Sunday, November 29, 2009

Great Quotes: William F. Buckley, Jr.

I recently finished William F. Buckley, Jr.'s Up From Liberalism published in 1959. For those who may never have heard of Buckley; he was one of the most influential writers of the modern conservative movement.

The interesting thing about the book is that the political issues and liberal tactics Buckley described in 1959 are essentially the same as those found in 2009. Given the current health care bills in Congress, I had to laugh when Buckley discussed the issue of universal (i.e., socialized) health care in a 50 year-old book. Much of the book's focus was on how Americans didn't realize that financial freedom is a crucial component of liberty. Considering how many Americans seem ready to submit ever larger portions of their paychecks (and more often the paychecks of their fellow citizens) to support the Democrats' programs, it seems that 50 years later we still haven't gotten the message.

The saddest part is that, far from being an alarmist, Buckley underestimated how bad things would be in the future. His argument against programs such as Social Security are from a philosophical point of view, believing then that Social Security and other social programs would never become extensive enough to actually threaten the American economy. With social programs having run amok, and with the retirement of the Baby Boomers, we are far from the more ideal position in which Buckley's America found itself (a vigorous economy with a larger ratio of wage-earners to social program beneficiaries).

My favorite quote comes from the last page of the book:
"I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Netflix: "Nosferatu" and "It! The Terror from Beyond Space"

Recently my wife signed us up for Netflix. Until then, we bought nearly all our movies rather than renting them. Well, that meant that a lot of movies that we weren't sure we wanted to buy got passed over. There were also a variety of TV shows we wanted to see from the beginning, but didn't want to invest in whole seasons if we didn't like them. Now that we've signed up for Netflix, my wife gets to watch those chick flicks that we aren't willing to buy. As for me, I get to take advantage of Netflix's enormous selection of movies to satisfy my eclectic taste in movies.

The first Netflix movie I watched was through their streaming service. It was the silent film Nosferatu (1922); a German film adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, except that the characters' names from the novel were changed to avoid copyright issues. The movie is relatively faithful to the first half of Stoker's book (except for the names, of course) while completely revising the end of the story. As much as I liked Tod Browning's more famous Dracula (1931) staring Bela Lugosi, Nosferatu was superior thanks to the use of actual castles and medieval villages rather than plywood sets, director Friedrich Murnau's genuinely creepy style, and Max Schreck's depiction of Count Orlok. Lugosi's slightly pale eastern European count isn't nearly as menacing as Schreck's vampire, whose pointed ears, inch-long claws, and mouth full of sharp teeth strongly indicate his inhuman status. Murnau's use of shadows to depict Orlok prior to his attacks (see the picture above) helps to enhance the effect. Caveat emptor: this is a silent film that runs about 80 minutes. In other words, unless you have an interest in old science fiction and horror movies, I would suggest you skip this film.

Last night I watched my first Netflix DVD: It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). In this film, a dangerous alien life form comes aboard a spaceship that landed to investigate another crashed ship. As the ship heads back to earth, the alien starts killing off the crew one by one. This movie is believed to be an uncredited inspiration for 1979's Alien. Although Alien is not a unabashed ripoff of It!, there are several interesting parallels. Both have scenes in which a crew member unexpectedly encounters the alien in an air shaft, both aliens will leave human victims alive for biological purposes (an unusual method of feeding in It! and egg-laying in Alien), both are sensitive to fire, and both are defeated in a similar manner.
It! is one of the better '50s sci-fi movies. It's not a classic like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or Forbidden Planet (1956) (whose monster also has a creative way of killing its victims), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) still features my favorite (non-Godzilla) monster, but the movie is genuinely entertaining. And the fact that the story foreshadows the plots of so many modern sci-fi/horror movies is of historical interest.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens

A few weeks ago we bought Monsters vs. Aliens on DVD. We hadn't seen it yet, but the trailers looked hilarious. Fortunately, the movie was not only as funny as the trailers made it out to be, but it was even more clever than I could have hoped.

What really made the movie for me was the number of homages to various sci-fi movies and cliches that they fit into it. And these homages weren't just limited to better known movies like Independence Day (which was mostly spoofed by perfectly recreating the force-field effect from that movie) or Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the famous five-note tune from that movie shows up). The movie also extensively spoofs classic sci-fi films that only nerds such as myself recognize. For example, in one scene a character grows to gigantic proportions and is subdued by the military, which injects her with a giant syringe of anesthesia. Before she passes out, she pulls out the syringe and throws it to the ground where it lands immediately at the feet of one of the soldiers. This is an homage to the Amazing Collosal Man [1957], in which the titular collosal man is also hit with a giant syringe. He also pulls it out and throws it to the ground, except the syringe impales a soldier rather than landing at his feet.

The monsters themselves are homages to classic '50s and '60s monsters: Bob (obviously "the Blob" [1958]), Dr. Cockroach ("The Fly" [1958]), The Missing Link (a more talkative version of "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" [1954]), Insectosaurus ("Mothra" [1961]), and Ginormica ("the Amazing Collosal Man" [1957]/"the 50 Foot Woman" [1958]). In at least one case, if you know the gimmick of the monster that's being spoofed (that is "Insectosaurs" as a "Mothra" analog) you can actually guess the nature of a certain surprise twist at the end of the movie. I thought the cleverest gag was the spoof of the old injured-ankle cliche, but with the male/female role reversed. I'm going to guess that about 5% or less of the movie's viewers got the joke.

Rarely am I pleasantly surprised by a movie; usually the best I can hope for is that my expectations are met. However, I enjoyed Monsters vs. Aliens much more than I expected I would. The best part is that the writers put in plenty of good stuff to entertain those who wouldn't recognize the movie references that I mentioned above. My kids, who aren't exactly classic sci-fi connoisseurs, loved the movie and have already watched it several times.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Long Day at Work

I worked a 12 hour shift today to witness the results of almost a year's worth of planning (not a whole year; the project was put on hold for a few months when other projects were re-prioritized). The project began in November 2008 when a major piece of equipment failed in a small but critical way. Shortly afterward, four other engineers and myself in our group were given the task of fixing the equipment. However, within a year three of the engineers were put on other tasks, leaving me as the sole engineer dedicated to the project with a second engineer helping out when he could.

Now the first and most grueling phase of the work is done, which has left me both relieved and a little disappointed. I'm relieved that the work went more smoothly than almost anything I've ever seen at our facility thanks to extensive preparation and training. I'm also relieved that all levels of our management seem very pleased with the results thus far. However, I'm disappointed that the bulk of the past year's efforts were spent in preparation for about 14 hours worth of work. Of course much of that preparation was in planning the process and designing the equipment that made those 14 hours of work possible. However, it just seems like that much effort should translate into more than a few hours of physical work.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Blogging Month

Once again it's National Blogging Month. It was during November of last year that I started this blog, which has suffered from a serious degree inattention lately. My wife has challenged me to blog every day this month, which I've already failed at since I didn't post anything yesterday. I think if I post 75% of the time this month, I'll consider myself successful.


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