Thursday, December 27, 2012

Playing Games with Lily: Lego Harry Potter

 I was hanging out with Lily a couple weekends ago and we spent a couple hours looking at the Lego versions of Harry Potter characters in the Brickipedia. If you have a daughter, you've probably done the same thing.

(Brickipedia is a Wiki about Legos. I never even imaged such a thing existed, but I am thrilled that it does. The Internet does occasionally produce something worthwhile.)  

I thought, "Hey, this Lego Harry Potter game looks fun!" so we drove out to the mall and traded in some stuff for a used copy.

It's just about the perfect game for Lily. The only thing I could think to make it better for her would be to add something where she can practice her reading.  But it has cooperative gameplay, puzzles to solve, tons of stuff to unlock and it's impossible to fail (you just explode into bricks if you lose all your health and then immediately respawn minus a little bit of money), which is great when you're playing with a six-year-old.  The cutscenes are cute. It's got a little fighting, but it's not too violent. Just like you, the bad guys just explode into bricks.

The puzzles are mostly pretty easy. When in doubt, zap everything on the screen, and as my friend Frederick observed, if the bricks don't disappear, then you're probably supposed to build something out of them. Occasionally, the trick to a boss fight is not immediately obvious. The basilisk in particular is a pain. The fight involved luring the thing into smashing three sets of walls, brewing a potion that includes components that are obscured by the geometry due to the fixed camera angle, pulling a chain after you drink the strength potion, summoning Fawkes, using the same spell at the same time as your partner on the same item, jumping down into the pipe, using a spell on the Sorting Hat to get the Godric Gryffindor's sword and then finally levitating the sword to stab the basilisk who for some reason was positioned somewhere off screen where I couldn't see him.  I used a walkthrough at Gamefaqs for that one. It was just astoundingly tedious. Unfortunately, Lily reads well enough now to realize what I was reading and she doesn't want to do the puzzles anymore, but would rather consult the walkthrough for a solution.

Lily has come to hate Ron and Dobby for some reason. I can understand the Dobby hate, but Ron? Ron's a cool cat.

No, Crookshanks is a cool cat.

Lily's solution to whenever the game makes her play Ron is to run to a cauldron and brew up some polyjuice potion, which lets you select another character. She usually changes him into Hermione in a ballgown, which suggests to me that Ron has some really particular fetishes.

(I usually turn my character into Lucius Malfoy and run around Avada Kedavraing random Lego people. Whee!)

But yeah, Dobby sucks. A friend asked how I could hate Dobby and I said that the only sock I wanted to give him has a bar of soap inside.

When she's not playing video games, Lily likes to play "Would you rather?" where one person poses a choice between two good things or two bad things and the other person has to choose.

We had this exchange earlier today.

Me: Would you rather...get a bunch of candy, or....push Dobby into a wood chipper?
Lily: Wood chipper.

Ha, ha, ha. Fuck Dobby.

I'm so proud of her.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Culture Clubs and Power Plays

I don't actually like much science fiction. And that may seem strange, considering the nature of this blog, but I really don't.

I enjoy Roger Zelazny's works, clearly, but the fact that he wrote science fiction and fantasy is almost incidental to me now. It's just good writing and that transcends genre to a large degree. (I'll include here the caveat that I first encountered his works when I was a young high-schooler and read sci-fi and and only sci-fi, so I almost certainly would never have discovered him if he had chosen to work in another genre.)

Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies to science fiction, of course, but it seems that science fiction and arenas closely associated with it (fantasy and role-playing) tend to inspire fans to write stories of their own, which, by and large, are not very good. I worked in a comic book store in the 90s and I was exposed to a lot of that kind of stuff, and left me a bit more critical of SF than I would be otherwise. (I include fantasy under this umbrella, too, so just because I'm a fellow geek, it doesn't mean I want to read your 500 page manuscript where the members of U2 all get jobs teaching at Hogworts.)

So, I don't like most sci-fi. And yet, I'm listening to two series on my phone. I initially joined Audible because they were the only place I could find Lord of Light as an audio book. That was really all I wanted (and I didn't like their proprietary format anyway), so I canceled and left the account fallow for a few years until I rejoined a couple months ago. I worked my way through Sarah Vowell's libary, listened to Lord of Light a couple times, endured Bossypants and then downloaded a Culture book because I had heard good things about the series. After I worked my way through the Culture books they had available, I downloaded Shada, a Doctor Who story, which I reviewed here.

To sum up, I don't like a lot of sci-fi, but I enjoy both Doctor Who and the Culture and they couldn't be more different.

Of course, I'm persnickety about what I like about Doctor Who. I like the Doctor better as someone who is exceptional because of what he does, rather than who he is. I like a Doctor who isn't godlike, who isn't facing ever-escalating threats to time and space, but as a wanderer who knows it's impossible for one man to right all the wrongs in the universe, so he doesn't even try, but rather fights these threats where he finds them and inspires people to become their own champions.  The Fourth Doctor did this the best. I watched City of Death on Friday, and while I kept expecting Scaroth to turn into King Richard or get in his AT-AT (that joke is hilarious to the three people who get it), I just noticed a joy and a spontaneity to the production that I find lacking in the new series. Doctor Who is really, pretty absurd, and it seems like the latter day Doctors aren't in on the joke.

I've run the following point in to the ground here, but I'll repeat it again. Sometimes David beats Goliath. But not always. If David is running circles around Goliath every week for seven years, I think it's time to stop pretending he's really David.

Also, if your master plan ten thousand years in the making is so brittle that it can scuttled by some eleventh hour machinations by a chain-smoking Sting wannabe, well, maybe you deserve to lose.

City of Death, incidentally, doesn't suffer from this problem. The Doctor is on holiday and happens across an alien named Scaroth. Scaroth's actions would destroy humanity (or more specifically, prevent us from being created in the first place), but that's not really his goal; it's just something incidental to what he really wants to achieve. He's punching below his weight class on 1970s Earth, but so is the Doctor, and the story works for me, because the villain didn't have this crazy master plan. He had a plan that was predicated being the only one with his advanced technology and while it was good enough to do what he wanted it to do, it didn't have a lot of wiggle room built in, so I can buy the idea that a problem from completely outside his context would cause him to stumble. Scaroth's plan was really only feasible because the Doctor and Romana showed up, so it does only seem fair that they could trip it up too.

I like Law & Order, because there really aren't that many shows like it. It's not a show about the last minute Deus Ex Machina (I liked Russell T. Davies, but man, three years in a row of Apocalypse >  Deus Ex Machina > Cosmic Reset button was at least two years too many), but one of the diligent application of proven techniques. The Culture strikes me the same way.  Not that there aren't clever gambits in the series, (my favorite was the doomed drone that used its final action to burn a coded message into the hull of the enemy ship that destroyed it) but they aren't pulled from nowhere or reliant on their enemies being completely oblivious. The Culture tends to win its battles because it has a vast and flexible infrastructure and is shrewd and ruthless in its employment.

And I'll go into the Culture in a little more detail here, since fewer people will probably be familiar with it. I usually describe it as Star Trek's Federation, taken to its logical conclusion. All the write-ups describe it as a post-scarcity society. Unlimited matter replication has seen to that. It's a Utopia. And yet, there's this understated horror of scale to it. The civilization is just so big and the backbone of the Culture is its society of Minds (Marvin Minksy shout out!). The Culture built computers which were smarter than any human, which designed the next generation of computers, and this was repeated until they got to the Minds, AIs with most of their components housed in hyperspace so their processes are not limited to the speed of light. They're benevolent, but so many orders of magnitude smarter and faster than any human that again that subtle horror of scale creeps in.

The Culture is more in line with my sensibilities. Here is a passage from Excession, my favorite Culture novel.

...the attack had been too sudden, too extreme, too capable. The plans the ship had made, of which it was an important part, could only anticipate so much, could only allow for so proportionally greater a technical capability on the part of the attacker. Beyond a certain point, there was simply nothing you could do; there was no brilliant plan you could draw up or some cunning stratagem you could employ that would not seem laughably simple and and unsophisticated to a profoundly more developed enemy.

And while we're on the subject of things outside of one's context, here's another offering from the Culture, from Wikipedia's entry on Excession.

This is a problem that is "outside the context" as it is generally not considered until it occurs, and the capacity to actually conceive of or consider the OCP in the first place may not be possible or very limited (i.e., the majority of the group's population may not have the knowledge or ability to realize that the OCP can arise, or assume it is extremely unlikely). An example of OCP is an event in which a civilization does not consider the possibility that a much more technologically advanced society can exist, and then encounters one. The term is coined by Banks for the purpose of this novel, and described as follows:

The usual example given to illustrate an Outside Context Problem was imagining you were a tribe on a largish, fertile island; you'd tamed the land, invented the wheel or writing or whatever, the neighbors were cooperative or enslaved but at any rate peaceful and you were busy raising temples to yourself with all the excess productive capacity you had, you were in a position of near-absolute power and control which your hallowed ancestors could hardly have dreamed of and the whole situation was just running along nicely like a canoe on wet grass... when suddenly this bristling lump of iron appears sailless and trailing steam in the bay and these guys carrying long funny-looking sticks come ashore and announce you've just been discovered, you're all subjects of the Emperor now, he's keen on presents called tax and these bright-eyed holy men would like a word with your priests.

There is, incidentally, a Doctor Who/Culture Crossover of sorts, in the novel The Also People. I haven't read it yet, but even now it is speeding towards me. I've avoided reading a summary of it, because I like being surprised, but it is a Doctor Who book, (specifically a Seventh Doctor book, set in the time when he was the child of Xanatos and Machiavelli) so I imagine he'll be dismantling the Culture-analogues in the story. Perhaps I'm wrong. If I love it, I'll blog about it here. If I hate it, I'll blog about here, too.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Song of the Blue Baboon

A couple weeks ago, I reviewed King Solomon's Ring, which tends to be ranked as one of Zelazny's worst stories. That post got a couple comments:

Chris D: Dude, this isn't a great story, but it's way better than "Song of the Blue Baboon."

Me: I had to go reread Blue Baboon to refresh myself because I can never remember what that one's about. And having done so, it didn't struck me as "bad" as much as it did kind of pointless without the image that inspired it.

Zach: I seem to recall "Blue Baboon" being in the same boat as _To Die in Italbar_: Zelazny himself was unhappy with both stories, but when I read them, I didn't think they were bad.

Mind you, I can't really remember what "Blue Baboon" was about, but I distinctly recall going in with low expectations and then wondering what all the fuss was about once I was done.

Song of the Blue Baboon
(I always want to call it "Ballad of the Blue Baboon", for that added alliterative appeal) is a bit of an oddity.

Have you ever played Taboo? As part of the game, you get some cards with a word or a phrase on top of it, and five words/phrases below it. You're trying to get your partner to guess the top word without mentioning it or any of the taboo words.

If there were a Taboo card for Song of the Blue Baboon,  "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" would be the first forbidden word, because this story pretty much is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge".

And that's fine. I happened to like "Nine Starships Waiting" (even if nobody else did) and Zelazny was pretty frank in admitting that it was just a sci-fi retelling of the Revenger's Tragedy.

So, nothing wrong with that, in itself.

In the future, Earth has been occupied by blue aliens. Was our hero really a quisling, helping the blue baboon-like aliens? Or was he an undercover resistance agent, working to undermine them?

The one thing we know is that he's dying, and the medication he's been given will stretch out the perception of his final moments, and the sights he imagines in his final moments will reveal his true loyalties.

These visuals are drawn from the cover illustration that was supposed to accompany the story.

In Angel, Dark Angel, Zelazny talked about how the cover illustration inspired the story. Baboon is the same deal, only moreso. I would go so far as to say that the illustration is a vital component of the story.

Unfortunately, there was a mixup and the story was not published in the magazine with the cover that inspired it.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can say that tying the story so closely to a particular image was probably a mistake, because it just doesn't have much impact without it. The word I used initially was "pointless" and that seems apt. Zelazny described the image as the "scaffolding" for the story, and I think that fits even better.

As of this writing, I haven't actually seen the picture that goes along with the story. I assume it's in the Ides of Octember somewhere, but actually opening the book is more effort than I'm willing to put out for a review of Blue Baboon.

Ultimately, while I don't think the story "works", I can't bring myself to hate it. Zelazny was an experimental writer and he took a lot of risks with his writing. Sometimes they worked, such as Creatures of Light and Darkness and Doorways in the Sand. Other times they didn't, but I don't begrudge him the fruits of a failed experiment. Not everything is going to pan out. I'd certainly rather read the occasional failure than the works of an author who never took any chances. I think that Blue Baboon is a failure, but an instructive one.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Little Brother

It's funny seeing the genesis of things. That's part of the reason I keep the blog. So I can look back and see the first time we did something that later become part of our life.

As you know, I often claim to be an only child who raised by wolves, a claim that annoys my parents, but amuses my siblings. Lily really is an only child. One of my first posts here was on that topic.

She's often hard to wake up in the morning, so Jen and I have to be creative. I was feeling silly the other morning, so I decided to pretend to be a little brother.

And she loved it!

She's wanted to play it every single moment since that morning. Lily loves being the mother hen. She is the only child so she's often kind of bossy. (A little neighbor boy, fed up with being bossed around during a visit, snapped at her with "You're not my mommy, Lily!")

The Little Brother game is interesting for me, because it's a way to get her to explain things in her own words without asking to.  She's been enrolled in the kindergarten's enrichment class and we're trying to get her bumped up a grade. She scored a 100% on a first grade quarterly assessment,  which I find particularly impressive as she hasn't experienced the curriculum for that material,  but the school is still balking about it. They say that she can't articulate how she gets her answers to their satisfaction.

This smacks of a fig leaf to support a decision they've already made. (I wasn't able to attend the meeting, but if I had been there, I would have asked, "And what steps are you taking to fix this?"*)  It's very frustrating. Lily likes explaining things and she's good at it. But if she wants to play little brother and that's fine with me. As they say, "You don't really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."

Or, in this case, your make believe little brother.

So, I ask her to explain things and she does so in a way she wouldn't for me. She told me a secret about mommy ("She has a tatoo on her back") and she told me a secret about daddy, ("He has an acid burn on his arm" (I do and it's totally cool. Chicks love scars.))

* Actually, I'm terrible on my feet, so I probably wouldn't have thought to think to ask it until well after I left. L'esprit d'escalier.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Movie Review: Arthur Christmas

Every so often, everyone in England decides to get together to make a movie.

In 2003, it was Love Actually.

In early 2011, it was Gnomeo and Juliet.

And in late 2011, it was Arthur Christmas.

I started a post about Gnomeo and Juliet in April, then shelved it a couple days later. The movie was fine, but so astoundingly bland and inoffensive that I just couldn't think of anything to say.

Arthur Christmas, also starring James McAvoy (Jesus, he's in everything) is cut from much the same cloth. Bill Nighy also stars. Did I say James McAvoy was in everything? Nighy makes him look like a recluse.

Those last two paragraphs? I wrote them three weeks ago. I feel that I should write something about this movie, but having seen it, it's left me with nothing to say. It's no more substantial than cotton candy.

That shouldn't be the case. It REALLY seems to want to to say something. Damned if I know what it is, though. It's just bland, tepid, and raises the kind of points idiots think are thought-provoking. Gnomeo & Juliet suffered from the same problems, though to a lesser extent. It wants to be edgy and clever, but stops just short of being so.

I think that's my real problem with the movie. I can enjoy treacle. I watch My Little Pony with my daughter. I can enjoy the darkest, most subversive movie out there.

Arthur Christmas is the worst of both worlds.  It wants the cred for being clever and edgy, but never works for it. It tiptoes right up to the line but never takes any real risks.

I was watching some old Muppets with Lily. We watched the one Christmas special, not the Muppet Christmas Carol, which rules, but the earlier one, where a bunch of Henson Studio characters like the Fraggles and the Sesame Street Muppets get together on Christmas. There was a subplot where another Muppet wants to hook up with Camilla, Gonzo's chicken and get down with some "scratchin' and squawkin'", and another where the Swedish Chef wanted to kill and eat Big Bird. The Muppet Show had heart, but it also had bite. It's quietly subversive in a way that Arthur Christmas is not, and never has the guts to be.

You know, I think that's the moral of the movie. Arthur Christmas is the lovable fuckup son of Santa Claus. His brother Steve has modernized the operation, but...well, I'm not sure what the problem is with Steve. Apparently it's that he's modernized the operation and we're supposed to hate him.

Anyway, one toy fails to get delivered, and there is a madcap scramble to deliver it. Everybody is kind of a dick but Arthur and he winds up as the new Santa because he's the most inoffensive character around. Not because he's qualified, but because he's the least disliked of all the characters.

And that's how I feel about the movie. It takes care not to offend anyone by being  too provocative, which ensures that it can advertise on Webkinz, which is where we saw, but also makes certain it will never rise above the level of a movie that advertises on Webkinz.

It reminds me of a line from the Last Unicorn: Offering no true magic, he drew no magic back from them...

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Book Review: Shada

At the beginning of the month, I was shopping around for something on which to spend my monthly Audible credit, when my friend Jen suggested a Dr. Who book. So I looked in that section and Shada was their featured selection. Okay, that's kind of cool. I knew it was a Douglas Adams story, and I was always fond of both his Doctor Who and Hitchhiker's stuff.  Also, it was read by LALLA WARD.

Yes, this Lalla Ward

John Leeson voices K-9 in the story.

By staggering coincidence, the picture I use for K-9 also has Lalla Ward.

For me, celebrities as narrators for audio books are not necessarily a good thing. It's often no more than a gimmick. John Hodgman does a great job, but Tina Fey, to take a very surprising example, read her own words as if she were unfamiliar with them.

But I couldn't pass up Romana, the very best of the old school companions.

Sorry, Sarah Jane.

Shada is a bit of an odd duck. You probably know at least some of the story behind it if you're reading this post, but in the unlikely event that you're someone who reads everything I write simply because I write it and has never heard of Shada, here goes.

It was supposed to be the final episode for Season 17 of Doctor Who. (Season 17 was the one with City of Death, which I personally think was the finest serial of the original series) But there was a strike, and various other complications and filming was only partially completed. Some of the footage was cannibalized for Five Doctors and used to explain why the Fourth wasn't there. I had the vague awareness that there was some of version of Shada with Paul McGann, the 8th/US Telemovie Doctor, but it's not like I was going to go out of my way to seek that out.

I had read that Douglas Adams was unhappy with the script for Shada. I don't know how true this is, but the story I've heard is that he couldn't get permission to write the story he wanted, he kept pushing for it and finally, as they were running out of time, he dashed it out in four days.

I liked the novelization quite a bit. Gareth Roberts completed it and he has a pretty impressive Doctor Who pedigree himself. He wrote Doctor Who novels during the long period between Classic and New Who and also wrote or co-wrote a couple episodes of the new series.

Thought Roberts says he didn't deliberately set out to emulate Adams' writing style, if I didn't know better I would have thought that the prose was Adams' own. It has that jauntiness and turn of phrase peculiar to his style. (Or perhaps I'm just associating Adams with absurdist British sci-fi, since I know his work best, and Roberts is simply drawing on the same inspirations that moved Adams.)

Shada is such a Fourth Doctor story. Had there been time to polish the script and film it properly, I think it could have come to rival anything of that era. The Doctor and Romana are visiting Cambridge in the late 70s when they receive a distress call from an old friend of the Doctor's, Professor Chronotis.

The 1979 setting would have been contemporary had the story aired as intended, and now it kind of makes it a bit of a period piece. That's an aspect I really like about it. I don't think it would have had quite the same charm if we had gotten a Fourth Doctor story set in 2012. (It also enables neat tricks, like a character discovering a Bonnie Tyler Greatest Hits cassette the Doctor brought back from the 1990s)

My friend Jen and I are both old school Doctor Who fans from back in the day. (She's got this weird thing for Patrick Troughton, but that's not important right now. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that no conversation about Patrick Troughton is ever important. Hi, Jen! ) My friend Tim is only familiar with the new series, though we've talked about the old one to him and he's watched City of Death.

It's hard to recommend the old series after watching the new one. It had energy and charm and it seemed like anything could happen, but it also featured endless sequences of running down corridors, dodgy special effects, wooden acting and some serials were padded beyond belief. By the time you get to the good parts, it's sometimes hard to appreciate them, because you've been so numbed by the bad ones.

Gareth Robert's interpretation of Shada strikes me as an old school Who story told with the techniques of the new series. The best of both worlds.

At one point in the story Romana mentions other renegade Time Lords, Drax, The Master and the Rani, Morbius, The Corsair  and The Meddling Monk and the The Interfering Nun.  That list is awesome for several reasons. The first is that it references renegades they've recently encountered, like Morbius. The second is that it draws on material that has been written since the story was originally written, such as the characters of the Rani and the Corsair.  It's a small detail, but it makes it seem like those characters existed all along and didn't spring into existence ex nihilo the first time they were encountered on screen. The third is the Interfering Nun. That rules!  That's an Adams-esque character if I've ever heard one! It also emphasizes what I like about the old show. Moffat is on record as seeing the Doctor as someone without peer, but I think he's at his best when he has old friends and rivals of his caliber to play off of.

ha ha ha, Fuck Matt Smith

I also like the slow reveal of the plot. The pacing was very good. The audio book is over eleven hours long, and I looked at the time left, thinking I had only an hour or two remaining, but it turned out that were EIGHT hours left!  It reminds me of George Martin's early Ice & Fire books. They were long, but something happened every chapter. Same deal here.

To digress for a moment, I like the new television series okay. (It's seven years old now, so I guess it's no longer all that "new".) The direction in which they took it, with the Doctor as the last of the Time Lords, is not what I would have done, because I think it closes off the avenue to my favorite kind of stories. I like the Doctor, the fourth Doctor in particular, as a C-student made good, a member of an almost mystical society who couldn't reach his potential until he left it. He's tremendously smart and has loads of experiences, but he's not absolutely the most brilliant mind in all creation, which seemed to be increasingly the case in the new series as it progressed. 

I like the Fourth Doctor who makes stupid mistakes, who gets captured, who has to come up with plans on the spur of the moment that sometimes work and sometimes don't.

As I said, I listened to the audio version and I bookmarked certain segments that I especially liked.

At 4:42: When the annoying human says of his fellow human "...earthlings, I suppose you call us." Romana answers "Among other things." 
At 5:18: "A talking spaceship? Skagra must be pretty hard up for friends," the Doctor muttered, conveniently choosing to forget K-9.

At 7:20:  Dude rescued by the Doctor: "You're a good man" The Doctor: "No I'm not. I'm flippant, boastful and terribly disorganized!"

At 7:32: There was a whole long bit with the computer on the villain's ship. It was programmed to believe him infallible. The orders were given to destroy the Doctor. The Doctor survived, but managed to convince the ship that he must have been killed, since Skagra is infallible.  Later on, the self destruct is disarmed and the Doctor convinces the ship that it has been destroyed. It's silly, ridiculous spurious logic that would annoy me to no end if it had been coming from anyone but the Fourth Doctor. (Ward also does a great job with the voice of the ship.)

I don't like the Doctor as the smartest guy in the whole universe, but I am cool with him talking a ship based on Time Lord technology through the reconfiguration of its own circuitry in order to increase its performance so they can make it to their destination on time.

Later on, the ship suspects it might not really be dead:  "I've combed my databanks for legends of the afterlife..and I can't find a single one where things carry on after death rather suspiciously as they did before." "Don't you talk to me about life and death! Don't you realize this is a matter of life and death?!"

This leads in to the amusing exchange at 7:54: Romana: "You're alive!" The Doctor coughed " Well, there's been a certain amount of debate on that topic of late, but generally speaking, I think I'd agree with that statement."

8:23: Lalla Ward's reading of "Well, DUH!!" has to be hard to be believed.

It's tons of fun. It reminds what I loved about the old show.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: No Award

I like trivia. It is by definition, trivial, and knowing a lot of it is not to be mistaken for intelligence, but I like learning random facts, because chasing them down the rabbit hole and learning if they are true, and how the circumstances that conspired to make them so is often an interesting trip.

Last month I send my best friend an email that said "Did you know one of the blue dudes in Akira was supposed to have polio?" (He replied with "I love it when you say the most incredibly nerdy things to me.")

The thing I liked about Zelazny is that he seemed to have the same enthusiasm, but in his case, he went further, and on reading something interesting, he seemed to say, "Hey, I could write a story about this!"

(Or perhaps I'm projecting here, though a number of the remembrances in the COLLECTED STORIES speak of his boundless curiosity, so I don't think it's a huge stretch, and if is, it's a positive enough trait that I hope I'm not disparaging his memory with this line of speculation)

No Award strikes me that it could have come about in such a way. It's the story of a Manchurian Candidate by way of a corpus callosotomy.

Our narrator enters the hall where the president will be giving a speech.

I glanced at my watch. Still some time. Some other people were smoking. Seemed like a good idea. As I reached for my cigarettes I remembered that I had quit, then discovered that I still carried them. No matter. Take one. Light it- (Trouble. Use the other hand.) I felt some- what tense. Not certain why. Inhale. Better. Good.

The thing that dates this story is not the smoking, but just how small the venue seems. Modern campaign rallies are attended by tens of thousands of people, and the impression I get here is that there are a couple dozen people. It takes place in a "hall" as opposed to a stadium.

Anyways, our narrator, Mister Mathews had been kidnapped, brain-surgeried and brainwashed into becoming the perfect assassin to elude the president's telepathic security.

It's kind of a silly idea for a story (that is one Rube Goldberg assassination attempt) but I admire the effort Zelazny puts into making it seem at least plausible, with the second half of the story being concerned with explaining how the first half could have come about.

All right. I feel like—myself—at any rate. Why did they do this to me?"

"To turn you into the perfect modem assassin," Arthur said. "Half of the brain can be put to sleep while the other hemisphere remains awake. This is done simply by administering a drug via the carotid artery on the appropriate side. After the surgery had been performed,  you—the left hemisphere—were put to sleep while the right hemisphere was subjected to hypnosis and behavior modification techniques, was turned into a conditioned assassin—"

"I had always thought a person could not be hypnotized into doing certain things."

He nodded.

"Normally, that seems to be the case. However, it appears that, by itself, the emotional, less rational right hemisphere is more susceptible to suggestion—and it was not a simple kill order which it received, it was a cleverly constructed and well-rehearsed illusion to which it was trained to respond."

"Okay," I said. "Buying all that, how did they make what happened happen?"

"The mechanics of it? Well, the conditioning, as I said, was done while you were unconscious and, hence, unaware of it. The conditioned hemisphere was then placed in a state of deep sleep, with the suggestion that it would awaken and perform its little act on receipt of the appropriate cue. Your hemisphere was then impressed with a post-hypnotic suggestion to provide that cue, in the form of the phrase you spoke, at a particular time when the speech would be going on. So they left you out in front and you walked into the hall consciously aware of none of this. Your mind was perfectly innocent under any telepathic scrutiny."

Most reviews of Zelazny's work focus on the poetic imagery or the fantastic concepts in his work, but something that seems less appreciated is how meticulously he explored the ramifications of his "What If?" stories.

I can't imagine anyone saying "No Award is my favorite story!" (or even "No Award is my favorite story by Roger Zelazny!" but it's fun and quick.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tenzin never goes down like a chump

Lily has recently gotten into the Harry Potter movies and when we were watching the Prisoner of Azkaban, she asked, "Who's your favorite teacher?"

And I was like, "Duh, Snape," but she didn't like that answer, so I went with my runner-up, Professor  McGonagall.

I've always had a soft spot for the "reasonable authority figure" and I've always liked McGonagall much more than Dumbledore. She's strict, but treats all of her charges equally in a way that Dumbledore doesn't. I lost any kind of respect for the character at the end of the Order of the Phoenix, where Harry runs headlong into an obvious trap, after being warned it was a trap, and Sirius is killed in the rescue attempt. And Dumbledore absolves him of all guilt, ("It is my fault Sirius died...the blame lies with me and me alone." (The argument can be made that Dumbledore said this as part of his effort to manipulate Harry, but I don't think that's the case.)) That's not something that McGonagall would do.

Also, it doesn't hurt that she's played by Dame Maggie Smith, who radiates awesome into the infrared wavelengths.

I was up at a party a couple years ago with my friend Tim. I didn't know anyone, so I spent the first hour smiling awkwardly while they all told stories about people I didn't know. But Tim's a cool cat with a bunch of awesome friends and I got talking to a girl who used to work with him.  Anyways, she said that Timmy turned her on to some bands she likes, and that's the case with me too. I mentioned that I had seen Juno recently and that the soundtrack was like a Josh mix tape. She casually replies, "Oh, my cousin's in that." and I said, "Oh, really? Which part?" and she said "He's the dad." and I was like "J.K. Simmons?" and she like yeah. So we talked about him for a while. He's one of my favorite actors, so that's cool.

The Legend of Korra has a ton of wonderful characters, and J.K. Simmons voices my favorite, Aang's son Tenzin. Shockingly, he's not on tvtrope's list of reasonable authority figures, but as it's user editable, I think someone should rectify that soon. He is named, I believe, after the current Dali Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, who also gives his name to Monk Gyatso in the original series.

Tenzin has the same traits I love in McGonagall. He's quietly competent, stern, but loving. And like McGonagall, he's a stone cold badass when push comes to shove.

He acquits himself better than the Avatar herself in the final episodes. Chi-blockers ran all over Korra for most of the series, but Tenzin first fights off an ambush, defeating his attackers even after they bind both of his arms.

Then, he makes his way to police headquarters, where he keeps those present safe within a sphere of clean air after the Equalists launch a gas attack,

and then he fights off more of the mecha tanks before finally being overwhelmed.

That last fight has two of my favorite Tenzin moments too. The first is when the mech fires a grapple arm and Tenzin deflects it with a quick blast of air, and the clang! sound effect is perfectly matched to the action.

 The other is when they finally get him and even as he's falling, he airbends a cushion of air to lessen the force of his impact .

I also like him because he loves his family. He's just a good dad.  There's a bit of an interesting backstory too. He used to date Lin Beifong, the chief of police and the daughter of Toph, from the original series. They were already growing apart when Pema, Tenzin's future wife approached him and told him how she felt towards him. ("Pema didn't steal me, Lin and I had been growing apart for some time. We both had... different goals in life- Why am I even telling you this?! It all happened a long time ago and we've moved past it. )It's a really interesting dynamic, and one you rarely see on TV, much less kid's TV.

And while we're on the subject, of characters I love, there's Asami Sato. She's the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Her mother had been killed by a bender several years ago, which drove her father into the arms of the Equalists, but she never let her grief poison her. She was dating Mako, but he fell for Korra, and even in light of this revelation, when things are at their worst, she screws her courage to the sticking place, puts her personal issues aside and pitches in to help any way she can.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Book Review: Bossypants

I recently reactivated my Audible membership.  I've mentioned before how I enjoy audio books and since I have time to listen to them at work, I've mostly burned through my meager collection already. So I re-enrolled to see what I could get. For my first month, I picked up Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes. She reads her own works and I love her voice. I think I like Assassination Vacation and Partly Cloudy Patriot a bit more, but it was an engaging book about a subject about which I knew nothing. (The history of the encroachment of American civilization in to Hawaii and the consequent fall of the Hawaiian monarchy, up to its transformation into an American territory.)

Something Audible recommended was Tina Fey's Bossypants, and I thought that looked neat, so I bought it with my credit and started listening. I like Tina Fey's work a lot. She's a funny writer and a great performer with excellent comic timing. I still think that's true. However, after completing the book, I like her a lot less as a person.

Joe Matt writes a semi autobiographical comic book. Another artist who became his friend after reading the comic said that at first when reading the comic, he figured that Joe was exaggerating his foibles for comic effect. After they started hanging out for a while, he now thinks, if anything, Joe is being too kind to himself.

And while watching Tina Fey on 30 Rock, I understood that she was not in fact Liz Lemon, and but as she was playing a woman in a position very similar to one she once held, that she was drawing on her real world traits and experiences, but exaggerating them.


Do you see where this is going?

As said above, I like listening to Sarah Vowell, and also David Sedaris. (What can I say? I have a soft spot for public radio personalities with funny voices.) They have a certain quality to their writings. Self-deprecating isn't quite the right word, and neither is humble. I think it's the awareness that all people are fundamentally ridiculous and they are no exception. Tina Fey's writing doesn't have that quality. At several points, she uses her book to take pot shots at people who were mean to her. She saw this guy Tom something on Cable TV and she can't remember his name, but she can remember in perfect detail everything he said? Seems legit.

Gosh, Oprah Winfrey tells her that she looks tired?

Also, there's persistent undercurrent of nastiness to the whole thing. We get a lengthy chapter on her dad, who's totally not racist you guys. We get an account of how she undermines a woman whom she works with in order to get a better job.

Wikipedia says she was nominated for a Grammy for the audio version of the book, but I can't see how. Despite liking her less as a person, I do think she's a great comedy writer and a great performer. But the reading of the book is not good. She seems unfamiliar with her own writing and her reading results in a very uneven delivery. Also, they cut her off too soon. At the end of certain sentences, they end as soon as she she finishes speaking, often clipping off the very end of a word. It doesn't ruin the book, but it makes it seem like a very amateurish production. If I had to guess, they probably did it under tight time constraints.

There are some very, very funny parts in it. The Mother's Prayer For Its Daughter was insightful and deeply funny. The Introduction was nice too, though the memoir segments were boring. I really liked it when she talked about improv, though. It's the only time in the book where she seems to show  genuine enthusiasm for her subject, but she clearly has a passion for it, and I always enjoy it when people share what they love.

She's touted as a latter day Gloria Steinem but when her advice on How to get ahead in Show Business as a Woman amounts to Step 1: Find a powerful man to mentor you. Step 2: Profit!  then I think her reputation has been exaggerated.

I'm afraid she's going to turn out to be a latter day Dennis Miller, because, though she's been elevated to the status of a progressive icon, her positions seem poorly articulated and brittle, and it feels like they're ready to shatter at any moment.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Art Wall!

Behold! Lily's Art Wall!

If I pan out a little, you can see the carbon monoxide detector plugged in to the wall socket.

That's an actual piece of equipment there; she's not doing some Marcel Duchamp thing.

Lily likes drawing, as most little kids do. It's too early to tell if she has any talent, but if she does, it will come from her mother and not from me. She's still at the stage where tenacity is the limiting reagent, and she certainly has that in abundance.

Here's something she did for Thanksgiving. You probably can't make out the writing from the picture, but it says, "I am thankful for: Being thrown by my dad."

I leave for work every morning shortly before Jen and Lily leave for the bus stop. Every morning, Lily runs out to me as I'm walking out to my car and I pick her up and throw her in the air. I knew she likes it, but it's just one of the many things we do together, and I never would have guessed in a million years that it was the one thing she'd single out as so special to her.

(Also, I have to wonder what her teacher imagined when Lily said that was her favorite thing. "Daddy, you're home!" "Outta my way, kid!" *Throw*)

But it's really moving, in its own way. Shortly after Lily was born, my best friend sent me an email that included something that stuck with me, "To the world, you're somebody. But to somebody, you're the world."

Friday, November 23, 2012

Shadows and Reflections: a Roger Zelazny Tribute Anthology

I saw this comment  from an anonymous poster earlier today:

What is your reaction to Trent Zelazny and Warren Lapine's Indiegogo Anthology project? Feel like taking a swing at a less than perfectly executed story's milieu? Or prefer to look at the popular ones for new angles?

And I clicked over, hoping it was real, but thinking it was some kind of bizarrely specific spam.  But, it does appear to be exactly what it says it is, a kickstarter-esque project for a Roger Zelazny tribute, featuring stories set in any of his worlds (save Amber, which he very explicitly said he did not other people writing). It looks incredible. There's a short video from Trent Zelazny explaining his purpose for the project and a longer summary than I've provided here.

So, please, check it out, and throw a little money their way if you can.

The link: Shadows and Reflections

Search Results, Part 4

We haven't had one of these in a while. So, for your Black Friday reading pleasure, a list of weird or unnerving searches people have used that have led here.

  1. major poop accidents
  2. krypto's first romance
  3. shirtless male redheads
  4. the bouncy guy that is friends with superman
  5. albino turtleneck
  6. hot ass cartoons lois
  7. lightning lad having sex (and too many variations on this with various members of the Legion of Super-Heroes and various sex acts)
  8. streaky and krypto doing it
  9. wrong interracial dating poems
  10. darkside super wipe same as dalik (I don't even know how to parse this one.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: King Solomon's Ring

Wow, two consecutive Zelazny posts. It's been a while since I've managed that (even if the other one was one of those "Who could beat up who?" fights that is only Zelazny-themed in the sense that it happens to feature one of his characters.)

I've heard several people advance the opinion that King Solomon's Ring is among the worst stories that Zelazny ever had published.  My opinions occasionally diverge from the majority of Zelazny fandom. I liked To Die in Italbar okay, disliked Eye of Cat, and while I didn't care for Damnation Alley, I was able to appreciate it as a well-crafted story.

Reading Solomon again for the purposes of this review...I don't know if I would call it the absolute worst but well, compared to his other work, I do find it lacking.

It's the story of Billy Scarle. Billy is a paraling, possessing the telepathic ability to understand and translate languages. He is recruited into the Circle of Solomon (a group of individuals with similar talents, and if you think my use of parenthesis in this review is excessive, I look positive restrained when compared to their use in the story) to expand human hegemony, but as he begins to have doubts, he is persuaded to talk on one final mission and things go all aft agley.

I like the first two sentences, but the last one in the paragraph just seems off somehow, like it was a placeholder that was never amended.

King Solomon had a ring, and so did the guy I have to tell you about. Solomon's was a big iron thing with a pentagram for a face, but Billy Scarle's was invisible because he wore it around his mind. The two rings did serve similar purposes though.

I enjoy the conversational tone of the piece. However, it goes off the rails as early as the third paragraph

I am writing this letter, Lisa, because you are the one who managed to recruit him, and I think he was in love with you. Maybe I am wrong. If so, I can only ask pardon for the intrusion and trust to your sense of humor to put things in perspective.

Now, I suppose it's possible that someone would choose those words when writing a letter, but it does strike me extremely unnatural. It reminds me of an example given of bad exposition in a book on writing I read years ago, where the author implores the reader to never have one character say to another, "You should call Ben, your brother, and have him come over here."

The whole story reminds me of To Die in Italbar, which I enjoyed, but which did strike me as unfinished, and almost unique among Zelazny's work in not being the best version of the story it could be.  It has some memorable images like "The Seal of Solomon became a hot scalpel in my mind..." It has some interesting details, like "Dozens of the worlds on the Exploratory Perimeter are no more than encyclopedia entries followed by a couple sentences..." but nothing comes together. Take this for instance.

After his apprehension on Martin VIII, it was his ratty luck to be shipped Earthward in the custody of an old Guardsman ready for retirement. As you know, the cop decided along the way that the arrest had been out of jurisdiction, and he also decided he did not want a black mark on his record at that stage in the game. So he changed a couple log entries and elected himself judge, jury, and executioner -- as you may not know. He never said a word while he made the preparations, but of course Scarle knew.

I suppose it would be interesting to tell you the details of the cop's not being able to pull the trigger and Scarle's smashing him to pieces with his arm collars, but I'd rather not be that interesting. I've heard the story too many times.

There's the kernel of an interesting story there, but it's never cultivated beyond that. Likewise, I like the description of Billy Scarle, particularly the last part: He was about five-ten, with that premature frost on his hair that comes of pushing poorly shielded cruisers too far; nervous fingers, light eyes, a preference for nondescript clothing; and when he talked, all his sentences seemed like one long word.

But the Ring metaphors are forced and there are just too many elements in the story. In the end, Billy is convinced that humanity's policies are destructive, so he works on changing the minds of policy makers with his newly augmented talent. This reminds me more than a little of Angel,Dark Angel, which did the same story a lot better.

Is it his worst work? Well, if you're ranking things from best to worst, something has to occupy that place at the bottom.  I personally think it's the weakest out of the stuff I've covered here, but I've loved Zelazny's work so dearly for so long that it feels like a betrayal to call "the worst" outright, so I will forebear.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Geekfight: Yama-Dharma, fallen, of the Celestial City versus Doctor Doom

I didn't come up with the idea of these hypothetical match ups on my own. They just seem to be the kind of thing every geek discovers independently. And Christopher Lee was publicly dismissive of them, I happen to think they're a fun way to pass the time, so here's my latest offering.

Doctor Doom heads a great number of lists and he's always a popular inclusion in these fights, and he generally performs well.  I attribute that to the fact that he's capable of operating in so many different arenas. Political? He rose from nothing to rule Latveria with an iron fist (literally) and enjoys diplomatic immunity. Technological? Among other accomplishments, he built his army of robot duplicates and his suit of power armor himself. Psychic? He learned a trick to transfer his mind into another person's body. Magical? Oh, yeah, he's a sorcerer too. (He also invented a time machine, but really, that's just gilding the lily at this point.)

I was originally considering Darth Vader as an adversary, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Doom would crush him. So the problem is coming up with a worthy opponent, because, since Doom is so accomplished in so many different ways, he can switch the contest to an area where he has the overwhelming advantage. I thought about it and realized the problem with Doom was that he was simply too versatile in the ways of destruction.

And then I thought "Why does that phrase sound familiar?"

And then I answered my own question. "Because Sam said it about Yama."

And right there we had our contest.

Doctor Doom is well known. Yama is not, so I'll provide a little background. He's a character from Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, a novel where settlers from Earth have landed on a distant world and used the technology to take on the identities of the various deities of the Hindu pantheon. Yama, like Doom, is a polymath of Da Vincian scope, having invented many of the artifacts the gods use to maintain their rule.

"...I hear he's dreamed up some other little jewels, too, to serve the will of the gods ... like a mechanical cobra capable of registering encephalogram readings from a mile away, when it rears and spreads its fan. It can pick one man out of a crowd, regardless of the body he wears. There is no known antidote for its venom. Four seconds, no more ... Or the fire wand, which is said to have scored the surfaces of all three moons while Lord Agni stood upon the seashore and waved it. And I understand that he is designing some sort of jet-propelled juggernaut for Lord Shiva at this moment ... things like that."

He is also a brilliant tactician, though he leaves the work of strategy to others. He was an accomplished enough fencer to handily best an opponent who spent three lifetimes learning the use of weapons. It's unclear how old he is (he's described as "third-generation", but references are made to his childhood that imply that it was something that happened in living memory, so it's unlikely that generation has the meaning of twenty-five or thirty year span as it does in the modern world, but rather are probably on the order of the Yugas, or ages of the world, in Hindu belief), but he has at least several lifetimes worth of experience.

He also wields the power of the death gaze. (Though he needs to make eye contact for that and that's how Doom triggers his mind transfer, so he may wish to forebear.)

Let's set the rules for this engagement. We'll assume that the battle is taking place in a location where Doom either does not have access to his time platform or the local physics do not support it. So, no going back in time to kill Yama's grandparents. (Also, Marvel time travel has traditionally been held to be travel to another timeline, and your actions there do not alter the timeline you left. So if Doctor Doom did go back in time to give his opponent a retroactive abortion, from Yama's perspective, Doom would simply disappear entirely, never to be seen again.)

Magic is a little trickier. I'm tempted to go with Yama's naturalistic world view. "...The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either." So, for the purposes of this exercise, I'll posit that Doom's magic is control of some energy field that obeys its own laws, is consistent within its own framework and ultimately knowable, but beyond Yama's current ability to comprehend.

Wikipedia attributes the following sorcerous powers to Doctor Doom: He is capable of energy projection, creating protective shields, and summoning hordes of demonic creatures. Those are all pretty irrelevant, because they pretty much duplicate abilities he already has, but I don't think some kind of supernatural scrying would be an unreasonable addition. Yama developed demon repellent, a chemical agent to repulse the rakasha, malevolent shape changing energy creatures that were commonly regarded as supernatural before he sat down and began the hard work of pinning down just how they work.  A similar dynamic is probably in play here. Doom's magic is outside his realm of experience, but given sufficient time, he could probably understand it well enough to develop countermeasures.

The Match

Putting aside outliers like the time Doctor Doom enslaved the entire world or stole the Beyonder's power, if we give each man his full compliment of powers and allies and transport them to some war world and have them slug it out for no reason, I would have to give it to Yama. "Hey, Agni, would you mind burning this guy's country to a cinder from half a continent away?"

Even if we limit it to his buddies, say the forces that assaulted Hellwell, (Yama, Agni, Shiva and Kali) or the Lokapalas (Yama, Krishna, Kubera and either Agni or Sam, depending on when in the story we're discussing), Yama would still win, because Agni's Universal Fire and Sam's Electrodirection are so overwhelming. You're not going to make such a great showing when Agni, blasts you from across the horizon or Sam makes your armor into a metal coffin.

So, let's say we drop them into two identical villages on opposite sides of the continent. Give them each a fully stocked workshop. Doom has a retinue of a dozen doombots, Yama has the thunder chariot, but it's not stocked with warheads, and also some growth tanks, body lockers and transfer equipment, because that's such an important part of the Lord of Light story.  They know that they have a counterpart with comparable skills, and we'll say that the specific circumstances of the scenario are such that each man is inclined to defeat the other.

In their individual canon, both Yama and Doom tend to invent idiosyncratic weaponry, but at least Yama has an excuse.  "I've been designing new weapons. It is a shame that there must be so many separate and exotic ones. It is quite a drain on my genius to make each a work of art, rather than to mass-produce a particular species of offense. But the plurality of the paranormal dictates it. Someone always has an Attribute to stand against any one weapon. Let them face, though, the Gehenna Gun and be fibrillated apart, or cross blades with the Electrosword, or stand before the Fountain Shield, with its spray of cyanide and dimethyl sulfoxide, and they will know that it is the Lokapalas they face!"

That doesn't apply against Doom, and I think Yama is fundamentally a practical man, as engineers are wont to be, so he's free to mass produce the most devastating armaments he can devise. We'll assume that unique weapons like Shiva's trident or Agni's wand require too great an investment in resources or time to be ready in time for the battle.

Give what's been outlined, I think Doom would take the early advantage, between his divinatory magic and the manpower he'll get by conquering the surrounding villages. I figure he'd set up Doombots at first and then relegate the day to day operations to ambitious and ruthless burgermeisters as he consolidates his power base.  

It's funny to think of Doctor Doom being more gregarious, but Yama is generally solitary and seeks solace in his work. I could see him working in isolation at first and developing some kind of drone or simple AI for recon and only mobilizing the surrounding villages when it became clear that he needed bodies for the war effort. However, once Team Yama is on war footing, I could see him outfitting his troops more effectively than Doom's. Either her developed the death bath that Kali uses to confer limited invulnerability to her assassins or he's capable of reverse engineering it. Ditto with Brahma's "special and improved body".

Once the two sides are engaged in open battle, I could see a number of clever ploys from each. The mechobra could distinguish the real Doom from the Doombots, until Doctor Doom figures out a way to spoof or dampen them. Yama gets one Get Out of Jail Free card in the form of radio transmitted body transfer until Doom figures out what's going on and how to jam it. Doom transferring his consciousness into a body from the lockers in order to sabotage Yama from within. That kind of thing.

They are pretty clearly matched in capability, but I think I would give it to Yama for three reasons.
  1. I could see him delegating aspects of the war effort more readily. Ganesha calls him "a technician, not an administrator", and while it's certainly prudent to take everything Ganesha says with a grain of salt, I'm inclined to agree with that assessment. That said, I believe he has a firm understanding of his own shortcomings and would appoint those capable of doing things he can't more than Doom would.
  2. This is almost an extension of the first point, but I think Yama is fundamentally more pragmatic than Doom. Part of Doctor Doom's character is the overwhelming, destructive pride. He's fond of the dramatic gesture, and when facing an equal, he's going to expend more resources than Yama, and he'll probably lose the war due to attrition as much as anything else.
  3. "The Lokapalas are never defeated."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chinese have a lot of Hells

Eddie: Well sure it was a war. And anybody that showed up was gonna join Lem Lee in the Hell of Being Cut to Pieces.
Jack Burton: Hell of being what?
Eddie: Chinese have a lot of Hells.

I don't know how true this is, but the story I've heard is that Christian missionaries warned all non-Christian Chinese they'd "go to Hell" upon death. The Chinese believed Hell was just the English term for the afterlife and incorporated the word "Hell" into their pre-existing cosmology of a underworld court, where the dead wound up regardless of their virtue during life.

I can't remember the first time I was exposed to the concept of Hell Money. If I had to guess, I would assume that it was through my copy of "Sex and Zen and A Bullet in the Head", which was a comprehensive (at the time of its publication) summary of the best Hong Kong flicks. It's also just about the best possible title for a book. The deal with Hell Money is that when you burn something in our world with the proper rituals, it goes to the deceased in hell. The burning of hell money enables the ancestor to purchase luxuries and necessities needed for a comfortable afterlife.You can also burn hell cars or hell houses or whatever. If you want to send a message to the dead, you can write a prayer on a piece of paper and burn it.

Wikipedia had this to add: In 2006, China's deputy minister for civil affairs, Dou Yupei, said he intended to ban at least the more extreme forms of joss paper (hell money), such as MP3 players, planes, boats and even paper condoms, paper prostitutes and Viagra. How awesome is that?!

I was rereading Bridge of Birds the other week, and it's such a great book. I can't remember the last time I cried over a work of fiction, but Bridge of Birds made me cry. There is this character, Miser Shen, who was a good man, who loved his daughter, but who became a miser in order to accumulate enough money to pay the wisest man in the world enough to bring her back to life. At this point in the story, Miser Shen was shot with a crossbow and he's dying and he believes he's talking to a priest.

"You are the priest?" he said hoarsely to Li Kao. "My little girl has been murdered by the Duke of Ch'in, and they tell me that I will feel better if I burn a prayer and send it to her, but I do not know how to write."

For Miser Shen it was forty years ago, when the death of his daughter had begun to drive him insane.

"I am the priest," Master Li said quietly. "I will write down your prayer for you."

Miser Shen's lips moved silently, and I sensed that he was rehearsing. Finally he was ready, and he made a terrible effort to concentrate on what he wanted to say to his daughter. This is the prayer of Miser Shen.

"Alas, great is my sorrow. Your name is Ah Chen, and when you were born I was not truly pleased. I am a farmer, and a farmer needs strong sons to help with his work, but before a year had passed you had stolen my heart. You grew more teeth, and you grew daily in wisdom, and you said 'Mommy' and 'Daddy' and your pronunciation was perfect. When you were three you would knock at the door and then you would run back and ask, 'Who is it?' When you were four your uncle came to visit and you played the host. Lifting your cup, you said, 'Ching!' and we roared with laughter and you blushed and covered your face with your hands, but I know that you thought yourself very clever. Now they tell me that I must try to forget you, but it is hard to forget you.

"You carried a toy basket. You sat at a low stool to eat porridge. You repeated the Great Learning and bowed to Buddha. You played at guessing games, and romped around the house. You were very brave, and when you fell and cut your knee you did not cry because you did not think it was right. When you picked up fruit or rice, you always looked at people's faces to see if it was all right before putting it in your mouth, and you were careful not to tear your clothes.

"Ah Chen, do you remember how worried we were when the flood broke our dikes and the sickness killed our pigs? Then the Duke of Ch'in raised our taxes and I was sent to plead with him, and I made him believe that we could not pay our taxes. Peasants who cannot pay taxes are useless to dukes, so he sent his soldiers to destroy our village, and thus it was the foolishness of your father that led to your death. Now you have gone to Hell to be judged, and I know that you must be very frightened, but you must try not to cry or make loud noises because it is not like being at home with your own people.

"Ah Chen, do you remember Auntie Yang, the midwife? She was also killed, and she was very fond of you. She had no little girls of her own, so it is all right for you to try to find her, and to offer her your hand and ask her to take care of you. When you come before the Yama Kings, you should clasp your hands together and plead to them: 'I am young and I am innocent. I was born in a poor family, and I was content with scanty meals. I was never willfully careless of my shoes and my clothing, and I never wasted a grain of rice. If evil spirits bully me, may thou protect me.' You should put it just that way, and I am sure that the Yama Kings will protect you.

"Ah Chen, I have soup for you and I will burn paper money for you to use, and the priest is writing down this prayer that I will send to you. If you hear my prayer, will you come to see me in my dreams? If fate so wills that you must yet lead an earthly life, I pray that you will come again to your mother's womb. Meanwhile I will cry, 'Ah Chen, your father is here!' I can but weep for you, and call your name."

Miser Shen fell silent. I thought that he had died, but then he opened his eyes again.

"Did I say it right?" he whispered. "I practiced for a long time, and I wanted to say it right, but I am confused in my mind and something seems to be wrong."

"You said it perfectly," Master Li said quietly.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"Don't blame me. I voted for Boogerjuice."

I voted yesterday, just like I always do on election day. We even vote in the non-Presidential elections. We're lucky to have a very good polling place too. It's within easy walking distance, though I usually drive, because they open early and I usually get my vote in on my way to work. I didn't appreciate how good the place was until I read the reports of people waiting hours in the cold. I was in and out in five minutes, and most of that was because the poll worker didn't hear me correctly when I said my name and had trouble finding it in the book.

I'm a Capital-D Democrat, and I voted a straight party line. The only exception was that we had a Republican running unopposed for County Clerk, so I put down "Charles Boogerjuice" as a write in candidate.

I asked Lily for whom I should vote as I was leaving. She was doing math problems on the computer and she didn't look up as she answered "Obama," and I asked why and she said, "Because he's nice. And he's a good president." And that was good enough for me. (More on this at the end.

A lot of my friends were worried, but I wasn't.  There are political sites on both sides of the spectrum, but I think the Liberal ones are better than the conservative ones. Here's why. Because they have different goals. Back in the dark days of the Internets, a friend said he didn't trust anything he read on Daily Kos. But from the beginning, the goal of that site was to elect "More and better Democrats", and to do so, they need to operate in a reality based milieu. You can't afford to spend four years flogging a conspiracy theory about fake birth certificates if that's what you want to achieve.  Kos is as partisan as they come, but it's also rigorously factual in its analysis.  Nate Silver, the statistician who predicted the outcome of 2008 and 2012 races almost exactly, got his start as a Daily Kos blogger. The GOP side gives us these prescient luminaries:

Peggy Noonan:

We begin with the three words everyone writing about the election must say: Nobody knows anything. Everyone’s guessing. I spent Sunday morning in Washington with journalists and political hands, one of whom said she feels it’s Obama, the rest of whom said they don’t know. I think it’s Romney. I think he’s stealing in “like a thief with good tools,” in Walker Percy’s old words. While everyone is looking at the polls and the storm, Romney’s slipping into the presidency. He’s quietly rising, and he’s been rising for a while.

Dick Morris:

We’re going to win by a landslide. It will be the biggest surprise in recent American political history. It will rekindle a whole question as to why the media played this race as a nail-biter, where in fact I think that Romney is going to win by quite a bit. My own view is that Romney is going to carry 325 electoral votes.

Michael Barone:

Bottom line: Romney 315, Obama 223. That sounds high for Romney. But he could drop Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and still win the election. Fundamentals.

Brian S. Brown:

Romney wins the Electoral College with room to spare — somewhere around 300 electors. All four marriage votes in the deepest of blue states (Washington, Maryland, Minnesota, and Maine) will be won by traditional-marriage supporters. This will happen even though supporters of same-sex marriage have outspent us by gargantuan amounts.

I went to CNN for the election night coverage as the returns started coming in, and the thing that struck me was how the blogs were much more accurate and much less sensational than even the most premiere mainstream news site. The election shook out almost exactly as the blogs had projected it.

I really don't debate politics on the Internets any more. I have more efficient ways to raise my blood pressure. The last time I did it on any large scale was the Summer of 2009. I remember it, because the fight was about how Republicans own up to their responsibilities. Specifically, a guy we knew as Icky Dave was claiming that Mark Sandford resigned from the governorship as soon as he was caught abandoning leadership of the state in order to engage in an extramarital affair. And I was like, "Well, then who's running South Carolina?" So Ick, blustered and bleated, making the lies faster than I could correct them. I called him a liar in no uncertain terms, and after the whole thing was done, a non-political friend said in a private message (as this took place on Facebook) "You were pretty mean to Dave last night."

Now keep my non-political friend in mind.

There were some reasons not to vote for Obama, though they were mostly variations of he didn't deliver on his promises to the extent we were hoping. There were no reasons to vote for Romney. His campaign was based almost completely on unspecified future changes and demonstrable falsehoods. He lied and he lied and he lied.

Kurt Vonnegut once likened the hierarchy of laws to playing cards. (I have the full speech at the bottom of this post, because it's one of my favorite bits of writing and worth reading in its entirety.)

"I will speak of Thomas Aquinas instead. I will tell you my dim memories of what he said about the hierarchy of laws on this planet, which was flat at the time. The highest law, he said, was divine law, God's law. Beneath that was natural law, which I suppose would include thunderstorms, and our right to shield our children from poisonous ideas, and so on.

"And the lowest law was human law.

"Let me clarify this scheme by comparing its parts to playing cards. Enemies of the Bill of Rights do the same sort of thing all the time, so why shouldn't we? Divine law, then, is an ace. Natural law is a king. The Bill of Rights is a lousy queen.

It seems like the truth, in this election, was just a queen. I'm still enough of an idealist that I believe that the truth should illuminate things. When it's demonstrated that he's lying, Romney should have enough shame or decency to recant, or at the very least, stop telling the same lies.  But as William Gaddis and Batman told us, respectively, "Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law " and "The world only makes sense when you force it to."

But, as reprehensible as it is, lying all the time is actually very shrewd.

Me: Why are you voting for Romney?
Friend: Because of X, Y and Z.
Me: Well, none of those are true.

But what am I doing here? I'm telling a friend that he's wrong. That he believes something that isn't true. That he was fooled. Nobody likes to feel that way, and if he's moved on to the point where he's committed to Romney then he's internalized the lies, and it's human nature to stick with what has become your established beliefs. It doesn't matter that they're not true. If Romney says them first, and he says them loud and he says them constantly, then it's hard to refute the lies with the truth alone.

Lily was sad when I came home last night. She told me that her candidate had lost the election. They were voting on whether the class turkey should be named Tom or Lurkey. She voted for Tom because "Lurkey sounded too weird. But if it was a choice between Lurkey and Cuckoo Locka, then I would have voted for Lurkey." I told her that her candidate isn't always going to win, but I read her a letter to President Obama from a little girl and his response, and told her that this is why I think he's a good President.

Dear Barack Obama,

It's Sophia Bailey Klugh. Your friend who invited you to dinner. You don't remember okay that's fine. But I just wanted to tell you that I am so glad you agree that two men can love each other because I have two dads and they love each other. But at school kids think that it's gross and weird but it really hurts my heart and feelings. So I come to you because you are my hero. If you were me and you had two dads that loved each other, and kids at school teased you about it, what would you do?

Please respond!

I just wanted to say you really inspire me, and I hope you win on being the president. You would totally make the world a better place.

Your friend Sophia

P.S. Please tell your daughters Hi for me!

And his reply:

Dear Sophia,

Thank you for writing me such a thoughtful letter about your family. Reading it made me proud to be your president and even more hopeful about the future of our nation.

In America, no two families look the same. We celebrate this diversity. And we recognize that whether you have two dads or one mom what matters above all is the love we show one another. You are very fortunate to have two parents who care deeply for you. They are lucky to have such an exceptional daughter in you.

Our differences unite us. You and I are blessed to live in a country where we are born equal no matter what we look like on the outside, where we grow up, or who our parents are. A good rule is to treat others the way you hope they will treat you. Remind your friends at school about this rule if they say something that hurts your feelings.

Thanks again for taking the time to write to me. I'm honored to have your support and inspired by your compassion. I'm sorry I couldn't make it to dinner, but I'll be sure to tell Sasha and Malia you say hello.


(Signed, 'Barack Obama')

Lily knows a family with two moms, and she's accepted that as a normal and natural part of the state of affairs (though it did lead to some confusion when she was younger when she proclaimed, "That's impossible! How can she have two mommies? That would mean that she was born twice!"). The last thing I want is to have Lily uncritically parroting our beliefs. I want her to reach her own conclusions. But we do believe in kindness and patience and tolerance and equality and if we can show her that the man we want to be President believes in these things too, then I think we're doing okay.

Kurt Vonnegut's speech

"I will not speak directly to the ejection of my book Slaughterhouse-Five from the school libraries of Island Trees. I have a vested interest. I wrote the book, after all, so why wouldn’t I argue that it is less repulsive than the school board says?

"I will speak of Thomas Aquinas instead. I will tell you my dim memories of what he said about the hierarchy of laws on this planet, which was flat at the time. The highest law, he said, was divine law, God's law. Beneath that was natural law, which I suppose would include thunderstorms, and our right to shield our children from poisonous ideas, and so on.

"And the lowest law was human law.

"Let me clarify this scheme by comparing its parts to playing cards. Enemies of the Bill of Rights do the same sort of thing all the time, so why shouldn't we? Divine law, then, is an ace. Natural law is a king. The Bill of Rights is a lousy queen.

"The Thomist hierarchy of laws is so far from being ridiculous that I have never met anybody who did not believe in it right down to the marrow of his or her bones. Everybody knows that there are laws with more grandeur than those which are printed in our statute books. The big trouble is that there is so little agreement as to how those grander laws are worded. Theologians can give us hints of the wording, but it takes a dictator to set them down just right–to dot the i's and cross the t's. A man who had been a mere corporal in the army did that for Germany and then for all of Europe, you may remember, not long ago. There was nothing he did not know about divine and natural law. He had fistfuls of aces and kings to play.

"Meanwhile, over on this side of the Atlantic, we were not playing with a full deck, as they say. Because of our Constitution, the highest card anybody had to play was a lousy queen, contemptible human law. That remains true today. I myself celebrate that incompleteness, since it has obviously been so good for us. I support the American Civil Liberties Union because it goes to court to insist that our government officials be guided by nothing grander than human law. Every time the circulation of this idea or that one is discouraged by an official in this country, that official is scorning the Constitution, and urging all of us to participate in far grander systems, again: divine or natural law.

"Cannot we, as libertarians, hunger for at least a little natural law? Can't we learn from nature at least, without being burdened by another person's idea of God?

"Certainly. Granola never harmed anybody, nor the birds and bees–not to mention milk. God is unknowable, but nature is explaining herself all the time. What has she told us so far? That blacks are obviously inferior to whites, for one thing, and intended for menial work on white man's terms. This clear lesson from nature, we should remind ourselves from time to time, allowed Thomas Jefferson to own slaves. Imagine that.

"What troubles me most about my lovely country is that its children are seldom taught that American freedom will vanish, if, when they grow up, and in the exercise of their duties as citizens, they insist that our courts and policemen and prisons be guided by divine or natural law.

"Most teachers and parents and guardians do not teach this vital lesson because they themselves never learned it, or because they dare not. Why dare they not? People can get into a lot of trouble in this country, and often have to be defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, for laying the groundwork for the lesson, which is this: That no one really understands nature or God. It is my willingness to lay this groundwork, and not sex or violence, which has got my poor book in such trouble in Island Trees–and in Drake, North Dakota, where the book was burned, and in many other communities too numerous to mention.

"I have not said that our government is anti-nature and anti-God. I have said that it is non-nature and non-God, for very good reasons that could curl your hair.

"Well–all good things must come to an end, they say. So American freedom will come to an end, too, sooner or later. How will it end? As all freedoms end: by the surrender of our destinies to the highest laws.

"To return to my foolish analogy of playing cards: kings and aces will be played. Nobody else will have anything higher than a queen.

"There will be a struggle between those holding kings and aces. The struggle will not end, not that the rest of us will care much by then, until somebody plays the ace of spades. Nothing beats the ace of spades.

"I thank you for your attention."

(And Vonnegut's speech in turn reminds me of my favorite part of a Man for All Seasons: )

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get at the Devil?

Roper: I`d cut down every law in England to do that.

More: "... And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!"