Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.

Apr 22, 2011

MovieBob on Atlas Shrugged: Part One

I think this review by MovieBob over on the Escapist is fantastic, not just because it's a very high-quality review, but also because the presence of said review on a website by, for, and about video gamers is a real demonstration of how much Ayn Rand's ideas are starting to have an effect on the culture.

Apr 21, 2011

The Prospect of Death

Click on the post title to go listen to one of Dr. Peikoff's recent podcast questions. This is actually a question that is familiar to me, and while Dr. Peikoff's response is absolutely correct, it's not very helpful psychologically. While I don't claim to be an expert, I'd like to offer perhaps a little psychologically-oriented advice to the asker of this question, because I've been there. Starting about when I was eleven, I was suddenly struck by the knowledge that, wow, I was going to die. And everything began to seem utterly pointless and futile. The prospect of death looming overhead like some sort of Sword of Damocles (never mind how that death might come about), seemed really terrible to me. I used to lie awake at night and cry because I just couldn't cope with the concept or find any way to deal with it.

However, I did eventually get (mostly) over it, and the prospect of death doesn't really frighten me much any more except in the way Dr. Peikoff discusses, which I take to be a reasonably rational approach to the whole business. So how does one go about getting over such a potentially paralyzing dread?

I think that death seems particularly horrible to young people who are living their lives primarily in the future--they may have many things they want to accomplish or big, nebulous, long-term goals, and there just doesn't seem to be enough time to get there no matter how long they live. In addition, there may be an aspect of finding one's current circumstances nearly unbearable, so that one feels that any goal is, at best, a long-term, far-away thing.

Well, the "cure" is to stop thinking like that and go get involved in something productive NOW. I'm not saying you shouldn't think about the future, but instead of thinking of it in terms of "well, thirty years from now I hope to have accomplished X, Y, and Z", think about it more in terms of "today I'm going to do this one thing that is moving in the right direction". Or several things, so that you can look back at your day and see something that you accomplished rather than dwelling on some impossible future to come. You have to get involved in and enjoy the things you are doing now rather than only dreaming about the results that you may get many years from now. It can be hard when you're young and your life is a big complicated stressful mess that you're struggling to get on top of. But you can do it, and it at least eliminates one source of irrational self-induced stress in the process.

Also, if you're experiencing this kind of fear, it might be a good time to take a look at what you are doing and figure out whether it's actually leading you where you want to go. There are a lot of things that people will shove on you as some kind of self-evident necessity (college, grad school, getting married, having kids, whatever) that may not suit you in any way whatsoever. So don't concentrate on the prospect of death as a way of ignoring what's really bothering you, currently.

Apr 17, 2011

Atlas Shrugged: Part One

This is the first movie I've seen in the theater this year. No joke. And I went to see it on opening day. Those who know me are probably already aware that I'm a big fan of Atlas Shrugged, not just as the equivalent of a "bible" of Objectivism, but because I really enjoy it as a book. So, of course, when they finally made it into a movie, I went and saw it right away. I asked my housemate if he wanted to go with me before I left, and he said, nah. He turned out to be right.

Atlas Shrugged: Part One is a train wreck.

Now, this opinion has nothing to do with the fact that it's not exactly like the book. I expected that the movie wouldn't be like the book. I HATE movies that make substantial effort to be "exactly like the book" as some sort of fanservice because this usually makes them lousy movies. Movies and novels are different art forms. What works in a novel doesn't work in a movie and vice versa. You have to take into account the nature of the medium in order to make a good movie. So I was fully prepared for even major characters to be edited out (or merged), entire plot events bypassed--all sorts of changes. I was even looking forward to them, as something new, exciting, and enjoyable.

What I wasn't expecting was the inept direction, characterization, pacing, and overall just bad moviemaking. From the moment Atlas Shrugged: Part One started to roll, I was shaking my head and rolling my eyes. I'm not talking about the casting. Most of the casting seemed reasonably appropriate and well-done. I can accept that Ellis Wyatt, who was in his mid twenties in the novel now appears to be approaching sixty. The essence of the character was reasonably well preserved.

What I can't accept was the horrible mishandling of any development of suspense or immersion. The lack of immersion is particularly egregious. This is a movie which cannot decide what world it is in. Placing it, time-wise, in 2016 was a major esthetic error from the get-go, one which even semi-competent science fiction authors know not to make. (Heck, Ayn Rand talked about this in The Art of Fiction.) Atlas Shrugged is not about any particular time period, and the effort to root it with mentions of an oil crisis in the Middle East turned it from a story about the philosophical problems of any kind of men in any kind of time into a trite modern political commentary.

From there, it only got worse. A slight miscalculation of this kind could be easily overlooked--it happens just in the first few minutes of the movie, after all. The phrase "Who is John Galt?" is done about as naturally as those radio commercials with two women doing a back-and-forth conversation about their personal problems. I was half expecting that the chosen individual uttering the phrase would turn and wink at the camera. Ayn Rand did such a wonderful job in the novel of making it a throwaway bit of slang that it was rather painful to watch.

Yet, it gets still worse. I feel like I could go on listing major errors forever. All the action (except very, very late in the movie), involves only perfectly coiffed, dressed, and made-up people in expensive clothes sitting in beautiful offices or bars or restaurants and arguing snidely with each other. This is not the way you portray a ferocious struggle with time, materials, and gross malice. Any shots that include actual machinery are completely impersonal, seen from great distance or through glass or via a news story. It is a caricature of Ayn Rand's celebration of people who really do work at the mine face where there are "no lousy jobs, only lousy men unwilling to do them". If I had only seen the movie and I was asked to give the difference between how James Taggart and Hank Rearden conduct their business, at best, all I could say was that James Taggart was a bit of a backstabber. This is not a conflict between a swollen parasite who does nothing but sit at a desk and a brilliant metallurgist who spent ten years sweating in a laboratory to produce a fantastical new product. This is a conflict between TWO men who . . . sit at desks and make snarky comments. All right then.

Then you have Rearden reminding Dagny of his anniversary party. Rearden, whose devotion to business is such that he forgot about said anniversary in the novel--repeatedly. Then you have Rearden hanging affectionately on Lillian at the party, and kissing her forehead. I could keep going in this vein, but I think I've given enough specific examples here.

I can kind of see what the director was trying to do--make the characters more "human" and accessible, doing ordinary sorts of things (like Rearden greeting Dagny cheerfully after the culmination of their roma--argh, okay, okay, I'll stop). But this completely trashes the parts of the movie which ought to be a cashing-in on the chain of established events. When Dagny and Rearden visit the 20th Century Motor Company (and Rearden just EXPLAINS what happened there ARGH ARGH NO I'M STOPPING I'M STOPPING), Dagny proceeds to throw out this line about something being a "stupid altruistic motive" and I seriously wanted to scream. They hadn't established a rationale for altruism being bad! The line completely comes out of nowhere, like those references in comic-book movies to obscure continuity events or characters. The difference being that the comic book movies don't HANG THE MOVIE on the people in the audience picking up on these obscure references and supplying all sorts of preexisting mental context. It is just plain bad. Inept. Unworthy.

Now, if you're a fan of Atlas Shrugged for the political commentary and don't know or care much about the esthetic issues here, you may actually enjoy this movie. (The theater I went to was packed, and people APPLAUDED at the end. ARGH.) There are plenty of one-liners and references in there to make you feel you're among friends and that this is a movie for "your kind of people" and invite you to feel a warm glow of belonging. But if you're actually looking to be drawn into another world, a world of stark conflicts, heroism, love, hate, reason, drama, and romance, you will be seriously disappointed. I certainly was.

And there's still more of this coming, too.

Apr 7, 2011

Pain Scale

This XKCD really hit home with me, because I got a similar reaction from the nurse when I broke and sprained my arm and told them the pain was a "two". I looked up at the pain chart, did a quick estimate based on the smilies, and picked two. I mean, I wasn't grimacing or anything, I could feel it and it was uncomfortable, particularly when I moved . . . sounded like a 2 to me. Mostly I just couldn't use my arm for anything.

Later on when it swelled up I think I would have been around a 5, maaaaaybe a 6: I started having spasms in my arm and it hurt enough that I had to stop and stand still until the spasm passed, I couldn't talk or focus or do ANYTHING while my arm was hurting. But I didn't scream or anything. (Btw, in case anyone REALLY WANTED TO KNOW, my, er, monthly cramps are about this bad, maybe a little bit worse. So yeah, my broken arm? Whatevs. And doctors wonder why I keep flushing the pain meds they've prescribed me after surgery/injuries in the past.)

I think one of the doctor posters on MDOD described what 10 out of 10 pain looks like the best: having your leg amputated with a hacksaw. In my mind, 10 out of 10 pain is what you experience just before you pass out. So I'm not really sure why they even ASK you to rate your pain this way. The doctor should really preface it with "well, you're not passed out or grunting and covered in sweat, so I'm going to say your pain is less than a seven. Why don't you rate it for me on a scale of one to six, seven being the part where you're grunting and sweating from the effort of not screaming." Because when you're at or above a seven, they ain't getting any useful communication out of you and they ought to know that.

Apr 2, 2011

Dr. Hurd on Trump

I stumbled on this article today (click the post title for the link) and actually felt like blogging about it, yay. Anyway, Dr. Hurd's warning against supporting Trump because he seems like someone who can "get things done" really resonates with me because of a lot of fairly recent reading I've been doing. Not only is the (primary) ability to "get things done" not a positive trait for a presidential candidate, it should sound in the mind of any student of history as a strident warning.

Why? Read about the rise of Fascism in Europe prior to World War 2, particularly about Mussolini. Or read about Castro. Or Woodrow Wilson. Or Herbert Hoover. Or any other would-be tyrant that people have inflicted on themselves over the years. Read what people said about them BEFORE they tried putting their policies into practice. What will you discover in common about all of them?

People praised how "dynamic" they were. How charismatic and aggressive and willful. How good they were at putting aside the silly restraints of tradition or the parliament or the stodgy old institutions of yesteryear to get things done.

The best government is one that restricts itself to certain absolutely vital functions of government and leaves the everything else alone. It is a government that contains restraints, traditions, legislative bodies, and, yes, a fair amount of stodginess for a reason. It is a government that operates by the first principle of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. It is not supposed to swing constantly into dynamic, aggressive, charismatic action on the whims of a single individual, sweeping all opposition aside, because that opposition has rights.

The ability to get things done should be a secondary or tertiary trait of a politician who wants to do the right things. Yes, it'd be nice if such a man wasn't entirely ineffectual, but even if he is and accomplishes absolutely NOTHING during his tenure, by NOT doing the WRONG things, he's still better than 99.9% of the politicians currently in power.