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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
12/21/12 -- Vol. 31, No. 25, Whole Number 1733
Table of Contents
Our Theme: Three Spectacle Films, Old and New (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
We rarely have theme to our issues, but this time we do. We have four articles about three spectacular special effects films: KING KONG (1933), THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (2012), and THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012). [-mrl]
The Seven-Day Weather Forecast (comments by Mark R. Leeper):
The seven-day forecast says windy this afternoon with scattered showers. This evening the skies will be overcast until the asteroid strike. Then after that the rest of the forecast does not matter. [-mrl]
KING KONG (1933) Observations (film comments by Mark R. Leeper):
Evelyn and I participated in an on-line discussion of that venerable classic film KING KONG (1933). We watched the film and made comments. We each wrote our observations. This article is based on my comments. Evelyn's comments appear later is this issue.
KING KONG is among my favorite films of all time. I am not sure it is one of the three or four best films, but it is one of the greatest films. The results of the filmmaking process may not have made it one of the best films, but so much was invented and so much imagination went into it that the result is greater than its story. KING KONG was the STAR WARS of its day and more. Both films may have had hokey stories but amazing visuals, both had huge imagination in the design, and both were big inspirations for the next generation of filmmakers.
That said, I would also say that much of this article will be negative. I think we all have heard most of the good things to say about KING KONG. The mistakes and problems are much less commonly noted. It is frequently said that Willis O'Brien's stop-motion animation in KING KONG is unsurpassed today. No disrespect to a film I so greatly admire, but the fledgling visual techniques have been surpassed. The film is full of problems with the visual effects that you do not see in films like JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS. For example when a screen image is made of multiple elements, they are not well integrated. On my most recent viewing I noticed for the first time that when the native chieftain and some of his followers stand at the top of the wall their image jitters left and right with respect to the wall. These days that is considered to be a very bad problem. In 1933 I doubt that most of the viewers noticed and cared.
There are other problems that would be better handled today. Especially there is the concern for consistency in Kong's appearance. O'Brien seemed to take little care to make the look of Kong's face consistent from one model of Kong to another. One Kong will have large nostrils, another will have smaller ones. The viewer can distinguish at least three different looks for Kong's face depending on which model is being used. For that matter Kong's size is not uniform either. On the island Kong is consistently eighteen feet tall, and O'Brien wanted to keep the size at eighteen feet for the New York sequences. But co-director Merian C. Cooper wanted to adjust the size of backgrounds that would show off Kong to best effect, so Kong's scale changed from scene to scene.
When dinosaurs are shown in rear projection the images make them look three or four times a realistic size. When Denham and company walk around the stegosaurus it is huge. Having the actors walk a treadmill does not really work. The speed of the treadmill is not well matched to the image in the background. Later the brontosaurus neck in the water just looks like a rigid model. Still much of this gets lost of the excitement.
One problem with the visuals that I have always found amusing and nobody else seems to notice: When Kong climbs onto one of the roofs in Manhattan you see the top part of an electric sign with vertical lettering behind him. The sign is dark, then it flashes M; then it flashes MA; then without taking time to light up any more letters it goes dark ands starts over. So even if you could see the whole sign it would only say "Ma".
As original as KING KONG was, it was in large part a reframing of THE LOST WORLD (1925). The 1933 film borrowed heavily from the plot of the 1925 film and from the book THE LOST WORLD, and it major modifications are there because directors and producers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack where projecting themselves into to the story with Carl Denham being an amalgam of the two of them. (Incidentally, Merian C. Cooper had a life so amazing and exciting even a Steven Spielberg could not do justice to it.) The plot of Kong is really what you would get if you took that of THE LOST WORLD and forced in a filmmaker like Cooper and Schoedsack.
In Arthur Conan Doyle's novel THE LOST WORLD he had the expedition bringing back a pterodactyl that gets loose in London, but is hardly noticed. To make it a more visual story and one with more easily accomplished special effects the 1925 film instead had the captured animal be a brontosaurus (now called "apatosaurus"). Willis O'Brien was more experienced at animating sauropods like the apatosaurus. For KONG the filmmakers made the captured and later escaped animal a giant ape, of course. And there were the other obvious changes. They changed the nature of the expedition for KONG also. It was not a scientific expedition but a filmmaking excursion.
Personally, I keep wondering where on Kong's island the great ape could possibly live. We know he lives someplace relatively near the gate. It does not take him very long to respond to the Kong Gong. It takes about thirty seconds of screen time, which seems to mean he was impossibly close by. On the other hand Kong seems to get in a life-and-death fight every hour or so. In one day he fights three different breeds of prehistoric beasts. He manages to always survive because he is the biggest, meanest thing on the island. But if you watch the fights it is always a near thing. He could not survive long in this environment, and an animal of his weight being that active would need to take in a lot of biomass energy in his diet. It is not clear he could ever move his body as energetically as he does just due to square-cube law restrictions. So for me this is no less a mystery, and no more, than the question of where his mate and his parents are or were. I hate to say it but I guess the best answer to this sort of question is that it is just a story. If we can accept that there is just one giant ape on this island no mates no (or perhaps one) offspring it is not so hard to assume he Kong has found a safe place to live and enjoy being worshipped by the natives. They even have dances in his honor though I have never figured out where the natives got the fur they use for the Kong dance.
In some ways the script is contrived. For example the natives come to kidnap Ann. They climb the ship's ladder and Ann is conveniently standing right there. It is not at all clear how they would have nabbed her if they hadn't been so lucky. They were not really prepared to scour a hostile ship for her. But Ann was just where she would be in the most danger. Later in New York Kong seems to have to look in only two or three hotel rooms to find Ann. What are the chances of that in Manhattan?
Let me switch sides and defend the film on a couple of points. One question I hear frequently asked is if the natives wanted to keep Kong out of their side of the wall, why did they ever put a gate in so wide that Kong could get out through it. It is a smart-alecky question and people who ask it rarely stick around for an answer. I think it makes perfect sense. They expect the bolt to be strong enough to keep Kong out, but if Kong ever got over or through the wall suddenly Mr. Wall would be no longer their friend. Getting Kong back to his usual side would be a hard enough task even with a Kong-size gap in the gate. It is all-important to avoid being trapped on one small strip of the island with an angry ape-god.
It is frequently asked what Kong has done with his previous brides. There has been the suggestion that he might eat them. Gorillas are generally assumed to be herbivores, but the truth is nobody is certain if they really are or not. Monkey DNA has been found in the dung of some gorillas. That is considered evidence that they sometimes eat smaller animals, though that has not been observed and is not really proof. My opinion is that he plays with them to death not unlike what small children will do with pets. (Well, no. My opinion is that it is just a story, but if I had to find a likely explanation, that would be it.) Remember in the 1933 version of the story Ann is in mortal peril the entire time she is with Kong. Unlike EVERY later version of the story, in 1933 Ann shows absolutely no sympathy for Kong. To her Kong is all threat. It is surprising that she does not protest more when after several men have been killed trying to save her from Kong, Denham turns around and is ready to use Ann as bait to get the monster. Later a reporter says, "Denham's taking no chances." Is he kidding? Denham does nothing BUT take chances.
It is somewhat ironic that Carl Denham tries to calm the Broadway audience by telling them the Kong's bonds are made of "chrome steel." Chrome steel is really stainless steel. It looks better than standard steel because it will not rust, but it is not as strong. If Carl Denham had used carbon steel instead of chrome steel he might have ended up a millionaire. (I guess he does end a millionaire in SON OF KONG).
Denham's plan for entertaining a Broadway audience is to show them Kong and then to just stand up in front of the audience and tell the story of the capture. Can you imagine how dull an evening that would be--just listening to Denham talking? I suspect that that idea may have been left over from an earlier version of the script that would open with the Broadway scenes, Denham would show the audience Kong and then the whole story of the capture would be done as a flashback so that the film audience would be seeing the story even if the Broadway audience was not. Interesting piece of trivia: when you see the exteriors of the Broadway theater with stock footage of crowds outside waiting to get in, that stock footage was actually taken at the premier of Charlie Chaplin's 1931 film CITY LIGHTS.
There are other problems with the script. Denham complains that the critics say, "This film would gross twice as much if it had love interest." That is the whole reason that Ann is taken along. Do you know what Denham forgot? That it takes two people to have a love interest. There is nobody who is supposed to be Ann's love interest in Denham's film. The plan is not to have her love the as-yet unknown Kong. Ann asks how the island will be recognized. She is reminded that it has a mountain that looks like a skull. She says she forgot. How likely is it she would forget that detail? Also I am curious what Ann is doing while Kong is using two hands and two feet to climb the Empire State Building. I assume for most she is holding on to King for dear life. Though they forget to show you in the film, the wind that high up on the building averages twenty miles per hour.
The film KING KONG has become an iconic myth of American cinema and even with all the faults I find with it, it well deserves all the admiration it gets.
Hey, in the film Carl Denham asks for some huskies to carry his stuff.
Question: How can you tell they are Denham's huskies?
Answer: they have a Norwegian bark.
THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is the first film of Peter Jackson's follow-up trilogy to THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The result is good, where great was expected. It has a lot of the virtues of the previous films, but does not offer a lot that the previous trilogy did not, and where it does try to be different it goes off in the wrong direction. Falling well short of being compelling, at times it really drags. Jackson makes the serious error of expecting that Tolkien's short novel provides enough material to make into its own trilogy nearly as long as LORD OF THE RINGS. Visually it is sometimes amazing, but it is a large troll step down from the last trilogy. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
Back in the 1960s I knew that there were two books about Middle Earth by J. R. R. Tolkien. There was the little one which was basically a children's story called THE HOBBIT. The big one was THE LORD OF THE RINGS. It was so big that the publisher trisected it into three volumes. Peter Jackson eventually filmed THE LORD OF THE RINGS in a trilogy of three long movies. He did a good job. Now he is adapting the little book and with about the same degree of compression it should make one short movie. But THE LORD OF THE RINGS was so profitable as three big films Jackson is doing THE HOBBIT in the same way. It strikes me as overkill. I can say that I am not yet seeing the public enthusiasm for Jackson's "Hobbit" trilogy that I saw for his "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. With KING KONG he showed an unfortunate propensity to go overboard damaging what I still think was a good effort.
The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy was a triumph, with Jackson giving the film a beautiful look worthy of some of the best fantasy illustrators' visualizations of Middle Earth. The writing was imperfect, but the viewer was awed by the images put on the screen. That was certainly an accomplishment and it was accomplished. But it cannot be accomplished again but can only be repeated. A repetition is very much what THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is. It is a look at Middle Earth using the same tools that Jackson used to do the first trilogy. The problems with the film in large part come from the need to stretch the short novel over three films and the resulting story suffers from the stretch marks.
The plot of THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is, of course, in large part taken from the book by Tolkien. Bilbo (played by Martin Freeman, Watson in the popular series "Sherlock") wants nothing more than to sit home in comfort. But Galdalf (Sir Ian McKellen) inveigles him in a plan to travel east with thirteen dwarves on a mission to retrieve a great gold treasure that has been stolen by the formidable dragon Smaug. What follows is a series of adventures and battles with fearsome wolves, trolls, and orcs as the band travel to Rivendell and the mountains beyond.
There are times the plot stands still for comedy or when the dwarves all join together in a song that really does not further the story. And too much of the film is taken up with CGI fights. But the trilogy will probably cover more than eight hours--longer than it takes to read the book--and that time has to be filled somehow. Much of the problem is that the script does not give us any compelling reason to care for the main characters. The mission is to retrieve gold, a much more mercenary purpose than destroying a ring that gives dangerously too much power. Also, the characters are not greatly likeable--in fact, we do not know them at all well. Even Bilbo is only superficially drawn with a few humorous quirks but no real personality. So battles with armies of thousands fighting each other have less emotional impact than a dinner table argument between two people in THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL. Even great computer graphics effects cannot for long substitute for under-written characters. All the action and violence does not matter if the viewer does not care about who has a dog on the fight.
This is not to say that there is not a great deal impressive in the visual imagery. First you have stunning settings mostly provided by New Zealand. And you have a lot of fairly creative visual effects. In some cases the images presented are just too much and too complex to be taken in on one viewing. With action all over the screen, it cannot all be seen without some study. This film offers more visual effects, but not a lot that is creatively new. Some images, like the stone giants, are particularly effective. But this film needed to offer the viewer more than just more effects.
As with the pod race of STAR WARS I, sequences intended to be amusing can destroy much of the feel of the film. At one point we see our heroes using a cable slide. That allows the film to have a great swooping shot. The only problem is that we have never been given any clue that Middle Earth is at a technology level where cable production is possible. If they have the knowledge to produce cable it would have a big impact on the rest of their technology. If they can produce cables they almost certainly can produce more effective weapons. At some point someone mentions "chips" as food. In the first trilogy the hobbits smoked "pipe weed" because Tolkien did not want to use the overly familiar word "tobacco." Various places in the story people fall hundreds of feet to rocks below them and seem to survive. The original trilogy was much more careful about such things and here they ruin the credibility of the story.
This film is a very mixed bag of good touches and bad ones. I am mostly trying to cover what others are not saying about the film. Those are mostly faults. This film does not have the writing that THE LORD OF THE RINGS had. THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY is an unexpected step down from LORD OF THE RINGS. I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0903624/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_hobbit_an_unexpected_journey/
THE IMPOSSIBLE (film review by Mark R. Leeper):
CAPSULE: THE IMPOSSIBLE is a true account of a family celebrating the holiday in coastal Thailand that is literally torn apart by the 2004 Christmas tsunami. It is a realistic, on-the-ground look at the experience of being caught in a Tsunami and the effort afterward of just finding loved ones. As the wave crashes the film has a guaranteed six minutes of white-knuckle fear. Juan Antonio Bayona who directed THE ORPHANAGE an exploration of supernatural horror now gives us a horror that is only too natural. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
In the last decade we have seen some terrible real-world destruction due to tsunamis--what we used to call "tidal waves." Particularly destructive were the ones that hit Southeast Asia centering on Indonesia the day after Christmas 2004 and the one that hit Japan, centering on Honshu, March 11, 2011. With improving and more widespread video technology the public has seen on the news dramatic images of real tsunami waves breaking on beaches and coastal areas in literal waves of destruction miles wide. This may have only whetted our curiosity of what sort of nightmare it must be like to be down in the path of such a wave. THE IMPOSSIBLE shows the experience in harrowing detail. It has really frightening visions of being on the ground with the huge wave breaking all around and over. Even Clint Eastwood's HEREAFTER, in which the real set piece was a somewhat gratuitous tsunami toward the beginning. It would be hard to say which film THE IMPOSSIBLE or HEREAFTER better portrays the horrifying effects of a tsunami, but after the tsunami in THE IMPOSSIBLE one still has an effective and affecting drama. After the tsunami in Eastwood's HEREAFTER one has only the disappointing film that was HEREAFTER.
There is not much to say about the plot of the film. The Bennett family--Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan MacGregor), and their three sons (Tom Holland, Oaklee Pendergast, and Samuel Joslin)--are at a Thai resort celebrating Christmas when they are ripped apart and mauled by the 2004 tsunami. The scenes of just surviving such a wave are visceral enough. Eventually the film focuses on the family, some badly injured, facing the logistical problem of finding each other and reuniting in the midst of tens of thousands of people displaced, scattered, and lost. THE IMPOSSIBLE makes an interesting pairing with last year's CONTAGION, both films are about the destruction and pain that nature can still unleash on people. That film had Gwyneth Paltrow go from looking glamorous to looking ravaged. This film does much the same with Naomi Watts. Besides Watts and MacGregor the only familiar face is a tiny role for Geraldine Chaplin, but most of the cast will be unfamiliar.
Disaster films of this sort were popular in the 1970s even without technical ability to show on film what this film has. And they were almost all fictional stories with varying degrees of accuracy. This film has much more of a feel of authenticity and that alone makes it more effective. The photographic effects have evolved in the intervening four decades and the result is hellish enough and at the same time more believable. However, THE IMPOSSIBLE has the same dramatic problem that many of the old disaster films had. The primary event, the hitting of the wave, has to be early--about thirteen minutes into the film, since all of the rest of the action depends on it. In most films, you want the real set piece to be near the end. The narrative is mostly about the aftermath of the wave. This is not to say that the backend of the film is lackluster by any means. It is a compelling adventure story and even affecting. This is really a disaster film done as well as one can be done. It has very accomplished photography and good acting.
One complaint with THE IMPOSSIBLE is that it really tells the (albeit true) story of one family caught up in the catastrophe. But they are the luckiest 1% of the people hit by the disaster. As bad as things are for the Bennetts, there are all around people who are not nearly so lucky. The ground is littered with the bodies of people who a lot less fortunate. I rate this film a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1649419/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_impossible_2012/
KING KONG (1933) (film comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
A couple of weeks ago one of the mailing lists I'm on had an on- line film discussion about KING KONG (1933). Here are a few of the comments I had.
The image for the overture seems to be the Third Avenue El.
The Morse beeping is "VVV An RKO Radio Picture VVV".
Why use a Germanic blackletter font for an Arabian proverb?
KING KONG was one of the first American films to have a full score. The score was re-used extensively in BACK TO BATAAN.
Everything looks very authentic--but then you remember that it was all contemporary with the filmmakers. (Jackson works at authenticity, but the very quality of the picture image works against him.)
They sail for six weeks before the screen test. At the typical tramp steamer speed of 10 knots, that would be about 10,000 miles, which would take them around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean and into the East Indies "way west of Sumatra". They then head southwest, but since they have come from the west, this means they are doubling back. It seems unlikely they would use the Panama Canal, which would increase their costs and means crossing the Pacific with no convenient stops to replenish food or water.
Ann's dress for the screen test seems very racy for the time, with the decoration on the lower half pointing between her legs both from above and below.
Ann's reaction during the screen test "jumps the gun" in that she reacts as she would to Kong but not as Denham's direction indicates. He tells her she "can't believe it" and is "amazed", and she looks terrified--*before* he tells her "it's horrible". Also, he suggests she should scream, but she doesn't, as if she knows she is supposed to be too terrified.
The natives look far more African than southeast or southern Asian, and in particular more west African. This is undoubtedly because the extras were Americans of primary west African descent. Similarly their shields are more African than Asian. I suppose one could argue that the island is close to Africa, but if the language is similar to that of the Nias Islands, that implies a much closer ethnographic connection to Sumatra than to Africa. (Harryhausen reported on the commentary track that when he went to the Nias Islands, they people there were definitely Asian rather than African.)
Engelhorn's and Jack's caps have some sort of nautical symbol on the front, but how likely is it on a tramp steamer that they would have something like that rather than an ordinary undecorated cap?
Ann just happens to be standing next to where the ladder is attached on the exterior of the ship, which is very convenient for the natives who want to kidnap her.
When Driscoll announces as they're shoving the lifeboat over the edge, "They've taken Ann!" who is he telling this to? Everyone on the ship already knows this.
The wall is supposedly kept in repair, but Kong can break through when he wants to.
The bolt on the gate being put in place is much less phallic than the almost identical scene in the 1976 version. This may be because it is square in cross-section rather than round, and also that the wood grain is clearer.
Contrary to all rules of rank, Driscoll takes charge of the rescue party, giving orders even to the captain.
The brontosaurus drags its tail. Also, the neck is probably a bit more flexible and agile than a real dinosaur's would be.
The removal of the arsinothere makes inexplicable the fact that the men don't retreat off the near end of the log.
The Tyrannosaur rex has allosaur hands, and its arms are too long (or incorrectly placed), since it should not be able to reach its own mouth.
Not only does Kong's face change between the stop motion and the giant model head, but the dentition varies on the model head between scenes, indicating there may have been more than one model head. For example, when Kong first appears and takes Ann, his teeth seem to have vertical brown stripes. When he picks her up after the fight with the Tyrannosaurus rex, his teeth are completely white.
And the stop motion head is different in the log and Tyrannosaurus rex scenes than other times, because those were shot first as test sequences. Cooper did not like that shape head, and had a different shape made, but could not re-shoot those sequences. For that matter, Kong himself looks more gray and less black in that scene.
When they first arrive at the island, Skull Mountain seems to be very close to the wall. Yet it takes Kong and the men following him almost a full day to arrive at his lair in one of the eye sockets, going through forests, across a large swamp, and over a chasm. And when Jack and Ann return, they also apparently come a long distance.
The hotel room has two small lamps that are lit, but clearly it is getting 95% of its light from a much larger overhead source.
The number on the subway car, 4779, has peculiar-looking 7's. They are actually upside-down 2's (and vice versa), which probably made it cheaper to order numbers for the cars--they would need only 8 templates (with 2/7 and 6/9 identical).
The top of the Empire State Building is different in this film from that in Jackson's film.
Fay Wray always claims when Cooper told her that she would be starring opposite the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood, she thought he meant Cary Grant. But when they were casting KING KONG, Grant had not yet achieved any real fame in Hollywood. (On the other hand, she seems to have had some sort of relationship with Grant, so maybe she knew of him even then.) [-ecl]
THE LIGHTS IN THE TUNNEL by Martin Ford (book review by Dale L. Skran, Jr.):
THE LIGHTS IN THE TUNNEL by Martin Ford, subtitled "Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future", is probably the first book I've read that deals realistically with our most probable economic future. Written by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur trained in computer engineering at Michigan and with an MBA from University of California, he has a unique set of insights into our current situation. If he is correct, the current "jobless recovery" is a harbinger of things to come--a "jobless economy."
Ford's fundamental point is that well before we get to anything like the Singularity, the technology to eliminate most of today's current jobs will exist and be implemented, resulting in, say, perhaps 75% unemployment. To allow this situation to come into being without addressing it is akin to national suicide. In Ford's view, this probable future threatens modern capitalism itself, which depends on a mass consumer market. Take away the consumers with money in their pockets, and the whole economy collapses.
There is a certain similarity between Ford's thinking and that of some Democrats and left-wing leaders, but he does not appear to operate from an ideological motivation. Instead, his brief is that in order to preserve capitalism, we must separate income from jobs, and find a way to tax businesses with large profits but fewer and fewer actual employees.
The need to develop reliable robots will restrain the replacement of many blue-collar and pink-collar jobs for a while, but I fear that the rapid advance of artificial neural nets, which are just now reaching human equivalence for many important tasks, will lead directly and rapidly to the replacement of many human "symbolic analysts" such as radiologists and bond traders. The shrinkage of manufacturing employment will continue even as actual production rebounds. This leads directly to a hollowing out of the middle class, leaving a tiny upper crust of high-level symbolic analysts, popular artists and performers, and so on with a higher standard of living than ever, a vast sea of low paid employees like physical therapists and hairdressers, and an even vaster sea of the unemployed. The sudden expansion of massive, low-cost on-line courses suggests that the education sector will eventually be subject to competitive pressures, and special-purpose robots for cooking fast food are in development at start up companies as I write this.
We can see our end coming rather clearly here, so what is to be done? Ford suggests that we need to "recapture" via taxes the income that would in the past have gone to employees, but now is going either to the owners of the businesses, or to customers in the form of lower prices. This suggests higher, more progressive income taxes, high taxes on dividends and capital gains, and some form of VAT or consumption tax to recapture the surplus distributed as lower prices. Ford recognizes that part of the trick here is that [a] the tax burden cannot be too high, or it will stall the economy, and [b] you need to get the money in the hands of the broad population, not special interest groups like public employee unions or particular industries. To quote Ford "An absolute firewall should be established between this special function of government and the funds used for general government operation."
Ford wisely recognizes that simply collecting taxes and passing them out in equal amounts to everyone as kind of "negative income tax" would, eventually, be a disaster. All of the positive aspects of jobs in building character would be lost, leading to a Morlocks and the Eloi scenario. Ford suggests that the money be doled out, not in equal amounts, but based on a system of incentives that will have positive benefits to society. He considers payments for continuing your education, for performing socially useful tasks, such as assisting in a nursing home, for behaving in environmentally sustainable ways, and for producing journalistic content. I find Ford's ideas on how this might be managed to be naïve and unlikely to work, but the fundamental concept has merit.
Ford does not mention this, but any time a consumer writes a detailed product review, they are aiding other consumers to make wise choices, and this could be one of the activities rewarded. In this future world, I would be paid something for producing this review, Mark Leeper would be paid for each movie review he writes, we would all be paid for the amount we recycle, and we would get a stipend while attending school full time. Ford's idea of a government committee managing the distribution of funds to these tasks strikes me as being wholly unworkable, however.
Some of these payments are easier to make work than others. For example, a fund could be established from which businesses could withdraw money for the sole purpose of paying those who review their products. Some businesses might only pay for positive review, but Consumer Reports magazine would pay for all reviews. This avoids the need for a government committee deciding how much the awards are and who to give them to. Presumably the players involved would pay a nominal amount for a review like "product is great" and quite a bit for a full-length, professional review. A really smart company would offer a very large bonus for any suggestion they actually adopted that proved popular. Thus, an incentive would still exist for reviewers to exert themselves.
The education payment idea is also relatively easy to manage, although it would work best with a two-tier approach. Half the money might be allocated to everyone taking classes based on the number of credits they are taking, with full time students getting substantially more than part time students. The other half would be available to businesses that could apply it to scholarships for non-employees to take up courses of study that the business that might be useful. The businesses would be responsible for selecting the students and approving the scholarships.
Although Ford is not an economist, the book is well thought out and full of new ideas. The "Lights" referred to in title are not the headlights of an oncoming train, but part of a quite useful analogy that describes how capitalism works. I leave this for you to enjoy when you read the book. Ford also has a blog at http://econfuture.wordpress.com/ which you might find interesting.
Ford seems to have overlooked the possibility that the evolution from AI that can replace most symbolic workers to super-human AI that brings on the Singularity may be very rapid. I suggest reading SINGULARITY RISING by James D. Miller, who is an actual economist, for a sense of what might follow. Ford deserves a lot of credit for focusing on technology-based unemployment and trying to find real solutions. The traditional Republican answer of "cut taxes and regulations" will be worse than useless, and the traditional Democratic answer of "more taxes, more education, more infrastructure, and more regulation," although not completely useless, is not a real solution either.
I highly recommend THE LIGHTS IN THE TUNNEL, and look forward to reading more viewpoints on this topic as economists and other commentators start to seriously engage with our real future. [-dls]
Fun with Storms (letter of comment by Kip Williams):
In response to Mark's comments on Sandy in various recent issues of the MT VOID, Kip Williams writes:
We went through Isabel in 2003, when Sarah was a year old. It was an exciting night, with howling wind-driven rain bending trees this way and that. Sarah wanted to go outside and look at it but had to content herself standing by the glass doors in the den. After a couple of hours, our power went off. A while later, we went to bed.
In the morning, it was quiet, and the air had a scrubbed feeling. Our yard was full of sticks and leaves. Trees fell everywhere, but none on our property. We couldn't drive out of the neighborhood until neighbors with chainsaws had gotten trees out of enough streets to allow single-file car processions around things.
I went out the first morning after (it was in summer) on my bike, and found the Harris Teeter grocery open. Inside was a hushed, twilit scene powered by generators. We could only buy canned food, and they gave away gallons of spring water and bags of ice. I couldn't find any cell phone coverage.
Our next-door neighbors had a loud generator that turned itself on and off through the night. Next morning, the apartment building behind us got their power back. We didn't. People across the street got their barbecue equipment out and had neighborhood meals every day. A time or two, we visited friends to use their showers and what-not.
At home, I set up our little propane stove in the garage with the door open for ventilation. I made Spaghetti-os, and heated water to wash dishes in once or twice. The freezer became a fridge, and then a cupboard, and then all the perishables went into the garbage.
On the eleventh day, I got word from a neighbor that Lowe's (or was it Home Depot?) was selling generators, so I headed over there. By this time, we could drive in and out at will, and the library Cathy worked at had power, so we had gone there a time or two to gawk at electric lights. Anyway, I looked at the little generators and got a slightly bigger one. I brought it home and set it up just outside the garage and ran extension cords into the house. We had light! And a fan! (Sarah didn't quite grasp why it was so hot and thirsty all the time, or why we didn't turn the computer or TV on.)
Electrical crews had been working on our street. Everybody in the neighborhood cheered their arrival and cheered them again when they drove away. An hour or two after getting the generator going, they restored our power. A minute later, our friend Mike showed up. "I bring you... Power!" he said, with a magical gesture. As he drove up our street, he said, lights were coming on in houses, and he was hoping to hit it just right, but he missed it by that much. The crew that restored our juice was from Georgia. The house started a low humming as the air conditioning came back on and the water began to heat up again.
FEMA paid for our generator, which we still have. I fire it up three times a year or so to make sure it's working, and rotate the gas in the five-gallon jugs in the garage so it's usually less than a year old. I told cashiers at Harris Teeter that they earned our business for as long as we lived in Virginia. It was an easy resolution to keep. They had good prices and nice sushi.
Our neighbors across the pond lost dozens of trees from their place. They cut a pile of trunks the size of a large U-Haul, which waited weeks for removal. When it was gone, they put another pile the same size there. Some of the ducks were looking at it as a nice permanent spot for a nest. "It's in a good school district," one duck said. "And so close to the shopping center." Stupid ducks.
We moved away in 2005. By that time, all the houses were fixed up again, and all the uprooted trees had been taken care of. [-kw]
This Week's Reading (book comments by Evelyn C. Leeper):
I just read William E. Gladstone's HOMER (no ISBN). This is a "digitally remastered" POD book printed by Forgotten Books, which has reproduced the copy from the University of Toronto Library so faithfully that they even photocopied the page with the Acme Library Card Pocket on it. This could probably be considered the introduction to Gladstone's many more specific books about Homer, such as "Homeric Synchronism: An Enquiry into the Time and Place of Homer" and "Studies On Homer And The Homeric Age V1: Prolegomena Achaeis Or The Ethnology Of The Greek Races". It covers history, cosmology, geography, mythology, ethnography, ethics, politics, and the arts, entirely based on what one finds in Homer (with some passing references to Egyptian mythology, Hebrew religion, and later Greek developments). Reading it, I was reminded of all those stories where the people of the future, or aliens from another planet, attempt to reconstruct our society from a motel room, or a single Disney cartoon, or a shopping list. The classic in this area is probably THE WEANS by Robert Nathan, where the people of the future call us the "We-ans" (apparently derived from the neologism "US-ian" instead of "American"). (I cannot remember if this is the book in which the people from the future think that the names "Washington" and "Churchill" have all sorts of symbolic meaning.) The best-known of these would be THE MOTEL OF THE MYSTERIES by David Macaulay.
Of course, Gladstone did not think of what he was doing in this context. No one had written this sort of thing as science fiction, and there was a great tradition of attempting to reconstruct the past from very little material. In fact, one still sees it today in Biblical literalists.
As I was reading this, it occurred to me that among the many differences between American Presidents and British Prime Ministers, one is that there seem to be more "first-rank" authors among the British Prime Ministers.
There are, of course, two basic ways to rate authors. One is by the generally accepted critical view of their writing. The other is by whether people still read them. (Of course, these days the probability that any non-current author is read for pleasure is very low.)
Of the Prime Ministers, the major authors would include Benjamin Disraeli (novels), Winston Churchill (histories), and William Gladstone (Homeric studies). Of the Presidents, the major authors would be Ulysses S. Grant (memoirs) and Theodore Roosevelt (histories and travel). However, while Roosevelt wrote many books, Grant wrote only one, meaning that the difference between the British and Americans is even more skewed.
I am not counting the obligatory books that every President seems to write (or have ghost-written from his notes), one or two before he is elected telling his life story, etc., and then another couple after leaving office, talking about his time in office. They are all over the place, and generally have little lasting literary merit. I would be astonished if any of these were read in a hundred and fifty years the way Grant's memoirs are now. Nor am I counting the collected speeches of, or the wit and wisdom of, or the any other ad hoc collections of Presidential verbiage.
As another opinion, last year Charli James compiled a list of the "Top 10 Books Written By Our Presidents". And they were, in chronological order:
Mark Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Quote of the Week: Some books make me want to go adventuring, others feel that they have saved me the trouble. --Ashleigh BrilliantTweet
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