Saturday, December 31, 2011

Movie Review: The Violent Years (1956)

This Christmas I received Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volumes XXI and XXII. My mother and I have made it a tradition to watch at least one MST3K episode whenever my parents visit. On their first night in town we watched the awful Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and on their last night we watched the juvenile delinquent film The Violent Years (1956) written by Ed Wood.

The plot of The Violent Years is somewhat similar to I Accuse My Parents (1944), which was also an MST3K subject. In both films, a teenager ends up in a life of crime due to his or her parents' "neglect". Both films include lengthy (and I mean lengthy) lectures from a judge, with the majority of the action occurring as flashbacks.

I write "neglect" with quotation marks because neither set of parents is particularly bad, nor could you really say that they're at fault for what their offspring did. Young Jimmy Wilson's parents in I Accuse My Parents are often drunk and irresponsible, but they're never abusive. And Jimmy is actually a pretty good kid. His criminal activity mostly involves delivering and receiving packages for the owner of a nightclub where a girl he's trying to impress is the lead singer. Jimmy is never directly informed that their contents are illegal or ill-gotten. Jimmy doesn't even realize what is going on until near the end of the movie.

This situation is even more ludicrous in the case of The Violent Years' Paula Parkins. Paula's father is a newspaper chief and her mother is often busy with her charity work. For heaven's sake, dad is working like just about any other '50s father and mom is raising money for charity! How is this neglect? Paula is able to visit her father at the office and is given a warm welcome while mom usually seems to be around the house. Her parents obviously love her and are extremely generous. In fact, at one point Paula is given a blank check just in case the boy with whom Paula is about to go on date can't cover the evening's costs. Apparently her parents' worst offenses against her are that dad always gives her a new watch for her birthday that is often delivered by one of his reporters and mom always gets her a new car. Mike and the 'bots often remark on the truly "hellish life" Paula leads.

Unlike Jimmy, it turns out that Paula is a rotten apple from the start and is actually the leader of a gang of female hoodlums. Immediately after receiving the check and seeing mom out the door, Paula picks up the phone and arranges their next heist; the armed robbery of a gas station. Following the robbery, miscellaneous crimes ensue, including an attack on a man and his girlfriend. The girlfriend is left tied up with strips of her own dress (the girls need to learn better knot tying techniques since the girlfriend is able to escape within minutes) while the man is dragged into the forest and is further "attacked". Although this is an exploitation film, it was still released in 1956 and still had to get past the Hays Office. Thus, the nature of the attack is obvious but is never explicitly spelled out. However, it's not ruled out that Paula's "delicate condition" (I love '50s euphemisms) at the end of the film may be the result.

Although the gang is supposed to be the cause of a reign of terror, most of the film's running time is taken up with padding: the cops' inability to trace the robbers, Paula's use of her father's inside sources to discover where the police will be setting up traps for the gang, a pajama party, etc. All this time the film tries, and completely fails, to convince us that Paula became a criminal because of her parents. Her motivations seem to have less to do with uninvolved parents and more with thrill-seeking.

The climax of the film occurs when the woman to whom the girls sell their stolen goods gives them a job from a "foreign interest". Apparently this foreign interest is willing to pay a significant amount of money for the gang to vandalize a few schoolrooms. They are even told that they shouldn't go easy on any US flags they may find. This being the mid-fifties, it's pretty obvious that the unseen party is meant to be some sort of communist group. I'm not exactly fond of communism, but even I find it hilarious that the fact that the girls are willing to take a job from the Reds is meant to show that they have become truly irredeemable. It's also nonsensical. Why would communist infiltrators actually pay to have schoolrooms vandalized? The girls' contact is a small time fence that buys any jewelry they steal; why would she even have communist contacts? It goes without saying that the mystery commies are never heard from again.

The extremely tame trashing of the schoolroom includes knocking over chairs, throwing a globe out a window, throwing books on the floor, and *gasp* erasing the chalkboard (fiends!). I assume that the film's budget could only afford two panes of candy glass for the girls to break. Just as one of them goes to lay her hands on Old Glory, the cops arrive. The gang starts a shootout with the cops (over vandalism?), which results in the deaths of a cop and two of the girls. (Raise your hand if you knew that the girl who was about to destroy the flag was the first to get shot.) [Correction: on a second viewing of the movie, I realized that the one who was going to damage the flag was the second one to be shot. The first was the one that hated school.] The Violent Years taught me that you can take a fatal blast to the gut from a shotgun without getting any blood on your white shirt.


Paula and the other surviving gang member make a break for their contact's house. The contact is horrified that the girls killed a cop and threatens to call the police... with very predictable results. Eventually Paula and the other girl end up in another car chase, they crash into a storefront window, and the other girl is killed. Paula is treated for her wounds, after which she is tried for her crimes and is sentenced to life in prison. A short while later, Paula's parents visit her in the prison hospital where she cries that she doesn't want her child to be born in a place like that. Once she comes due, she gives birth to a healthy baby girl. Since this is a 1950s exploitation movie, the audience has to see that Paula gets her just desserts; she dies during childbirth for no apparent reason.

It is at this point that, with no small measure of despair, the viewer notices that there are still about 10 minutes or so left in the movie/MST3K episode. Now The Violent Years is not a long movie. According to IMDB, the film originally ran for about 65 minutes. The MST3K episode had to include the short A Young Man's Fancy (1952) just to meet the usual episode running time. That means that the film is about to end with a glut of padding that represents nearly 15 to 20% of the film's total length. This is pretty common in b-movies where the filmmakers were forced to insert last minute material into their movies to get them up to the 60+ minute running time that was typical for feature length films of the period.

In a monologue that could only have been written by Ed Wood, the judge denies the right of Paula's parents to take custody of her orphaned daughter, relegating her to a state home instead. The judge lectures the parents in a long and rambling discourse on parental responsibility, the importance of religion, and the need to discipline one's children (which includes the use of the "old fashioned woodshed"!). During this scene, the viewer is subjected to a montage of stock footage as well as highlights from all the gang's crimes (the aforementioned attack on the man and his girlfriend is given extra attention here). I hadn't noticed how much padding was spread throughout the film until the movie itself showed that all its exciting scenes could be compressed into a five minute time span. Only Mike and the 'bots make the movie bearable.
D+

Monday, December 26, 2011

An MST3K Christmas


A few years ago I started a tradition of watching a Christmas-themed episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Christmas night. This is the perfect way for self-loathing b-movie fans to punish themselves when they feel that Santa Claus has shown them too much leniency.

At first I would watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), which was included in the MST3K Essentials Collection released in 2004 (it's now out of print and selling for about $68 used on Amazon.com). In 2009 they released MST3K Volume XVI, which included the Mexican-produced Santa Claus (1959). I tend to alternate between the two. It's one thing to be a regular viewer of bad movies, but when you ritualistically subject yourself to the same ones, it's possibly a sign of mental illness. Of the two films, I think Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is probably worse. When I watched Santa Claus this year, Mrs. Atomic Spud was only able to get through the first 15 minutes (and very nearly went insane in the process). I've been too kind to expose her to Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

A movie where Santa doesn't
have the silliest costume
In Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, the Martians realize that their children have become absolutely joyless. They only seem to respond to television signals from Earth that depict the upcoming journey of Santa Claus. With the help of their robot (their awful, awful robot), the Martians kidnap Santa Claus and take him to Mars. It is during this scene where the film attempts to depict Santa as simultaneously innocent and wise while actually making him look befuddled and/or merely stupid. Santa seems relatively unconcerned that a "robot" *snicker* has burst into his shop, that the Martian rayguns appear to have paralyzed Mrs. Claus and the elves, or that he's being kidnapped by aliens. I'm sure that the filmmakers intended to show that Santa was unflappable and was confident that everything would work out for the best, but he just comes across as too stupid to really mind the occasional extraterrestrial abduction. Also along for the ride are two human children that inadvertently gave away the location of Santa's workshop.

The Martians' dreaded cardboard
and vacuum-hose robot
It's during this time that we meet the film's comic relief, Dropo. This character is the source of 90% of the pain delivered by the movie. Forcing myself to watch Dropo's antics annually/biennially is my penance for every time I ever teased my younger sister. In my brief review of Catalina Caper, I noted that MST3K avoided comedies because bad comedies, by definition, are not funny. Dropo is not funny. His capering is not funny, his pratfalls are not funny, and his "comic" misunderstandings and stupidity are not funny.

Anyway, Santa and the two children end up making toys for the Martian children, which makes them and Kimar (King of the Martians) very happy. However, Voldar, who tried to kill Santa Claus shortly after they kidnapped him, believes that this will make Martian children soft and weak and sabotages the toys. Voldar is eventually defeated after he abducts Dropo (who now dresses like his new hero, Santa Claus) believing that the imbecile is Santa himself. The plot is foiled and Voldar is subdued when he is pelted with toys (apparently the hailstorm of toys thrown by children was simply so overwhelming that he couldn't bring to bear his unholstered raygun). Dropo takes over for Santa on Mars (meaning that the Red Planet can have its own idiot in a red suit), Santa is allowed to return home, and the most important part of Christmas (i.e., getting presents from Santa) is saved.

Poor Leonard Hicks
The funniest thing about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is how differently the actors portray their roles. Santa Claus (John Call) spends most of the time chuckling and treating his Martian captivity as just another amusing event (and never seems to notice that the villain is trying to kill him), Voldar (Vincent Beck) plays his villainous character as over-the-top as possible, and Dropo (Bill McCutcheon) nearly screams "LOOK HOW FUNNY I AM!" while being agonizingly unfunny. The poor Kimar (Leonard Hicks), on the other hand, plays his part entirely straight. He plays his role as the ruler of an alien civilization that has found itself in a crisis in an entirely serious manner. In other words, his presence in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is incongruous with the rest of the film. He really should be playing the sympathetic alien in a '50s sci-fi invasion flick somewhat along the lines of Exeter in This Island Earth (1955). Either every other actor except Hicks realized how absurd the movie was and decided to ham it up, or Hicks was a consummate professional who would play any role, no matter how lame, to the best of his ability. I prefer to think it was the latter.

The bad Christmas
movie for 2011
Santa Claus teaches us that Claus' shop is actually in a palace atop a cloud somewhere well above the Earth's North Pole, that his reindeer are windup toys, that he employs children from around the world rather than elves, and that his greatest nemesis is the Devil. Santa uses a variety of machines that not only look in on children's behavior, but can actually spy on their dreams. (Raise your hand if you'd feel comfortable having your behavior judged by the content of your dreams.)

The first 10 to 15 minutes of the film present us with Santa playing tunes from a variety of nations on his pipe organ while his child laborers sing along in their native language. This excruciating sequence will make you wish you were listening to "It's A Small World" instead. And to make it worse, it's completely irrelevant to the plot. We will also get acquainted with the film's omniscient narrator, who simply won't shut up.

Finally, Santa prepares to leave on his annual journey, which gives us such gems as his windup mechanical reindeer. The reindeer are utterly bizarre and are more nightmarish than whimsical. We also find out that if Santa doesn't return to his palace by sunrise, the reindeer will turn to dust and Santa Claus will starve to death. In the meantime, one of the Devil's chief demons, Pitch, prepares to ruin Claus' mission. Although he says that he'll do this by tempting all the world's children into being bad, the least effective devil in Lucifer's army manages to convince a grand total of three brothers to throw rocks at a window and to hatch a plot to capture Santa. The devil's Plan B is apparently to delay Santa until sunrise (I believe this is a common technique for defeating vampires, too).

Apparently Santa's natural adversary is the Devil

We're later told that Santa visited all the other nations, although it seems that he spends his whole time in Mexico. While there he teaches the three naughty brothers a lesson (their plot to capture him fails without ever being entertaining), gives a little rich boy what he really wants for Christmas (he wants his parents to spend time with him rather than going to parties all the time), and finally gives little Lupita the doll she's always wanted. Pitch's attempt to stall Santa fails with some help from Merlin... wait a minute; Merlin? What does Merlin have to do with Santa Claus?

Despite the horrendous opening and utter weirdness throughout, Santa Claus isn't quite as bad as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Pitch is a ridiculous slapstick character, but he's not as bad as Dropo. Santa Claus doesn't always seem too bright, but unlike his Martian-conquering counterpart, he shows some wisdom every once in a while (particularly when he fulfills the rich boy's wish). And some of the scenes with Lupita are good enough that they deserve to be in a better movie. I also have to admit some bias; I have a soft spot for Mexican movies given the two years I spent in Veracruz as an LDS missionary. Oddly enough, despite the movie's 1959 release date, the interior of Lupita's house resembles nearly 75% of all the homes I visited in southern Mexico.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays Merry Christmas!

It started as my Dad's pet peeve, and has since become mine. I do not celebrate "Holiday". Nobody celebrates "Holiday". Nobody's favorite holiday is "Holiday". Santa Claus does not bring "Holiday presents" in celebration of "Holiday". A "Holiday Tree" is an absurdity; no Western society that I'm aware of uses a tree to celebrate any holiday other than Christmas. For those who use the phrase to recognize other holidays, why not do so explicitly? "Happy Holidays" merely waters down the reason why most Westerners celebrate during the end of December while doing other beliefs the disservice of lumping them together into one non-specific (but Christmas-dominated) "Holiday". By the way, you have from now until December 28th to wish your Jewish friends a Happy Hanukkah.

I apologize to all my well-meaning friends who tend to use "Happy Holidays". Please don't construe this as an attack on you as I know you're simply employing the phraseology that has become the norm in America. However, a lot of us don't see the proliferation of "Happy Holidays" as an inclusive practice, but as one that has been deliberately and successfully pushed by certain culturally and politically influential entities to be exclusive of Christianity or any of its outward trappings. It represents one of the earliest and most subtle attempts of the militantly secular (and often explicitly anti-Christian) to strip Christmas of its meaning and origin. Note that no other widely celebrated holiday is considered so unacceptable by the purveyors of political correctness that it is being stripped of its name in a manner that would make Orwell's Ministry of Truth proud.

All other holidays that are widely celebrated in America are either secular (e.g., Independence Day) or have had most of their religious significance removed (e.g., Easter). Easter, which officially celebrates the resurrection of Christ, is the perfect example of extreme secularization of a nominally religious holiday. Even among many Christians the holiday has become identified more with anthropomorphized rabbits and chocolate eggs than it has with the empty tomb. (You know the forces of secularization have done their jobs well when even the believers can be distracted from the true meaning of their holiday.) However, with Christmas it's almost impossible to remove all traces of Christianity from it. Everybody, believer and nonbeliever, knows what the holiday that has "Christ" in its name is about.

Having gotten their foot in the door by making Christmas the "Holiday that Shall Not Be Named" and by convincing even the believers to use the new politically correct holiday greeting because it's "inclusive", these same entities are becoming even more overt in places like Santa Monica, California:
Across the fruitcaked plain in California, the city of Santa Monica allocated permits for "holiday" displays at Palisades Park by means of lottery. Eighteen of the 21 slots went to atheists — for example, the slogan "37 million Americans know a myth when they see one" over portraits of Jesus, Santa, and Satan.
The real-life Grinches not being content to simply remove all hints of Christianity from Non-Specific December Holiday, they have been working to eliminate even highly secularized symbols of Christmas. Although Santa Claus' origin in the Christian saint, St. Nicholas, has been effectively buried, there have been various attempts throughout the United States to actually ban the mere presence of Santa [a couple examples here and here]. Raise your hand if this brings to mind the Rankin-Bass Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town TV special. There have even been cases in which Christmas trees have been removed. It's becoming more and more difficult for people to claim that there isn't a War on Christmas in the United States.

Often I find myself missing the Christmas spirit I felt while I was an LDS missionary in Veracruz, Mexico. In Veracruz the meaning of the holiday was openly celebrated and over-the-top commercialism hadn't tried to ruin it.

Anyway, now that I've finished my annual War on Christmas diatribe, the Atomic Spud would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. And because the Atomic Spud is genuinely inclusive, I'd also like to wish a Happy Hanukkah to any Jewish readers (especially to my high school buddy Joe in San Diego).

On a related note, kudos to the Britain-based Games Workshop Web Team for explicitly wishing all us Warhammer and/or Warhammer 40,000 fanatics a Merry Christmas. From what I've heard, you are more likely to be wished a Merry (or Happy) Christmas in the much more secular Britain than you are in the more religious United States.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

More Blog Neglect

I had the feeling that posting on The Atomic Spud would be light when I moved all Warhammer 40,000 material to a dedicated 40K blog. I expect to be putting up some reviews soon (I just finished The Zombie Survival Guide). In the meantime, check out The Atomic Spud's Warhammer 40K Blog.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Competence

Earlier this year my boss praised me for accomplishing something that I consider to be one of my most basic tasks. Although it was an important and time-sensitive job, it had required less than 10 minutes to do. I looked at him oddly and asked why I deserved such a compliment. That actually flustered him slightly and he responded that not everyone would agree that completing such tasks correctly, on-time, and on a regular basis is easy.

That got me thinking about how often I've been overjoyed when others met my expectations. This definitely isn't limited to the workplace. For example, all I want at a restaurant is a waiter or waitress who keeps my water glass full, stops by a couple times to see if I need anything, and is reasonably civil; i.e., that they do their job. I've talked to many others who will recommend a business or the services of an individual, not because they go above and beyond, but because they simply do what is expected.

I've since coined a phrase that is becoming popular at work:
Mere competence is the new excellence.
How often have you praised a person or an organization for doing exactly what they said they would? Are you increasingly impressed by any book that has a minimum of spelling and grammatical errors? How much of a modern schoolchild's grade is based on the fact that they did an assignment rather than that they did it well? How many college credits have been "earned" effectively because students showed up and breathed the air?

Although this trend depresses me, I guess there is a bright side; it makes the accomplishments of those who strive to do a little better than average look a lot more impressive.

Dilbert.com

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Like Father, Like Son

My wife has been bugging me to post about Son of Atomic Spud since I haven't mentioned him much since he was born.

I love this ornament
After having three girls, it's a lot of fun to have a boy, especially now when things like superheroes and Star Wars are so popular. Since he's spent most of his life with a stuffed Yoda in his crib, "Yoda" was one of his first words. In fact, since he loves the character so much, Mom bought him this year's talking Yoda Hallmark Christmas ornament rather than a superhero ornament (we had decided that superheroes would be his theme last year).

Both my wife and I agree that it's more fun to dress up our boy than it ever was to dress up the girls. What I call the "geek-Renaissance" has made a lot of fun stuff available, as you can see here:

He's an engineering red shirt; the security red
shirts don't last long in Star Trek

I'm more of a Marvel fan than a DC fan,
but Superman's not too bad

As much as I like my shirt, I'm jealous of his

Friday, November 25, 2011

Even More Daddy-Daughter Bonding Time

Tonight, my second oldest daughter actually asked me if we could watch a '50s movie together. I had already showed them The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), its sequels, and the giant radioactive ant movie Them! (1954) and couldn't think of any '50s movies I had on hand that they might enjoy (I had forgotten that I also own The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)), so I recommended a '30s movie and put on King Kong (1933).

My daughters really enjoyed the movie, especially because they weren't expecting to see dinosaurs in addition to a giant ape. Despite having watched all three Jurassic Park films repeatedly, the girls are just as entertained by Willis O'Brien's stop-motion monsters as they are by Stan Winston's animatronic and computer-generated creatures. Of course, the funniest thing to me is that their favorite scenes seemed to be those that focus on the romance between first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) and Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) as well as those that feature King Kong fighting prehistoric reptiles. I guess I'm lucky that my girls like the giant monster violence in addition to the sappy stuff.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Atomic Spud's 40K Blog

I have maintained this blog, The Atomic Spud, since November 2008. Until recently I've used it primarily as a place for movie and book reviews, political commentary, and other (hopefully) amusing anecdotes from my life. Unfortunately, the blog was being overrun by Warhammer 40,0000, which appeals to a smaller audience than the other material. For that reason, I've started The Atomic Spud's Warhammer 40K Blog; a more appropriate place for Warhammer-themed posts. All the 40K-related posts that previously appeared on this blog have been reproduced there with some slight editing.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's Just a Game

Usually my wife takes our second daughter to her basketball games while I stay home with the other kids. Well, this time my daughter asked me to take her. She's not quite discovered how much I hate sports, but the games only last about 45 minutes, and I have to be able to say that I went to at least one game, so I agreed to take her. My mind tends to entertain itself in even the most boring of circumstances, so I figured that the worst that could happen would be that I'd get about 45 minutes to ponder issues of deep importance (i.e., what the next addition to my Warhammer 40K army should be).

Hmmm, Predator or Close Combat Terminators?

As can be expected for a league of 1st and 2nd graders that are just learning to play, no score is kept and the refereeing is somewhat loose. Although I'm not a sports fan, I wish they would keep score if only to teach kids that it's fun to win and not the end of the world if you lose. However, the kids are enthusiastic about it and the coaches encourage the kids to work to develop their skills. I couldn't help but to notice that the least talented among the 6 year olds can still dribble and shoot a basketball better than I ever could.

The vast majority of parents at the game were politely supportive of their kids. Since I'm psychologically incapable of cheering loudly or unironically (the best I can muster is a heartfelt "huzzah" under certain circumstances), I would smile at my daughter whenever she'd look my way. Fortunately, she understands that this is how Dad gives his support. Of course, as is bound to happen, there was one particularly loud and less than supportive parent there that didn't realize that a) it was just a friendly game in a kids league and b) that she was sitting within two feet of a person who is extremely sensitive to loud noise. Thanks to her I spent a lot of the game enjoying some nervous tics I developed a few years ago.

This woman was the perfect example of the rabid sports fan, which shouldn't be confused with the enthusiastic sports fan (e.g., my own parents). The existence of the rabid sports fan is one of the myriad reasons why I dislike sports. These are people who can't distinguish between what should be an enjoyable pastime and a matter of vital, life-threatening importance. In fact, the woman (I shall refer to her as "Rabid Mom") is the worst kind of rabid fan; the one who inflicts her flawed priorities on her child and ruins any possibility that he may actually enjoy himself. The outcome of the (unscored) game is unlikely to have any long-term effect on the course of his life, but his mother's attitude may very well destroy any love he has for playing sports or, even worse, may turn him into a rabid fan as well.

"Surely my continuous screaming will
improve my son's basketball performance"

Rabid Mom felt it necessary to spend most of the game yelling at her son, Mason, to "shoot it, shoot it, SHOOT IT!", "pass the ball!", and "get under the net!". Apparently she thought that yelling the most obvious of instructions (e.g., "Get the ball!") in an irate tone would make her son a better basketball player. On several occasions, Mason failed to pass or shoot fast enough and would run out the shot clock (yes, I didn't know what this rule was called and had to look it up). Of course this led to more yelling from Rabid Mom followed by mutterings of "D*** it, what's wrong with him? Why is he such a ball hog?". I would speculate that he thinks that he has to be the star of the team to gain mom's approval. I wonder where he could have gotten such an idea?

Unfortunately, my wife confirms that Rabid Mom isn't alone and that many of the games have seen other parents behave similarly. I have to admit that I am utterly perplexed that there are so many people who believe that this is appropriate behavior at a children's basketball game. The worst part is that they seem to be completely unselfconscious about it. Are they honestly so obsessed about the game that they fail to notice that nobody else is yelling at their son or daughter and that they're ruining the fun for everybody else?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New Warhammer 40K Model

Again I've neglected my blog in favor of Warhammer 40K. I finished my first figures, a squad of Tactical Marines, earlier this summer. I followed those up with a Terminator Squad and a Dreadnought walker. Now I've finally finished my first tank, of which I'm rather proud. The tank, a "Vindicator" model, carries a Demolisher cannon; the most powerful gun that the Space Marines can field. Since the dark future of 40K portrays mankind as having somehow reverted to a medieval culture that uses elements of the Latin language, I've named my Vindicator Vastator, which is Latin for "Destroyer". Yes, naming a tank "Destroyer" in Latin is the extent of my creativity.




Vastator actually participated in its first game last Saturday. It was mostly complete, although the winch holding the ridiculously large shell wasn't attached, several details weren't yet painted, and it was missing the final washes (the very thin coats that give the model its dirty look). It got off a single shot in the first turn, was stunned and unable to fire in the second, and was destroyed in the third. However, that single shot tore the heart out of B.'s command squad. The points value of the figures killed by one shot exceeded the points value of my tank and the loss of his command squad hampered the effectiveness of his army for the rest of the game. Once that happened, anything else Vastator could have done would have been icing on the cake.

Now that I've finished the Vindicator, I intend to move on to a squad of Sniper Scouts. And I expect to make another relatively pricey order at TheWarStore later this month to add a Predator tank to my collection as well as a few other squads of infantry.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Immaturity and Politics

It seems like almost all the recent political discussions I've taken part in online have decayed almost immediately into juvenile behavior and incoherent ranting. Until this morning I had posted every comment made on this blog, even those that disagreed with me. However, this morning I found that some brave individual calling himself "Anonymous" had decided that the proper response to this statement from my last post:
Liberals haven't changed for decades. They often call themselves "Progressives", but they simply repackage the same tired ideas from one year to the next while resorting to name-calling when they come up against someone who opposes their philosophies (e.g., "fascists", "racists", "deniers").
was the following tidbit of wisdom:
I would stop at just "fascist". Maybe I would call you a <%$#@> as well. Have a nice life.
I didn't post the comment directly since I will not tolerate obscenity on my blog. However, thank you Mr. or Ms. Anonymous for proving my point.

Name-calling does not constitute an argument and does more harm to one's position than good. It implies that your beliefs are so indefensible that only someone with the maturity level of a 10 year old could hold them (a foul-mouthed 10 year old if you're "Anonymous"). My dear Anonymous, in what way would you say my compatriots and I are fascists? Can you defend or support that statement? Can you refute my claim that Liberals resort to name-calling when they can't provide a cogent argument? Never mind that last item; you actually supported my statement by giving a concrete example.

"That mean old Atomic Spud challenged my beliefs
and hurt my feelings. He's a poo-poo head!"

Oh, and the "have a nice life" is the icing on the cake. It's impossible not to imagine this being said by a petulant, pouting teenager trying to get in the last word before slamming her bedroom door.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Few Thoughts On Politics

There was a time, B40K, when I actually commented frequently on politics. However, I realized that Warhammer 40,000 is simply more interesting because of the variety of characters and figures, the imagination involved in the game's sci-fi background, and the variation from one game to the next. Politics, on the other hand, are extraordinarily predictable. Liberals haven't changed for decades. They often call themselves "Progressives", but they simply repackage the same tired ideas from one year to the next while resorting to name-calling when they come up against someone who opposes their philosophies (e.g., "fascists", "racists", "deniers"). The Left clearly fits Einstein's definition of insanity by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. How many times has the President pushed additional stimulus bills even after the first failed so spectacularly? Heck, how many Liberal ideas have been tried since Woodrow Wilson's and Franklin Roosevelt's presidencies and been shown to be utterly ineffective? Obama's Keynesian approach to the economy might as well be called New Deal 2.

Although it's often forgotten, both Wilson and Roosevelt used crises (i.e., World War I and the Great Depression, respectively) as an excuse to exercise an unprecedented amount of power over the economy (Liberal Fascism provides an excellent overview of the policies of these two presidents). Apparently some Liberals are tired of waiting for another major war or genuine depression to repeat this; there are a number of them who have decided that democracy is in the way and have publicly stated that Obama should declare marshal law or a state of emergency and pass his policies in dictatorial fashion. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. is the latest to do so. If a Republican or a Conservative had said that a Right-leaning president should do such a thing (especially if that Conservative were an elected representative), the mainstream media would be trumpeting it from the rooftops. However, I often get the impression that the far Left doesn't actually have a problem with dictatorship as long as that dictatorship implements their policies (look at how the Left fawns over Castro or Che). If Jackson's thinking weren't representative of the Left's actual way of thinking, I would have expected some sort of condemnation of his statement by now.

And then there's the Republican Party, which seems bound and determined to destroy itself. Obama's mishandling of... well, just about everything, should be a gift from the heavens for the GOP. But I expect the Party to completely squander the opportunity, as it often does. I'm still wary of my own party ever since it spent money like a drunken sailor (i.e., became Democrats-light) in the early 2000s. And I'm baffled by many of the candidates/potential candidates that the GOP has put forward over the past few election cycles. Haven't we figured out by now that professional politicians won't govern by the Conservative principles that we claim to cherish? The best politicians are few and far between because they are often those who accept the position reluctantly (e.g., George Washington). It's been said that a true Conservative politician would have to be drafted and dragged from his or her home to serve in Congress. Right now it seems like the person who is closest to the Conservative ideal is Herman Cain. Unfortunately it seems like many have decided that he's unelectable because... um... because it's been decided that he's unelectable, I guess. Supposedly the problem with Cain is that he's never held public office before. Honestly, that's not a bug, it's a feature. I've liked Cain since the earliest GOP debates and am encouraged by the recent polls showing him to be a frontrunner. Either way, I know who I'll be voting for come primary time.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Another Warhammer 40K Death Match

B. very selfishly ran off to Hawaii with his wife last weekend, so this past Saturday marked two weeks without playing a game of 40K. However, last night we were finally able to get together for yet another round of our favorite unhealthy obsession. Saturday night's game of 40K was notable for a few reasons. First, it was our first game played at my home rather than at B.'s. Second, it was my first game played entirely with my own figures rather than with a mix of my models supplemented by some of B.'s. Finally, I showed that an army of standard Space Marines can take on the elite Grey Knights and make it an extremely close fight.

This time around I took the "Sir Robin" approach to the battle; i.e., I bravely ran away while shooting everything I had. Since the Grey Knights are geared towards close combat rather than a shooting fight, this approach significantly leveled the playing field. I lost by a small margin, but the game could have ended very differently if a single dice roll had resulted in a three instead of a two. My Dreadnought simply needed to score one more hit against B.'s Dreadknight, after which it could have turned its heavy weapon against his remaining two Knights. Unfortunately, I had burned up a lot of my luck earlier in the game, the shot missed, and the Dreadnought was forced into close combat with the Dreadknight. The two Dreads duked it out and annihilated each other. Considering that his model was worth a lot more points than mine, I wasn't too sad about the outcome of that particular fight.

Dreadnought vs. Dreadknight: Grudge match of the week

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Movie Review: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension (1984)

Although Netflix sent me this DVD back in June, I didn't get to it until now (once again, I blame Warhammer 40,000). Buckaroo Banzai has been a sci-fi cult classic since it was released in 1984. In fact, quite a few of those who created Star Trek: The Next Generation were fans of the movie and inserted various in-jokes into computer screens, starship dedication plaques, etc. I had thus thought that I would like the movie as much as I have so many other cult sci-fi movies. As it turned out, Buckaroo Banzai left almost no impression on me.

Buckaroo Banzai is a brain surgeon, particle physicist, and rock star. He is recognized the world over and has regular phone conversations with the U.S. president. His band also doubles as his lab assistants and, when necessary, his heavily armed strike team. This makes for a wacky premise that is so underplayed that it loses much of its humor. Sure he's supposed to be a brain surgeon, but we only see him perform a single surgery at the beginning of the movie and then his medical expertise is never really used again. He's supposed to be a rock star, but he performs only once in a New Jersey club. Most of the time he plays the part of a particle physicist that helps to perfect and test a method for traveling through solid matter by entering the "eighth dimension" (he only does this once in the first 15 minutes of the movie).

The plot primarily revolves around the efforts of a renegade faction of alien beings from "Planet 10" to steal the "oscillation overthruster"; the device that allows one to enter the eighth dimension. Apparently these aliens arrived on Earth years before by way of the eighth dimension and want to use the device to return to their homeworld to finish their rebellion. In the meantime, the aliens have established a company called "Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems" that has received a number of defense contracts. When Banzai's trip through a solid mountain via the eighth dimension becomes famous, another group of aliens realizes that the renegade leader might be able to return to Planet 10. They arrive in orbit and threaten to destroy the Earth in order to kill the renegades if Banzai can't capture him first.

Overall, the movie wasn't bad, but it wasn't that remarkable, either. I was never bored (the unpardonable movie sin), but it seemed like the movie squandered most of its potential. It wasn't funny enough to be a real comedy and the wackier elements of the story weren't played up enough to be effective. At the same time there was too much comedy for it to be taken as a more serious sci-fi film. John Lithgow, who plays a human scientist who was possessed by the aliens' leader during an early attempt to travel through the eight dimension, gets the most chuckles. But this is through Lithgow's over-the-top Italian accent and Mussolini impersonation, which get old fast.

Then there are the stray plot threads that come out of nowhere and go nowhere and cause the story to lose its focus. The most egregious of these is the revelation that Buckaroo Banzai's love interest is the long lost twin of his (deceased?, estranged?) first wife. Maybe these plot threads would have made more sense if the sequel that's mentioned at the end of the film had been made. Normally I would mourn an unmade sequel (e.g., The Rocketeer deserved a sequel, but its disappointing box office receipts killed it), but the thought of the promised Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League just isn't that exciting.
C+

Monday, September 5, 2011

My Poor, Neglected Blog

A few months ago my blog was averaging over 100 visits a day, thanks to Google. Well, I guess that Google's search algorithm is affected by how often you update your blog; I've since dropped to about 60 hits a day. I can only blame this on one thing: Warhammer 40,000.

Until B. introduced me to that infernal game (that wonderful, awesome game) I was on the Internet all the time. I actually knew what was happening in the world, I followed politics, I read b-movie reviews, and I updated my blog frequently. Now I don't even know what Republicans are running for president (not that it matters, I'd vote for him or her over Obama anyday), the list of B-Masters reviews that I need to catch up on has grown significantly, and my blog was updated only once last month (and then it was a 40K post). Netflix was the best entertainment-related thing ever during the B40K era ("Before Warhammer 40,000"). Now I've had a couple DVDs for nearly three months and I've still not watched them.

How can I not add this guy to my collection?
It's not like I'm playing the game all the time. In fact, we only play it once a week. However, since I'm actively building my army, I end up painting figures almost every night. This process takes a lot of time since I have an obsessive, perfectionist personality. I had told my wife that once my Space Marine army was built, I would have more time in the evenings. Unfortunately, 40K is addictive and B. and I have been talking about expanding the number of armies we have to add some variety to our games. Specifically, I've considered getting a Chaos Daemon army to complement B.'s Grey Knights (the Grey Knights are Space Marines who specialize in daemon-hunting).

So, I hope to get back into blogging by posting a few book and movie reviews, maybe a couple CD (i.e., mp3 album) reviews, and some political commentary... Oh, who am I kidding? This will probably be my only post for the month and I'll spend the rest of September building all of this stuff:


This is about $200 dollars worth of 40K stuff

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Another Warhammer 40K Post Mortem

mon·o·ma·ni·a /mänəˈmānēə/ Noun: Exaggerated enthusiasm for or preoccupation with one thing.

I just got back from yet another 40K game with B. Despite the fact that I lost again (it's hard to beat someone who's been playing it since he was 12), we both agreed that it was one of our best games. For me this was due, in part, to the fact that I fully chose my army without assistance from B. As usual I played my Space Marines while B. played the Xenomorph-like Tyranids. We both started with about 1200 points and he won the game with about 300 or 400 points left. My tactical errors were few (I kept using heavy troops to fire fragmentation missiles against hordes of low-point creatures rather than firing high strength krak missiles against individual high-point monsters). In the end, the game was close enough that it was determined as much by lucky/unlucky dice rolls as by skill.

The results of the most recent game were in sharp contrast to my last two games, in which I felt like my performance was very poor. Unfortunately I've proven to be a very defensive player but I've chosen a 40K army that tends to work better when used aggressively. At B.'s suggestion I've been gearing my own army towards a slightly more defensive stance than the army that I've been borrowing from him while also playing more aggressively. Thus, I've started using a Devastator squad with long range missile launchers to harass his army while simultaneously attacking at close range with troops equipped for close assaults.



Speaking of my army, it's grown substantially in recent weeks, which meant that I only had to borrow a few models to play a 1200 point game. Most recently I completed a Space Marine captain; my most elaborate figure and the one who proved to be tonight's MVP when he stood toe-to-toe with two hive tyrants (cumulatively worth three to four times as many points as the captain) and killed one of them before being messily devoured.

Soon my army will be positively monstrous. I expect to complete a five man terminator squad before next week's game and a Dreadnought before the following game. But that's just the tip of the iceberg: over the past month I've accumulated quite a sum of money from a portion of an award I received at work, a little bit of money I earned working overtime, and my usual monthly allowance. This past week my wife placed a fairly large order for me that will more than triple the point value of my army. Although I won't admit how much I spent on 40K models this week alone, an incredulous coworker commented that I could have bought a high-end video game system for that much money (I can honestly say that I've had more fun building models and playing 40K than I've ever had playing a video game). My coworker was even more amazed when I told him that I had spent several times that amount over the five years that I was collecting Star Wars Legos. And since new 40K models are released every few years rather than every few months, as Legos are, this week's purchase will form the bulk of my army. I have plans to build a few more squads, but nothing like the bulk purchase I just made.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

"The Shifting Definition of Tolerance"

The nuclear family under attack
I was recently reading an essay adapted from an address given by Bruce D. Porter at Brigham Young University. The subject was on defending the traditional family, which has often caused controversy for Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As pointed out by Porter, the Church and its members are often accused of intolerance when they advocate the traditional definition of the family. In the excerpt below, Porter discusses how the definition of tolerance has shifted in recent decades:
Until recently in our national history, tolerance referred to racial and religious non-discrimination. It meant civility in the political arena; in other words, respecting the right of others to express their views, even if we do not agree with them. It meant treating all people with decency and respect. Such tolerance is an important and vital part of our American heritage.

Today, however, the world is in danger of abandoning all sense of absolute right or wrong, all morality and virtue, replacing them with an all-encompassing “tolerance” that no longer means what it once meant. An extreme definition of tolerance is now widespread that implicitly or explicitly endorses the right of every person to choose their own morality, even their own “truth,” as though morality and truth were mere matters of personal preference. This extreme tolerance culminates in a refusal to recognize any fixed standards or draw moral distinctions of any kind. Few dare say no to the “almighty self” or suggest that some so-called “lifestyles” may be destructive, contrary to higher law, or simply wrong.

When tolerance is so inflated out of all proportions, it means the death of virtue, for the essence of morality is to draw clear distinctions between right and wrong. All virtue requires saying no firmly and courageously to all that is morally bankrupt.

Curiously enough, this new modern tolerance is often a one-way street. Those who practice it expect everyone to tolerate them in anything they say or do, but show no tolerance themselves toward those who express differing viewpoints or defend traditional morality. Indeed, their intolerance is often most barbed toward those of religious conviction. But let there be no misunderstanding or deception: the First Amendment right of free speech applies to religious speech as well as to other kinds of speech. Believers of all faiths have every right to participate in and share their convictions in the public arena.
I agree wholeheartedly with Porter's statement.

The last paragraph of the excerpt reminds me of the experience of Californian Mormons a few years ago. In 2008 I mentioned that Mormons in California were facing a lot of resistance based on the Church's support of Proposition 8 [here and here]. Gay marriage supporters were even going as far as using California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) to attack the Church. Apparently they like the idea of 'free speech for me, but not for thee'. From what I've heard from my parents, who live in Southern California, although Proposition 8 may have been passed three years ago and been overturned by a Federal District Court last year (although the ruling has been stayed), Church members in California are still being harassed.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Book Reviews

[These reviews originally appeared on www.goodreads.com]

The World's Worst Weapons: From Exploding Guns to Malfunctioning MissilesThe World's Worst Weapons: From Exploding Guns to Malfunctioning Missiles by Martin J. Dougherty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Exactly as the title says, this book is about the world's worst weapons. Each weapon gets its own two page spread with photos and/or drawings, a description of what made the weapon bad, information on its country of origin, and the year(s) in which it was developed or used. Several of the weapons are definitely worse than others, with some actually rising to the level of simple mediocrity. But the bad ones are truly bad (how could anyone have thought that a tank with only a few inches of ground clearance could possibly be adequate?). A wide variety of weapons are covered, ranging from ancient and medieval melee weapons to the Davy Crockett atomic recoilless gun with its suicidally short range.

Although a lot of good information is presented, the book has several typos and formatting errors. Each weapon has a data box which lists several categories such as date of use, weight, etc. On several pages the category header doesn't line up with the relevant data (e.g., the header says "weight" but instead gives you the weapon's range). A few times the flag used to show the nation of origin doesn't match the nation of origin as written in the text.

As an inexpensive book meant to provide entertainment for military history buffs, The World's Worst Weapons is a worthwhile read. It's unfortunate that an embarrassing number of obvious errors distract from the book's overall value.

View all my reviews

Guilty: Liberal 'Victims' and Their Assault on AmericaGuilty: Liberal 'Victims' and Their Assault on America by Ann Coulter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's good be be a victim in America, argues Ann Coulter. Using a variety of media sources, polls, etc., Coulter shows that liberals have carefully created special classes that they claim to be victims of whites, capitalism, the wealthy, males, or any other politically unpopular class, race, philosophy, etc. (Coulter emphasizes that what she is talking about is above and beyond the real racism or prejudice that rational people acknowledge has actually happened.) However, in the process of trying to right the "wrongs" that these classes have supposedly suffered, liberals actually create real victims by extorting apologies, money, status, or favors out of less favored groups.

The best description of Guilty is that it's an Ann Coulter book. Coulter is excellent at preaching to the choir. If you already agree with her, as I often do, you will find her remarks funny, witty, and spot-on. Those who don't agree with her will find the book grating and her humor irritating and insulting. Coulter's style is simply too confrontational to actually convert anyone to her point of view.

I liked Guilty quite a bit, but I didn't find it as eye-opening as her earlier Treason. The evidence Coulter uses to prove her thesis will be familiar to anyone who pays attention to American politics; there's not a whole lot of new information here. The end of the book also seems to come abruptly, as if Coulter simply ran out of things to say and didn't feel like providing a satisfactory summary or conclusion. However, Coulter's wit makes Guilty an entertaining and worthwhile read.

View all my reviews

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Miscellanea, Part II

Warhammer 40K
B. and I played two scenarios last weekend between his Grey Knights and my Space Marines. In the first I attempted to defend one quarter of the board while he set up on the opposite corner. I was allowed 30% more troops while he was allowed to set up after I did while also making the first move (usually the one who sets up first is the one who goes first). I made the mistake of setting up too close to his position, which allowed his Knights to charge directly into my forces. The Grey Knights are good in a shooting fight but are excellent in close combat. Since my forces outnumbered his Grey Knights, I had the advantage of having significantly more guns on the board. Unfortunately, I couldn't benefit from this because he was able to charge into close combat almost immediately.

In the second scenario we played a quick 400 point game B. called a "soul grinder". This time I was smarter and used my scouts to their fullest extent while taking advantage of the number of guns I had. This game turned out a lot different.

Dear Neighbor...
Late last Sunday night you apparently liked your music so much that you thought that the entire neighborhood should hear it. And I do mean the entire neighborhood; from the short walk I took to try to find your house I realized that you must live at least a block or two away. Please remember that a) a lot of your neighbors have to get up before 5 AM to catch the bus for work and b) nobody wants to hear your music no matter what time of day it is. When I finally get my telekinetic powers I intend to use them to explode your speakers... and your head.

On Debt Reduction
So President Obama seems to be willing to reduce the deficit only if he can raise taxes. Why is it that he's only willing to talk about debt reduction if he is also allowed to raise taxes? I can only guess that he intends to use the increased revenue to justify even greater spending down the road. Well, the theoretically increased revenue; raising taxes often damages the economy and can be absolutely devastating during a recession. Is Obama even capable of making a decision that isn't utterly inept?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This Day In History: The Apollo 11 Moon Landing

On this day in 1969 Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon in the Lunar Module Eagle. Mission pilot Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit in the Command Module Columbia.

Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours and 31 minutes on the lunar surface before returning to Columbia. Although Collins' contribution is overshadowed by that of his compatriots, he played a vital role in the success of the mission. Later astronauts would spend over three days on the surface.

I don't think mankind has done anything quite as cool since then.

Monday, July 4, 2011

My Parents Laughed at Me

Saturday night we made a video call to my parents. As usual they asked how things were going with each of us. When they asked how I was doing, I showed off my recently completed 40K squad. I guess I was a little too enthusiastic about them because it didn't take long for my mother to start laughing. She said that it was the cutest I'd been since I was 12.

My parents are great people (saintly, actually, since they tolerated me for 18+ years). Unfortunately, they're also fairly normal. You know the kind: they watch sports, they read popular novels, they watch a wide variety of movies, my dad likes to work in the yard, they enjoy going to the beach, etc. My mother's only deviation is that she likes to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 with me. Although my general personality and physical features indicate that I wasn't switched at birth, my parents still can't figure out where I came from.

My squad understands me

My parents know me pretty well, and they know I have a tendency to obsess about things. Of course my wife has been telling them about my latest hobby/unhealthy fixation, so my parents couldn't help but to tease me about it. They asked me how I liked the game, how it's played, how I do against my friend, etc. And every time I said that I needed to add an assault squad, or a tank, or any other model to my army they would emphasize the word "need". "Oh, so you need a tactical squad," or "you need a Land Raider," they would say.

I know that Fate will play a cruel joke on me and make my children normal too. Then both my parents and my kids will look at me with a mix of amusement and perplexity.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

First Warhammer 40K Figures

Obviously I've been neglecting my blogging recently. Under other circumstances I would have blogged extensively since my wife and kids met with my parents in St. George a few weeks ago while I had a b-movie and Mythbusters marathon at home. And the seven hours of Warhammer 40,000 that I played with my friend (6:30 PM to 1:30 AM) while the wife and kids were on vacation would normally have merited at least a few words (as it happened, B. absolutely killed me in the first game; I won the second game by a small margin). However, I've simply not been online a whole lot ever since I started working on my 40K army in earnest.

Up until recently all my hobbies were computer related (e.g., blogging). However, as I've mentioned before, I've recently gotten into 40K and have been playing it almost weekly. Until now I've been playing with B.'s space marine figures while intending to build up my own army. For someone whose longest-lasting hobby was building model airplanes and the occasional ship, much of the appeal of 40K is the fact that you build and paint your own playing pieces. Most of these pieces are about an inch tall, although monsters like the Tyranid Hive Tyrant can be several inches tall. The models are highly customizable and the game's "fluff" (i.e., the extra background story that helps to make the game so much fun) says that the space marines' power armor is highly customized and personalized such that no suit of armor is identical to another. Thus, a squad of ten marines will have ten figures that are all somewhat unique, making them particularly fun to build.

Last Sunday, after weeks of preparation and practice, I finished my first space marine figure. This particular figure was part of a five man squad that came in a 40K beginner's paint set. While it's not nearly as impressive as the professionally painted figures in Games Workshop's catalogs, I'm still fairly proud of it. I was bound and determined to have the rest of the squad finished in time for Friday night's game so I had a marathon painting session from 6:30 PM Thursday evening to 2:00 AM Friday morning with an additional few hours of work before lunchtime. That night I faced my friend's Tyranid army in a four hour slog (our longest game yet). Of course my new squad was wiped out during the game, which I lost. However, it was one of our best yet and I managed to kill all but about 200 points of his 1250 point army. The fact that my newly finished figures were wiped out in their first game reminds me of this comic.

The first of five

My poor marine was dismembered by a Tyranid Hormagaunt

I keep all my painting materials in a single box that I can put out of reach of little hands. This box has since come to be known as the "Warhammer Happy Fun Box".

The Warhammer Happy Fun Box

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Government and "High-Speed" Rail

In my last post, I mentioned that politicians keep spending vast quantities of money on things they don't understand. Commuter trains are yet another costly thing that politicians don't understand. It seems that one of their most recent obsessions is with "high-speed" rail projects. Even President Obama has been pushing these pork-barrel projects in the past couple years.

A few years ago the voters in a number of states were duped into approving the installation of high-speed rail systems between certain major cities. However, as costs spiral out of control in a bad economy, it is slowly coming to light that many of the assumptions made to justify the projects were unrealistic. The trains are likely to carry fewer passengers than was predicted for a lot more than was expected. For example, California's proposed new rail system has approximately doubled in price while the early ridership estimates used to determine whether or not the train could operate without additional subsidies are new believed to be too high.

According to this article, Iowa has a similar problem:
The Federal government is again offering money it does not have to entice a state (Iowa) to spend money that it does not have on something it does not need. The state of Iowa is being asked to provide funds to match federal funding for a so-called "high speed rail" line from Chicago to Iowa City. The new rail line would simply duplicate service that is already available. Luxury intercity bus service is provided between Iowa City and Chicago twice daily. The luxury buses are equipped with plugs for laptop computers and with free wireless high-speed internet service. Perhaps most surprisingly, the luxury buses make the trip faster than the so-called high speed rail line, at 3:50 hours. The trains would take more than an hour longer (5:00 hours). No one would be able to get to Chicago quicker than now. Only in America does anyone call a train that averages 45 miles per hour "high speed rail."
It gets even better:
The state would be required to provide $20 million in subsidies to buy trains and then more to operate the trains, making up the substantial difference between costs and passenger fares. This is despite a fare much higher than the bus fare, likely to be at least $50 (based upon current fares for similar distances). By contrast, the luxury bus service charges a fare of $18.00, and does not require a penny of taxpayer subsidy.
I have a coworker who insists that Keynesian economics works because he believes that government planners can more efficiently manage the economy than the free market. To my coworker I would ask: does this all too typical situation affect your faith in government planning at all? If it doesn't, please refrain from voting during the next election.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Electric Cars Not So Green After All

Electric cars: more total
emissions than standard cars?
I love it when self-righteous environmentalists are made to look like fools. I got my day's worth of schadenfraude from this article on the environmental impact of "green" electric cars:
An electric car owner would have to drive at least 129,000 km [80,157 miles] before producing a net saving in CO2. Many electric cars will not travel that far in their lifetime because they typically have a range of less than 145 km [90 miles] on a single charge and are unsuitable for long trips. Even those driven 160,000 km [99,419 miles] would save only about a tonne [1.1 tons] of CO2 over their lifetimes.
As pretty much any engineer who has even a rudimentary understanding of the kind of batteries used in electric cars could tell you, a lot of energy goes into making those batteries. Thus:
... a mid-size electric car would produce 23.1 tonnes [25.5 tons] of CO2 over its lifetime, compared with 24 tonnes [26.4 tons] for a similar petrol car. Emissions from manufacturing electric cars are at least 50 per cent higher because batteries are made from materials such as lithium, copper and refined silicon, which require much energy to be processed.
Just as it does with nearly every other pie-in-the-sky environmental fad, the US Government is heavily subsiding electric cars such as the Chevy Volt. Politicians claim that they're doing this for environmental reasons, although I'm sure auto industry lobbyists and the United Auto Worker's Union also have a lot to do with it. Either way, this study shows us that our supposed representatives are again spending our money/our children's money on something they don't understand and that doesn't live up to its promises once you actually look into the messy details and unintended consequences.

I'm reminded of then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2004 State of the State address that encouraged Californians to switch to hydrogen-fueled cars. Why not, asks the politician, since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and it burns cleanly (the end result is water vapor)? Of course, a basic understanding of chemistry would tell you that the reactivity of hydrogen ensures that it's not found in an elemental state on Earth and that it therefore must be separated from whatever other element(s) it's attached to. This process usually requires a significant amount of energy. In addition, hydrogen is difficult to transport or store.

Whether the car is electrical or hydrogen powered, energy must be consumed to either charge the car or to create its fuel. Since about 68% of US electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels (with coal accounting for much of it), these alternative fuel vehicles are likely to actually increase total emissions since more "dirty" electricity would need to be produced to run "clean" cars. And, thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, the more energy conversions you introduce, the more inefficient your total process becomes. There are a number of conversion processes needed to run an electric car, each of them introducing significant inefficiencies; e.g., burning coal to heat steam, using steam to spin a generator, spinning a generator to produce electricity, using electricity to charge a battery, and using a battery to run a car's electric motor. In short, a huge amount of energy has to be produced at the beginning of the process just to provide the relatively small amount of useful energy needed to operate the car.

I think one of the best arguments for limited government is the fact that politicians regularly waste huge sums of money and force burdensome regulations or mandates on us based on insufficient or incorrect information. Should we really give so much power to a small group of elite ignoramuses?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Allergy Testing

Last week I went to the allergist, having been given a referral by my personal physician. I was there for a wonderful three hours, during which I was poked with needles and given injections to determine what I might be allergic to.

They started with the so-called "scratch test". This is a misnomer since I wasn't scratched; they pricked my back with 85 short needles that aren't long enough to cause bleeding, but are certainly long enough to hurt. Each needle was coated in a different common allergen. About 15 minutes after exposing me to the allergens, the physician's assistant came back to check on the results. Reactions were marked by itchy, swollen blotches and were given a rating from 1+ (mild reaction) to 4+ (very severe reaction) based on the size and appearance of the blotch.

Since people don't always respond to this type of test, I was retested on several allergens that didn't cause a reaction during the first test. This time they injected larger doses of the allergen under the skin of my upper arm with short hypodermic needles. This series of tests involved 26 allergens. It's hard to say whether the first or the second series of tests was more enjoyable.

Of the allergens that I was tested with, I responded to six of them. I had a 1+ reaction to alfalfa (something I'm never around), a 1+ with Utah Juniper (one of the most common trees in the area), and a 1+ with dog dander. I got a 3+ (severe reaction) with tobacco (good thing I don't smoke) as well as with household dust (uh oh). Finally, I had a 4+ reaction to cat dander.

I knew I had problems with cats since being in a room where a cat has been (it doesn't even need to be in the room at the same time) causes such a severe reaction that I need to take an inhaler. I also knew that I had problems with dust, although I didn't know that it would be considered severe. Unfortunately, our home is filled with dust collecting surfaces (e.g., dozens of Star Wars Lego sets, seven overflowing floor-to-ceiling bookcases, various flat surfaces) and the mere act of trying to clean them raises a cloud that leaves me wheezing.

Oddly enough, I don't think I know a single nerd that doesn't have at least a few significant allergies.

Monday, June 6, 2011

More Warhammer 40,000

The Dreadknight
On Friday night my friend (for brevity I'll simply call him "B.") and I played two games of 40K. For the first game B. fielded his brand new and still unpainted Grey Knights army. The Grey Knights are a specialized (and heavily armed) Space Marine chapter. His enormous "Dreadknight" killed four of my Raven Guard Space Marines in his first turn. A horrendous series of dice rolls utterly doomed my army, although at one point I came very close to killing the Dreadknight with a partially crippled tank. Next weekend I hope to do better against that particular army.

Space Marines vs. Space Marines

Captain Shrike didn't do
much for me this time
In the second game my marines faced off against a Tyranid swarm (a huge army of figures with relatively low point values) with significantly better results. B. did give me some general advice and allowed a do-over when I made a serious tactical error with Captain Shrike (a high value character who didn't end up doing a whole lot anyway), but I think my victory was mostly fair. Although I believe B. is coaching me mostly because he's a nice guy, I also think that he's motivated to train me into being a more challenging opponent. As I mentioned before, he hasn't really had anyone to play against in several years.

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