The Personal and Political Ramblings of one guy in Texas.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Sorta-Not-Quite Review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince 

Let's see if this works this time. Last time I tried typing up my thoughts on the latest Potter, a freakish bolt of lightning caused a power flicker that zapped my document, despite the fact I was certain I'd already hit the save button a time or two.

This is not really a review. This is more of a discussion of what I thought, good, bad, and interesting, for Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince. We were in California at the time it came out, and so we dutifully trekked out to the Torrance Barnes & Noble to get my seven-year old son's midnight copy (mine was pre-ordered from Amazon almost from first day you could pre-order). I put him to bed on our return, but he started in on it Saturday morning and finished it Sunday evening at 5:20pm. Then I picked it up, and starting from about chapter 8 (I had read the first seven chapters Saturday night after Jake went to bed) and read until I finished it around midnight, with a small break for dinner.

A page-turner it is without a doubt. We both enjoyed it. So let that be clear. I don't want to give any false impressions of my overall enjoyment if my dislike section gets too big.

So without further ado, a spoiler warning for The Half-Blood Prince and possibly the other five books as well…

Okay. I suppose I'll start with dislikes, since one has to start somewhere.

Much of has to do with romance. Amoure. Or perhaps hormones. Some of these folks are teenagers.

I felt the romance with Ginny Weasely was forced. Not that I dislike the Ginny character (she proved a spitfire in OotP) or disapprove of matchmaking (I'm not generally a 'shipper, but I do approve of a well-done romance). In many ways, Ginny is a great match for Harry. Clearly smart and tough (she fought with Dumbeldores Army at the Ministry), spirited (told him and her brothers off at different times), plays and enjoys Quidditch, and also obviously a bit of a looker, its hard not to see Ginny as a great catch. The problem is that we see no sign Harry has the slightest notice of Ginny as a girl until about a quarter of the way in to HBP when he sees her kissing someone. Suddenly he's head over heels. Part of what followed was well done, Harry's trying to ignore his feelings due to concern for his friendship with Ron, but in the end, Ginny's feelings for Harry came pretty much out of the blue as well. Okay, we are told that she continued to carry the torch for Harry we learned about way back in CoS, but the prior evidence of that was pretty minimal, to my thinking. The upshot of all this is, when we suddenly got the romance, there was no emotional payoff for this reader. Or not much of one, anyway.

Speaking of payoffs, have you noticed that Ron and Hermione are still frolicking 'round the notions counter, one-two-three? We've had three years of meaningful glances and odd comments, and still they aren't an item? Sheesh. And don't tell me those bits after Dumbeldore's funeral were it. Maybe, maybe not, but every one of those things are things you would do to comfort a friend, as oppsed to a romantic partner. I'll buy that means something when I finally see them snogging in the next book.

I was also rather disappointed in the situation with Tonks. It really looked like Something Was Up with Tonks, the way she turned up unexpectedly (I know, she was part of the team watching Harry/Hogwarts, but still, why always her instead of another Auror?), and looking pretty out of it. Only we find out she was just pining for Lupin! I happen to like Lupin a lot and certainly don't begrudge the fellow his happiness, but where did that come from? Unless this is a set-up for something in the next book. We know Rowling does that sometimes...

Fleur and Bill I figured for comic relief, so I won't go into that one. Perhaps the argument could be made that some of this hooking up was intended to show "life going on" despite the troubles, but it didn't work for me.

Something I missed from this book, as well as OotP, was the old sense of fun we got in the first three. I wondered if she would try to go back to it, even if it was even possible, but it seems to me the answer here is no. The reasons are totally understandable. Harry and his friends are sixteen or seventeen. They've fought some of the darkest evil there is, seen people die or be nastily attacked. They are in a war now, and trying to ignore it and pretend to be engaging in school pranks would feel pretty false (assuming Hogwarts even reopens in the next book, and of course, Harry has said he doesn't intend to return there anyway, at least until Voldemort is dealt with). The last real bit of fun along those lines came in OotP, when the Weasely twins and the rest of the school united to drive Umbridge crazy. Though HBP lacked the unrelenting grimness of mood that characterized OotP, it also lacked even that moment of lunacy. I lament this loss, even as I recognize its necessity. Serious books are still good, but fun ones are also…fun.

It strikes me that there were also fewer set pieces this time around. Less Quidditch, fewer chase scenes, etc. Naturally, much of that went to telling us some of Voldemort's backstory. I don't know how much of that we had to be shown, in quite the way it was shown, for Rowling to be able to use in the final book. I'm also not sure to what degree this is a criticism. Dumbledore could simply have told us much of what we saw through the Pensieve, and with fewer words than Rowling actually used, but there is no denying the power of what she chose to do.

Certainly there were important improvements to this book over the last. A big one for me is that IIRC, there was no duex ex machina rescue of Harry. He got into trouble, he got himself out or there was a reason for someone to be there to help him. Another thing I liked was that when he suspected something he told a grown up. How much trouble was caused in the past by the kids NOT telling Dumbledore or someone else what they thought was going on? The closest candidate for that I can think of at the moment was the Potions book that had belonged to Snape. But other than good notes in the margins, there wasn't anything there to make anyone but the hyper-cautious Hermione nervous; no magical effects, or odd messages, etc. etc.

Dumbledore's death caught me slightly by surprise. Granted we knew someone was going to get it in HBP, and Dumbledore character was precisely the sort of mentor character that often has to die (see also, Kenobi, Obi-Wan) in order for the hero (Harry) to come into his own. Still, I had old Albus going down sometime in the middle of the book seven. Got that one wrong.

And what of Snape? Good or bad? Evidence for bad: he did Dumbledore. Evidence for good: He didn't do Harry or anyone else, and he could have, very easily. Good: Dumbledore trusted him. Bad: Dumbledore admitted that when he made a mistake, it was a doozy.

We still do not know what it was that caused Dumbledore to trust Snape. Oh, we've gotten some things tossed out, but there is no bloody way that what we've heard is the whole story. The question we have now in addition to what is it that made Dumbledore trust Snape, runs thusly: Dumbledore expected to die at any time. How is this evidence going to get to the rest of the order? Albus made mistakes but he wasn't stupid. He knew that the members of the Order trusted Snape only because he trusted Snape. Further, if Snape was good, he would have informed Dumbledore about the Unbreakable Vow, and D. would have known that at some point Snape might be in a position to have to kill him. If that happened Snape would be in deep kimchi without something ironclad to get him out of hock.

My personal theory is that D. has a memory stored someplace very safe containing the reason he trusted Snape, and that Harry will eventually receive that memory in a bottle, get to a Pensieve and see it. The Pensieve has played an important part in the story since at least book three; I think it has at least one more part to play. And how Harry deals with this information will be an important bit of development for him.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Text of a Letter to Senators Cornyn and Hutchison 


I am writing today to express my outrage over two different events. The first is the proposed amendment that would give Congress the power to prohibit "desecration" of the American flag. Has there really been such an epidemic of this kind of crime that merits the changing of the very foundation of our laws? I am no flag-burner myself. I am a conservative. But because I am a conservative, I see no reason to go mucking about with the Constitution in order to arrest people for making fools of themselves.

I realize that even appearing to vote in favor of something like flag-burning is hard to do. But I urge you to do so. This is a frivolous piece of lawmaking, a blot on our record for freedom of speech. Please vote against this amendment.

The second matter I need to address is the atrocious Supreme Court decision in Kelo vs. City of New London, allowing governments to seize private property on behalf of private developers. This is an outrage. And it is even more of an outrage that Congress is frittering away its time on flag amendments when this sort of nonsense is being approved of by the highest court in the land.

If you feel the need to create a Constitutional Amendment, I suggest you and your colleagues write one that will deal with inane results like Kelo, and leave the handful of fools who feel the need to burn flags to stew in their own juice.



Review: This Kind Of War 

This Kind of War
T.R. Fehrenbach

I was wandering through a bookstore when I came upon this book rather prominently displayed. It so happened that only some weeks before I had observed that I knew little of the Korean War, and needed to find a good book on it.

I found it. TKOW was originally published in 1963, and my edition was reissued in 2000 for the 50th anniversary of that conflict. While its highly likely that new facts have since come to light, the strength of this book comes from its focus, which is not on the higher echelons of generals, presidents and ministers (though they are given their proper examination), but rather on the men in the mud, the platoons, companies and battalions that slogged up and down the hills of Korea.

This is altogether proper, because Korea was an infantryman's war, when that sort of thing was almost thought passe` in the West. There were no massed armored battles. Tanks, while useful (the 150 Russian T-34's the North Korean Army had at the outset were unstoppable by anything in the South Korean military, or the earliest American reinforcements), could not climb the rugged hills. Aircraft could not interdict armies that moved by night and stayed off roads in those days before night-vision goggles, IR sensors, and laser targeting designators.

Men had to climb and hold (or take) the hills. Men had to dig foxholes, carry ammunition to the front lines, patrol the perimeters, and men had to suffer and die under artillery barrages, blizzard, blazing sun, and mass attacks.

He follows the main developments of the war, both political and military, and then drops down close to the action to give you an idea, however distant and muted, what is was like for the men on the lines.

One of Fehrenback's hobby-horses is that of preparedness. Put simply, the US was not prepared to fight the Korean War, either in terms of equipment or psychology. It was prepared to fight World War III, or some other form of crusade. It wasn't ready to fight simply to hold the line. At one point he devotes an entire chapter to the problem, observing that the Korean War required something akin to the old Roman Legion, or British regiment. Those were soldiers loyal to their fellows and their colors, and they would fight and fight well, whether their cause was just or not. Americans quite properly do not like and generally do not want legions, Fehrenbach says, but sometimes they need them. He admits he isn't too sure if this issue can ever be resolved.

Along these same lines, he provides about as sympathetic a portrayal of Douglas Macarthur as is possible while still acknowledging that he was wrong. Macarthur, Ferhenbach argues, having been blooded in the trenches in WWI, held the typical American view that war was awful, but once someone had started one, it should be pursued with all vigor and those in the wrong defeated, completely and totally. The problem was that in late 1950, this pursuit of complete victory (by attacking China once that country's forces had intervened in Korea) might have led to Armageddon. Truman and his advisers rightly regarded this as a bad idea. But it was not popular, and hard to articulate. The author argues that the Truman Administration never did a very good job of explaining what it was trying to achieve in Korea.

The book concentrates on American forces, since they represented the vast majority of non-Korean troops on the UN side. But the ROK's get their due, as do the British and others.

There details that no one not already familiar with the conflict has likely ever heard of, such as the aborted Communist plan to stage a mass breakout from their POW camps, and deliberate destruction of bridges to slow down the North Korean assault -- with civilians still on them.

The books prose is a bit punchy, something like a Mickey Spillane novel might be accused of. Take this section:

That night, the 3/5 Marines were ordered to pass through 2/5 and continue the attack. During the hours of darkness torrential rains began to fall, making both Marines and soldiers miserable through the night.

In the next two days, they were going to make the North Koreans much more miserable.

You can almost hear Bob Facenda, the old voice of NFL Films, narrating lines like that.

There is also a hint of the "noble savage" idea that seeps through here and there when you read about Korean or Chinese peasant troops, who could climb hills all day one three rice balls, or how the Turks survived better in the horrid North Korean/Chinese prison camps because they were unsophisticated and kept discipline.

Still, these are very much quibbles. TKOW is an excellent overview of a war that many people wanted to forget about. Some of its statements seem as if they were written for another war taking place right now. Jammer-Bob sez check it out.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Diversity in the 'Burbs? 

It's a common trope that suburbs tend to be lily-white bastions of cultural anomie. I've tended to suspect that these sorts of tropes came from people who had never lived in suburbs but had heard about them, or were misfits there. But one can be a misfit anywhere. Anyway.

Last Thursday I had the opportunity to help out at a track and field day at my son's elementary school. There I saw a Lot of kids. Yes, most of them were white. But the number of central Asian, east Asian, Hispanic, and African-American was notable. They were not a tiny minority conspicuous by their rarity. No indeed. They were notable in their numbers. And then I thought about my own little block. Mostly white folks, it is true, but I also know of a certainty we have a Hispanic family, a Persian family, two from India/Pakistan, and a Japanese family. Right next door is a mixed-race couple (white man/Malaysian woman).

Okay, I grant you, you can't say my area is typical. We can't say that my suburb reflects most suburbs.

But. Still. There it is.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Paul Krugman is a *#$% Partisan Hack 

The great Krugman has long been lauded by left-leaning people as "a prize winning economist." One wonders if they would use that credential if the following were not also true:

He is also just about the most reliably anti-Republican partisan person writing a regular column today, occasionally approaching Ann Coulter levels of one-sidedness (though admittedly not hysteria).

The other day Bush finally said out loud what is one of the most sensible "reforms" one could possibly make to Social Security. It boils down to means testing. You know, the idea that Bill Gates or Warren Buffet should not get a SS check, which under the current system they are entitled to. St. Paul is predictably outraged:

Sure enough, a close look at President Bush's proposal for "progressive price indexing" of Social Security puts the lie to claims that it's a plan to increase benefits for the poor and cut them for the wealthy. In fact, it's a plan to slash middle-class benefits; the wealthy would barely feel a thing.

The Minuteman points out Krugman's basic dishonesty:

Well, yes - since the Social Security benefit is both capped and calculated to be progressive, it is hard to come up with a cut (or an increase) for a high-earner that will be significant on a percentage basis.

In other words, Paul has cooked the books. Now there are some in the comments of other blogs who have suggested that hidden in his rant is an actual point, but he's managed to obscure it with his other dishonesty. SS should be means-tested, and anyone with a claim to the "progressive" mantle ought to be pushing for it, instead of getting the vapors. This idea may be flawed, but it ought to be run with, not shunned.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Review: Sailing The Wine Dark Sea 

Sailing the Wine Dark Sea;
Why the Greeks Matter
Thomas Cahill

Cahill came to most people's attention a few years ago with his book "How the Irish Saved Civilization". However, that was just one of a serious of books he is writing called "the Hinges of History". Sea is his section on the Greeks.

There is a tendency to put the ancient Greeks on a (marble) pedestal, visualizing them standing around in togas engaging in philosophical Deep Thoughts and trying to figure out the universe by pure logic. We worship the Athenian development of democracy, and celebrate the hoplite warrior and naval seafarer in their victories over Persia.

These all existed, and Cahill makes proper note of them, but there was another side to the Greeks, and this is one that most people give short shrift to. The Greeks were also great fonts of dirty jokes, marathon wine drinking sessions, and amazing irreverence. And Cahill's playful prose doesn't let you forget it.

In what turns out to be all too short a time, he covers a vast area of time and space, touching necessarily briefly on Greek warfare, politics, culture, poetry, etc. We get an excellent sketch of the outlines of the Greek world, and why that world matters to us today.

The only real complaint to make about his treatment (other than its brevity) is that he sometimes presents as accepted fact things which are actually only the majority view of something still being debated. Still, a minor issue for the the audience these books are aimed at. Jammer-Bob sez check it out.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Review: To Rule The Waves 

To Rule The Waves;
How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World
Arthur Herman

This is a really good book. Herman traces the history of the Royal Navy from its origins as for-hire groups of merchant ships with a leavening of the King's personal flotilla to the force which kept Napolean and Hitler at bay and exerted British will across the entire world for almost two hundred years.

It makes for an excellent read, and Herman provides us a good combination of story-telling and technical detail in order to understand how events played out. For instance, the navy of Sir Francis Drake was little more than a bunch of merchants that engaged in periodic bouts of piracy (or perhaps pirates periodically posing as merchants), and the fortunes of its ships waxed and waned with the finances and interest of the current monarch for quite some time. Not until the time of James Stuart and William of Orange was the Navy truly becoming a professional force.

We read about the coppering of hulls, which cut down the growth of barnacles and other growths, made ships faster and last longer. There is the change in design from ships with high fore and after-decks, to the sleek, somewhat low-lying vessels we are used to seeing in pirate movies. Eventually we come to steam and the dreadnought. Its clear that Herman preferred the older age of sail to the age of coal that followed, but he doesn't spend pages bemoaning its end. We also learn how the navy seemed to find the innovative admirals it needed when it needed them, though occasionally their innovations would become a bit too encrusted with age before the next Nelson came along with a new breakthrough.

Part of Herman's thesis is that the Navy helped shape the modern world as we know it. Upon occasion he tosses out an observation that this or that act involving the navy had a particular effect. For example, he states that efforts to finance the Navy at some point led to a greater acceptance of trading paper (as opposed to actual commodities like wheat, gold, etc.) and this led to something of a revolution in government finance as well as forming the basis of stock trading. Perhaps, but he doesn't provide much to support these contentions (perhaps it is hiding in the footnotes), and we're left wondering how true they might be. I suspect its just as well he leaves out the details either way -- I can't imagine it would make for interesting reading for most people.

Another minor problem lies in his occasional attempt to suggest that the popular idea of unwilling pressed sailors, horrid food, regular (over) use of the lash, and Olympian detachment on the part of the commanders is mostly myth. He tries to back this up, but the point is undercut by periodic mentions of various incidents of unrest due to poor pay and bad food. Another time he states that William Bligh was not so…well, Bligh-like as popular lore states. He rather feels that Bligh's problem was his inconsistent treatment of problems. But to this reader, his examples show Bligh acting, if not like a slave-driver, then certainly like a twit.

In the end though, this sort of thing amounts to quibbling over quite minor points. To Rule The Waves is a very enjoyable read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the sea.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Review: Finding Darwin's God 

Finding Darwin's God
Kenneth Miller

It was funny to me to be thinking of how to write this review and then stumbling across none other than National Review Online's resident troglodyte, John Derbyshire, delivering the smackdown on Intelligent Design. Somehow he seemed the last person I had thought would be doing such a thing (though in retrospect it is less surprising).

Intelligent Design (or ID) is the one of the more recent attempt by some folks to disprove evolution. And Miller, a Professor of Biology at Brown and author of several biology textbooks, has no more good to say about it than Derbyshire. Miller also has a perspective one doesn't always get from defenses of evolution, and that is due to the fact he is a believer himself.

Miller opens with a brief description of evolution, pursues the three main tracks people have taken in order to disprove Darwin's little idea, tries to explain why evolution seems so contentious (as opposed to particle physics) before giving us his own take on where God fits into the equation.

These three main tracks are : God as charlatan (the Earth really is only 10,000 years old, despite all evidence to the contrary. It all a big fake out), God as magician (Earth is old, but evolution isn't real, because God has personally intervened to cause the changes we see in the fossil record, creating new animals Himself), and God as a mechanic (God created the initial cells, stuffed plans for all life to come in them, wound them up and let them go). Miller demonstrates with wit and language any reasonably educated person can understand just what is wrong with all of these ideas.

From there he examines why he believes evolution is such a flash point. The short version is two-lobed: Many believers have nailed their colors to the mast here, and don't want the special nature of humanity to be watered down by anything. The other is that atheists and anti-religion people have made use of evolution as a weapon in their arsenal. Miller thinks that anti-evolution people have given them that weapon.

Miller then examines the "conflict" between science and religion, and demonstrates why to him at least there isn't a need for conflict, though its apparent why. Religion used to have a hand in the "how" of the universe, not just the "why", and science has been a lot more consistent in its ability to come up with useful answers to "how". This has made some folks who should know better nervous. That this nervousness is misplaced is Miller's contention. He describes how St. Augustine, writing in the 4th century, himself argued that Genesis could not be read literally.

He takes to task those believers whom he feels try to put God in a box, and limits on what or how God might do something. He also reminds people that science itself, via the Uncertainty Principle, admits that it cannot know everything. And I must say that any author who finds a place for the doctrine of Free Will in the weeds of Quantum Theory deserves a very careful reading.

This book has been out for a while (1999) so obtaining a paperback copy should be easy enough. I recommend it highly.

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