Archive for July 2006

Pirates Review

I loved the original Pirates of the Caribbean, and so I was excited to go see the sequel.  I won't write a long review, except to say that this movie is to the original what Star Wars Episode 3 was to the original Star Wars.  It seems to have forgotten what made the original a success, and focused instead on elaborate special effects and a confused plot.  The effects are amazing, and may be alone worth the price of one viewing, but the movie itself was only so-so. 

The plot wandered around aimlessly at times, and key elements, such as exactly how Jack got crosswise with Davy Jones in the first place, get a very very short exposition, which seem odd in a 2-1/2 hour movie.  This is the same mistake many action movie sequels make - the Indiana Jones movies come to mind in particular.  The sequels go for action action action continuously on the screen, forgetting that the original had long stretches of quiet periods that actually moved the plot and characters along.

Of all the plot elements, the sudden introduction of the ex-commodore Norrington seems the most forced.  There feels like there are one two many characters in the movie, with Sparrow, Will, the governor, the east India guys, Norrington, Davy Jones, etc. all having independent agendas.  This is fine for a taught character drama, but for a light action movie it is overly complex, and feels like Mission Impossible 2 where the writers tried to outdo the original in twists and turns and betrayals.  The introduction of Norrington does set up an interesting 3-way fight (kind of reminiscent of the awesome final scene in God, Bad, and the Ugly).  Like much of the film, the fight is kindof fun but falls short somehow.  And looking back on the movie, I can't figure out why the whole first part of the movie with the cannibals was even in there.  Basically, it did nothing to advance the plot.

The worst offense of the movie in my mind is that it underutilized Johny Depp.  Depp, whose performance really made the first movie, is OK but is not really allowed to be great.  The writers have him reprising his best bits from the first movie, rather than doing anything new.  It all feels a bit stale.

Oh, and by the way, does every single Hollywood movie have to find a way to make a large corporation the villain?  I mean, is it a writers guild requirement or something?  Even this movie set in the 18th century has to seek out the one and only large corporation in the world and use it as a villain.

WSJ on Immigration

I was happy to see the Wall Street Journal come forward with an editorial favoring open immigration (this one is in their non-subscription area).  I am even happier to see that they lead with the issue of fundamental human rights, not with the weak argument of who is to pick the lettuce.

Our
own view is that a philosophy of "free markets and free people"
includes flexible labor markets. At a fundamental level, this is a
matter of freedom and human dignity. These migrants are freely
contracting for their labor, which is a basic human right. Far from
selling their labor "cheap," they are traveling to the U.S. to sell it
more dearly and improve their lives. Like millions of Americans before
them, they and certainly their children climb the economic ladder as
their skills and education increase.

We
realize that critics are not inventing the manifold problems that can
arise from illegal immigration: Trespassing, violent crime, overcrowded
hospital emergency rooms, document counterfeiting, human smuggling,
corpses in the Arizona desert, and a sense that the government has lost
control of the border. But all of these result, ultimately, from too
many immigrants chasing too few U.S. visas.

Those
migrating here to make a better life for themselves and their families
would much prefer to come legally. Give them more legal ways to enter
the country, and we are likely to reduce illegal immigration far more
effectively than any physical barrier along the Rio Grande ever could.
This is not about rewarding bad behavior. It's about bringing
immigration policy in line with economic and human reality. And the
reality is that the U.S. has a growing demand for workers, while Mexico
has both a large supply of such workers and too few jobs at home.

The WSJ argues that polls show that most conservatives are similar-minded.  I'm am not a conservative and don't speak for them, but from the flavor of my email on my pro-immigration posts and from reading various conservative blogs, I have trouble believing it.

I have a number of posts on immigration, but you should start with this one.

Penalty Kick Stupidity

Well, yet another key international soccer match, this time the most important game of all, the World Cup Finals, was decided by penalty kicks.  Penalty kicks are the most absurd way to determine a championship that I can imagine.  They are barely one step removed from a coin toss in terms of their ability to really determine who the best team is.   Its like giving up on a baseball game in the 12th inning and settling it with a home run derby.

I understand that in regular matches and probably in pool play, logistics require that games not go on for hours and penalty kicks make sense.  But by the time you get to the quarterfinals, and certainly the finals, why can't they just play the freaking game until someone wins?  That's what they do in the Stanley Cup, and in US pro football -- each have ways of settling ties quickly for regular season games, but once crunch time comes, they play until there is a winner.  In Wimbledon, they settle sets with tie breakers but come the fifth set, they play until someone wins.  Its not like the stadium is booked for anything else the rest of the day.  And do they really think anyone in the stands is going to get tired and go home?  Pro hockey fans will tell you there is no more compelling time in their sport than overtime in a Stanley Cup Final.  How great would it have been to have just left the two teams on the field until one was a winner, even if that took two more hours?  I mean, they have waited four years for this moment, they can't put in a few more minutes on the field?

As an American non-soccer guy, I have really given this World Cup a chance.  I was in England for much of the tournament, so I not only watched but got to experience some of the excitement of the populous.  And I have, excluding the silly play-acting fake injury thing, mostly enjoyed the games.  But they lost me right at the end.  Settling their once-every-four-years world championships with ridiculous penalty kicks demonstrates to me that soccer types have no respect for their own game.  After just 30 minutes of overtime, they give up on their own game and have teams play a different game to determine a winner. So if they don't have respect for their own game, why should I have any?  Americans are never going to fall in love with a game that decides its championships with the moral equivalent of a coin flip.

Update:  First, though this post was applied to soccer, its not just a soccer rant.  I went on the same rant several years ago when the Olympic ice hockey gold was awarded with a shootout.

Second, I get it that the athletes are tired.  I'm not going to put my toe in the water on the "what sport requires the most athleticism" debate, except to say that soccer is right up there, with its 45 minutes of continuous play each half.  (But I will say that, having personally played rugby for years, rugby is right up there too -- one thing soccer aficionados don't acknowledge is how much physical contact and going down on the ground frequently -- for more than just a fake injury -- takes out of you above and beyond just continuous running.)

My point is that shoot-outs are a different game - they are not real soccer.  Yes they use the same equipment and have roughly the same goal (to get the ball in the net) but by that definition "horse" is real basketball.  Anyone up for settling an NBA finals after two overtimes with a game of horse?  The beauty of soccer is in the passing and the assists, in the clever footwork, in the wing trying to use his speed to turn the corner.  Where are those in a shootout?

If athletes are getting exhausted, it just increases the likelihood that someone will score and end the game, since it is as true in soccer as any other sport that fatigue hurts defense more than offense.  And this might stop teams that play a defensive game in overtime, who are clearly playing for the shootout.

And think of posterity.  No one is going to remember this World Cup final game except to say that Italy beat France on penalty kicks.  But what if the game went 3-1/2 hours in a grueling test of endurance before France finally punched it in, all the players too exhausted to celebrate.  People would talk about the match for years.  I'm not saying you play this way for every run of the mill international competition.  But wouldn't it be nice once every four years to actually decide the championship actually playing soccer, rather than horse?

Update #2: Per a couple of commenters, nothing in this post is meant to imply that sports that are more popular in the US are not without their flaws.  Silly set-piece fist fights in hockey and the unfairness of overtime rules in football (putting too much emphasis on winning the coin toss) come to mind immediately.

London Recommendations

I love London and spent weeks there as a teenager enjoying all the museums.  I took my kids there for the first time (they are 9 and 12) and after a week of touring around, here are some impressions:

Worth It
London Eye - Awesome!  Stunning views from what is essentially a 400 foot Ferris wheel with enclosed cars.  Make sure to make a reservation in advance to save time
Science Museum - Great interactive area for kids in the basement.  Fabulous exhibits - I liked Babbage's difference engine in particular.  And its free
Somerset House - The best museum you never heard of -- fabulous collection of Impressionist paintings that I thought was better than the national gallery, and, in another area, a wonderful collection of the most amazing stone mosaic work you will ever see
Theater - my kids love Broadway shows.  We saw the musicals Mary Poppins and Mamma Mia and the play Mousetrap and all three were great, though expensive.  There is a TKTS office in Leicester Square that sells same day discounted tickets.
Imperial War Museum - Tanks and Missiles, what more could you want?  The collection is huge, and most kids will tire of the uniforms and such, but its free and worth a quick visit.
St. Pauls:  Just spectacular.  The downside is that the admission is expensive, but I found it worth it just to stand under the dome in awe.
Cabinet war rooms: The underground chamber used as a senior command post in WWII, it sits (with papers, maps and all) just as it was in the final days of WWII.
Tower of London: Great, even before you see the jewels.  However, take the beefeater tour.  It is free and you will miss 90% of the experience without it.
Harrods:  My kids loved seeing this unique store, particularly the food courts
Hamlys:  6 floors of toys.  Say no more.
Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court. Day trips to the latter two are recommended, particularly to Windsor Castle.  Buckingham Palace is only open for tours a few months of the year, so we missed it, but I toured it a few years ago when they opened it after the Windsor Castle fire and it is beyond amazing.

Maybe / Maybe Not
British Museum - I love it.  This may be the greatest museum of archaeological finds in the world.  However kids, after some initial enthusiasm for the mummies, tire quickly.  Its just so big
Museum of London.  Again, I loved it.  My wife and kids were bored.  If you are the type that likes to read all the little cards in museums, this one is a great history lesson.  If you like to breeze through and look at the cool stuff, there is not as much here for you.
Westminster Abby - If you go, take the tour.  Its expensive, but it is not as architecturally interesting as St. Paul's.  The interesting stuff is in the history of the tombs and who is buried there, and there are very few signs explaining what you are seeing, so you will miss most of it without a tour.
Tate Modern - We did not go to this relatively new museum but friends of ours took their young kids and said it was great
Double Decker Bus Tour:  There are two major companies that operate these, and you get a day pass so that you can get on and off the bus all day.  The tour was pretty good, but we found by the end of the week it mostly covered ground we retraced later in the week on our own.
Royal Mews: The Queen's  stables and  carriages.  This was OK, but not great.

Not worth it
Madame Tussuad's:  Expensive, ridiculously crowded, and pretty short (we took our time and were done in about 30 minutes).  If you go, make a reservation in advance or you will be stuck in a very very long admission line.  My kids thought is was OK, if only to have a picture of themselves with James Bond and Saddam Hussein
Natural History Museum:  Despite its incredibly rich history, we found this museum disappointing.  The entry is beautiful, and the museum is free, so its worth just checking out briefly.  We, however, found the layout to be awkward and not very interesting.  The post-renovation natural history museum in New York I think is both more entertaining and laid out better to really teach you something about nature and evolution.
National Gallery: I have given this museum several chances, and I find it disappointing every time I go.  It doesn't stand up in my mind to galleries in other cities like Paris, NY or even Chicago.  Its free, but I don't think it will satisfy either art lover or non art lover.  Go to Somerset House instead.
The underground:  Wow, has the tube gotten expensive!  Three pounds per person one way.  This meant for our group, it was less expensive to take a taxi.  We tried to walk as much as possible, took taxis when we could go no further, and took the tube only once or twice.  The tube may work better financially if you buy a weekly pass - we did not look into this.
Hot Weather:  It was in the high 80's and low 90's when we were there.  Note that much of London is not air conditioned and the rest is inadequately air conditioned.  We roasted in the museums and in the theaters.  If it is hot, get used to hot, uncirculated air in crowded places.

We found a pretty good hotel for families called the Ascot-Mayfair.  It has a great location near Hyde Park Corner and has multi-room suites for decent rates (at least for London).  The one bedroom suite has a sofa bed in the living room that will sleep the kids and get them out of the parents room.  We splurged on the 2 bedroom suite, and got it for a rate less than the tiny one room place we had in Paris last summer.

I posted earlier about the strange bias against kids out in the English countryside.  We saw little of this in London.  A few hotels would not let us rent rooms if we had children, but otherwise no problems.  Restaurants were all very accommodating, many with children's menus (which is a big change over a decade ago).  Also, restaurants and shows are quite informal so that we had a lot of nice dinners without taking any really nice clothes.  For restaurants, we particularly liked Ping Pong (Trendy Chinese dim sum), Yauatcha (also trendy chinese dim sum) and Lucio (Italian).

Politically Correct War Memorial

Until my visit to London, I would have said that a "politically correct war memorial" was an oxymoron, since political correctness nowadays seems to embrace a disdain for all things military.  However, I was proved wrong by this memorial:

Animals_in_war1

Yes, that is a memorial to all the fallen animals in British wars.  There are statues of dogs, donkeys, horses, and elephants.  Remember that the UK is a country that finds it politically uncorrect to build a holocaust memorial (though the Imperial War Museum has a holocaust exhibit) and may well abolish its annual holocaust remembrance day because its considered insulting to Muslims (my history here must be a bit rusty -- I don't remember many Muslims in the SS).  Well, never-the-less, we can all rest easier now that we know that the donkey's will be remembered.  I know this was supposed to be serious and solemn, but I must admit that the key "tag line" on the monument only got me laughing:

Animals_in_war2

Yeah, as if the human victims of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, etc. did have a choice.

OUCH! My Ankle!

Not being much of a pro soccer fan, I have been surprised to find that the sport can be compelling, at least in stretches.  For example, the 30 minutes of overtime between Italy and Germany was quite exciting.

However, I think the sport should be ashamed at the state of affairs in its refereeing.  In any one game, you might see players rolling around on the ground faking injuries as many as 15 or 20 times.  It became a source of immense amusement for my son and I to see not only how much faking was going on, but how often the faking involved holding a body part that seemed unrelated to any contact  (e.g. holding their head as if they received a concussion when they were accidentally tripped).  If these were all real injuries, the field would look like Omaha beach by the end of the game.

Why do they do it?  Because the referees reward them for it, of course.  It was pretty clear that on many occasions acting and injury-faking turned accidental falls into penalties and minor penalties into yellow and red cards.  It's disgraceful.  I know refereeing is hard given the speed of today's athletes, but for god sakes soccer has got to be an order of magnitude easier to referee than say basketball or particularly American football. 

Even more, I wonder why fans tolerate the pretend injuries?  Can you imagine Pittsburgh Steelers fans fondly embracing a wide receiver that faked ankle injuries two or three times a game to try to get an interference call?

Most all the regulation goals in later games of the world cup have been
scored on penalty kicks.  It seems that the game has devolved into
lofting the ball into the box and then hoping to draw a penalty, sort
of like a hail Mary play at the end of a football game.  I would love
to see the game opened up a bit to allow more scoring of real goals in
regulation -- how about eliminating the offsides penalty?

Happy Fourth of July

Happy Birthday to the greatestn nation on earth.  I spend a lot of time criticizing our leaders and their policies, but there is no place else I would live.  The US Constitution is still, over two-hundred years after its creation, the greatest single document ever written.  Many other countries since have written constitutions and spilled tons of ink pontificating on theories of government, but none have had similar success in protecting individual rights while creating an environment where every individual can focus their productive energies in whatever direction they choose with generally minimal interference.

A while back I wrote about how wealth was created, and I pointed out that the great leaps we have made in human well-being over the last two hundred or so years stem from two effects:

  1. There was a philosophical and intellectual
    change where questioning established beliefs and social patterns went
    from being heresy and unthinkable to being acceptable, and even in
    vogue.  In other words, men, at first just the elite but soon everyone,
    were urged to use their mind rather than just relying on established
    beliefs
  2. There were social and political changes that greatly increased
    the number of people capable of entrepreneurship.  Before this time,
    the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that
    allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had
    one.  By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the
    Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability
    to use their mind to create new wealth.  Whereas before, perhaps 1% or
    less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their
    ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom.
Many revisionist historians struggle to find some alternate explanation for the wealth and power the US enjoys today -- natural resources, isolation, luck, etc.  But the simple and correct explanation is that more than any other country past or present, we created a country where more people are free to use their minds and more freely pursue the implications of their ideas.

Sure, our leaders, our military, and sometimes the nation as a whole screws up.  I and others are quick to point these screw-ups out and sometimes we find ourselves wallowing in them.  But at the end of the day, unlike in the majority of countries in the world, these screw-ups are treated as such, talked about and debated, and dealt with rather than treated as the norm. 

Take the US military in an occupying role in Iraq.  Out of 100,000 or so people, you are going to have some criminals who commit criminal acts, even in the military.  The US army, unlike nearly every occupying army in history, generally treats its soldiers' crimes as crimes, and not as the inherent right of victors to rape and pillage.  US soldiers who have committed crimes in Iraq will generally go to jail, while worse malefactors in most armies, even the holier-than-thou UN peacekeepers who seem to be engaging in rape and white slavery around the world, generally go unpunished.  For all the crap the US military takes around the world, I bet you that if you took an honest vote on the question of "Which world army would you choose to occupy your country if you lost a war" most people would answer the US.  If for no other reason because, despite all the charges of imperialism, our armies eventually leave rather than remain on as lingering masters.

So tomorrow, I will start dealing out more crap to our leaders, to the administration, to Congress, to the SCOTUS, and most especially to most every bureaucrat who thinks they can better manage my business or my property.  But today I will step back and see the forest rather than the trees, and observe I am dang lucky to be an American.

For further thoughts, I refer you to my essay last year where I opined that many Americans miss the true greatness of America.  They tend to celebrate first the "right to vote", when in fact many people get to vote but few enjoy the freedoms we do.  The greatness of our country is in our protection of individual liberties and the rule of law.  And the great insight our country was founded with is that rights flow from the very fact of our humanity -- they are not granted to us by kings or Congress.  This last is perhaps most important, as I wrote:

At the end of the day, our freedoms in this country will only last so
long as we as a nation continue to hold to the principle that our
rights as individuals are our own, and the government's job is to
protect them, not to ration them.  Without this common belief, all the
other institutions we have discussed, from voting to the rule of law to
the Constitution, can be subverted in time

Now I am off to see Buckingham Palace.  If I see the Queen, would it be in bad taste to wish her a happy Fourth of July?

Home Improvement in London

I write in this blog often on my frustrations with regulation, but last night I learned, if I did not know it already, that things could be much worse.  I had dinner with some friends in London who are in the middle of a home improvement and renovation project on their 1830's era townhouse.  Now, I just completed a renovation of my own (1980's era) home in Phoenix, and, while home improvement is always frustrating, I at least had few problems with the city.  Phoenix will let you do about anything you want to your home as long as you respect your setbacks and don't install a nuclear reactor.

My London friends were not so lucky.  Their home is rated a class 2 historic structure, which means it gets a bit less scrutiny than class 1 palaces and stuff, but it still comes in for a lot of regulation.  Their plans had to be approved in detail, and I mean in gory detail, with the local history Nazis.  And this is for a building that really has little historic or aesthetic value (the owners would be the first to admit this) in a neighborhood that was nearly blighted thirty years ago. 

My hosts pointed out the dining room lighting, which was really dim (you could not see your food very well) band told me that the authorities would not let them add lighting fixtures to the room.  No doorways, moldings, or walls could be changed.  The funniest example of this was a doorway cut in a wall 20 years ago.  The government inspector came through the house and said "well, that door is not historic but I like it so you can't change it."  They thought the inspector was joking, but, after a lot of effort to get approval to change the door, found out she was not kidding. 

The staircase to the top floor (originally the servant's quarters) was steep and unsafe for their children, but the inspector insisted it could not be changed because the "logic" of having the servant's quarters accessible by a difficult staircase needed to be maintained.  The homeowners rebuttal that they had no servants and were more concerned with safety than the history of class differences in Britain had no effect.  In several cases where the homeowners argued that the portions of their house they wanted to change was not original to the house (and therefore not covered by restrictions) it was made clear that the burden of proof was on them, the homeowners, and not on the government.

As one other funny sidebar, the basements and below grade areas of these homes apparently don't fall under this scrutiny or are exempted in some way.  As a result, everyone in his neighborhood seems to be tunneling out into their backyards to expand their house.  One homeowner bought three adjacent homes and tunneled out enough area for an indoor underground swimming pool.

Can you imagine if someday the US government decided that those 1970's homes were subject to such historic restrictions?  Suddenly, by government fiat, instead of being stuck forever with insufficient lighting and unsafe staircases, you might get stuck with orange shag carpet and gold-mirrored walls.  If you think this is ridiculous, read this.

Suffice it to say, I am tired of a relatively small group of people imposing their wishes on other people's property, a practice I call eminent domain without compensation.  If you want something specific done to a piece of property, then buy it and have at it.

Thoughts on Detentions

One of the problems I have making common cause with many of the civil rights critics of the Bush administration is that they tend to hurt legitimate civil rights by exaggerating their claims into the ridiculous. 

A good example is detentions at Gitmo.  I believe strongly that the Bush administration's invented concept of unlimited-length detentions without trial or judicial review is obscene and needed to be halted.  But critics of Bush quickly shifted the focus to "torture" at Gitmo, a charge that in light of the facts appears ridiculous to most rational people, including me.  As a result, the administration's desire to hold people indefinitely without due process has been aided by Bush's critics, who have shifted the focus to a subject that is much more easily defended on the facts.

Interestingly, as I watch the Beeb this morning, Britain is having a similar debate.  Its hard to figure the whole thing out from the TV coverage and sound bites, but apparently Britain has the ability to detain suspected terrorists for 90 days, and wants the power to extend this.

Many people have told me that I am an insanely naive Pollyanna for not accepting the need for indefinite detention without trial of suspected terrorists.   I have explained in the past that we don't have the right to do this with our own citizens, but we also don't have the right to do this with any other human being (the short explanation:  The individual rights we hold dear are our rights as human beings, NOT as citizens.  They flow from our very existence, not from our government and not from the fact of our citizenship.   In some ways, the government probably has less right to abuse non-citizens, not more).

Here is a test:  If the government had always had this power, ie to detain indefinitely people it thought somehow "dangerous" to "someone"  (with the government getting to define both these terms), how abused would it have been in the past.  My answer is "very much".  Who would J. Edgar Hoover have detained?  Would Martin Luther King have spent his life in jail, much like Nelson Mandela?

By the way, I have no idea what Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld means for all this, since I haven't read it and pundits seem to disagree on what it means  (unfortunately, this may be something we live with a while, a feature of the new muddled "Justice Kennedy compromise" we seem to have to live with on a number of decisions).  If anyone thinks they have seen a definitive analysis, please link it in the comments.

Widescreen Abuse

I am kind of a video snob so you can take this rant with that in mind. 

I am getting tired of looking at five thousand dollar flatscreens with the picture distorted.  As most of you will know, the new generation of TV sets are wider than the old sets, with a ratio of length to width of 16:9 rather than the old 4:3.  Unfortunately, most current broadcasting and all legacy TV shows are filmed in 4:3.  To watch these programs without distortion on a new flatscreen HDTV, you will either have black bars on the sides or you will have to zoom it such that you lose the top and bottom of the picture. 

Instead of these two options, most people have their widescreen TV's set to stretch the picture horizontally to fit the wider screen.  What this results in is a picture that is distorted and stretched by 33% in width, giving you lots of fat faces.  Yuk!  Why would someone buy a $5000 (or more) TV set with state of the art high-definition picture and then set it up so most of the programming looks like it was viewed in a fun-house mirror?  Especially when you only have to press one button usually to cycle the setup between regular and widescreen programming. 

Anyway, the teli is always on here in the breakfast room of the hotel (one of the realities of modern travel is that you can't seem to escape the blaring TV in either hotels or airports) but I have no idea what the BBC announcers look like.  The way the TV is set up, it looks like they all are fat with cheek fulls of acorns.