up and fight for a greater good. While recent events have stirred this resolve in many, it was likely already in place to some degree among most people.

That is why we love to watch heroes. In them, we see a little of the nobility that we may carry deep inside, or that we hope we could show if called upon to do so. That these icons are not perfect, we are allowed to get a little closer to them and to their struggles, which we ourselves would likely feel, were we in their shoes.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Movie Review: Ocean's 12 

Saturday, I finally saw Ocean’s 12, which feel through the cracks as far as theater viewing, like just about everything else has since I graduated and moved away from Logan (regular movie attendance was one of the advantages of living near the Cinefour).

I liked the movie. While it wasn’t nearly as good as the first, it is a decent sequel, and even manages to make a few improvements over its predecessor. Julia Roberts, for example, had a few moments when she seemed to be enjoying herself, which wasn’t the case in the former film, where everyone else (even Andy Garcia) was having a ball. By contrast, the rest of the cast wasn’t having quite as much fun.

The fact that the cast was so big was a problem. The first movie barely kept us on top of 13 key players (11 thieves, Tess, and Benedict), and this one, by adding two more major characters, just couldn’t keep it up. Bernie Mac’s character was reduced to a one line joke about vanity (based on what could have been a random monologue he gave in the first film) brought out a few times during the movie, but never with any purpose. Carl Reiner’s character missed most of the action (although he was quite enjoyable during his relatively few moments on screen), and of the rest of the thieves, only about 4 had any significant presence on screen. The rest were just set pieces to be moved around periodically, and placed in the backgrounds of a few scenes so we remember that they’re there.

The film introduced two significant new characters. One is a cop, played by Catherine Zeta Jones. While I typically enjoy her performances (especially when you can contrast them with Renée Zellweger’s), this one was a bit flat. Actually, it was fine, but it doesn’t stick out as one of the best parts of the film. Her interaction with Rusty (Brad Pitt) provides some fun moments, but those are mostly because of Pitt. The other new character, a rich demi-aristocrat played by Vincent Cassell, was quite a bit of fun. He is the kind of guy you love to loathe, and at the same time, he is quite a contrast to the principle gang of thieves. His character has, in my estimation, the best scene in the film, which plays as part of Julia Roberts’s best scene of both films (note: she doesn’t really do anything, which may be why it went so well for her).

With all its failings, the film is saved by George Clooney and Brad Pitt. It was those two actors who set the tone of lighthearted fun that has been the soul of the franchise. While they don’t get as many moments as they had the first time around, they just lighten everything up when they step on screen, and their off screen antics certainly helped keep the mood during production. Add to that Matt Damon’s generally enjoyable performance (especially once things get moving), and you’ve got a winning film. It may not be better than its prequel, but at least it was enjoyable in its own right.

Chocolate and Crackpots 

Thursday, on my way home from work, I passed by the Mrs. Cavanaugh’s Chocolate store on 5th South in Bountiful. To my surprise, the marquee read, “Oppose the New World Order World Government. Help get America out of the United Nations.” The west facing side offered the less clear, “Save our independence. Expose CAFTA and FTAA. Call your congressmen.”

The UN thing is standard John Birch paranoia. I commend this sign for correctly identifying America (presumably the USA) as a member of the UN, unlike LaVerkin, the southern Utah town that tried to remove itself from the UN, in spite of not belonging to it (except as a part of the US) in the first place. The CAFTA/FTAA thing isn’t as clear. CAFTA is a free trade treaty with several nations in Central America that, according to some sources, is being secretly pushed by the Bush administration. It is a part of a broader concept of free trade throughout the western hemisphere, which is embodied in the FTAA concept. Free trade is a difficult subject, and it is difficult to classify as inherently good or inherently bad. If I get around to it, maybe I’ll look into this further.

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