What Followed the Triple Axel

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In America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, you can be anything you want to be, if you just dream big enough and try hard enough. Right.

Well, not quite.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team. Ross Miner did just that on January 7, skating a nearly perfect program to a rousing medley of Queen songs that earned him a silver medal behind 18-year-old skating phenom Nathan Chen and his five quadruple jumps. No one was going to beat Chen; silver was the new gold in 2018.

To win that silver medal, Miner had to be perfect. And he was. From the exquisitely light landing of his opening quad-salchow to the high, tight rotations of his triple lutz-triple toe to the musicality of his footwork and the unusual entrances into his fast, centered spins, Miner was perfect. No panic, no worry, he was “cool, relaxed, got hip, got on his tracks” as the lyrics sang during his footwork pattern. In figure skating there’s a term called “peaking at the right moment,” and Miner did. He laid out a perfect program when he needed it most: the national championships leading into the Olympics.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team.

Miner handily beat bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and pewter medalist Adam Rippon. At 17, Zhou has the quads but not the musicality of a seasoned skater; at 28, Rippon has the seasoned performance quality, but he choked when it counted, falling on his quad and popping two of his planned triples into singles. It was a devastating moment, one sure to haunt him for the rest of his life.

But hold on. Ross Miner didn’t make the Olympic team. He’ll be in South Korea as an alternate behind Zhou and Rippon. Unlike what happens in track and field, swimming, skiing, and just about any other sport, winning at U.S. Figure Skating Nationals doesn’t guarantee you a trip to the Olympics. In figure skating that decision is made behind closed doors by a committee that examines the skaters’ “body of work” to decide who is most likely to bring home a medal. And this season they’re betting on Rippon. Thanks for the memories, Ross. See ya later.

Selection by committee instead of competition also allows the judges to keep out the riffraff, which they weren’t able to do in 1994, when national gold medalist Tonya Harding, accused of masterminding the attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan, sued the United States Figure Skating Association for her right to compete on the US team in Lillehammer, Norway. Under the new rules, she would not have been able to sue, because medaling would not have guaranteed her a spot.

But that wasn’t the first time the judges tried to keep Harding down. A jumping powerhouse from the time she was a child and the first woman to land a triple axel at Nationals, Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted. She wasn’t “an old timey version of what a woman is supposed to be.” There was a hard edge about her that came from growing up in hard circumstances. She had thick thighs, over-permed hair, and heavy makeup; her practice outfits were too garish, her music too brash, and her performance dresses too full of froufrou. She practiced in a shopping mall ice rink. Instead of taking her under their wing and helping her succeed, the judges brushed her aside with low scores and hoped she would go away.

Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted.

Nancy Kerrigan was the opposite of Tonya Harding. She wore simple practice dresses and elegant performance dresses, pulled her sleek hair back into a bun, selected classical music for her routines, and even had her tiny front teeth capped to please the judges and develop the proper “look” for ladies’ skating. She was a skilled, elegant skater as well, with confident jumps and her trademark hand-on-knee spiral that young skaters liked to imitate. But more than anything, she had the look. The judges loved her.

Everyone knows what happened next: a goon named Shawn Eckardt hired another goon named Shane Stant to clobber Nancy Kerrigan with a collapsible baton during practice just two days before the senior ladies’ competition at Nationals in 1994. Eckardt was Harding’s bodyguard and the best friend of her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Harding was blamed and her career was over. As the US gold medalist, she successfully sued to compete at Lillehammer. But at her ensuing trial she would be banned for life from any USFSA competitions, events, or activities.

Although pleas were entered and verdicts were pronounced in the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure. Eckardt was a self-important blowhard who insisted he had done espionage work for the CIA. Gillooly would have turned in his own mother to stay out of prison. Harding would have done the same to save her career and compete in the Olympics. In a situation like this there’s a tendency for the brain to rearrange its memories in a way that defends and protects its host; I doubt that Tonya Harding really knows what she knew, and when she knew it.

All of this is chronicled admirably in the new film I, Tonya. Libertarians will see an ironic connection in this title that is probably unintentional; just as no one person can make a pencil, no one person is responsible for the making of Tonya Harding. She is the product of poverty and poor education, abandonment by her father, beating by her mother, more beating by her husband, and unfair judging in a sport that was the only good thing in her life. I’m not defending her here; what happened to Kerrigan is inexcusable. But I am strangely sympathetic to her as a tragic hero who fell so far and so hard.

In the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure.

The film uses the mockumentary interview format made popular by Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest in such films as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. This fictionalized interview style is exactly the right choice for presenting a story that relies so completely on unreliable narrators who think they have a lock on the truth. The result is a film that’s as funny as it is tragic.

We see the same kind of delusional defensiveness in the mock interviews with Tonya’s mother, LaVona Harding (Allison Janney). “She skated better when she was enraged,” she explains, justifying her harsh treatment of Tonya, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her (the real LaVona denies the knife throwing, but she acknowledges and justifies the “spankings”). When Tonya’s coach suggests that a ladylike demeanor might help Tonya fit in more with the other skaters, LaVona shouts, “Tonya doesn’t fit in. She stands out!” When LaVona thinks Tonya needs a little more determination to prove herself on the ice, she pays a fan to heckle her own daughter. She is cold, cruel, and unintentionally comical, and Janney plays her to the hilt of the knife she flings into Tonya’s arm.

The other characters are equally entertaining in a “stranger-than-fiction” sort of way. It’s like watching skating’s equivalent of a 20-car pileup: you just can’t look away. And it does offer a plausible backstory that makes Harding (played at different ages by Maizie Smith, McKenna Grace, and Margot Robbie) a more sympathetic character as a battered woman, bullied by everyone around her, than the one we’ve seen in documentaries over the past 24 years.

“She skated better when she was enraged,” Harding's mom explains, justifying her harsh treatment of her daughter, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her.

As a former skating mom, I remember the meanness of certain skaters, the prejudice of certain judges, the “acceptable” sabotage that often went on in dressing rooms. I taught my daughter to hold her head up, skate her best, and act as though everyone liked her. Eventually, everyone did. But a girl as socially inept as Tonya, with an ex-husband as hotheaded as Gillooly and a bodyguard as delusional as Eckart might almost be forgiven for . . . um . . . Nope. Not forgivable.

Nevertheless, the film has become something of a darling among the feminist set who are determined this year to make heroes out of victims with vaginas, even one who may have ordered a hit on another victim of the same gender. The black-dress ladies fawned over Tonya at the Golden Globes and are likely to do the same at future awards events this season. Watching the real Tonya Harding skate her landmark 1991 program as the movie credits rolled, seeing the joy on her face as she landed her triple axel and completed a clean program, I could almost agree with them. It was all so senseless. She didn’t need to beat Kerrigan to beat Kerrigan.


Editor's Note: Review of "I, Tonya," directed by Craig Gillespie. Clubhouse Pictures, 2017, 120 minutes.



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It's Delightful, It's Delovely, It's . . .

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Knights in Dark Satin

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It’s awards season again, that glittery time when Hollywood elites gather to praise each other’s work, comment on each other’s clothing, and make political statements we mere mortals in suburbia couldn’t possibly understand without the help of their stunning insights.

The circuit began with the Golden Globes on January 8 and will culminate in the awarding of the Oscars on March 4. At the Globes, all the gals showed up in sexy black evening gowns to show their solidarity with women who have been mistreated, abused, harassed, or misunderstood. It made me think of junior high: “What are you going to wear?” “I don’t know, what are you going to wear?” “Muffy Sinclair is wearing plaid overalls and knee socks.” “Ooh! Me too! Me too!” Suddenly the elite of the elite were controlling what all the women would wear to the Globes. And scarcely anyone dared to be different.

I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear.

Regardless of how I feel about their particular issue, I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear. Any woman who had chosen to express her own voice by wearing red or blue or white, no matter what the reason, would have been castigated by the press and by her peers. Just as women knew they had to play the Weinstein game if they wanted a role in Hollywood, they knew they had to wear a black dress if they wanted to fit in. Nothing has changed in Hollywood. You either toe the party line or move into another career.

Let’s face it: many of these seasoned women in their glitzy black dresses had to have known all about the Hollywood casting couches long before Harvey Weinstein’s shame became public. They endured it to get ahead, and then kept quiet about it when other women had to endure it. Sorority hazing at its worst. Not until it became public and, might I say, fashionable, did they join in with their #MeToo stories. Until then, they dared not risk the careers — for which they had paid dearly — by speaking out against Weinstein and his ilk. In fact, they embraced him. They played the game. Even after they were rich enough and famous enough and awarded enough that they didn’t need to. Now, to assuage their guilt and cover their shame, they’re shouting the loudest and pointing the longest fingers. And pressuring other women to play along, like it or not. It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped them get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

Two years ago the hypocrites of the Academy self-righteously awarded the Oscar for Best Picture to Spotlight (2015), a good but hardly great film about the Boston Globe’s exposé of pedophilia within the Catholic church, as though pointing a finger at someone else’s institutionalization of systemic sexual predation would atone for the guilt in their own institution. Last year, after the Academy fielded complaints of racism for not nominating enough black actors and filmmakers in 2016 films, the award for Best Picture went to Moonlight, an obscure little film about a transgender black. Again, a good film, but not great and not memorable.

It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped the likes of Weinstein get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

This week, in another bid for both relevance and absolution, the Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor went, predictably, to Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film about a plucky woman who stands up against injustice (or seems to). After all, this is the year of the woman as victim, right?

So let’s review this film that’s bound to garner increasing acclaim as the award season drags on. Is it a good film? In terms of production values, yes. The story is quirky and unexpected, the plot taking one dark turn after another. The actors are all in, portraying their characters with the kind of free-for-all abandon that often leads to critical acclaim and award nominations. An upbeat musical score contributes to the quirky tone and provides a jarring contrast to the beatings and violence that turn up at the least expected moments. The dialog is sharp and punchy, and the small town setting is authentic and believable, even if the characters are not.

And that’s my main criticism of Three Billboards, a film that’s supposed to be about a heroic woman’s fight against Town Hall in the form of the police department. She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic. She’s vengeful and pathetic and, in many ways, wrong.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving and disgruntled mother whose daughter has been gruesomely raped and murdered. Seven months later, angered that the police haven’t arrested anyone for the crime, she turns on the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) and publicizes his failure by leasing the rights to three billboards, on which she posts: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Understandably, the chief is not amused.

She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic.

But he isn’t unsympathetic, either. The thing is, we really can’t find fault with the chief. He’s kind. He’s understanding. And he’s trying. There simply aren’t any leads in the case. Mildred wants a conviction. Any conviction will do. But the only thing worse than not convicting the perpetrator of a crime is arresting the wrong man and convicting him instead, just to make the community feel safer.

I appreciate the chief’s methodical rigor in this case. At one point he says to Mildred, “I'd do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don't match no one who's ever been arrested, and when the DNA don't match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn't a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well . . . right now there ain't too much more we could do.” And I abhor Mildred’s mean, spiteful, crude, ugly vengeance. She responds to Chief Willoughby’s rational concerns about civil rights and due process with “If it was me, I'd start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”

The story completely jumps the shark when Dixon, Chief Willoughby’s deputy (Sam Rockwell), a disgraced, racist, drunken cop, suddenly becomes the hero, in a way so bizarre and unbelievable that even if I told you how it ends, you would think I was kidding, in order to avoid revealing the true plot. So I won’t tell you. But it’s bad.

Three Billboards has an interesting premise about a vigilante citizen using public opinion to shame a police force into doing its job of bringing a criminal to justice. But it squanders the premise on vulgar, vengeful, violent characters created more for shock value instead of any enlightening or lasting message. You might want to see it just for the production values, but it would have to be an awfully rainy day or interminably long flight to induce me to see it again.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity.

The only reason Three Billboards won three Golden Globes is that it’s about a woman whose daughter was raped and who blames a man, because that’s the name of the game this awards season in Hollywood. Ironically, those short-sighted, dimwitted Hollywood voters didn’t even notice that their heroine agrees to go to dinner with a man and implies that she might “be dessert” in order to get something she wants. Sheesh. Have they learned nothing?

Well, they did learn to wear black dresses to the party when Oprah says so.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity. Libertarians won’t want to miss Molly’s Game, which tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who for a dozen years ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. Her clients included celebrity athletes, Hollywood stars, Middle Eastern moguls, and underworld figures who came as much for the celebrity as for the game.

Molly is everything we want to see in an entrepreneur: she’s smart, she’s honest, she anticipates demand and creates supply, and she makes decisions based on long-term goals and expectations. She plays within the rules, provides a service that people want, and cares about her customers and her employees. She’s the model libertarian. No wonder the Black Dress Ladies ignored this film.

Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients.

The movie begins two years after Molly has closed her business, when 17 FBI agents bang on her door and arrest her at gunpoint. They know she’s clean, but they arrest her anyway because they need her to turn state’s evidence against some underworld types who had been regulars in her game. Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients. Virtually penniless now and living with her mother, she nevertheless convinces attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her by telling him her story, which we see in flashback and hear in voice-over narration. Based on the book Molly’s Game by the real Molly Bloom, this is a fascinating tale about an unlikely heroine dressed in Coco Chanel and Jimmy Choo’s without a single conservative (or conformative) black dress in the wardrobe closet. Libertarians won’t want to miss it.

Even more impressive in the female protagonist genre is The Shape of Water, a beauty and the beast tale with the added twist of the classic conflict between the individual and the state. Directed by the brilliant Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water has the magical quality of a painting brought to life. In this film he does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

The story is set in the 1950s, an era characterized by the Red Scare, nuclear experiments, conservative values, and the race for space. The Russians have launched a dog into orbit, fueling Americans’ fear of failure. Giant irradiated ants and spiders and creatures from the Black Lagoon terrorize communities on the silver screen. Against this backdrop, life imitates art as military scientist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) discovers an amphibious man (Doug Jones) in a South American river and brings the creature to a secret laboratory in San Francisco where military leaders hope to learn something that can help them in the race against the Russians.

Del Toro does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who works the night shift at the laboratory and lives a solitary life above a movie theater — another contribution to the film’s liquid mixing of art and life. Found as a baby near a river bank, she has a strange affinity for water, even before meeting the river creature. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely, out-of-work artist with a dozen half-eaten slices of lime green pie in his refrigerator and a pride of cats on his couch. He and Elisa watch old musicals on television and share a close but fraternal relationship.

Prodded and studied by the self-righteous and sadistic Strickland, the creature attacks him and draws blood. Yet Elisa isn’t afraid of him. Assigned to clean the creature’s space, she shares her lunch with him, expressing a shy charm reminiscent of the ingénues in the romantic musicals she enjoys with Giles. She develops a tenderness toward the creature and vows to rescue him when she learns that he is going to be studied by vivisection and then autopsy.

Sally Hawkins delivers a luminous performance as Elisa, communicating eloquently through sign language, body language, and facial expressions that make us forget she cannot speak. She manages to be both meekly shy and fiercely powerful. Richard Jenkins portrays the quiet despair of a man too old to start over who senses that he will leave no footprint on this earth. Michael Shannon has settled nicely into the sadistic villain role that seems to have become his forte. And the creature is, as artist Giles describes him, “beautiful.” This film has been described as “beauty and the beast,” but the only beast in the film is Strickland.

In sum, The Shape of Water celebrates art, emotion, intuition, difference, choice, and individuality. It is everything the Black Dress conformists are not. No wonder they overlooked it in favor of the vulgar, violent, vengeful Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Don’t you make the same mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri," directed by Martin McDonagh. Blueprint Pictures, Fox Searchlight, 2017. 115 minutes; "Molly’s Game," directed by Aaron Sorkin. STX Entertainment, 2017. 140 minutes; and "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Fox Searchlight, 2017. 123 minutes.



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The Geo-Petroleum Order Overturned

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Several recent articles point to the continuing rapid evolution of the world’s geopolitical order in regard to energy — what I dub the “geo-petroleum order”. The upheaval was caused by America’s resurrection as a dominant oil and natural gas superpower, which in turn was caused by the fracking revolution. This resurrection, I would suggest, has had two phases.

The first phase started in the 1990’s, when George P. Mitchel combined hydraulic fracturing (known for decades) with horizontal drilling. This technique — fracking, as it has come to be known — allowed oil production in America to grow like a bodybuilder on steroids. It grew linearly up about 50% between 2011 and 2015. This allowed the US to shrink steadily as a net oil importer. We are close to hitting the goal of zero net imports, which is to say we are close to energy independence. Moreover, fracking drove the price of oil down by something like two thirds, to the current range of $40 to $60 per barrel.

The introduction of that kaleidoscope creator of pointless boondoggles, the US Department of Energy, was another monumental mistake.

The second phase began when House Speaker Ryan managed — amazingly! — to get a bill through Congress allowing domestically produced oil to be sold abroad. And he got President Obama — no big fan of fossil fuels — to sign it into law. As I noted at the time, this was an astounding piece of work. It overturned a grotesquely stupid law (passed during the energy crisis of the 1970s) that forbade the sale of presumably scarce domestic oil abroad. It never occurred to the morons who enacted this law that it would discourage oil companies and innovators from finding different ways to extract oil here, and making them look abroad instead.

Parenthetically, I would suggest that future historians will record that it was primarily our own idiocy that caused our energy shortages during the period running from the OPEC oil embargo to the rapid rise of fracking — a period that saw the greatest transfer of wealth from the US to its enemies ever known, for which we were “rewarded” by terrorist attacks and Russian neoimperialism. The enactment of the aforementioned subhumanly stupid law prohibited the shipment of American-produced oil, incentivizing oil producers and innovators to focus on foreign oil production. The introduction of that kaleidoscope creator of pointless boondoggles, the US Department of Energy (DOE), was another monumental mistake. The projects it forced innovators to pursue exhibited a degree of asininity seldom exceeded in the private realm. These projects range from syn-fuels and geothermal energy to biomass and corn ethanol (the mother and father of all boondoggles) to solar farms and windmills that shred birds and produce expensive energy at the very times it is least needed. Another DOE achievement was killing of the fast breeder reactor, which would have taken the nuclear “waste” we have accumulated and use it as fuel.

The DOE should top the list of federal departments to be eliminated. And for those of you who are worried about a rise of ocean levels said to be caused by global warning, may I offer a helpful hint? Just create a US Department of Water Creation, and the ocean levels won’t just fall; they will simply dry up.

Development in ANWR will provide thousands of high-paying jobs and $60 billion in royalties for the state — some of which goes directly to the people of Alaska.

But I digress. The flawed tax bill recently passed by Congress and signed into law by the president contains a provision allowing limited drilling in the formerly locked away Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR). ANWR — which is in the middle of nowhere, and protects nothing but mosquitoes — was created at a time of high oil prices, and with only one purpose: to deny oil companies the chance to develop a small piece of vast Alaska. ANWR was, of course, opposed by the great majority of actual Alaskans but favored by soi-disant “environmentalists” in Silicon Valley and Beverly Hills. But then, neither Silicon Valley nor Beverly Hills has Alaska’s unemployment rate, which is the highest in the nation. Nor do they have Alaska’s large budget deficit.

Development in ANWR will provide thousands of high-paying jobs and $60 billion in royalties for the state — which puts some of the funds in a master-fund, the income of which goes directly to the people of Alaska. ANWR will also rejuvenate the Alaskan Oil Pipeline, keeping that great project alive. Not bad, considering that the drilling will take place on less than 2,000 acres — which is one-hundredth of 1% of the ANWR reserve.

It has also been reported that the $3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access Pipeline — created to ship the burgeoning oil production from fracking operations in North Dakota — is delivering bountiful benefits after only six months of operation. Lowering the cost of shipping has caused an increase in production. October’s production hit 1.185 million barrels per day (BPD), which is about a 13% increase over the peak before the pipeline.

As a result, unemployment in North Dakota is exceptionally low (2.3% in November), state revenues rose by $43.5 million in the first five months since the pipeline opened, and the pipe is projected to deliver $210 to $250 million in extra tax revenue by the end of its first two years. That’s delivering the green!

Saudi Arabia is now looking to invest in — American shale operations! How the geo-petroleum worm has turned.

Speaking of green, there has been a bonus for the environment as well. The pipeline has eliminated about 83% of the train traffic carrying oil, with only two trains a day now needed to transport oil instead of the 12 needed before the pipeline. This dramatically decreases the chance of ecologically damaging oil spills, or hominid-damaging oil explosions when trains carrying oil crash.

Another encouraging report explores an unseen upside of the growth in American fossil fuel production. The domestic steel industry — long an industry under stress from foreign competition — is itself experiencing a rebirth. Both oil and natural gas are shipped mainly by pipeline (unless misguided environmental activists stop the projects) and the pipes aren’t made of wood; they’re made of steel. Recently the newer domestic steel plants have become dramatically more efficient and are increasing capacity in anticipation of the pipeline buildout.

One American steel manufacturer projects growth in domestic oil and natural gas for the next ten to 20 years. Shipments from American steel producers went up 5% in the first ten months of last year — not as good as the 15% experienced by foreign producers, but still on the right track.

Some American manufacturers worry that the domestic buildout in steel plants will lead to a glut. But research done by Pipe Logix estimates that the number of oil and natural gas wells increased by 60% in 2016 alone. Those wells, and the pipes that ship their products, both require steel. So the worry about a “glut” of domestic steel mills seems exaggerated.

The foxy frackers just tightened their operations and kept innovating, winding up with an amazingly flexible industry that remains profitable in a below-$40 per barrel environment.

The American fossil fuel renaissance is having an impact on our major oil competitors. There is fascinating news that Saudi Arabia is now looking to invest in — American shale operations! How the geo-petroleum worm has turned!

Specifically, Aramco — the Saudi state-owned oil company — has approached the Houston based natural gas producer Tellurian, looking to invest. Aramco is also looked at acquiring assets in the two huge fossil fuel basins, Permian and Eagle Ford.

Admittedly, these developments are only incipient. But the fact that the Saudis are knocking at the door marks a major shift. They realize that America — once a pitifully energy-dependent giant brought its knees by despicable dictators sitting on top of large oil reserves — is now the world’s biggest producer of oil and natural gas, eclipsing both the always-treacherous Saudis and the authoritarian Russians. If you add on our coal production, we completely eclipse other countries in fossil-fuel production.

How sad that is for oil potentates, socialist caudillos, and dictators in general, who got fat on oil at an over-$100 price!

Of course, while we are the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, we are still net importers, because we consume so much. But as we increase production, we will become a net exporter. And this is what the Saudis realize. Aramco already owns some refineries in the US (and elsewhere in the world), but all Saudi production of oil and natural gas takes place in Saudi Arabia. The new leader of the country (Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman) plans to privatize Aramco, and the IPO shares would fetch a higher price if Aramco sites production here.

The Saudis have two other reasons for wanting to buy into US oil and natural gas production. First, they aim to understand better how fracking works in such nimble ways. A couple of years ago, the Saudis tried to drive the frackers out of business by jacking up their own production and thus driving down prices. For a while, the price of oil hit about $30 per barrel. This caused the Saudi government to hemorrhage foreign reserves, but the foxy frackers just tightened their operations and kept innovating, winding up with an amazingly flexible industry that remains profitable in a below-$40 per barrel environment. When the price drops that low, less efficient operations get closed, but they can be expanded again, in the blink of an eye, when oil goes over $50 a barrel. How sad that is for oil potentates, socialist caudillos, and dictators in general, who got fat on oil at an over-$100 price!

The Saudis envy this flexibility and deeply resent the fact that it will keep the price of oil below $60 a barrel for the indefinite future. Witness the Crown Prince’s attempt to seize the assets of corrupt relatives and get Saudis used to working, rather than living on welfare paid by the rest of the world.

The Russians have “kept up” with American technology since the time of Lenin, usually by stealing it.

The other reason the Saudis want to have operations here is that they want to shift from their reliance on their own oil to power everything. The world’s natural fossil fuel distribution has involved using oil to power transportation, but natural gas and coal to generate electricity — and coal is a much dirtier fuel. But Saudi Arabia’s own natural gas reserves — which are about equal to America’s — are sulfur-laden and hard to get out of the ground. So to convert its production of electricity to natural gas, the country would have to import 12 million metric tons of LNG annually. Extracting that here in America would make sense.

But I have another, deliciously rich, piece of news. It is said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s true our archenemy Russia is flattering us in the extreme. It is trying to develop its own shale.

Russia’s main shale formation — the Bazhenov formation — is the largest in the world. And Russian oil production is the largest in the world. But Russians are looking at oil fields that are six decades or more old, and have declining outputs. So they want to do what America did: recover peak production by means of fracking. The trick is to replicate America’s technological expertise. To this end, the Russian government — i.e., Putin and his corrupt cronies — is offering tax incentives for shale companies, and incentivizing cooperation among energy companies and research institutes to develop fracking technology.

Alexei Vashkevich, exploration director for Russian energy conglomerate Gazprom Neft, who conveniently worked on the North Dakota’s Bakken formation operations, assures us that the Russians won’t rip off American technology but will develop a totally different Russian technology.

Oh, please, Alexei — as if the new Russian 5th-generation fighter weren’t a direct clone of America’s F35. The Russians have “kept up” with American technology since the time of Lenin, usually by stealing it. Witness A-bomb plans stolen by spies, F35 plans, obviously filched by cyberspies, aka hackers, who use the computer and internet technology they stole from — Americans!

We should work to keep oil prices so low that they delay Russia’s massive military buildup.

The news article just mentioned observes that it will be, perhaps, another six or seven years before Russian fracking operations produce very much, in part because of the embargo placed on Russia when it dismembered Ukraine. But wait: if the Russian technology-to-be is going to be totally different from America’s, why would the denial of that technology hold back Russia’s development?

I think you can expect Russia to do three things in the immediate future.

First, you will see it unleash its hackers to steal massive amounts of American fracking technology. My advice to American fracking companies is this: If you haven’t done so already, set up encryption and other barriers to stop cyberspies from an orgy of theft.

Second, you should be prepared to see mysterious “environmental” groups spew colossal amounts of deceitful anti-fracking propaganda. These groups will be funded by Putin for the sole purpose of retarding America’s own fracking.

Third, you can expect a dramatic increase in Russian meddling with elections, here and in Europe, by feeding propaganda to news media and funds to political activist groups. They likely played a role in strangling Poland’s development of its own substantial shale formations — keeping Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe dependent on Russian natural gas and oil. No doubt they will try to elect anti-fracking candidates here as well.

My strong belief is that we should work to keep prices so low that they delay Russia’s massive military buildup. To do this, we need to open up more offshore sites, and more in Alaska, and push for the systematic exploration of the Arctic.

In this regard, there is some very recent good news. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has announced a plan that would overturn the Obama administration’s effort to restrict offshore drilling to only 6% of the American coastline. Under the new plan, fully 90% of offshore areas would be opened, in the largest sale of offshore leases in history. This is a huge new step towards the goal of making America, in Zinke’s words, “the strongest energy superpower.”

While oil company CEOs may fear a glut — and lower prices — consumers would welcome it.

This means that Southern California’s coastline would be open for offshore drilling for the first time since the late 1960s, when it was closed because of an oil spill in Santa Barbara. The East Coast offshore areas would also be reopened.

Naturally, environmentalist groups are already screaming. For example, Diane Hoskins of the activist group Oceana called the plan “absolutely radical.” This is to be expected. Democratic governors in several states (including California, Oregon, North Carolina, and Washington) also expressed complete opposition, and some Republicans became alarmed as well. Senator Marco Rubio and Governor Rick Scott both came out against drilling off Florida’s coastline.

Even oil companies have stated reservations, since they are now experiencing what they regard as a glut of oil. But while oil company CEOs may fear a glut — and lower prices — consumers would welcome it.

Zinke has pointed out that the plan will not be finalized until 2019, and only after comments have been received in public hearings around the country. While all that is pending, we can be thankful for inventive frackers and the prosperity they have given us.




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Take Your Mitts Off Our Myths

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Bear with me here. I have some explaining to do with this review, so don’t start throwing tomatoes yet. Here it goes:

I loved watching the new Star Wars episode.

At the same time, I’m glad that fans almost unanimously hate the new story, even if they don’t completely understand their visceral reaction to it. The Last Jedi is indeed bad, but not because of its repetitive plot or unlikely character development. I rather enjoyed the humorous asides, reminiscent of the original Han Solo. Benicio del Toro as the codebreaker DJ is delectably suave and sinister. Daisy Ridley is fresh and courageous and conflicted as the female lead. And the Stephen Jay Gould-inspired moment when Rey (Daisy Ridley) snaps her fingers and sees herself as a continuum extending into her future in front of her and from her past behind her offers a sophisticated and subtle answer to the conflict between destiny and free will — if her past exists along with her future, does she have the power to change the past? Or is her future predetermined by her past?

Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar.

My beef is with what the movie tries to say about our culture. But as a professor who teaches classes on mythology, I was engaged by the classic conflict between good and evil, inspired by the continuing offer of redemption, and fascinated by the evolution of the Star Wars myth.

The number one complaint about The Last Jedi that I’ve read on fan blogs and social media is that the recent stories are all retreads of the original Star Wars plot. Well, duh! Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar. Greek plays tended to tell the same stories from multiple angles, just as the Star Wars episodes all surround the central characters of Luke and Leia. This should come as no surprise. Why have there been at least 59 movies made about Jesse James, more than a dozen about the shootout at the OK Corral, and annual movies about Santa? Don’t we already know how they’re going to end? We watch these movies again and again because we want to experience vicariously how heroes (and antiheroes) face conflict, interact with supporting characters, and find redemption even in tragedy. Aristotle called it catharsis. Each version of the story gives it a slightly different spin as each generation’s definition of heroism changes, but the change is cloaked in the familiarity of the characters and their stories.

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth. We can trace the evolution of our beliefs, values, and culture simply by studying the films of succeeding decades. Just watch how women are portrayed in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and in current movies to see how American culture has changed. And has it ever changed in The Last Jedi!

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth.

From the beginning, George Lucas embedded in Star Wars the characteristics of American myth. His original story relied heavily on the western genre of the lone, flawed maverick who rides into town, is transformed by friendship, and chooses to risk his life and possessions to help protect his new community from treacherous invaders. Han Solo was that maverick hero. The values of that first film were the values of America: rugged individualism, rebellion against tyranny, reliance on instinct, and reverence for freedom. We saw those same values in the many movies of the 20th century with heroes who defy orders, take risks, act instinctively, and save the day. I also love the offer of redemption that permeates the Star Wars mythology. In each episode a hero has been seduced by the dark side, but all is not lost. He can return to the light and a hero’s welcome if he simply chooses it. Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader; now his grandson, Ben Solo, has become Kylo Ren. But the potential for good is strong in this one. He, too, can be redeemed.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down. Once again we have a maverick hero, Poe (Oscar Isaac), who acts on his own, and is demoted for it by the interim leader, Resistance Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Of course we expect that his instincts will prove correct. We also have a trio of rebels (Finn, Rose and BB-8) who secretly boards the First Order’s ship to push a button that will save the Resistance ship. If the story is truly repetitive of earlier episodes, this brave and risky ploy will work. Celebrations to follow.

But not in this movie. Our would-be heroes are caught and their plan is thwarted. Because of this, Vice Admiral Holdo’s secret plan for protecting the ship and its crew is also thwarted, and many Resistance soldiers are killed. The new message is clear: authority figures have no obligation to tell underlings their plans; and those who defy authority and follow their instincts will cause misery to the entire group. So shut up and obey.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down.

Fans are also troubled by the fact that our hero of 40 years, Luke Skywalker, has virtually given up on the Jedi. Discouraged and faithless, he has no desire to help the Resistance and is content to live out the rest of his life on a secluded island. Director and scriptwriter Rian Johnson has destroyed our once incorruptible hero, and his religion as well. I guess the pen truly is mightier than the light saber.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of Hollywood controlling and creating the American myth. Hollywood people hardly represent my own values, beliefs, or culture, or the values and beliefs of most Americans. Apparently Star Wars fans don’t like the idea either. While they complain about esoteric details of plot and character, I think what they are instinctively resisting is the new message of the film.

Mythology resonates with us. That’s one reason such franchises as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the superhero movies endure. Cultural values can evolve over time, but when basic beliefs about free will and individualism change as outrageously as they have in The Last Jedi, we begin to feel “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices cried out in terror.” It’s time to resist the First Order of Hollywood and stop letting it control the American myth.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Last Jedi," directed by Rian Johnson. Walt Disney Pictures, 2017, 152 minutes.



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