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Tuesday, December 31st, 2002

The earth will soon have made another revolution around the sun. Here under blue skies more than six billion people, (and counting) live with vast numbers of animals and plants.

We humans have taken to categorizing ourselves in the oddest ways: whether it be by imaginary lines on a map (country, state, neighborhood), cosmetic appearance (pigment color), or who's home sport teams is better than another town's sports teams.

Here, I am reminded of an Emo Phillps joke:

"I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off, so I ran over and said "stop! don't do it!"

"Why shouldn't I?" he said.

I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!" He said, "Like what?"

I said, "Well...are you religious or atheist?" He said, "Religious." I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?" He said, "Christian." I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?" He said, "Baptist!" I said, "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?" He said, "Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God!" I said, "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?" He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!"

I said, "Die, heretic scum!", and pushed him off."

As pattern seeking primates we take our artificial organizations very seriously, and we far too often forget the larger and quantifiable taxonomy of humanity (or "Earthling" - along with the animals and plants).

I am continually looking for hope for our species and life on this planet, and I am often faced with despair. This year we humans have shown an unhealthy predisposition to genocide, indifference, greed, hate, thoughtlessness, and a Pandora's box of other woeful but preventable behaviors. For a relatively select few the year 2002 was one of bounty, health, and peace. But we must remember that for the majority it was a year of want, sickness and war.

What we call the 'year 2002' was just another revolution of a small blue planet around a medium sized yellow sun marked from an arbitrary point in space.

I hope that during the next revolution we grow in wisdom.

I hope that everyone can find their share of peace and happiness in the coming year. I think that perhaps the greatest key to achieving such peace and happiness is found when we start to think of ourselves as one group: travelers on a very tiny spec in an inconceivably vast and violent universe.

In Pandora's box, there was always hope.

"Human consciousness arose but a minute before midnight on the geological clock. Yet we mayflies try to bend an ancient world to our purposes, ignorant perhaps of the messages buried in its long history. Let us hope that we are still in the early morning of our April day."

-Stephen Jay Gould

"It almost never feels like prejudice. Instead, it seems fitting and just - the idea that, because of an accident of birth, our group (whichever one it is) should have a central position in the social universe."

- Carl Sagan, "Pale Blue Dot"

"There are worlds on which life has never arisen. There are worlds that have been charred and ruined by cosmic catastrophes. We are fortunate: we are alive; we are powerful; the welfare of our civilization and our species is in our hands. If we do not speak for Earth, who will? If we are not committed to our own survival, who will be?"

- Carl Sagan, "Cosmos"

Tuesday, December 24th, 2002

As we go about our last minute holiday shopping, and as we wish each other Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Solstice, and Happy Kwanzaa, I hope we can find it in ourselves to actually spread some real goodwill amongst our fellow humans.

Seasons greetings everyone.

Thursday, December 19th, 2002

I saw 'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers' last night.

Throughout the media (print, TV, radio, Web) there are a plethora of typical reviews of the movie version of 'The Two Towers', - this is not one of those typical reviews.

J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' is my all time favorite book, and favorite story (as any reader of this site should well know).
As a rabid drooling fan I am forced to view any other representation of the story through the prism of the original book.
With most, if not all other book adaptations, I am completely open to deviation from the source material. But when it comes to 'The Lord of the Rings' I must admit to a great bias. Therefore, consider this your standard legal boilerplate exemption of neutrality: I am not reviewing the movie on its own terms. (As I feel most movies should be viewed.)

All of that being said, I had almost the exact same reaction to movie of The Two Towers that I did to the Peter Jackson directed 'The Fellowship of the Rings', and that reaction was rather blasé. However, given my experience with the movie 'The Fellowship of the Ring', I now expect that my reaction will go from blasé to one of great enjoyment, and admiration upon subsequent viewings. The movie, 'Two Towers' took great liberties with the story, but it is almost certainly a very good movie in spite of those liberties. But after only one viewing, I'm having difficulty seeing past what I view as missed opportunities from the book.

If this is confusing, simply reference my 'legal boilerplate' above. Since 'The Lord of the Rings' is my favorite book, I tend to view any variation from it as a bad thing. Therefore, when I watch these movies my first viewing seems to be spent in something like shock as I come to terms with the changes, and omissions.

It was for this reason that I broke one of my golden rules, (or at least a silver rule): I normally avoid 'spoilers' for movies. My philosophy is that it is best going into a movie as something of a blank slate so that the story teller can unfold the story to the viewer in the order and manner in which it was constructed.
But with 'The Lord of the Rings' I've taken the approach that I already know the story in it's optimal form (the book), and that it is better for me to get all of the movie changes in my head as soon as possible so that I don't get lost in shock or analysis while watching the film.

It was often said that because of its epic nature, 'The Lord of the Rings' was 'unfilmable'. And truth be told, I still think it is. Therefore I acknowledge that variations, exceptions, omissions, and alterations had to be made to turn an epic that is over a thousand pages in length into three, three hour movies.
But I still felt that at times the film makers made mistakes in their choices. If a person never read the book they might watch the movie and say, 'This is a great movie!' But someone who has read the book should say, 'This is a great movie! But it could have been even better.'
So it is that I can see a movie that was very well done, and still come away feeling 'flat'. But after the inevitable disappointment wears off I am fairly confident that I will come to cherish the movie for what it was able to accomplish.

Given all of this neurotic rambling, the only additional comment that I have to add to my review is: Read the Book, and then come back and read the rest of what I have to say. You'll be a happier person for it.

...Time passes...

Okay? Read the book? Excellent! Now you know what I'm talking about. Now you are one of 'us'. To be honest, I was having trouble relating to you before you read the book.

No one who hasn't read the book should read this article any further because I am now going to give my 'spoiler' filled review of the movie. I really recommend that you don't read further if you haven't read 'The Lord of the Rings.'


I am at risk of being visually jaded. Not only am I a true movie buff, I've been a paid professional for my animation, and visual effects. I know how to do 3d animation, motion tracking, compositing, prosthetic makeup, and a great host of other visual effects. That being said, I was blown away by the movies depiction of Gollum: the ring-tortured soul who alternately helps and threatens the protagonist Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. Gollum was created as a 3D animation with the help of motion capture, and was voiced by Andy Serkis.

It is easy to tell that Gollum is animated computer generated imagery, the compositing and lighting were imperfect, but Gollum was so well animated that it was very easy to suspend disbelief and view the creature as a genuine character. Gollum is easily the best realized, realistic, animated character ever created. As a viewer, one actually cares about Gollum.

On a very subjective level I have to say that I was a bit disappointed by the voice that Andy Serkis chose to create for Gollum, it seemed a tad 'Saturday morning cartoon' to me. But I only refer to the tone, not the acting which was superb.

Now that I've started on a more-or-less positive note, I need to plunge into the heart of what troubled me about the movie. At the start of the film, Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) encounter Gollum who has been haunting their journey for hundreds of miles. The filmmakers seem to rush through a scene where Gollum is 'tamed' by Frodo who bears the ring that Gollum lusts to regain. The subtle manner of how Gollum is tamed is fundamentally essential to the ending of the story (in 'Return of the King'). It is no small point that Frodo tells Gollum to pledge is allegiance 'not on the ring', but 'by the ring'. Furthermore, another fundamental scene is completely absent from the movie where Gollum tries to take the ring again, and Frodo essentially lays a 'curse' onto Gollum. This 'curse' may be one of the most important details in the entire story. (I won't state the curse, lest some unscrupulous and foolish non-book reader is still perusing these words. I can't ruin such details, even for lame non-readers.)

It is this feeling that Peter Jackson is rushing over the quieter, but thematically essential moments to get to the next action sequence that bothered me the most.

Later, in Edoras, Gandalf encounters the spiritually weakened King Theoden who's mind has been 'poisoned' by a servant of the treacherous wizard Saruman. In the book, Gandalf flames the cool embers of Theoden passions through the art of his words alone. In the movie, Theoden is treated as possessed, and Gandalf casts a counter spell to free him.

This was another significant misstep for me. One of the most clever elements of the 'The Lord of the Rings' was that even though it involved wizards, and 'magical' themes, it never stooped to typical cheesy fantasy magic. In fact, Tolkien eschewed the notion of 'magic' as some form of flashy conjuring, but instead thought of it as an extension to nature.
Gandalf's chief power wasn't lobbying sparkling fireballs, but rather in his ability to inspire others to greatness.
I think that the scene would have been better played as a normal drama would have played it: with interesting human interactions as opposed to another action scene with some magic thrown in for thrills.

Most people who have read the book are interested to see how the Ents are depicted, and for the most part, they are well done. (Although I found a few of their faces to be cartoonish).
But Peter Jackson didn't seem to know who to handle the Ents interaction with Meriadoc Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) and Peregrin Took (Billy Boyd). In what seemed to be the director's conflicting desire to have the Ent/Insengard climax correspond in time with that of Helm's Deep climax, while also giving Merry, Pippin and the Ents equal time; he squandered too many scenes with Merry and Pippin riding around on Treebeard trying to convince him to fight.
The movie would have benefited if Peter Jackson had either made better use of the time Merry and Pippin were with Treebeard (voiced by John Rhys-Davies) for the development of character, or if Jackson would have been bold enough to have the Isengard climax occur before that of Helm's Deep.
Essentially, I think that Jackson hamstrung himself in his desire to have all three strings of the plot peaking so close in time to each other, while also giving each character group nearly equal screen time.

If Peter Jackson (PJ) had forgone even one of his (personally created) new scenes like the Warg attack, he would have had more time for the interesting, and important (if less bloody) elements that already existed in the book.
If for pacing issues the movie required an bit of adrenalin introduced at the exodus point in the story, PJ could have had the Ents start the war against Isengard at that time.

I could go on with similar scenes, and changes, but my overall point is that PJ often eliminated important story issues so that he could introduce his own version. PJ might be a talented writer, and director, but he is no J.R.R Tolkien, and almost without exception he should have errored towards following Tolkien's lead.

One of the most grievous, and senseless changes was towards the end of the movie when Frodo seems to actually offer the ring to a ring wraith (Nazgul). Not only doesn't this make sense since his character is becoming more, and more possessive of the ring (as established in the book and the movie), but it would also have the side effect of alerting Sauron where is ring is to be found. (At which point all of the Nazgul would be sent to retrieve it by whatever force they could use.)

I can go on, and I'm sure that I will at a later time. But my initial reaction has been to get these rather large chips off of my shoulders.

Stay tuned to for further ravings.

But remember, that in spite of the negative points which I've concentrated upon, I still think that 'The Two Towers' is a very good film and well worth watching. As a diehard, I know that my criticism of the movie(s) will soften, and I will enjoy the variations for what they are, and relish the moments that are most true to the book.

Wednesday, December 18th, 2002

Tonight, the premiere of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Enough said.

Tuesday, December 17th, 2002

Great excitement today. After about a year of construction the roads and overpasses outside my office window have been completed. Today the first car went down the newly reworked roads.

I'm glad that the pile-drivers and jackhammers have stopped their maddening noise, but I'll miss the frequent progress checks at my window where myself, and my colleagues would ponder, "Now what are they doing?"

Friday, December 13th, 2002

Finally, some good news on the environment front:

Roadless Rule Upheld as Bush Moves to Speed Logging
By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, December 12, 2002 (ENS) - A federal appeals court today upheld the legality of a rule aimed at protecting 58.5 million acres of unroaded areas in national forests from logging and roadbuilding. The decision came one day after President George W. Bush ordered the Departments of Agriculture and Interior to take administrative actions aimed at reducing the environmental reviews required before approval of forest fuels reduction projects.

The court's decision could have implications for the Bush administration's proposal, announced Wednesday, which would make it easier for forest managers to approve forest thinning projects to clear brush and small trees - as well as large, commercially valuable timber.

As we call on developing nations to stop their destruction of the rain forest, we must take measure of how we preserve the nature and the wild that is directly in our trust.

The preservation of the wilderness will be one of the chief indicators of our country's greatness to future generations. More importantly, and beyond the measure of countries, the conservation is to the benefit of all of humanity.

Let us preserve what remains of the wild, acknowledging that these small tracts of nature are beyond the measure of the dollar.

Free speech has been challenged again with the unsavory case of the right to burn a cross.

From CNN News, December 11, 2002 :

High court takes up Virginia cross-burning case

"WASHINGTON (AP) -- A case involving whether cross burning is illegal intimidation or constitutionally protected free speech produced sharp debate among justices Wednesday, with most appearing troubled by the symbol's link to racial violence."

Laws exist that rightly prevent one from burning a cross (or anything else for that matter) on the property of unwilling individuals or in a hazardous location. That is not the issue.

What is in dispute is whether cross burning is merely offensive or actually qualifies as unlawful intimidation. The magic bullet word, 'terrorism' has been invoked to conjure even more sympathies against the already offensive notion of cross burning.

But, as unpopular, distasteful, and loathsome as cross burning is, we must protect the right of individuals to engage in it, as long as it does not present a clear and immediate (physical) danger. Indeed, the right to 'offensive' speech, and ideas must be protected as strongly as the speech and ideas that we personally hold as righteous.

The concept of 'intimidation' must be made on a case by case basis, and should not involve the elimination of one form of expression, however abhorrent. A cross, burned in the middle of a supporter's field is not the same as a cross burned onto an unwilling individual's yard.

Further reading:
Burning cross: Court ruling can clarify free-speech issue

Court Will Review Cross Burning Ban

"The cure for a fallacious argument is a better argument, not the suppression of ideas."
- Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan

"It is easy to believe in freedom of speech for those with whom we agree."
- Leo Mckern

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