Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Fail Whale

Okay, this is going to be my last post on politics for the month. I'm getting burned out on them and this is supposed to be a fun blog to read.

My friend Greg and I have a long running debate about whose governor is worse. I'm living in Jersey, and have Chris Christie and Greg lives in Louisiana and has Bobby Jindal. Greg reserves special animosity for Jindal because Greg teaches at a university down there and Jindal has eviscerated the state higher ed system.

I posted the following on Facebook (Dear Louisiana, I trust you saw Chris Christie's keynote speech last night? How does it feel to have only the second craziest governor in the union? Your move,New Jersey) and included a link to a blog post with a great title dissecting Christie's self-aggrandizing speech, and how he went off-script to promote himself rather than serve in his appointed role as Romney's designated fluffer. The title of the post was a riff on the famous Western, the Outlaw Josey Wales. It was called The Outlaw Jersey Whale.

Artist's representation

When I asked Jen if she had seen my post, she wasn't terribly amused, saying that it would be better to point out the flaws in his policies than it would be to make fun of the man. But here's the thing. No one cares. I could tell them how he's made teachers into villains in my state, how he's about half a step up from a mob lawyer, how he silences his critics through intimidation, how his policies on education (and everything else, really, but especially and specifically education) are short-sighted and destructive. But nobody cares. We're at a point in our discourse where the truth is not enough.

NPR is held to be politically liberal, but I only think that's true insofar as reality has a liberal bias. Meaning the media coverage in this country continues to skew rightward, but NPR has largely resisted that tendency, and, as its position has remained unchanged across the years, the country has shifted around it, much like how John Paul Stevens, appointed by Nixon to the Seventh Circuit and Ford to the Supreme Court, was considered liberal by the standards prevailing in the Court when he retired.

Now, they're certainly not perfect  and the Right has been working the refs for a long time, and NPR capitulates to the pressure more often than I'd like.  Our modern media are terrible. They are so enamored of the idea of themselves as neutral arbiters of the debate that they find it unseemly to call out blatant lies. Dear Nightly News: Abandoning any pretense of analysis,  throwing up your hands and bleating some mealy-mouthed apologia about how "both sides do it" is not reporting. I don't know if I agree with Anne Frank that people are basically good, but I do think we're fundamentally social animals and we don't like upsetting those around us unnecessarily. Of course it's important to be civil to one another. However, this civility should not come at the expense of honesty.  

As Paul Krugman put it: "If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ”Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.” After all, the earth isn’t perfectly spherical."

I think one of the most pernicious lies perpetuated by the media is that the truth can be calculated like the arithmetic mean, that it always lies smack in the middle, that if Democrats say the sky is blue and that Republicans say it's red, that we should just agree that it's purple and move on.  As they say, "It's good to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out." Not all claims are equal. Sometimes, people are mistaken. Other times, they lie.

Back to NPR.  They did do a good job dissecting Paul Ryan's speech. They played a sound bite,  the host interjected why this claim was untrue or misleading and then they continued on to next spurious claim.

Compare that to CNN's coverage:

Blitzer: So there he is, the republican vice presidential nominee and his beautiful family there. His mom is up there. This is exactly what this crowd of republicans here certainly republicans all across the country were hoping for. He delivered a powerful speech. Erin, a powerful speech. Although I marked at least seven or eight points I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward, I’m sure they will. As far as mitt romney’s campaign is concerned, paul ryan on this night delivered.

Burnett: That’s right. Certainly so. We were jotting down points. There will be issues with some of the facts. But it motivated people. He’s a man who says I care deeply about every single word. I want to do a good job. And he delivered on that. Precise, clear, and passionate.

What role are these people supposed to be filling? Are they emcees?! Was Ryan Seacrest unavailable?

Jesus wept.

(And while we're on the subject of Paul "Randroid" Ryan, this joke always makes me laugh: "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.")

But back to Christie. He's a thug. He's a bully.  Every one of his actions is calculated to make him more appealing as a candidate in 2016. His speech was empty rhetoric. I could point out all the lies, but he makes them faster than I can correct him. And in these circumstances, politicians deserve to be mocked. They deserve to be ridiculed They lend their claims credibility by cloaking them with gravitas, so how better to strip away that unearned legitimacy than by pointing out how ridiculous those making the claims really are?

I saw an interview with Mel Brooks  that explains my thoughts perfectly.

Q: On the surface, The Producers is simply good, silly fun. But do you take personal pleasure in the subversive element of making fun of Nazis? There are Nazi jokes in many of your movies.

A: Yeah. If you can make them seem foolish and silly, then you’ve won. But if you get on a soapbox and go head to head with Herr Hitler and Goebbels, you’re not going to win. They’re good at that shit. But they’re not good at comedy.

And before the Right-Wingers come crying about getting their fee-fees hurt, no one is calling Chris Christie a Nazi. He's a horrible human being, everyone in this state will be suffering the consequences of his actions for years to come (though mostly the poor), he's a coward, a thug and bully who revels in the very empty rhetoric he accuses his opponents of employing, but he is not, in fact, a Nazi*.

However, the same principle applies. You're never going to outshout someone like him. And while measured discourse has its place, if you can't even agree on basic, demonstrable facts,  it will never lead anywhere. So that leaves ridicule. I think it works best in conjunction with the facts, with the end goal of proving that Christie's platform is not merely wrong, but ridiculous, ludicrous, the product of a mind divorced from reality, to say nothing of humanity, and that those who espouse it should never be trusted with power over their fellow human beings again.

* I mean, there's no way he'd fit in to the uniform, for starters.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Video Games, Princesses and Kittens

Lily started kindergarten on Monday. It's not as big a deal as I thought it would be, because it mirrors the experience she had with pre-K so closely. They had half days the first two days, so she was already back when I called on my lunch break. There's nothing of the baby left in how she speaks. She talks like a little adult. We discussed her day and when she was done talking she said, "I'm going to give the phone back to Mommy now so I can do my homework. Bye! I love you."

We went to a party for her little cousin on Saturday, and we wandered away to a nearby park after a while. I had my t-shirt that says, "You read my t-shirt. That's enough social interaction for one day" and she looked at it and said, "You read," pronouncing it "reed" "my t-shirt," then paused and corrected herself, "No. You read," red, "my t-shirt."

She's very good with context like that. Occasionally she'll read whole sentences in her head before saying them out loud in order to get the correct pronunciation of homophones. So, based on how they're used, she can tell the difference between "live" and "live" and "tomato" and "tomato".

The Miss Piggy blanket was Jen's, not mine
 I snapped a couple pictures of her reading old collections of Peanuts comics. I think these are becoming some of my favorite pictures of her. The books were mine when I was kid. I asked her if she would be interested in them, she accepted one, looked at the back cover, asked of Linus, "Where's his blanket?" and read for more than twenty minutes.

 We had to interrupt her so we could read her some bedtime stories and get her to sleep. This is the first time I've encountered this, but Jen, who drives Lily around more than I do, says that if Lily is enjoying a book on a car ride, she'll get so quiet that Jen will sometimes forget she's back there.

I'd like to take some of the credit for this. (Along with Jen, of course.) We try to be good parents and answer her questions. While we were taking a walk in the park, she asked if it would be possible to drill a hole in the center of the earth and come out the other side. I explained that the center of the earth was very hot and under a great deal of pressure, so it wouldn't be possible to do it. (Despite what the Total Recall remake would have you believe.) She then asked if it would be possible to drill beneath the surface, but go around the core of the earth. I told that we haven't drilled very far into the earth at all, but it might be possible in the future. I also suggested that we take a look at the Illustrated Atlas of the Universe, which has a cross section of the Earth.

We did this when we got home. I'm pleased that I remembered to follow through, because I like it when she looks at those kind of books and it made me feel like a good dad to have remembered.

Later on that day, it made me feel like a bad dad when she threw a fit when we wouldn't give her another hour of cartoons. There was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments and it was very disturbing to hear my five-year-old daughter insisting she "needed" another hour of cartoons. Not wanted. Needed!!! She sounded like nothing so much as an unrepentant heroin addict.

But we got over that. She's a good kid. Mostly. I was mildly mortified to see that she listed her three favorite things for her teacher as video games, princesses and kittens, but Jen thinks that she only listed the first one because we do place time limits and close supervision on her video game time.

We had an initial meeting/orientation with her teacher and the classroom aide. Lily is already making a name for herself. Her spelling is very good for her age. (She spelled "my" for them "M-I", paused, said, "no, that's not right. M-Y", and black. She knows a lot of sight words, which is their term for words that are difficult to spell just by sounding them out.)

I tend to be very binary in my passions. Either I don't care at all or IT'S THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD!! Lily is the same way, but she's five, so hopefully she'll grow out of it. An assignment on Tuesday was for the kids to draw a picture of themselves. Lily started a picture of herself, but gave herself too much hair, and she freaked out. It was ruined! And they told her maybe that she could make the hair into a ponytail, which is something we try to when she makes a mistake, incorporate the mistake into the picture. But, no, it was ruined. If she were at home, she probably would have ripped the picture in half, but I'm pleased she had the wherewithal to control herself in school. (Though if she's capable of such a feat, I'd like her to exercise it at home when she's frustrated at home too.) The word they used to describe her was paralyzed, and I can imagine it. She had tears streaming down her cheeks and just had no idea how to fix this. The teacher wouldn't give her another sheet of paper, which was absolutely the right move, but did allow her to draw a new picture on the other side. Lily worked all the way through free play, getting her picture just so.

And I'm torn. Wanting to do the best job you can do is certainly an admirable trait and one we want to encourage, but perfectionism can be a negative if taken to extremes. I've come to terms with my own issues in that regard, though it took me a lot of effort, but I'm managed to make my foibles work for me. I'm outside my area of expertise, but this excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on perfectionism summarizes my concerns: "Normal perfectionists pursue perfection without compromising their self-esteem, and derive pleasure from their efforts. Neurotic perfectionists strive for unrealistic goals and consistently feel dissatisfied when they cannot reach them."  I'm afraid Lily's perfectionism might be closer to the neurotic kind. I want her to be the best version of herself she can be, but I don't want her to destroy herself by adopting a "perfect or useless" dichotomy.

I was concerned that she would be bored at school. This was going to be her third years being taught her ABCs, and while I don't think she's a prodigy of any kind, I know she's a smart little kid who reads to herself, adds negative numbers and asks questions like "Who was Sun-Tzu?", and, as she missed the the cut off date by about 72 hours, I do remain very unhappy that she's not getting as much as she could from school. I've mentioned this before, but I still have the concern that she'll be bored by school and this will poison her impression of it for years to come. However, I'm somewhat mollified after meeting Lily's teacher and talking about her with a friend who works at the school and who speaks extremely highly of her.

She hasn't made any friends yet, though her friend last year is in the room across the hall and they see each other during the day. That's probably a good thing. She is one of those kids who gravitates towards adults and I'm happy that she's challenged to socialize outside of her comfort zone.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Three people who do their jobs better than Joss Whedon

It wouldn't be Josh's blog if we didn't have the occasional two minutes hate against Joss Whedon.

Joss Whedon is perceived as a writer friendly to women because he features a lot of women  in his properties. Sure, I'll buy that. What I don't quite buy into is the scuttlebutt on the internets that he's done more to advance woman's issues than any other human being who ever lived. And even I will admit that Whedon is pretty good in this regard. However, he's not perfect. Of note is that his brand of feminism involves a young woman getting punched in the face for seven years. When that is the gold standard, when all genre writing is measured by this yardstick, then I think there's a problem.

This piece sums up a lot of the problems with Whedon's brand of feminism.

See also, Strong Female Characters

Here's the list promised in the title:

The Writers on Scooby Doo, Mystery Inc
I don't hate everything Whedon's ever done. I think Seasons 2 and 3 of Buffy (Spike, Drucilla and Angelus and Faith and the Mayor, respectively and Season 4 of Angel were some of the best television that were ever broadcast, irrespective of genre.

Scooby Doo has come full circle in recent years with the kind of pop culture references, funny dialogue and clever plot twists that characterized Buffy back in its heyday. I think the most recent episode is better than Buffy.

Look, I'll even say something nice about Whedon. It's hard to write smart someone smarter than yourself. Larry Niven said that it would take him months to write the parts of his Protector books where the superhumanly intelligent protagonist was doing something. Plus, make it too smart and you run the risk of losing your audience. So, a trick that writers often use is to make the antagonists kind of stupid so that the heroes can seem smart when they run circles around them. Yeah, it's a bit of a cheap trick, but often it's the lesser evil, so we live with it.

Whedon's writing appears clever at first glance, but falls apart when you think about it. TV tropes has a term for it. Fridge Logic.

I think the scene that best exemplifies this is the part in the Avengers when the Black Widow speaks to Loki in his cell. He taunts her and she draws him out, and he mentions the Hulk in passing, so she's like "We've got you now!" and drops the whole charade right then and there. Except. they know he's seen Banner, and indeed, his whole conversation with Fury was about the Hulk.

Which part was clever, Joss? The part where the Black Widow acquires information they already through Fury's earlier conversation had or the part where she radios in a juvenile fuck you mission accomplished to Nick Fury in front of Loki, squandering the asset?

And then there's the stuff that's just dumb, like Saffron calling Mal by his full name when she's claimed she doesn't know him, thereby revealing her deception. That's the kind of mistake that tripped up Bugs Meany in the Encyclopedia Brown books. (Also, those books had Sally Kimball, who is a more fully realized character than any of the women on Firefly. (Or the men on Firefly, for that matter.))

But Scooby Doo manages to weave together a complicated narrative that makes sense, with both sides outsmarting the other at certain times.

James Cameron

Cameron didn't give us Ellen Ripley, as she was introduced in the first movie, but he gave us Sarah Connor, who was cast from the same mold. I'm going to focus on Ripley, however, because it allows us a direct point of comparison. Cameron gave us Aliens, for many fans the high point of the series, and Joss Whedon, when asked to write an Aliens movie, gave us Alien: Resurrection.

To hear his fans tell it, Whedon wrote Toy Story all by his lonesome, instead of being one of many screenwriters who contributed to the script. And as quick as he is to claim ownership of that, he's equally quick to blame other people for his failures. Whedon was all like "This is everyone's fault but mine!" about A:R. . ("It wasn't a question of doing everything differently, although they changed the ending; it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong. They said the lines...mostly...but they said them all wrong. And they cast it wrong. And they designed it wrong. And they scored it wrong. They did everything wrong that they could possibly do. There's actually a fascinating lesson in filmmaking, because everything that they did reflects back to the script or looks like something from the script, and people assume that, if I hated it, then they’d changed the script...but it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.") Oh, the movie sucks because the actors said their lines exactly as I wrote them down, said Joss "Do you know what happens to a toad when it's struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else" Whedon. I read an interview with Wired where he insists Dollhouse was brilliant (Dollhouse was the series, you may remember, where a bunch of pretty women are mindwiped and imprinted with whatever personality their clients want. Empowering!) but people were just too dumb to appreciate it.

And feminism is really only half the story about the Aliens series. The second one was awesome and influential and gave us lines that are still being quoted now. Resurrection...was a punchline.

Hayou Miyazaki:

I'll start with the first runner-up. Honorable mention goes to Avatar: The Last Airbender. The heroes are leading an invasion to stop the villains by defeating the Fire Nation leadership during the brief period of a solar ecclipse when Fire Benders will be unable to use their powers, and and their commander, the father of two of the kids gives a speech and says, "If we do this, this war is over." Not we win, not some dead-ender brownshirt "The Space South shall rise again!"  BS but the war is over, and we get to go back to our families.

Miyazaki began work in 1963, the year before Whedon was born, back when Whedon's father and his father were churning out sitcom scripts. Joss Whedon, as you may know, is a third generation sitcom writer, a factor that played an enormous role in his success. Plenty of geeks write well. Few of them have the connections he did.

My daughter returned to school today. She suggested a movie marathon the night before to celebrate the last day of summer. We eventually went with Teen Titans (which is another show that does a good job with its female characters), but we considered any number of things.  At one point she asked, "Can we watch the movie about the super strong princess?"

I felt the temperature rise as Jen turned her gaze on me.

"What movie is that?", I asked.

"The one where she's friends with the giant pill bugs."

"Oh," I said. "Nausicaä." Then I added, "They're not pillbugs, they're Ohmu."

Back before she was born, we decorated Lily's room with an underwater theme. We didn't want to go pink, because neither of us is thrilled about the whole princess culture (There's a great book with a great title called Cinderella Ate My Daughter about it), but if she has to be in to princesses, I think Nausicaä is just about the best one out there.

The name of the character comes from the Oddessy. She's the young woman who helps Odessyeus one of the seven or eight times he washes up on shore over the course of the story. I found this account while I was researching this piece:

Miyazaki's impression of Homer's Nausicaä came through an account of her in a translation of one of Bernard Evslin’s handbooks of Greek mythology. From Evslin’s description Miyazaki imagined a fearless, compassionate, beautiful, and spirited girl who delighted in nature and spurned convention—an image he admits being somewhat disappointed to see did not seem so splendidly displayed in the Odyssey

Other Nausicaa


She's such a great character. She's not super-strong either, but Lily was referring to my very favorite scenes in the movie and one of my favorite scenes in any movie.  Nausicaä  is out at the periphery of the village and when a bunch of airships land and start disgorging troops. She sees that they're heading for her father, so she starts running to his room. The scene cuts to him, an old man, sitting up in his bed. He unsheathes his sword and lays it on his lap. He tells his advisor to hide and she tells him that she'll be staying. We see the troops enter the room, and then the scene cuts to the outside, where we hear the sound of a gunshot. Nausicaä  hears it too, and she sprints up the final flight of stairs and when she bursts into the room and sees her father's body, she completely flips the fuck out and demolishes the squad with nothing more than the small staff she was carrying. When more troops arrive, these in full plate armor, she picks up a fallen sword and sets on them too. She's about to kill one of them when Master Yupa, her mentor, leaps into the room and intercepts thrust the blade of the sword with his arm. He has his knife ready to go through the neck slit of the commander's armor, and as his blood drips down the blade, he lectures the commander for violating the rules of engagement, then says to Nausicaä that if they fight here and now, the invaders will massacre the people of the village in retaliation.

It's not an attitude often found in American movies, where only quislings cooperate with the enemy and naked defiance and open violence are the only avenues to victory. It reminds me of two quotes I like:

At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice. - Maya Angelou

Be patient. You are not winning a game called justice, you are living a life called justice. Bertolt Brecht tells the story of a man living alone who answers a knock at the door. There stands Tyranny, armed and powerful, who asks, "Will you submit?" The man does not reply. He steps aside. Tyranny enters and takes over. The man serves him for years. Then Tyranny mysteriously becomes sick from food poisoning. He dies. The man opens the door, gets rid of the body, comes back to the house, closes the door behind him, and says, firmly, "No."

It's certainly a more mature work than anything Whedon's ever produced. My other criticism of him is that his characters seldom have to make hard choices like that. They just do what they want to do and that coincidently turns out to be the best course of action. 

And just about all of Miyazaki's films have strong female leads, Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke (who, while great, is not actually a princess). Miyazaki also manages to write strong female characters without the rage against the machine anti-authority I'm a thirteen year old and I'm smarter than the grownups vibe. He even features a couple female villains, something that Whedon's never been able to pull off. In fact, best of Joss Whedon's work is not as feminist as the weakest of Studio Ghibli's.

Mmm...Maybe not Pom Poko.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gaiman was right!

Let this post serve as a coda to American Gods week. I got bored at a birthday party and wandered away to a nearby park, where I saw this sign.

Neil was right, goddamnit! I'm going to travel to England and write a book about how weird his country is. The hero will be chased by Benny Hill on a Dalek.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Guns, lots of guns

I'm a slow writer sometimes. I started this post in response to the Aurora shootings a couple weeks ago and then back-burnered it. And since then, we've had another mass shooting, this time at a Sikh Temple, and yesterday we had an execution outside the Empire State Building.

I used to write about politics on the blog back when I first started, but that kind of trailed off as I erupted into full fledged geekery. No one particularly gave a shit about what I thought about the latest Supreme Court decision and they were a downer to write besides. And not all of my friends share my opinions, and as I'm sometimes...passionate about certain subjects, worrying about upsetting them was certainly a factor in moving away from that.

I remember in the dark days of the Internets, before google was a verb and before Wikipedia existed, I used Alta Vista as my search engine. I was trying to look up the meaning of the word decimation, and I came across it in a list of definitions written by a gun enthusiast. Decimation was there, but it was an interesting site, so I looked around. Even though I've seen it many places since then, this is the first place I saw Gun Control defined as "Hitting what you shoot at. For the definition of liberal euphemism by this name, see instead unilateral personal disarmament", so it sticks with me.

While use of such straw men in this debate is not uncommon, it gives us a way to frame the discussion. So, let's put abolishment of private gun ownership at one end of the continuum and unrestricted access to to personal firearms at the other. I'm in favor of stricter gun laws, and more aggressive enforcement of existing ones. Guns certainly have a place in society, but in that continuum I mentioned, our society is much, much closer to unrestricted access than we are to abolition. My opinons are very similar to those Mark Evanier has expressed very neatly in his blog.

He thinks [my position] is that all firearms should be banned. That's not my view at all. I mean, even if it were possible, which it's not, that's not the ideal situation. There is a place for private gun ownership and even use. Roger is making the mistake which too many firearms owners make, which is to assume "Gun Control" means "Gun Confiscation." It doesn't, any more than licensing cars has led to banning cars. As long as a lot of folks think those are the same thing, nothing will change. Which is why nothing will change.

I thought it after the the Aurora shooting, and now I'm sure of it: We're never going to have a real debate in this country about gun control. You know why? Because at the national level, both sides are saying the same thing. The gun advocates were saying "You're not going to take our guns away!" and the gun control advocate were saying, "We're not going to take your guns away!"

I'm convinced that there is nothing so horrible that that the NRA will not use it as a fundraising tool

"Oh hey, it's shitty that bad things happen. But guns don't kill people, people do, and while we're on the subject of guns, the White House is going to use this as an excuse to take yours away, so send us money."

Background checks for gun ownership were up 40% in Colorado, compared to the week before the shooting. The rifle the shooter used jammed after firing thirty rounds. I wonder if the manufacturers saw a decline in sales of that model because of that, and I wonder if they regret not building a more reliable model so as to avoid that drop.

The murders themselves were shocking and appalling, but they were far away. They didn't affect me personally.  There were probably more fatalities due to traffic accidents or medical errors on that day than there were to that shooting. Terrible things happen every day, but they'll kill if you dwell on every one of them.

The thing that really bothered me was the jingoism after the shooting. I saw facts and figures from those in favor of gun control and quips ripped from bumper stickers from those against.

And the thing that kills me is that the jingoism is beating the facts.

A crime generally requires two components, mens rea, the guilty thought, or intent to commit the crime, and actus reus, the actual criminal act. Have you ever seen a toddler throw a tantrum? Kids that age have no emotional control. When they're mad, they're really mad. They're so mad, they would kill you if they could, but unless they're Billy Mumy in that episode of the Twilight Zone, they lack the capability to realize their ambitions. They have the mens rea but are unable to perform the actus reus.

And there is a similar dynamic at work with gun violence. Mass murders have been happening for as long as humans have been congregating in groups of sufficient size to be murdered en masse. However, most people are not capable of killing more than one of their peers at a time, even if they are so inclined. They have the mens rea, but lack the capability to perform the actual act. Now hold that thought.

Mom said I was average, but she was just being mean

Most people have a poor understanding of statistics. I saw this image a lot in the aftermath of the Colorado shootings.

As Maude Lebowski famously said, "Don't be fatuous, Jeffrey." No one thinks that outlawing guns will stop criminals from owning them. That's a straw man. However, reasonable barriers will, on average, reduce the number of criminals who own guns and use them to commit crimes.

According to this chart, they do!

This chart was compiled by Mother Jones with information collected in their copiously researched piece. (Linked below). Over 80% of guns used in mass murders were purchased legally. Criminals do obey gun laws. The shooter in Aurora broke no laws until he started murdering people.

If the Guns Right advocates are to be believed, these mass murders are just things that happen from time to time. Restricting gun access would do nothing to stop them, because in the absence of automatic weapons, crazy people would simply substitute sledgehammers and the results would be pretty much the same. Sun goes up, sun goes down, somebody buys 6,000 rounds of ammo and the internet and uses it to kill a bunch of people, and there's nothing anyone can do about any of it:
Since 1982, there have been at least 36 mass murders* carried out with firearms across the United States. We have mapped them below, including details on the shooter's identity, the date of the event, and the number of victims injured and killed. We do not consider the map comprehensive (and there are countless incidents of deadly gun violence in America, of course). We used the following criteria to identify incidents of mass murder:

• The killings were carried out by a lone shooter (except in the case of the Columbine massacre, which involved two shooters).
• The shootings happened during a single incident and in a public place (except possibly in the case of a deer hunter in Wisconsin who killed his victims after a trespassing dispute).
• The shooter took the lives of at least four people (an FBI crime classification report identifies an individual as a mass murderer—as opposed to a spree killer or a serial killer—if he kills four or more people in a single incident, and typically in a single location).
• If the shooter died or was hurt from injuries sustained during the incident, he is included in the victim count.
One cannot say ahead of time if a specific piece of legislation would have prevented another specific event. As I said before, statistics are only meaningful in the aggregate.  It is eminently reasonable to conclude that stricter gun control laws would result in fewer massacres of this type over time, however. A socially retarded 25-year graduate student is not going to know where to begin to buy a black market assault rifle. If that makes it harder for law-abiding citizens to buy a automatic weapons, well, that's the price we pay for living in a civil society.

Remember how I mentioned that spike in gun applications that follows every shooting? It was not uncommon in the days that followed to hear the cry of the Internet Tough Guy.  If he had been there with his concealed handgun, he would have stood up tall in the theater, peered through the cloud of tear gas with his eagle eyes, and just like Bruce Willis, would have sight-acquire-fired and bullseyed the body-armor wearing shooter before he could bring either the rifle or shotgun to bear and ended the whole thing before anyone got more than their feelings hurt.

Every time someone makes a claim like that, I think of Joe Zamudio, who was on the scene when Gabby Giffords was shot.
 Zamudio was in a nearby drug store when the shooting began, and he was armed. He ran to the scene and helped subdue the killer. Television interviewers are celebrating his courage, and pro-gun blogs are touting his equipment. “Bystander Says Carrying Gun Prompted Him to Help,” says the headline in the Wall Street Journal.
But before we embrace Zamudio’s brave intervention as proof of the value of being armed, let’s hear the whole story. “I came out of that store, I clicked the safety off, and I was ready,” he explained on Fox and Friends. “I had my hand on my gun. I had it in my jacket pocket here. And I came around the corner like this.” Zamudio demonstrated how his shooting hand was wrapped around the weapon, poised to draw and fire. As he rounded the corner, he saw a man holding a gun. “And that’s who I at first thought was the shooter,” Zamudio recalled. “I told him to ‘Drop it, drop it!’ ”
But the man with the gun wasn’t the shooter. He had wrested the gun away from the shooter.
The point of that story is that having more participants in a gunfight is probably going to result in more fatalities, not fewer. If you hear gunshots and see two people blazing away at each other, how exactly are you going to identify the bad one?

Look at the footage of when the police catch the shooter from the Empire State Building yesterday.

It's over in seconds. Even though the suspect must have known that he would be pursued, even though he was as wary as he could possibly be in such a situation, even though he was armed with a gun with the safety off, even then, he gets shot dead and no action he could have performed would have changed that. (And to tie in my secondary point, even though the shooters were trained police officers and I believe they handled things absolutely as best they could, nine bystanders were hit by bullets or bullet fragments.)

That's the thing. If someone gets the drop on you with a modern firearm, you're almost certainly going to die. Just as you're probably going to die if you're struck by lightning or hit by a truck or fall from a great height. It's possible to survive any of these situations, but the circumstances that dictate your survival are largely out of your direct control. Having a gun only provides an illusion of control.

It reminds me of my father-in-law. He was in a car accident as a young man where he was trapped by a seatbelt, in those one in a million accidents where that kind of thing happens, and to this day, he refuses to wear one. And sure, there are situations where having a gun will be to your advantage, but the vast majority of the time, it won't make a difference. Not to get all Prisoner's Dilemma on you but if you're going around with a concealed gun ready to use, you're making the world around you more dangerous for everyone else for a possible marginal benefit to yourself.

I suppose I'll wrap up with this:

A 2007 survey by the U.N's Office on Drugs and Crime found that the United States, which has 5% of the world's population, owns 50% of the world's guns.

The number of households owning guns has declined from almost 50% in 1973 to just over 32% in 2010, according to a 2011 study produced by The University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. The number of gun owners has gone down almost 10% over the same period, the report found.

I don't think this level of polarization is a healthy thing for a society at all.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Geekfight: Dalek versus Jedi

"Who would win in a fight?" is a perennial question within geek culture. (Perhaps it comes up outside of geek culture, but I don't have those kind of conversations with non-geeks.) Gandalf or Magneto? DC Captain Marvel or Marvel Captain Marvel?  Hot buttered elves or Greg the hot elf-butterer?

You get the picture.

And with the rise of the World Wide Web there have been a couple sites dedicated to this kind of thing. My favorite iteration of the concept was Grudge-Match. I checked out Wikipedia to see if there might be a stub about it, only to see that someone had put a lot of effort into the page. I liked Grudge Match, because it looked past the straight up fight question, for example, at who might win in a pie eating contest or if James Bond or Indiana Jones would get the magical relic from the Nazis first. Alas, the site was winding down when I found it and only exists as an archive now.

I read a bunch of blogs, mostly though RSS. (I'll probably do a blogroll thing eventually. If you like Josh's blog, you'll love MightyGodKing!) John Seavey, author over at Fraggmented wrote a piece on a Dalek vs. Jedi fight. I disagreed with his conclusions, and replied, but I do think it is a little rude for my very first comment on the site to be "You're wrong and let me tell you why!" We exchanged a couple comments, but I didn't want to make a bad first impression, so I decided that rather than badgering the good man on his own site, I would just write my own piece on the same topic here. (Since I wrote that, we each posted again, so if you want to see this topic from the other perspective, just click the links.)

And while we're on the topics of blogs I read, Fraggmented is at the top of the list. Seavey did a bunch of really fine work for Feng Shui, one of my favorite RPGs. And I don't want to imply any kind of endorsement from him. I don't think he has any idea of who I am except for the guy who disagreed with him on the subject of Daleks and Jedi. I just felt like writing about the topic further (and discussing it in the comments, if anyone is so inclined) without irritating someone whose work I enjoy. (I was going to mention this post over there, but everyone hates someone who just pipes up to plug his stuff. I figure that if he's so inclined, he can follow the links to his page to find this.)

So, Daleks and Jedi! Let's get to it! I think the first thing to is to determine which version of the participants we're discussing. Both have had very long histories across many different formats and you can find wildly different power levels for both.

Obviously the old series Daleks that were thwarted by stairs and loose shale and which pop like explosive pimples when hit by small arms fire (to say nothing of the very early Daleks that were dependent on the floor of the complex where they were found for power) are going to lose to anybody.  And on the other end of the spectrum, we had Jedi in the Expanded Universe Novels doing ridiculous things like conjuring planetwide storms who would wipe out legions of Daleks and pulling Star Destroyers down from orbit.  And if you poke around, I'm sure you'll find wimpy Jedi as puny and world-smashing Daleks as powerful as the extremes on the other side.

Ideally, I'd like to find an iconic version of each. I'll try to limit it to what is seen on screen for the Daleks (both series, old and new Who) and to the six movies for the Jedi, with emphasis on the prequels, simply because that's where we saw the most Jedi action. I'm going to weigh claims for their plausibility against what we see. So, even though Darth Vader says "The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force," when all he does in that movie is strangle a tubby admiral until Tarkin tells him to knock it off, kill an old man, and get bopped off into deep space for a Corellian freighter, I'm going to assume that his claim was just tough talk and he was not, in fact, sandbagging the ability to destroy a planet across the trilogy. The same trait is in play with the Daleks.

The Doctor talks them up a lot, but when they're actually on screen doing things, they're not that impressive  I think the real problem stems from their popularity, and it's a problem that every popular villain has. They can't win, but you don't want to kill the pepper pot if it's laying golden eggs, either.   Dalek episodes are popular and, each one has to top the last. Every new encounter raises the stakes, and every one of those encounters culminates in a defeat for the Daleks even more humiliating than the last. At the beginning of an episode, they're these horrors, and at the end, they're jokes. The production team never waits long enough between defeats for the Daleks to regain their cachet. Even as a kid, watching them Saturday nights on Public television, I could never take the Daleks seriously. I remember a 4th Doctor story where he blinds a Dalek by hanging his floppy hat on its eyestalk, then takes a merry-go-round ride on it as it spins around impotently. In Journey's End, I thought Rose and Sarah Jane were riding along the Dalek, my wife thought they were pushing it along the floor, but either way, it doesn't seem like these things should engender the pants-wetting terror we always see from the main characters. Oh noes, Daleks are invading! Just like they did last year. And the year before that. And, yes, Virginia, the year before that. I think we'll manage. 

For the Daleks, I think I'll go with their first appearance from the new series. I think it's impressive, but not overwhelming. The Doctor says that the Dalek could wipe out all life in Salt Lake City very quickly (I want to say 24 hours, but it's been a while since I've seen the episode) if it escapes from the bunker, but, well, the Doctor says a lot of things. It does pretty well against the forces in the bunker, but the impression I get is similar to that of the original Alien movie. It is an impressive killing machine, but it's only doing as well as it is because it's going up against opponents who don't have the tools or the knowledge to fight it. It's very dangerous, but nowhere near as unstoppable as the flavor text makes it sound.  (If you'll excuse the digression, I thought that episode was a great introduction to new viewers. This one Dalek could do all that. And then you see there are a whole lot more out there in later episodes.)

The Dalek in this match has the standard array of eyestalk, death ray and plunger. I remember Daleks with machine guns in the old series. I want to say Pertwee era? Oh, hey, Wikipedia has a whole piece on Dalek variants.  But we're going with something as standard as possible. Older source material called the bumps on the bottom of the unit sensory devices, the Dalek episode showed them as a component in a self-destruct sequence, but hey, why not both? (The old FASA RPG book had some interesting information, sadly no longer canon about the composition of the shell and the psychology of the Daleks.)

For the Jedi, I think I'll go with someone comparable to Kenobi. I, of course, mean the Jedi, and not my friend's beagle of the same name. Wikipedia gives five ranks of Jedi, younglings, (sigh, I hate you Lucas), padawan, Jedi Knight, Jedi Master, and a single Jedi Grand Master. Let's call our Jedi a Knight, one who has completed his or her training, but not yet trained a padawan. 

What's the standard Jedi compliment of gear and abilities? Lightsaber, of course, great for both cutting things and blocking them. I think the canonical reason for Jedi reflexes is short term precognition. They're able to react to situations before they occur, so there's that. They're also capable of impressive feats of acrobatics and athleticism. They have the Mind Trick, too, but I don't think it would work on a Dalek, and it strikes me mostly as a non-combat tool anyway. The last common trait seems to be telekinesis, too, which was expressed as the Force Push Obi Wan often did in the movie.  Am I missing anything? I think that about covers the vanilla Jedi abilities. They're also trained as envoys and diplomats, but it seems unlikely that kind of thing will come up in an encounter with a Dalek. The rest seem specific to certain oddball Jedi who developed them on their own, or Dark Side Powers like Force Choke or Force Lightning.

I think a single Jedi versus a single Dalek has the strong advantage. In fact, barring something unforeseen, I'll just come out and say that the Jedi would win. We have on-screen support for Jedi deflecting non-standard projectiles, e.g. force lightning. It's possible that there exist some kind of anti-Jedi weapons, but, unless I'm mistaken, in all instances when lightsaber-wielding Jedi are hit by energy weapons, it's a case of user error. The lightsaber was capable of blocking the attack, but the user failed to do so for whatever reason. So, the fight probably goes something like: Dalek fires at Jedi a distance, Jedi closes to melee range, deflecting death rays, topples the Dalek over with a Force Push, then it's one and two and through and through with the lightsaber as it's righting itself.

Small units, I think it would be a lot closer, as Daleks are built for war and Jedi are ambassadors/philosophers/pilots/medics/explorers/a ton of other things who happen to include fighting as one their duties. As every Dalek is pretty much the same, and Jedi are not, the Daleks would have a great deal more team cohesion, an advantage that will only magnify as the numbers increase.

As was pointed out in the original post from which this one was spun off, numbers are where the Daleks have their biggest advantage. There's a ton of them. In a big rumble between every Dalek and every Jedi, it would be an absolute rout. There is nothing the Jedi can do against numbers like that. I want to say there are maybe ten thousand Jedi at their height, versus millions, possibly billions of Daleks? No way.

However, that ignores an important factor. The Jedi do not exist in a vacuum. (In fact, with all that sound in space, I'm not even sure there is a vacuum in Star Wars! Hey-o!) They are servants of the Republic and the Galactic Republic is probably a lot bigger than the Dalek Empire. They're not going around conducting wars of genocide against everybody, after all, and thus, they probably suffer a lot less attrition. True, a large percentage of the Republic is composed of civilians, but there are things one can do to support a war effort as part of a civilian population too. There hasn't been an Army of the Republic for ages (indeed, that was the whole point of the second prequel), but there are no shortages of big spaceships with lasers on them, and it's reasonable to infer that planetary militia exist. Why, I would go so far as to say that without a competent Planetary Militia, you might as well hand your planet over to a 15-year-old and resign yourself to occupation by racist caricatures from the Trade Federation.

Too soon?

Anyway, the Daleks are not subtle and would almost certainly not be able to encounter the Republic, learn of the nature of the Jedi, get to all the Jedi and eliminate them without drawing a lot of attention along the way. It's more likely that it would be something like, "Hey, a new civilization! EXTERMINATE!"

As hidebound and ineffective as the Senate is, when they see that a previously unknown alien force is attacking them with the express purpose of extinguishing their civilization, I think that would push them pretty quickly to war footing. The US got mobilized pretty quickly after Pearl Harbor, and I think something similar would happen here. And the Republic is probably on a comparable technological keel as the Daleks, with one exception, and the Republic did in fact mobilize fairly effectively between Episodes II and III.

I could argue that the Separatists would join in and contribute their Roger-Roger robots to the fight once they see what an existential threat the Daleks are, but someone else could argue that the Separatists would try to ally with the Daleks, and frankly, I think both situations are probably equally likely, so it's a wash.

The exception I mentioned about technology a while up? Time travel. The Daleks have it. It's kind of cruddy compared to what the Time Lords have, but they do have it. I'm most familiar with the original series, where it was mostly "Time Corridor" stuff transporting between two points. I'm not sure how this would play out, because it was mostly a plot device the few times I saw it. I don't think they could go back in time and prevent Jar Jar Binks from being born, as appealing as such a gambit would be, but I think it's more a function of transporting troops and intelligence from the future to the past. Something like this would probably be a big disturbance in the Force, so the Jedi would never be caught completely unawares by it, but the ability to know where your enemy will be weakest coupled with ability to send a big army there is nothing to underestimate. However, since this is pretty much already the Dalek strategy anyway (hit them with an overwhelming number of Daleks until everything is EXTERMINATED), it may not be as influential as it seems at first glance.

Hey, writing this was kind of fun. I think I might make this a regular feature. Please comment, either for or against.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Stolen words

I don't know how closely folks around read the comments. If you happened to read them over the weekend you would have seen that someone copied large portions of a post and passed them off on his own.  

It was kind of funny, because I saw a comment from an anonymous poster (Why is this 2011 article almost exactly like this article...? and it looked like spam, which on blogger, tends to take the form of, "Can you believe this?! Click on over here to check it out!" I almost ignored it, but it seemed legit enough to bear investigating.  

The other blogger  had nested my post within his, and I had only skimmed it on the first reading, so I missed the plagiarized segments entirely. I actually left a comment on the post, saying something like, "Hey, someone on my blog thought you had lifted some segments I had written, but on review, I think the tipster is mistaken; we simply came to similar conclusions and used similar language to describe them. I'm glad I found your blog because of this and I look forward to reading it."  

And then I went off to do other things, because it was the weekend. When I returned, I checked to see if anyone had replied, I saw that the comment was gone. Either I had absent-mindedly exited the page without submitting it, as I sometimes do, or new comments needed to be approved first. So I went back to the original thread and replied to the tipster: "So, when I first saw that comment, I had dismissed it as spam, because spam tends to take that format around here, a claim that gets you interested followed by a link to a site. However, it turns out that it's legit. I don't think the person copied me, though. The opening lines are very similar and he raises a lot of the same points, but I get the impression that he arrived at them independently."  

The tipster replied with some quotes from the piece that I had overlooked on me initial read through and contrasted them with mine, and looking at them juxtaposed like that, it was hard to deny their providence.  So, it now seems pretty clear that someone plagiarized some of my work. I had left the comment, which by now I figured must have been deleted or never approved, with the account I use to post here, so I wouldn't be very surprised if the blogger over there had followed my comment back to the tip-off thread. I went to the post again just to make sure and I found that the blog had suddenly become invitation-only.  Shortly after that, it was gone entirely. 

However, nothing is ever gone on the internets. Google's cache remembers all! 

I mentioned this on Facebook and tried to figure out how I felt about this. Because, had someone asked me how I would have felt about this prior to it happening, I would have guessed angry.  But I'm not. My main annoyance is that I think his rewriting the post resulted in a weaker piece.

Friends had a couple suggestions, ranging from contacting blogger/google to scouring his website to see how much he had taken from other authors. That last part was interesting, because it got me to thinking that if I were in his place, I would have probably deleted the offending post, suggesting that he has taken other posts from other authors.  

That's assuming that he's in the blogging game for the same reason I am. I did most of my writing at a job that gave me internet access and lots of free time, and my goals were to write something that I would enjoy reading and hopefully spark some interesting conversation with other people who enjoyed reading it. I'm anonymous-ish around here, but otherwise I want to attract as wide an audience as possible of people who would enjoy what I write. I don't get anything out of it other than satisfaction. I suppose it's possible to monetize the blog, but that looks like a lot of work, and as my personal preference is not to have ads all over the place, I try to extend the same courtesy to people who visit here. 

Also, I'm not any kind of lawyer, but noncommercial reviews and commentaries are generally held to be good examples of fair use. If I were making any kind of money off the site, I'd feel much more uneasy about some of the longer quotes and pics I've used. (Though I suspect more significant reason is that I'm too small to attract any kind of attention and I like to think that the reviews I write, if they attract any attention at all are perceived to make the people more likely to purchase the products reviewed . Also, if lawyers sent takedown notices for every book cover taken off Amazon to serve as an image for a book review, they wouldn't have time to do anything else.)

 I generally try to be good about crediting my sources, and if I fail to do so, I'm consistent about it otherwise that I hope it's clear that any omission is an oversight and not an attempt to pass someone else's work off as my own. And it's very well possible that I've internalized something I've read somewhere only to write it down later, believing it my own creation, but it's hopefully not something I do often.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

But Aquaman, you cannot marry a woman without gills. You're from two different worlds.

There has a been a movement to make Aquaman seem cool, for, I don't know, two or three decades now. It was already underway when I started working at the comic store and presumably it's still ongoing. I really couldn't tell you.

When your pitch for the last twenty-five years is "Look how EXTREME Aquaman is now! He shoots Mountain Dew out of his orifices," then you've lost control of the conversation. You can give him all the facial hair and hooks (oh, sorry, it's a harpoon. That makes it cool) you want and it's still not going to make him any less ridiculous.

Part of the problem is the contrarian streak geeks tend to have. Everyone who writes Aquaman makes him tougher and more impressive, seemingly not realizing that every previous writer has done the exact same thing in much the exact same way.


Much has been made of his "rulership" of 70% of the earth. That always struck me as something of a vacuous claim, and here's why.

Alaska is over 660,000 square miles. It's huge. By that argument, Sarah Palin had rulership over a sixth of the United States and I didn't see her toppling Darkseid. The thing is, it's 660,000 square miles of nothing and so is the ocean.

It's about time someone made this point.

I can declare myself the monarch of Jupiter, but unless you're actually on Jupiter, that's not going to be too impressive. And same deal with Aquaman. His telepathic control over sea life isn't going to do him much good in Boise, unless he's foiling a robbery at the local Petco. (Okay, they've amped up his telepathy in recent years too. It wasn't EXTREME enough in the past.)

Also, they're playing up his super-strength a lot too, reasoning that you've got to be strong and tough to live on the ocean floor, which is a reasonable argument, but it's quite a slippery slope once you start applying real world science to superheroes, in that the Flash could pretty much kick everyone's ass, and Batman looks even less impressive than he did before.

However, I realized when playing with my daughter's Pez dispensers tonight that any argument that one makes for taking Aquaman seriously also applies to another character who is heir to an undersea empire and dwells at the bottom of the ocean. She even talks to fishes.

"What's that Flounder? Scuttle fell down the well?"

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Neil Gaiman Book Review: American Gods

Hey, a non-Zelazny book review! (Even if the book is dedicated to him.) I think American Gods may be the only non-Roger Zelazny book I've read or listened to at least once a year since its release.

Gaiman's works touch on many of the same themes that Zelazny's did, and he's written a couple pieces about Zelazny and his work, all of which, I believe, can be found in THE COLLECTED STORIES. People compare the two a great deal and it's hard to say which person I consider the better author. I'm not sure that that's meaningful question anyway. I'll just say that I prefer Zelazny for most things and leave it at that.

I'm of two minds on a Brit commenting on the American cultural landscape. On one hand, an outsider can sometimes see things more clearly than someone who's part of a culture. On the other hand, a lot of the things we Americans do are sometimes faintly ridiculous, and we don't need someone coming across the pond and pointing that out for us ("The extra sign announced that the town's under-14's team was the third runner-up in the interstate basketball tournament"), thank you very much.

Ah, but I do like American Gods. I really enjoy audio books. I occasionally call them "books on tape" and I realize that this marks the first part of the inevitable transformation into my grandparents, where I refer to things by names that have not been valid for decades. I have the older recording, which I happen to like quite a lot, and I'm torn on getting the new one. I really like George Guidall's performance, and full cast performances, unless they're done just right, can really put me off. However, the new recording is based on the author's preferred text, which I'm ashamed to say I haven't yet read.

The whole thing reminds me of an exchange near the end of Creatures of Light and Darkness

"What was the Nameless?" 

"A god," says Set, "an old god, I'm sure, with nothing left to be divine about any more."

and that seems to fit Wednesday and his crew.

I love Laura, hate Samantha Black Crow and am almost pathologically indifferent to Shadow. I'm convinced that's by design, however. Gaiman is too talented a writer for it to be otherwise.

And taking Shadow first:

"I'm alive" said Shadow "I'm not dead. Remember?"

"You're not dead" Laura said "But I'm not sure you're alive, either. Not really"

I think that sums up Shadow for me. Shadow reminds me of the god in the book whose name was instantly forgotten as soon as it was said.  At times, he strikes me as little more than a narrator. Shadow's life was turned upside down and he was so passive in a lot of things.

Samantha Black Crow is a mythological figure herself, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and there is nothing about her that's not annoying.

"I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren't true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they're true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen — I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone's ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we'll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in War of the Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind's destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it's aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there's a cat in a box somewhere who's alive and dead at the same time (although if they don't ever open the box to feed it it'll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn't even know that I'm alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. I believe that anyone who says that sex is overrated just hasn't done it properly. I believe that anyone who claims to know what's going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman's right to choose, a baby's right to live, that while all human life is sacred there's nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the legal system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the legal system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you're alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it."

She reminds me of Natalie Portman in Garden State, who also happens to be named Sam, something, I am sure, that is not a coincidence.

Aren't you twee, my dear?

I think her role in the novel could have been filled by a mousetrap that snapped shut on my testicles whenever she showed up, which would have at least, made those chapters more tolerable.

And Laura. People often use pathetic not as it once intended, meaning "Inspiring pity" but rather, "inspiring scorn".  It also has a secondary implication of deep melancholy.

She wants to love and be loved. And that's all. She's broken and cannot be otherwise. She's moving around, but not feeling things as the living do. There is one line, when she's rescuing Shadow from the Spook Show and she says "You know why dead people only go out at night, puppy? Because it's easier to pass for real, in the dark."

Not pass for living. Pass for real. 

Everything about Laura's treatment in the book is just perfect. And while I think that's partially a function of her relatively limited screen time, it's not entirely attributable to it, and the parts with her are invariably excellent. 

There are so many good scenes. I like the House on the Rock and I like the bit with the TV in the hotel. I think it may be my favorite individual scene. It really seems like it's designed for a visual medium and if that HBO show ever gets made, I think that scene is going to translate well.

If you haven't read the book and you've gotten this far, I don't think you'll have gotten much out of this post. But, just in case, there are real spoilers beyond this point.








"Low Key Lyesmith" Okay, is there any excuse for not seeing this ahead of time? I'm not, last time I checked, a complete moron, and it really is, SO OBVIOUS, and yet, I didn't see it coming until Shadow figured it out himself. 

Shadow as Balder. Mmm...not seeing it. Yeah, there's nothing to preclude it, but aside from his identity as Odin's son, there's nothing to imply it either. Now, I know that, per Gaiman, Shadow is Balder, but I've read the book since learning that, specifically looking for information to support it, and I'm still coming up short. I guess Loki has a line later on about stabbing him in the forehead with mistletoe later on, but A.) I think that's in the expanded edition only, and B.) To me, the salient point of that remark was that he was driving a sharpened stake through Shadow's skull, not that the stake was made out of mistletoe. As Loki was the one behind the whole mistletoe exclusion clause to Balder's invulnerability, even the specific reference of mistletoe isn't really a smoking gun.

 It's a great book. There's nothing quite like it. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012



I was talking with my friend Eric about comics the other day. (Well, we were actually talking about superheroes, which are increasingly divorced from comics, but comic books are still my frame of reference for the characters.) He said that he was more of a DC guy (DC being the company that publishes Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman) than a Marvel guy (Spiderman, the X-Men and the Avengers). I suppose I am too, but I've always loved a particular Marvel property, the Fantastic Four.

It's really more than the sum of its parts and there's so many little details that I love about them. Foremost, they're superheroes, but they're also a family. You don't see that dynamic a lot with superheroes. I mean, who's the next most famous family of Super-people? The Power Pack? The Bionic 6? (The Incredibles, as great as they are, don't count because they're so strongly influenced by the FF.)

The characters are Reed Richards, aka Mister Fantastic, Susan Storm Richards, the Invisible Woman, her brother Johnny, the Human Torch, and Ben Grimm, the Thing. I'm not going to go into exhaustive detail here, because they are fairly well known and those people who are interested in reading this are those who who are likely already familiar with them.

Mister Fantastic is the smartest guy in the universe. (Also, he stretches.) How smart is he? Doctor Doom invented a time platform in one his early adventures, and when the FF needed a time machine, they just stole Doom's. That's smart! He's also a loving dad and husband and a really nice, if somewhat preoccupied guy.

Sue Storm, aka the Invisible Woman is his wife. She turns invisible and projects force fields and it's generally agreed that she's the most powerful member of the Fantastic Four. She's the mama bear to the team, and the archetype of the super-mom.

Her brother Johnny is the Human Torch, but he's rarely called that. (In fact, I'm more likely to call each of the characters by their actual names than by their superhero names, but especially so in his case.) He's all into fast cars and showing off. He does have his hidden depths, though.

And Ben Grimm is the ever-lovin' blue-eyed Thing. I think he's everybody's favorite. He's probably one of two Jewish superheros most people can name (Kitty Pryde being the other). Lily likes to play him on Superhero squad. There's a model of him in a tuxedo, and each of the characters says something when they arrive on the map. Tuxedo Thing says, "I say ol' chap, it appears to be time for clobberin'."

"Thing-Ring do your thing!"

(Too soon?)

More than the fact than they're each unique personalities, they interact with each other in unique ways, in that Reed is very different when with Johnny than he is with Sue.I like that. They really feel like a family, people who might not like each other every minute of every day, but who love each other deeply.

I didn't like the grim & gritty Ultimates line (Doom's name is not Van Damme! Do you see him doing the splits?!) but I loved the Marvel Knights line, which told more personal stories that were still in mainstream continuity.

I thought the movie was terrible, but Chris Evans was great as Johnny Storm and I could certainly see why Ramona would go on to date him. Also, the Silver Surfer looked plenty neat.

I like how the series evolved. It recently celebrated its 50-year anniversary and back in the 60s, all the big Marvel heroes (the DD, Spider-man, the Hulk) received their power through exposure to radiation. Back in that era, radiation was essentially magic. (Kind of like nano-technology is now, and I think genre series dealing heavily with nanotech will age about as gracefully as the 50s and 60s radiation stories.)

 I think there have been attempts to explain this. The one with which I'm most familiar is that powerful aliens tinkered with mankind's genetic structure and it's not the radiation itself that gave these folks their powers, but instead it's the catalyst that causes the exhibition of the previously latent powers. Fine, whatever. That's as good a handwave as anything. I only bring it up because it gives me a chance to quote an unnamed research scientist who was interviewed by Marvel on the effects of radiation. "I've zapped a lot of bugs with radiation in the lab. Some of them lived, most of them died, but none of them ever shots laser beams out of their eyes."

Rather than ignoring the fact that it was a pretty careless mistake to forget radiation shielding, it's addressed in the comics and is even one of the more enduring arcs. (Doctor Doom forges a copy of Reed's journal, suggesting that Reed thinks the world needs super-powered protectors, so he'll intentionally mutate his friends through cosmic ray exposure in order to manufacture them.)

The 60s were a period of unparalleled creativity for the comics medium. Lee and Kirby were at the height of their power, and produced an incredible amount of material that went on to define the field. Yeah, not all of it was great, but most of it was, and they were so prolific. Unstable molecules, the Fantasticar (flying bathtub), the Baxter building, Roberta the robot receptionist, Franklin, Valeria, the Negative Zone, the skrulls, Galactus and his heralds, and their exhaustive array of villains of all stripes.

Everybody knows that a good villain can make or break a hero. They are, after all the yardstick by which the heroes are measured. I'm one of the biggest Superman boosters out there and even I admit his Rogue's Gallery is garbage. Yeah, Lex Luthor is iconic, and Braniac just keeps getting better and General Zod is all kinds of ruthless alien menace. And Darkseid is great, though overexposed, and he's not really a Superman villain exclusively.  And, um, well, Doomsday is there. And who else? Conduit? The Toyman?

The one thing I'll give Batman over Superman is that at least his villains are memorable.

(I didn't say they were good, Jer. I said they were memorable.)

And perhaps even eclipsing the FF themselves is their greatest adversary, perhaps even the greatest comic book villain period.

The Mad Thinker's "Awesome Android"!

I would assume the title was bestowed ironically

No, Paste Pot Pete!

(All right, I already admitted that Lee and Kirby had a couple stinkers)

Obviously, it's Doctor Doom.

"Doom: Eloquent in its simplicity — magnificent in its implied menace."

Stan Lee declared Doom his favorite villain, saying "[Doom] could come to the United States and he could do almost anything, and we could not arrest him because he has diplomatic immunity. Also, he wants to rule the world and if you think about it, wanting to rule the world is not a crime."

Stan Lee is rightly, a legend, but he occasionally says some stupid things. The problem with arresting Doom isn't because he has diplomatic immunity, but because he'll kill you with the death rays that shoot out of his power armor if you try it. And, yeah, wanting to rule the world isn't a crime, but he's probably going to commit any number of offenses in pursuit of that goal if he's really serious about it.

(Also, I thought he was exaggerating the protections given by diplomatic immunity, but they're really pretty comprehensive. Wikipedia has the following account of the Burmese Ambassador to Sri Lanka who murdered his wife, built a pyre to burn her in his back yard, and when confronted about this, told the local authorities that he had diplomatic immunity and slammed the door on them.)

Kirby's contributions to the FF have been overshadowed by Stan Lee's. However, Kirby contributed my very favorite bit of Doctor Doom trivia.

Doom was Reed Richards' roommate in college, and he had whipped up a machine to communicate with his dead mother, instead of, I don't know, playing beer pong. Reed happened to see some small errors in Doom's calculations and pointed them out, and Doom was all like "You're just jealous of my genius!"

So the machine explodes, and Doom claims Richards sabotaged it. He also says he's hideously disfigured for life, so he drops out of college, (That's right, "Doctor" Doom never earned his undergraduate degree, though presumably he at least has an honorary one from Latveria) finds a bunch of monks, has them forge him some armor to cover his hideously disfigured face and puts the mask on while it's still hot.

The kicker is that as far as Kirby was concerned, Doom only had a tiny scar on his face. And I think his inability to cope with that imperfection is the best insight anyone has ever had into the forces that drive him.

There have been a number of different interpretations of Doom over the years, and I'd like to talk about Mark Waid's for a little bit.

Waid didn't like John Byrne's interpretation of Doctor Doom, who, while a villain, had a veneer of nobility about him. Waid was tired of people saying that Doom was an honorable villain, so he wrote a story where he was a monster with no redeeming traits, so he could point to that story and say, "Look, he is a bad guy!" which I felt was something of a cheap trick.

I liked Chris Clairmont's run on the series. Not only am I the only person who seems to like it, I seem to be the only person who is willing to admit it happened. It was great, goshdarnit!

I personally like Jonathan Hickman's Doom. He's evil, yes, but not unreasonably (and perhaps not even irredeemably so) and while he's small and governed by his pride, sometimes that pride can push him to great deeds.

The World's Greatest Heroes cartoon on Netflix is kind of okay. Lily likes it a lot, though I'm not thrilled about the anime look to it.

Alicia Masters is African American, which is a departure from her comics appearance, but god knows comics won't be poorer with one less pretty blonde. Lily wanted to watch it all the time for a while.  She expecially likes the episode where Ben is restored to his human form, "The Cure" She's all like, "Can we watch the Cure?" and I'm like, "Young lady, in this house, we ask 'Can I listen to The Cure?"

I actually like that episode too, because with Ben as a human they need a new strong guy, so they hold open auditions, which is a trope I happen to like. They dig out one of my favorite silly Silver Age characters, Captain Ultra, who has this crazy panoply of super-powers, but who is deathly afraid of fire and faints at even the sight of a candle flame. Also, his costume has to be seen to be believed.

Lily really likes the Franklin Richards stories, which recount the misadventures of Franklin Richards, the son of Reed and Sue, done by way of Calvin and Hobbes. They are really pretty fun and I wish there were more all ages books like this.