Sunday, May 25, 2008

Lost in the Fifties Tonight

Contains spoilers. May contain traces of sarcasm and nuts.

From development hell, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas send you Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No complaints here action-wise.

A break-in at an Area 51 government warehouse, an escape by rocket sled, right into a nuke test detonation. MacGyver Jones has ten seconds to build a shelter. It takes more ingenuity and unlikely coincidences than duct tape, though.

From the chase, the movie cuts straight to the… chase. By motorcycle through what I gather is meant to be 1950s New Haven. From there, to a virtually endless off-road chase through the Hawaiian (uh, OK, Amazon) jungle.

Banter-wise, it runs from classics like "You brought a knife to a gunfight!" to original ideas like KGB agents chasing the heroes through a "better dead than red" rally. Whether or not you like them depends on your sense of humor. I enjoyed most of them, but I can see how some of them can come across as silly.

Truth be told, there's even some plot in between: the Roswell crash, Nazca Lines, El Dorado, and the eponymous crystal skulls, woven together workmanlike. Unfortunately, the El Dorado scenes suffer from a release date when memories of the Cibola scenes of National Treasure: Book of Secrets are still fresh. Crystal Skull doesn't manage to outdo Book of Secrets, so it comes across as a clone. That's of course the one thing that should never happen to a classic franchise like Indiana Jones or James Bond: being beaten by a relative newcomer.

In-jokes and self quoting is always fun in a series, but this one takes it to the saturation point and beyond. In fact, they mostly consist of Indy kicking goons out of their trucks, sometimes two at a time. As for the Ark of the Covenant visible in its broken crate in the warehouse — how good that only the crate broke, judging by what happened when it was opened in Raiders.

While the original three Indiana Jones movies paid homage to 1930s serials, this one is an homage to 1950s B-movies. After the Art Deco splendor of the 30s, fashion, interior design, and even automobile design apparently took a nosedive around WWII. Bel Air? Eldorado? Tailfins? Seems to be a complete list of 50s highlights.

Fortunately, I wasn't around to be in a position to tell, but I keep hearing it was indeed a time when badly dressed people threw out their antiques and heirlooms to furnish their homes with the latest plastic junk. Sounds like lousy times for an archeologist. If the movies succeeds at recreating the 50s faithfully, and I'm afraid it does, I can only say that the only good thing about the past is that it's over.

Worse, the movie recreates the 50s not only physically, but also spiritually. What else but the Bronze Age morals of the period could force Indy to marry his on-again, off-again girlfriend after twenty years? Why not go on living in sin?

Maybe it's only fitting that after James Bond, an inspiration for Indiana Jones, was emasculated by saddling him with that old feminazi bat, Indy himself settles down to become a family man. Turning Superman into The Incredibles. It's sad. But then, with the mysticism and supernatural deus ex machina solutions of the Indy universe, who could complain if Part IV ends in a church?

Maybe I should be lenient. The other three movies didn't have to live up to nineteen years of baggage. In fact, I doubt that any physically possible version of the movie could have. Even with twice the action and a perfectly polished plot, there's no way how a mere movie could compete with a legend.

You say some depth might have helped? Right, depth-wise, well, there ain't any.

Of course, Indiana Jones is meant to be nothing but an homage to popcorn movies. Yet things would be so much better if writers took the trouble to write on many levels, as Ayn Rand tried.

Nature abhors a vacuum, though. A work of art planned to have no meaning will acquire a meaning by default.

Every experiment proves something. If it doesn't prove what you wanted it to prove, it proves something else.

What you can take home from the Indiana Jones series is a study in metaphysical justice. If you do something thoughtless, it will have more unintended consequences than something well thought out.

Indy points out that the treasure in the crystal skull temple is not gold, but knowledge. Ergo he thinks that knowledge is good. Yet the Indiana Jones movies show over and over again that man can't have knowledge.

From having to keep his eyes wide shut at the opening of the Ark of the Covenant to its being confiscated by the government to the loss of the Sankara Stones to the "give it up" lesson his father teaches him re the Holy Grail to the finale of the latest installment, where alien knowledge seems to be so powerful that it disintegrates the seeker — the moral is: give up. You can win against the villains, but not against fate, the gods, or the malevolent universe.

Of course, it's a plot device. Another lazy writers' trick. If everything is reset to square one in the end, they won't have to worry about the implications of an Ark or a Grail on the loose in the next movie.

Yet going down this way, the whole series acquires a downer message. Nice try, Lao Che.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Levees without Levies

One excuse for the government's hammerlock on the economy is the fiction of so-called "common goods." Bureaucrats fearing for their sinecures will tell you that there are goods that due to their nature cannot fairly and efficiently be supplied by the free market.

Take flood protection as an example, and you'll see that those "common goods" aren't all that common after all. Given the recent performance of the Army Corps of Engineers, having flood protection supplied with the efficiency of the free market would be a welcome change, right? So how will so-called "common goods" be supplied in a fully free, purely capitalist country?

Let's look at the original "state of nature," which is the epitome of what its detractors call atomistic individualism: Everybody would build a levee around his own property.

Now, of course, there are savings possible through cooperation. Instead of building a levee on all four sides of each lot, one wall along the waterfront of each lot will suffice, for a savings of three quarters — if and only if all owners of waterfront property cooperate to some degree.

What if one of them refuses to cooperate? He may or may not have good reasons for his refusal. Maybe he wants the river mud as fertilizer on his fields, or he's an eco-terrorist who hates all levees on principle, or he's just a contrarian. Maybe he says he likes to have a periodic pool in his living room. But maybe he's in fact stingy and hopes the others will pay for his share of the levee, so they can complete it and realize their huge savings. If they do pay for him, he becomes what economists call a "free rider."

In fact, that kind of a holdout is not a problem. Instead of building the levee along the river, the levee cooperative can build it bending around his property, on the land side. He would still have his periodic flooding and not get free flood protection.

The levee cooperative would have to pay for the length of levee added by the detour deviating from the course of the river, but that extra expense is negligible given the huge savings. Plus, it will protect them from blackmailing by additional "free riders." To paraphrase the old saying, "Millions for defense, not a penny for blackmailers." In any event, avoiding that additional cost is no excuse for initiating the use of force and coercing all property owners to participate.

A problem requiring more creative solutions is the fact that once the levee has been completed all along the river or all around the island, those property owners not living on the waterfront get flood protection for free.

The simplest solution is to say that flood protection is the problem of owners of waterfront property, and the price they have to pay for their views and access to navigation and irrigation.

Yet they can make those "free riders" in the hinterland pay if they want to, without using force. All they have to do is to look at the law of causality.

Let's first look at the simplest case possible, all landowners in the hinterland refusing to join. Everything it takes to induce them to pay is a floodwall on the landside and some pipelines to deliver them the water that is due to them. Savings to the levee cooperative would still be fifty percent, from not building levees between their lots.

If some landlocked landlords decide to join up, that might grow into a complex network of levees, floodwalls, spillways, and pipelines. However, that would still be still cheaper than building a levee around each and every individual lot. And it would be cheaper than running an IRS in perpetuity to collect taxes.

What's more, once one or two such systems have been built and put in operation, would-be "free riders" across the country will see that levee builders are not bluffing but mean business. Consequently, the number of holdouts will drop with every additional project.

Note that flooding "free riders" is not an initiation of force. They only get delivered the water that is rightfully coming to them, as they did not pay for being protected from it. It's not actively pumped. It's not more water than would reach their property in the absence of a levee system. It's not stopped from flowing back out when the flood recedes.

Do I hear the collectivists howl? Could you howl again? Ah, you say it's cruel to flood a man and his family if there's a perfectly good levee between him and the river?

So I guess going for a man and his family with guns to force him to pay taxes is somehow not cruel? No way.

Rebuilding Right

"The Big Easy Rebuilds, Bottom Up"

Excellent article: New Orleans vs. New York, private planning versus government planning.

Still more infamous were its "green dots," markers on maps that seemed to suggest turning some low-lying areas where people already lived into parks. "There is a large green dot over our homes," one resident fumed at a crowded town-hall meeting in January 2006, according to New Orleans's Times-Picayune. "I will sit in my front door with my shotgun," promised another homeowner.

I like that guy.

Though Habitat has kept costs under $80 per square foot, even including what paid labor it uses, it has taken a no-nonsense approach to structural integrity. Walking through half-built Habitat houses, you think that they could already stand up to anything: deeply driven pillars support their elevated foundations, and their structural elements are reinforced with concrete and steel. Jim Pate, Habitat New Orleans's executive director, boasts that the 101 homes that the organization had completed before Katrina suffered no structural damage, even though some had to withstand walls of water.

As I said — steel and concrete. If you fear that the Big Bad Wolf of global warming will blow down your house, you build in steel and concrete. You don't take your life in fief from Comrade Al, hoping he'll be able to somehow keep the wolf from the door.

Word of the Day: Hillarious

hillarious (hi lar' ē əs), adj. ridiculous, especially due to making a fool out of oneself to get a job one is bodaciously unsuited for: Man, was that hillarious when that cougar ran for President. [Hillary Clinton + hilarious]

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Word of the Day: Pelousy

pelousy (pe lou' zē), adj., pelousier, pelousiest. wretchedly bad; miserable: So far the work of the 110th Congress has been pelousy. [1987; Nancy Pelosi + lousy]

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Why We Don't Get Along

As advocates of laissez-faire capitalism, avowedly committed to the supremacy of reason, it seemed as if the Randians would be valuable allies.

But the Randians did not understand the concept of "allies": in their universe, you either agreed with all of their positions, or else you were consigned to the Outer Darkness. (Curiously, on the level of macro-politics, the Randians were grossly opportunistic.)

— Justin Raimondo, Introduction to Mozart Was a Red.

Of course, given the mutual animosity between the Rand and Rothbard camps, Raimondo's words must be taken with a mine of salt. Yet it's not only an Objectivist problem: It's not only Peikoff vs. Kelley and Rand vs. Rothbard, but also Stalin vs. Trotsky and Republicans vs. Giuliani and McCain. The more you agree with somebody, the harder you fight over whatever disagreements remain between you.

If we know that we'll never agree on everything, why don't we accept that and get on with life?

I waste no thought on my neighbor's birth
Or the way he makes his prayer.
I grant him a white man's room on earth
If his game is only square.
While he plays it straight I'll call him mate;
If he cheats I drop him flat.

— Badger Clark, "The Westerner"

"But I love you!"

The problem is that we hold friends to higher standards. A friend is a person who shares our values. Quite naturally, we aim for the greatest possible harmony of values; ideally, we would wish for our friends to agree with us on everything.

A person who shares fifty percent of your values you can call mate, as long as he doesn't attack you, and ignore him otherwise.

A person who shares ninety percent of your values is an eternal temptation to doctor with, to make him or her "perfect" in your eyes. While he or she no doubt is doing the same thing with you.

But nobody likes having his or her values being doctored with, his or her epistemology second-guessed. Now demand that people act in accord with an integrated moral/philosophical system, and add that inconsistencies and errors are moral failures, and you've doomed yourself to solitude (or to lickspittle company).

Of course man needs an integrated philosophical system to describe reality, as all facts in the universe are interconnected. Yet, the problem is not so much somebody's integrated philosophical system, but his inability to tell an integrated philosophical system from epistemological perfection.

"Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe." — Albert Einstein

Man isn't perfect, neither in his epistemological capacity, nor in any other. Of course, man is able to recognize reality (otherwise mankind would have died out long ago). But even the best of us goof a few times out of a hundred.

So having an integrated philosophical system that represents reality fairly accurately does not mean being necessarily perfect. Even the steel frame of the best skyscraper may hold some flawed plate glass windows. Sometimes such a window will fail catastrophically, but still the quality of the windows does not necessarily reflect back on the system holding them up.

If you want real friends and not robots who ape your or your guru's every word, you have to accept the fact that different people will come to different conclusions, even applying the same philosophy. The best you can hope for is those nine times out of ten. In fact, you can be glad to have them.

Identify what would be a deal breaker and consign only those to the Outer Darkness that hold positions you consider immoral enough to be deal breakers. For the non deal breakers, keep discussions friendly and non-confrontational and be prepared to agree to disagree.

But it's not only disagreements over the proper way to crack an egg that get in the way of human understanding. Sometimes it's the unequal distribution of power that calls for a lightning rod.

"At least I shall have the pleasure to rid myself of your presence, Mr. Bond."

You know the final showdown is nigh if the designated villain speaks thus to the designated hero. Surrounded by jackbooted government thugs, the designated villain knows he's gonna lose — but at least he'll serve his revenge to the one person within range.

This movie cliché is very true — most of us tend to take our anger out on those who are close to us if we can't get at those who really deserve to get zapped. So maybe Leonard Peikoff cannot administer a good (tongue) lashing to George the Unready because a couple thousand jackbooted Secret Service thugs would have a problem with that. However, what he can do instead is repudiate the fall guy of the week who had the temerity to hint at the fallibility of St. Ayn.

That's the secret behind how you can be grossly opportunistic on the level of macro-politics (endorsing John the Ketchup) while repudiating anybody who so much as looks askance at you. It's the good old pointy-haired Prussian-Nietzschean realpolitik: toady to those who have power over you; get even by tormenting your underlings.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Word of the Day: Bushwhacker

bushwhacker (bŏŏsh' hwak' ər, -wak' ər), n. an agent of the US government; a fed: They even called in the bushwhackers, but deplorably they only managed to shoot some Mooninites. [2001; George W. Bush + whacker]