Don't Ask/Don't DREAM

I'm rather saddened about the recent Republican filibuster of the Defense Authorization Act (or whatever the military appropriation is called).

While I'd be happy to not have the money approved, forcing our troops to come home post-haste (I think the best way to support our troops is to remove them from harm's way, at least when the benefits to the country of leaving them in harm's way are, at best, unclear), it had the (fully intended) side effect of blocking the DREAM Act and leaving in place the existing Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy governing gays in the military. (It also had other effects, although I'm not interested in going into those at the moment.)

I'm a bit of a radical when it comes to immigration policy; I keep remembering "Give us your tired/your poor, your huddled masses", and that my forebears didn't need to be bothered with immigration policies that would have made their entrance to the country illegal, and that it is therefore wrong to set immigration limits as is currently done. It's too much of, "I'm here where things are great, so no one else is allowed to follow me", without any recognition that that encouragement of others to come in is a lot of what makes the country so great. So I think the DREAM Act is a great step in the right direction, especially as it specifically keeps kids whose parents immigrated under the table from being hurt by what their parents did.

As a side note, I just heard the term "anchor baby" for the first time a month or so ago, and as a parent, I find that term incredibly offensive. Actually, I find the whole concept incredibly offensive; there is just no way in hell that anyone is having kids for such a stupid reason.

Getting back to the point, I'm also looking forward to DADT being repealed, and am disappointed it didn't happen this time. The thing that keeps me from being more upset, though, is the knowledge that even if it doesn't happen today, or this year, it will happen, and soon. If it doesn't happen within five years, I'll be shocked. I guarantee that it will happen within ten. The younger people just don't believe in that kind of discrimination.

I know, that's cold comfort for those gays currently bravely serving in the military; I wish I had more immediate encouragement. I guess all I can say is, "Keep up the fight, because you WILL win."

And since I'm on the topic, that goes even more so for gay marriage. The approval rate on that for youngsters (I forget whether it was for those under twenty, or under twenty-five) was over 80%. The current problems are just a failing rear-guard action.

All-Time Whiners

There seems to be an amazing amount of whining among the very wealthy lately, about the prospect of a 3.6% marginal increase in top-end tax rate.

First there was the University of Chicago law professor (linked to a response, because the original has been taken down) who, on income of upward of $300k (six times the national median income), said, "After all, we can afford it, and the world we are now living in has that familiar Marxian tone of those who need take and those who can afford it pay. The problem is, we can’t afford it."

Ignoring that "those who need" are not the ones in any position to "take", the fact that he is investing some of his income is undeniable proof that, in fact, he can afford it.

Next, there's the incorrigible Ben Stein acting put upon because of those tax increases. Ignoring Paul Krugman's takedown of the inheritance claim in there, the simple answer to Ben Stein's question is that the economic policies he supported (Stein's ties to the Republican party go back to at least the Nixon administration, for whom he was a speechwriter) put too much stress on the government's cash flow in the form of debt, and that stress needs to be relieved.

If he wants to consult history on how onerous that tiny tax increase is, he might want to refer to the Eisenhower era, where the top marginal tax rate was 90%.


Wizard of Blades

I recently finished reading Lynn Kurland's Nine Kingdoms (or at least the three books centered around Morgan and Miach) books.

I guess I wasn't too thrilled with the whole body of it. The first book was pretty good; I did like the story of the journey north to Neroche. That is to say, the characters, and their interactions, were pretty entertaining. But I can't help but find several problems with the whole thing.

If she's the best swordswoman around (and, to be clear, better than any swordsmen), how does she not have a nice, steady (and very well-paying!) position as a bodyguard for some paranoid ruler. Plus, I'm forced to ask why is she so much better than anyone else?

That might seem like an extraneous question, but a woman is under such large disadvantages when it comes to any form of hand-to-hand combat that some explanation is needed for it to be believable. Being partially elvish? Maybe, but we're never given any reason to think that might help her. Being especially tall? It would help, but there's never any indication that she is. Being especially quick? That would definitely help, but we're never given any reason to think that she is. Being exceptionally strong? Again, no reason to think so. Extraordinarily coordinated? Again, no evidence. Especially dedicated? Well, we do see that, and that'll certainly help her beat people who are close to her natural talents, but will be of limited benefit against those who are more talented. The exception to that, of course, would be if she's willing to sacrifice her body, but since she isn't covered with scars, we can safely throw out that possibility.

Another (unimportant to the main plot, but still detracts from believability) issue is her absolutely supernatural endurance. Being able fight for an entire day with trained fighters (as she did at Hearn's stronghold) is just not remotely feasible. Forget, for a moment, the physical exertion (which is extreme, by any measure); just the mental concentration needed to face live blades (any time there was a mention of blades, even in practice, they were using real steel, although it's true there was no particular mention here) for that length of time is absolutely mind-boggling. Think about it; that's eight or ten hours where you can't afford the smallest slip-up.

Let me put it a different way; this is analogous to a football offensive lineman who is going to be injured (possibly even killed) if he screws up his blocking a single time. And instead of playing for about eight minutes (yes, that's about how much time they spend blocking over the course of a single game; in fact, that's probably slightly high), he's got to play for that many hours. Without the frequent breaks where, for instance, the defense is on the field. And he's blocking a different person every (couple of?) play(s). Even if he's a top NFL blocker playing college guys (hell, even playing high school kids), that's an awfully tall order.

Another couple of minor points from about the same part of the book. There is no such thing as a "best horse in the world", as Hearn's are portrayed. There is only best for a certain task. A thoroughbred might be the fastest horse around, but you don't want one to pull a plough, carry a heavily armed warrior, or run for much more than a mile. There's a reason the Budweiser cart is pulled by Clydesdales.

And someone who isn't trained sure as hell isn't going to be able to tell what is the best horse of a herd. They'll be able to tell with is most symmetric (maybe), and which has the glossiest coat. But they won't be able to tell anything about age, about most diseases (I'm pretty sure), and certainly not about how muscle definition of a particular horse makes it especially (un)suited for a specific task.

There's also the minor detail of how much pain someone who's never ridden a horse before is going to be in after riding all day for days on end.

Ok, I think I've beaten the Hearn section into the ground.

Moving on, we also never find out why she was able to use either of the powerful swords. She was destined for the Sword of Angesand, I suppose, but we never get a real explanation of why it would be her. Miach feels it must be, but that's hardly a reason. That isn't so bad, I think (I didn't second-guess that one until looking back from the end), but there isn't even the slightest attempt at an explanation as to why she could use the Sword of Neroche. And that one is a big deal, not only because it was a driver for a huge chunk of the story (it was the plot device that got her to meet Miach, most importantly), but also because it apparently meant that she needed to be crowned next monarch of Neroche immediately. At least, that's what happened when Miach used it in the third book.

As I implied earlier, though, a great deal was lost between the first and second books. The most obvious part was losing all the side characters who played off Miach and Morgan. Adhemar never reappeared, while Morgan's mercenary companions disappeared until the third book (and never did anything of note after reappearing). Which kind of calls into question how close Morgan was to them.

The next, and, to my mind, more damning problem is more of a structural one. Morgan has to be the main character (she's the title character of both the second and third books), but she's actually peripheral to the entire second book. That is to say, she's central in that she's almost always there, but she does nothing to drive the plot forward. She's just a passenger in Miach's vehicle.

Which brings up another way believability was thrown by the wayside. Miach was far better with his sword than he had any business being. Maintaining that kind of skill with a sword requires very regular practice (as in daily, or damn near to it). Not only did he not practice regularly as they were traveling in the first book, but we only saw him draw his sword once over the several weeks. And that's ignoring that he seems to have spent all of his time prior to the story in arcane pursuits.

One thing I had mixed feelings about. Several characters that were talked about as legends in the first book, we later found out were not only still alive, but many were even personally known to Miach. As a plot device, that was kind of neat, but it was also rather anti-heroic, not to mention rather obsolescive of other plot devices.

What do I mean, that it obsolesced other plot devices? Well, what was the whole driver of the first book? They needed to protect the kingdom, and needed someone to wield the Sword of Angesand to do so. Ok, why not just ask Mehar to help protect the kingdom for a bit? She doesn't seem to have been involved in anything that would preclude that. And if you really do need someone to wield the sword, why not just ask Mehar who it should be? Or even ask her to look for the wielder, if she's not going to be able to directly answer the first question.

What do I mean about anti-heroic? Well, legends existed about these people because they had done amazing things in the distant past. Two of them had subdued Lothar a number of years ago. If he was really being a pain, why couldn't they do it again? Why do they just retire to lives of leisure? What are they living for? Hedonism? Narcissism? Some bigger threat of which there was never a hint?

In fact, the more I think about this, the more it annoys me.

I'll continue on. Another thing that I kept wondering about what Mehar's ring. It kept looking like it would have some significance (even if only symbolically), but it never did. What was it doing there? Just a McGuffin?

Anyway, I'm dwelling too much on things that are annoying me. I guess I'd give a qualified recommendation for the first book of the series, despite it ending on a cliff-hanger. I really can't recommend the subsequent volumes.

And I really need to avoid 'Fantasy Romance' novels. Wish I'd noticed that these were in that category (not that I'd previously heard of it).


All Currency

Weird day yesterday.

Current (three-day) Jeopardy champ (well, as of current broadcast anyway; I don't know how far in advance episodes are taped, although I do know that an entire week's worth of episodes is taped back to back) Roger Craig broke the all-time record for one day in the show with a $77k take.

In fact, he went into final with $47k, so he could have shattered the record, rather than just edging over it. If I remember correctly, he could have wagered $6k or so more without even risking losing. He managed a much narrower victory today, although it was still fairly impressive outside of a missed daily double. Good luck going forward, Roger. :)

Similarly shocking, Christine O'Donnell, one of the tea party ciphers managed to win the Republican primary for Senator in Delaware yesterday. Given that this is one of the few things that could have happened that would allow Democrats to retain the seat (although it still won't allow Kaufman to retain the job; he's doing a very good job of looking out for the little guy), I'm happy to see it.

While, like most people, I haven't been too happy with Democrats in the legislature, the idea of giving Republicans back control just gives me the heebie-jeebies. At best, it will lead to two more years of nothing getting accomplished. At worst, it'll push the fragile economy back over the edge of the cliff that it's been riding for the past year or so.

I just wish good governance was as important to them as as staying in power. Hearing them talk about a government shutdown as if it's a good thing is, frankly, quite disturbing (although not as disturbing as Sharon Angle's suggestion that a loss at the ballot box would be followed by armed insurrection. That's downright scary).

One thing that would certainly result from a Republican takeover of the Senate is that no Obama appointees would ever get approved. Some years ago, Republicans suggested that not giving an appointee an up-or-down vote was unconstitutional. Now, they find themselves filibustering uncontroversial nominees (in at least two cases, nominees were filibustered before being approved 99-0).

There's just no reasonable rationale for that.


A Little Ditty, 'bout Zack 'n' Miri... and...

Watched Zack and Miri Make a Porno (finally) last night. Man, that's a funny movie. Don't remember laughing so hard at a movie since Importance of Being Earnest.

Zack and Miri are late-twenties goof-offs who've hardly moved on since high school. In fact, we find in the deleted scenes that they're living only a block or so from their high school. They've known each other since the first grade, and are living together, but have never dated.

Well, to step back a minute, perhaps I'm a bit harsh to say goof-offs. They do work; he's a barista and she knits at a stand in the local mall. But they aren't exactly what you'd call ambitious, and they're very bad about paying their bills.

In any event, they get just a bit too far behind on their bills, and get really desperate when the electricity and water get turned off. So they decide that the only way to get enough money quickly is to make a porn flick. And that's when the movie really gets going from slightly funny (and occasionally painful) to outright hilarious.

The casting scenes are laugh-out-loud funny, particularly when they show their "special talents".

The main complication is with Zack and Miri themselves. Can they have sex for the movie, and still talk in the morning?

As I said, absolutely hilarious, although I suppose very prudish people would be incredibly offended. The sex jokes sometimes go way, way over the top, and while I found that hysterical, I've certainly met people who would be deeply, deeply offended by it.

The other thing that was really cool about this was that, in a 101 minute movie, there was an additional 95 minutes of deleted scenes. The first hour or so of that fills in a lot of gaps in the movie (why was there coffee on the window of the car in the beginning, why did they bring a trophy home from the reunion, what does Miri do for work, etc), and even shows some jokes that didn't make it into the final cut. The last twenty or twenty-five minutes, though, really gives you a feel for the director's job, as they went over many variations of one scene (none of which made it into the final movie, more's the pity). It's hard to watch all of it, though, because there is a significant amount of repetition, but it's still neat to see.

As I said, it really gives you a feel for what goes into making a movie. Kudos to Kevin Smith, for sharing that with us.


Apple's new toys

Today Apple announced new iPods; the new Touch looks pretty sweet, although I'd still prefer to get an iPad with the new display and cameras.

I was hoping for more from the AppleTV, though. Still stuck in 720p *sigh*. That, by itself, is enough to kill it for me. I'm also a bit disappointed by the removal of the drive. Unless I get a Netflix subscription (which I've been debating for a number of years, now), this really doesn't have anything for me. Needing to have a computer on to get to any of my movies is also a deal-breaker for me.

I'll keep my hopes up for the next release (which hopefully won't take as long as this one did).

At this rate, I'll just wait a bit and get an iPad which will do everything I want the AppleTV to do. Oh, well.