Sunday, December 28, 2014

Big Finish Doctor Who Capsule Reviews: Robophobia, Curse of Davros, Her Final Flight, Scaredy Cat, Army of Death

Robophobia: When I saw the title, I immediately thought that it sounded like a sequel to the 4th Doctor story, The Robots of Death. And I was right!

It's a 7th Doctor story, which I usually enjoy, taking place several months after the events of the first one. Unfortunately, it plays like a parody of a 7th Doctor story, with McCoy tweely gliding between set pieces and dropping an enigmatic clue to his unwitting pawns in order to steer them into discovering what he already knows.

He's actually called out on this at one point, where one character essentially says, "We've got a bunch of murders going on here, he knows who the murderer is, but he's just giving us these riddles instead of a straight answer." But then the act ends, and the Doctor never does give them their straight answer.

The robots made for interesting characters, and I thought their depiction was loyal to the original. In addition, the sound work was especially good. Big Finish always produces a quality product, but this one added a number of details that elevated it above even their normal high standards. Two things that stood out for me were McCoy being strangled by a robot in the teaser. Sylvester McCoy has a distinctive voices, and his squawks were noticeably his. The other was a two-note failure beep when files failed to copy from a computer. It was a tiny little thing, but it aided in the immersion.

Unfortunately, the sounds don't offset my main complaint. The Doctor's actions are needlessly Byzantine, to the detriment of the crew of the Sandminer. This issue is brought up, but sidelined almost immediately.

Rating: 3/5.

Curse of Davros: Listening this made me realize just how much I like Davros as a villain.  I can take Davros seriously in a way I can't with other adversaries. Yeah, he's going to be foiled by the end of the episode, probably by Daleks turning on him, and occasionally by his own overreach, but he generally manages to come up with something better than Underpants Gnomes level of plotting. He's really the only villain in the show who's the least bit practical.

As much as I like the Master, he's ultimately just the classy, high end version of the Doctor Who megalomaniac, which are a dime a dozen. Davros makes plans that would have succeeded, if not for that meddling Doctor, whereas the Master is almost self-foiling at this point.

We open with Rose Tyler Flip Jackson rescuing a delirious Doctor from the wreckage of a Dalek ship. The Daleks are infiltrating local government in order to catch the Doctor. This struck me as a touch odd, as the usual Dalek modus operandi of indiscriminately committing genocide against the local population would probably have a higher rate of success.

Rose Flip tells her boyfriend not to alert the authorities, because they'll want to dissect the Doctor. That struck me as a wee bit ridiculous, seeing as he's been extremely cozy with the highest echelons of the British government for forty years, but it turns out to be the correct. When Mickey whatever the fuck the boyfriend's name is tells the authorities that the Dcotor is around, they thank him, and then swap a Dalek's mind into his body, because they've already had their brains swapped with Dalek brains.

I'm kind of dumb, but I figured it out at this point that Davros and the Doctor had their minds switched. I then started the story over again, and I really appreciated some of the details they included, like Davros in the Doctor's body exclaiming, "I can walk?!" while being supported on his way out from the crashed ship.

I probably did figure it out slightly ahead of schedule, because the Doctor modifies Rose's Flip's phone to serve as a beacon to the Daleks, and then left it on a bus where the Daleks would find it and hone in on it, and kill everyone nearby.

I did have the passing thought that I might have been wrong, that this was really the Doctor in his own body. After all, the Sixth Doctor has been a bit of a shit. He strangles his companions, casually commits genocide and more recently, delivered a developmentally disabled boy to his murder. Writers can be as lazy as anyone else, and if they had a story to tell the depended on version of the Doctor prior to later character development, well, it wouldn't be the first time a character had undergone a reversion.

It's a solid adventure after the reveal, with a couple memorable lines. ("You think I'm going to blurt out my plans just like that? That's the sort of thing you'd do, Davros") However, Flip is horrible. She would sink a weaker story. She has every trait I hated about Rose,  right down to the detail of kissing her boring boyfriend right before taking off with the Doctor.

Rating: 5/5

Her Final Flight:This story opened with a pre-credits teaser that seemed promising, but after the Doctor crash-lands on an alien planet, a woman's voice begins expositing at him. He says "I recognize that voice!" So did I. It was Nicola Bryant. I turned it off.

I can occasionally stomach Peri in small doses, but it looked like she would be delivering large amounts of exposition here. Her American accent makes Miranda Raison's sound like Hugh Laurie's.

Rating: 1/5.

Scaredy Cat: Whatever else I say about the Big Finish Audio stories, they really feel like Doctor Who. This one is kind of bad, but it's bad in a specifically Doctor Who way, so I can't dismiss it out of hand. The Eighth Doctor, Charley and C'rizz land on a planet and have a bit of an adventure.

One of the things I bring up with some regularity is the fact that Doctor Who isn't really science fiction as much as it is fantasy with the veneer of science fiction, and occasionally it veers into outright technophobia. The Doctor encounters some scientists working on a project, but it's the kind of thing that man was not meant to know, but the Doctor is all like, "Stop researching this thing to which you've dedicated your life. It's bad." without providing any specifics as to why. He's right, of course, but he never gives a reason as to why they should listen.

Also prominent is his rather annoying quirk where he implies something, his companion chimes in to complete what the Doctor seemed to be implying, and the Doctor answers, "Well, not exactly..." t's not the worst thing ever, but he does it enough to be annoying.

The Doctor is also unintentionally hilarious. He's talking about cultural transmission, about how some birds learned how to open milk bottles, and how this knowledge spread amongst the population. The birds were the Eurasian blue tits, and the revelation comes as "Blue tits. Blue tits. Blue tits. Blue tits! C'rizz, blue tits! Blue tits, C'rizz!"

Rating: 3/5.

Army of Death: This is is apparently one of several Eighth Doctor stories with MARY SHELLY as a companion. They replaced the awful Eighth Doctor theme with a remix that was marginally less awful. I'm not sure if I like the idea of Shelly as a companion, because it seems to imply that she never could have written what she did on her own, that they were all inspired by her adventures with the Doctor, which, if the exposition is to be believed, were all conspicuously Gothic in one way or another. It's Timelash all over again, though at least this time they had the good sense not to give it a title that was an anagram for "Lame Shit".

I actually do kind of like that title. It's kind of lazy and boring and vague, but it's unquestionably a Doctor Who title. I liked this story. It really felt like Doctor Who. Mary appeals to me a lot more than Charley did, and the plot was complicated and fun. One detail I liked is when Mary was taken into ruins that Doctor believed to be radioactive, he acquires some anti-radiation meds to give her. It turns out that ruins weren't radioactive at all, but he gives her the meds anyway, "Just in case."

It wasn't the best Doctor Who story I've ever heard, but it was fun, and the ending wasn't telegraphed from the beginning. Also, that cover art is pretty cool.

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Season's Greetings from Batman and Pabu

Batman, in a pink balaclava, with a fire ferret and a novelty balloon. Your argument is invalid.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Big Finish Doctor Who Capsule Reviews: Legend of the Cybermen, Cyberman 1-4, Whispering Forest, the Davros Mission

The Cybermen, are, in a lot of ways, the off-label Daleks. This was particularly true in their debut in the revived series, where a wheelchair-bound megalomaniac creates their race.

Lumic, I served with Davros. I knew Davros. Davros was a friend of mine. Lumic, you're no Davros.
The big problem with the Cybermen is that the Daleks already fill their niche in the Who ecosystem. They got there first and they do it better. They have a better design and they don't recoil like a vampire from a crucifix when you brandish your gold star for mathematical excellence.

It's hard to think of a Cyberman story that couldn't be told with the Daleks instead. However, I've always had a soft spot for these goofy metal jobbers. They've never been implausibly built up as an existential threat like the Daleks, and the body horror of their debut was actually somewhat unsettling.

Legend of the Cybermen:This story continues directly where Wreck of the Titan left off, and this allows us to jump into the action,

Wendy Padbury and Frazer Hines reprise their roles as Zoe and Jamie, and the whole thing is one long love letter to fans. I didn't want this episode to end. I paused it unnecessarily in order to prolong the experience. I was grinning for the entire duration.

It crackles with clever dialogue. On believing that his wishes come true in the Land of Fiction, Jamie expresses a desire for "A bowl of whiskey and a lassie with a cheeky smile", and, when approached by Zoe with a sophisticated piece of technology which will restore his memory and is shaped like an apple, he observes, "I know my bible. Sensible men being led astray by lassies with apples."

On being corrected by the Artful Dodger, the Doctor calls him a "Penny Dreadful Pedant". "I never name-drop. Saint Augustine taught me that."
Doctor: Shepherded? You make me sound like a sheep.
Dodger: Herded?
Doctor: No, that's actually worse.
Zoe describes the Doctor's adventures as being "targeted at children, but loved by adults", and she mentions that his path here started with the pseudohistorical and led to the base under siege, two categorizations often applied to Doctor.

The Cybermen are headquartered in Castle Frankenstein, which just seems so apt. Its title is Legend of the Cybermen, and they're prominently displayed on the cover. But in the context of the story, their presence seems like it's supposed to be a surprise. (They don't show up until the very end of the first act, where a partially converted Oliver Twist asks for more gruel in his Cyberman voice.) I've thought about it a bit, and come to conclusion that it must have been sales driven, that customers will pick and choose titles based on villains (there's even a filter for it on the site), so it was worth the tradeoff. I don't think it ruined the story, but it certainly weakened it. 

However, everything about it was awesome. It has a frantic pace, which it sustains for the entire adventure, and one riveting scene leads right into the next. This might be the most enjoyable example of Doctor Who media that I've ever experienced.

Rating: 5/5.

Cyberman:  Scorpius, Fear, Conversion, Telos

For some reason, this is called Cyberman instead of the more sensible Cybermen. It never reaches the heights of Legend of the Cybermen, but it's still plenty good. These stories are a spin off of the second Eighth Doctor audio, Sword of Orion, where humans and androids are fighting a destructive war in the 26th Century. 

It was pretty engaging, had some nice continuity porn (the Cybermen are defeated when their radiation shielding is disabled), and each installment built solidly on the last, offering new perspectives from established characters. Paul Hunt seems like this smarmy, unctuous sycophant, but we learn that he was really a genuinely heroic man brainwashed by the Cybermen to make him betray mankind.

I liked it. It was a nice change of pace to have a Doctor Who story without the Doctor. 

Rating: 4/5

The Whispering Forest: Nyssa looks impossibly cute in that picture. Oh my God. 

I won't say that the Fifth Doctor doesn't have some good stories, but his boring ones always seem to follow the same format of Nyssa, Tegan and Turlough landing on some alien planet where the plot twist is telegraphed far in advance. 

In this case, it was a civilization descended from the wreck of a medical ship, kind of like the Sevateem if you replaced Janis thorns with obsessive handwashing.

I find myself saying this a lot about the Fifth Doctor's stories. They're not terrible, but awfully bland, and you could see the trajectory of this one within minutes. 

Rating: 2/5.

The Davros Mission: The Daleks have always been an allegory for the Nazis. In this story, a Thal agent with the improbable name of "Lareen" (which reminded me of Lurleen Lumpkin, from the Simpsons) is some kind of Simon Wiesenthal Nazi hunter. While Davros is being transported to Skaro for trial, she sneaks on board the Dalek transport ship with the help of the unfunniest comedy relief since Jar Jar Binks. 

If you need another reason to hate this story, Lareen is voiced by Miranda Raison, of the Daleks Take Manhattan infamy, but at least her accent here is slightly more tolerable. Her "plan", so called, is to convince Davros to use the a version of the Movellan virus that the Thals have engineered to be a thousand times more lethal, as a weapon against the Daleks at this trial.

It seems to work, and Davros spends an inordinate amount of time crying. He's like Claire Danes, what with all his crying. But strangely, when presented with the chance to commit suicide by Dalek, Davros instead opts to take control of the Dalek race. It must have been a difficult choice. Lurleen's final thoughts are presumably either that she should have forseen Davros' betrayal, seeing that he's done something similar in literally every appearance, or that the Thal's probably shouldn't have given what was apparently their only sample of the virus to their greatest enemy. Either way, she dies, and Josh laments the time he spent listening to this.

Rating: 1/5.

Monday, December 22, 2014

[Zelazny] More of that Amber discussion at Reddit

A while back, I had emailed NESFA, expressing interest in an annotated version of the Amber books. They never got back to me, but this may be the next best thing. The discussion on Reddit has picked up, and one of the participants is offering some very lucid commentary, and pointing out a lot of the references. He raises the interesting point that Corwin may have been in the German army in WWII. It's worth checking out.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

I think I like Lily's bedroom more than I like mine

Because those posters are pretty cool.

The wolf howling at the Death Star is from The Thirteenth Floor, Princess Leia is from Geek Boy Press, My Little Avengers and Gotham Botanical Gardens are by Angela McKendrick, and Wonder Woman is by the enormously talented Chrissie Zullo.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Big Finish Audio Drama Capsule Reviews: Kiss of Death, The Four Doctors, Wreck of the Titan

This isn't going to become just a Doctor Who blog, I promise!

Kiss of Death: The idea is that Turlough and his childhood sweetheart can unlock the treasures
hidden away on a forgotten world by mingling their DNA, the titular kiss of Death. If kissing on Trion involves mingling DNA, I think they're doing it wrong. (Though on reflection, maybe we're the ones doing it wrong.)

Like an unfortunate number of the Fifth Doctor's stories, this one was just kind of there. Not so bad that I hated it, but plenty bland. They gave it a try with the Morass, a biological security system, but mostly they're trying to stretch out an extremely thin story.

Rating: 2/5

The Four Doctors: This was a gloriously complicated pileup of Doctors. The audio plays are for the superfans, and the producers can get away with convoluted plots like this. The Daleks are being dicks, but the Doctor stops them with a moebius strip of time travel. The story seems a bit disjointed at first, but it's interesting to discover how things that seemed to happen concurrently are actually the result of an action being performed by a different Doctor in another timeline. Fun, but insubstantial.

Rating: 3/5

Wreck of the Titan: This opened with the 6th Doctor continuing his adventures with Jamie?! Yes,
please! Unfortunately, it's almost sunk, as it were, by a rather large flaw. The story hinges on the assumption that neither the Doctor nor the audience know of the novella of the same name, which is really fairly well known. Once that occurred to me, it was hardly a leap at all to get to the Land of Fiction for the climax.

Also, it had a performer of whom I thought "This is the worst New York accent since that showgirl from the Daleks Take Manhattan." Of course, it was the same person. It must be refreshing to Frazer Hines not to be delivering the worst accent in a production.

Rating: 3/5

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Big Finish Audio Drama Capsule Reviews: Singularity, Medicinal Purposes, Faith Stealer, Juggernauts, the Game

I'm doing a lot of database work now, so, since I'm not talking to people on the phone all day, I can listen to my music player for hours every work day.

I've been listening to Big Finish's Doctor Who audio dramas. I make no bones about the fact that I like them more than NuWho. I grabbed a bunch at random, and listened to them without knowing anything about what I'd be getting. That approach really worked, because it gave me what I really liked about Classic Who. It seemed like anything could happen in a story, and NuWho, while having vastly higher production values, is very formulaic in its storytelling. It never surprises me the way the old show could.

Singularity: This is a story I never would have selected deliberately. The Fifth Doctor (meh) and Turlough (ugh). However, it wound up being very engaging. When I listen to Fifth Doctor stories at all, they tend to be the ones with Nyssa as the sole companion. She's as near a peer to him as anyone besides Romana, and I really like what Sarah Sutton brings to the story. This story is set in near-future Russia, with everyone doing their best Boris and Natasha "Must Catch Moose and Squirrel" accents. The Somnus foundation is pulling some kind of Yithian Mind switch with abducted humans, swapping out their minds for their cohorts at the end of the universe.

I found myself liking Turlough much more than I ever did during his TV run. I recall the Doctor said that he enjoyed having Turlough as a companion because he never knew what Turlough was thinking. I confess that this is the core of a lot of the appeal. Turlough is cowardly and amoral, but he does the right thing in spite of himself in this outing, and it was interesting seeing what he would do.

Rating: 3/5

Medicinal Purposes: Evelyn Smythe was absolutely the kind of foil the famously prickly Sixth Doctor needed. When he snipes at Peri, who shrinks from his abuse, he just comes across as a bully. When he snipes at Evelyn, she snipes right back, and it's more like banter. Maggie Stables was wonderful in the role, and I was sorry to hear of her passing.

This was an odd one. The Doctor and Evelynwind up in Edinburgh in 1827, when Burke and Hare were engaged in their body snatching. David Tennant, who would eventually be the Tenth Doctor, plays Daft Jamie. The Doctor takes an instant liking to him because his name and nationality remind him of his former companion, Jamie McCrimmon.

Also, this is all kinds of awesome.

Evelyn: We're in a Scottish Graveyard.
The Doctor: Very Good. It is indeed a Scottish graveyard.
Evelyn: Thanks for the compliment. I didn't think your best pal Daft Jamie and your fancy woman were auditioning for Macbeth.
The Doctor: "The Scottish Play", please.

At first, the Doctor is somewhat sympathetic to Burke and Hare, because their graverobbing and murders advanced medical knowledge. I suppose a time traveler can take the long view like that. It turns out there are some time travel shenanigans going on. Robert Knox, the doctor for whom Burke and Hare were acquiring specimens, is actually a human with a second-hand TARDIS, and he's replaying the events of their spree over and over again, and even selling the Burke role to the high bidders in his audience. I thought that was a neat and distinctly Doctor Who twist.

The story concludes with the Doctor dropping Jamie off right before his murder at the hands of Burke and Hare, which was  bit bleak.

Rating: 5/5

Faith Stealer: It's an Eighth Doctor story with Charlotte and C'rizz. I'm sure India Fisher is a lovely person in real life, but the more I listen to stories with Charley, the less I like her. It had some interesting concepts, like the Multihaven, and the pray-o-mats that could have come directly out of Lord of Light. The Church of Serendipity ("Whoops be praised") was fun too, but mostly it was not bad, but not very inspired, either.

Rating: 2/5

The Juggernauts: A Sixth Doctor story with Mel and Davros. Davros is always a fun villain. In the beginning of the story, the Doctor and Mel are separated. Mel takes a job on a colony world doing some computer programming for a guy in a motorized wheelchair. He's obviously Davros. (Yeah, Davros is on the cover, too, but I didn't have that in front of me when I was listening to it.) Meanwhile, the Doctor has been captured by the Daleks, and they have tied him up, though I can't imagine how they did that with their whisks and plungers. They send him on a mission to investigate what Davros is up to.

The story had a wealth of details that really made it pop. The minor characters were distinct and memorable. Davros has hacked the implants that everyone on the colony uses, which is how he's pulling off his deception. He's building anti-Dalek  robots using salvaged Mechanoid shells (which was an awesome bit of continuity porn)  and the biological components of dead colonists. Davros is consistently amazing, offering to upgrade the Daleks who have come to execute him with the components he was adding to his ant-Dalek machines. When his plan is revealed, and the home office is horrified by the fact that he's using dead bodies for his research, he practically, and clinically suggests that they employ the mandatory organ donation laws for more material.

Rating: 4/5

The Game: Boy, I don't even know what the fuck this was. The Fith Doctor lands on a planet with Nyssa, hoping to meet the famed negotiator, Lord Carlisle. The planet is in the midst of a civil war, in the form of Naxy, a gladiatorial arena sport. The whole thing plays like a screed against football written by someone who really, really hates football. Listen, I don't care for football. So I don't watch it. I don't record audio dramas about how much it sucks.

Nyssa finds a document entitled "Conditions for covertly extending hostilities" amongst the Lord Carlisle's stuff.  Wayne's World did that too, but they didn't expect us to take it seriously. That's just a red herring, because the real culprit is his assistant, who is being manipulated by the gangster who is introduced in the third act, by way of his mind control pheromones.

It had one or two decent ideas, such as teams profiting from the marketing of their rival's merchandise. If a team is doing well, then their rival's reap the rewards and have more money to spend on new recruits. There's a bit of a B plot, with Lord Carlisle, the famous peace negotiator, actually being an empty suit. He experienced his encounter with the Doctor in the opposite order that the Doctor did, something seldom employed in the show (I recall reading that the TARDIS has failsafes that ensures that its operators encounter people in the proper sequence), and the Doctor was responsible for his successes at negotiation.

They can't all be winners.

Rating: 1/5

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Update on Shadows & Reflections

I had given up this project for dead ages ago, but I guess it's actually going to happen. I read on Jane Lindskold's blog that the final deadline is the end of the year, so I suppose we can expect to see it some time next year.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

[Zelazny] Amber book club and discussion on Amber Reddit

The Amber Reddit is just starting a read and discussion of the Amber series. I'm following it, but I haven't contributed yet. Might be of interest to the Zelaznians here.

Chronicles of Amber Reddit

Friday, December 5, 2014

Hope Springs Eternal at the United States Postal Service

They remain optimistic about that December 4th delivery date.

"Future Josh, you bastard! Give me my stuff!"

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ferguson: It was the town that made America famous

"I speak without fear of contradiction..."

I don't know how many of my regular readers are, or were tabletop roleplayers, but there used to be a bleakly comedic RPG called Paranoia, where the players played troubleshooters in a dystopian future and were encouraged to screw each other over and kill each others' characters. It was advantageous to be the only one left at at the end, because that way you could spin whatever tale you liked about the events of the mission.

I was thinking of this because of the advice to players in the rule book reminded me of Darren Wilson's testimony.
"I speak without fear of contradiction..." is the opening sentence of the ideal debriefing. A creative dramatist can transform a disastrous mission replete with treasonous crimes into a glowing heroic narrative with the speaker as the modest model of a loyal, courageous citizen...
That's the opportunity Darren Wilson was afforded. An extremely friendly prosecutor fed him lines directly out the guidelines for the use of force. "Did you feel threatened?" but subjected any witnesses whose accounts differed from his to withering cross-examination.

MSNBC analyst Lisa Bloom said of this:

The biggest thing that jumps out is prosecutors who aren't prosecuting — prosecutors who let the target of the investigation come in, in a very friendly, relaxed way, and simply tell the story. There is absolutely zero cross-examination. Cross-examination is the hallmark of our system, it's the crucible of truth. And I don't say that to use flowery language. That's how we get at the truth.
I first saw that quote at Mark Evanier's website, and I'm going to steal his links, too.

When the people who approve of the failure to indict say that justice was served, the grand jury has spoken, etc, etc what they fail to realize is that I think the point that a lot of those folks are missing is that while nothing overtly illegal occurred, McCulloch, the prosecutor had broad discretionary powers, and he abused them to get the result that he wanted. It's a truism that a prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, but the fact of the matter is that the prosecutor gets the result that he wants out of a grand jury. 

The Prosecutor 

McCulloch was problematic from the beginning. He has a close relationship with the police, and his father was an officer killed in the line by an African American suspect. He is president of the board of Blackstoppers Backstoppers an interest group supporting local police and first responders. I might be going out on a limb here, but I'm thinking he maybe didn't bring his A-Game. A petition to remove him received 70,000 signatures. Jay Nixon should have appointed a special prosecutor. McCulloch was compromised from the very beginning. The thing that leaps to mind about the grand jury is Woody Allen hooking up with his adopted daughter. It might not have been illegal, but it's as sketchy as all hell.

This also isn't the first time he's defended white cops who straight up executed black civilians. Here's an account of his defense of the officers who killed Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley. (And yes, the link goes to the Daily Kos, which has a very liberal bias, but the facts and conclusions there are exhaustively supported by links to neutral sources.) 

Now, there are good cops and bad cops. I like to think that most of the men and women in uniform are good people, and consequently, good cops. At the end of the day, they're only human beings, trying to do a difficult job.

I don't think that Darren Wilson set out to kill anybody that day. I do think the evidence suggests that Mike Brown was insufficiently deferential when Wilson told him to "Get the fuck off the road", and Wilson grabbed him, Brown pulled free, and it escalated from there. I think it's unlikely that a young man two weeks from college is going to commit suicide by cop, and I also think it unlikely that he would flee 150 feet from the car, and suddenly decide to turn around and decide to run back through the gunfire.(Even accepting, arguendo, the idea that Brown robbed the store, that's not a capital offense, and Wilson didn't know about at the time of the encounter.) 

I posted this on Facebook: Why is it that so many of the posts in my Facebook feed can be paraphrased as "It's outrageous that black people get so uppity when given explicit proof that we can kill their children with impunity!" There's an outrage here, folks, but it's not the isolated individual taking advantage of legitimate outrage to commit petty crime, and if you're on the side of the attack dogs and firehoses, perhaps you should take a look at yourself.

And the replies allowed me to fill out my Bingo card. 

The Language of the Unheard

I was reading about Br'er Rabbit, the Southern American Trickster figure the other day, and something in Wikipedia's writeup really resonated.  For both Africans and African Americans, the animal trickster represents an extreme form of behavior that people may be forced to adopt in extreme circumstances in order to survive. The trickster is not to be admired in every situation. He is an example of what to do, but also an example of what not to do. The trickster's behavior can be summed up in the common African proverb: "It's trouble that makes the monkey chew on hot peppers." In other words, sometimes people must use extreme measures in extreme circumstances.

People aren't protesting because a white cop killed a black man.  That's not exactly "Man bites Dog", now, is it? People are outraged because it's  become increasingly apparent that the grand jury was intended as a whitewash from the very beginning. Darren Wilson initiated a confrontation that ended with Michael Brown's death, and he's never going to face any punishment for it. 

Much of the focus in the media has been on those protesting violently. (And this is my bias showing, but I doubt the worst rioters are the ones with a heartfelt belief in social justice. “Some Men Just Want To Watch The World Burn," and this is the perfect excuse.)

Are there riots? Yes. Are they performed by an extremely small percentage of the tens of thousands of protestors all over the country? Yes. Have they been denounced by just about everyone? Yes.

The protests are a reaction to that injustice. What are their choices, realistically? Protest, or do nothing and take it. Martin Luther King is usually the teddy bear that white people trot out when we want to pretend that we care, but a lot of people forget that the man who said "I have a dream," also said, "A riot is the language of the unheard."

And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.

People in Ferguson, rightly, feel there is no legal avenue to address their grievances when one of their own is killed under extremely questionable circumstances. The game is rigged. Everybody knew it, of course, but you expect the powers that be to have a little shame left, and not do things so blatantly.

Unfortunately, the riot narrative is dominating the news cycle, and the main effect is to tar the whole movement. It allows self-identified moderates to tut-tut about civility, and dismiss every one of the protestors with a disapproving wag of the finger. By focusing on the actions of a few of the very worst, by ignoring the proximate cause and focusing only on the consequences, by singling out those who are powerless and ignoring the man in the privileged position who will not face punishment, they're buying into the mindset that allowed this to happen. 

Ferguson is what I think of when the right ring crowd starts braying about local government. You get these tiny little quasi-fiefdoms all over the land. It's Hazzard County by way of Kafka. Bureaucracy is rightly derided, but I'll take faceless indifference over poisonous animosity any day.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Stuff Josh Likes: WHYY Commercial

Since starting my new job, I'm listening to my old Public Radio station out of Philly in the car again. I'd probably be better off listening to my local affiliate, as I'd get traffic updates that pertain to me, but I just can't quit you, Marty Moss-Coane!

I don't know if it was a deliberate choice, or if they were short of underwriters for the slots before the show, but instead of getting something like "Hipster Table is brought to you by Archer Daniels Midland. Archer Daniels Midland, supermarket to the world!" we get a brief promo for the station itself.

We open on a young couple, with the young man meeting his girlfriend's family for the first time at Thanksgiving Dinner. Everybody's getting along, everything's delicious, they start talking about what they're thankful for. Everything is going swimmingly, until their gelatinous, offensive uncle warbles "I'm thankful that ISIS hasn't destroyed us with their Ebola bombs! They're massing at the border!"

The new boyfriend shuts him down by asking him if it's the border we share with Syria.


Uncle Racist backs off, and mumbles that he guesses that he's thankful for pumpkin pie, while boyfriend drops the mic and walks away.  The ending voiceover exhorts, "Be informed. Be the hero."

All right. I don't talk politics with my family. I can't talk politics with them, because they're proceeding from an entirely different set of assumptions, and we usually even disagree on what the facts are, so there's no point of departure to get an exchange going. If I'd offered a bon mot about "Which border?", I'm sure the answer would be "The BORDER with Mexico! ISIS has infiltrated the country! Didn't you hear about the Muslim Prayer rugs on the border?! That's why Barack HUSSEIN Obama wants to let them into our country!"

Also, I don't know about my fellow totebaggers, but I generally avoid picking fights with members of my significant other's family. I certainly wouldn't do it the first time I met them, as was the case in this commercial. I might be dumb, but I'm not that dumb.

The thing, the commercial cracks me up every time. The delivery and the statement from the uncle are both so wonderfully ridiculous.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Collector's Fever

Collector's Fever is one of those stories that never worked for me. I think it's the only one of Roger Zelazny's comedy works that I really don't enjoy. It's almost entirely dialogue, which is a bit gimmicky, but not so much that it ruins the story on its own. I think the problem is that there's not much more to the story than the joke, and I just didn't think it was funny. Remove that, and there's not much left.

It's the story of a young man who visits a plan with a sentient rock
"What are you doing there, human?"
"It's a long story."
"Good, I like long stories. Sit down and talk. No--not on me!"
"Sorry. Well, it's all because of my uncle, the fabulously wealthy--"
"Stop. What does 'wealthy' mean?"
"Well, like rich."
"And 'rich'?"
"Hm. Lots of money."
"What's money?"

I think that's another thing that I didn't like about it. The alien that speaks perfect, grammatically correct English, yet needs every other word explained to it. Our protagonist is bitter that his uncle sent him to college, rather than Space Academy. His uncle collects rocks, so he's going to bring Stone home to his uncle, knowing that it will "deeble", or undergo a type of fission, and kill his uncle.

Stone threatens to deeble on the spot, but our hero took its mass when they first met, and knows it hasn't reached point critical yet. So he crates up Stone, and takes it on board his spaceship. Unfortunately, he removed most of the shielding, and Stone absorbs a bunch of stray material, and blows up on the spot. 
He mushroomed upwards, then swept in great waves across the plains of Dunghill. Several young Stones fell from the dusty heavens wailing their birth pains across the community band.

"Gone fission," commented a distant neighbor, above the static, "and sooner than I expected. Feel that warm afterglow!"
Ugh. That was awful. And not even in a good way like the fit hit the Shan.

It's hard to say if the story doesn't "work", or if it just doesn't appeal to me. Any opinions out there from my fellow Zelaznians?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Meeting Kim Possible at the Allentown Comic Con

I was just about done with the Allentown Comic Con after the debacle in July. We'd had a couple good times before. It was Lily's first con in 2012, and we returned in 2013, where we had some memorable experiences, but even a year ago, I was thinking, "This is getting way too big for its venue."

It all came to a head in July. Parking, always bad, was worse than ever before, and the Summer heat was intense. The line wasn't moving at all, and the rumor was swirling that the hall was already at capacity at 10:30 in the morning and they wouldn't let more people in the hall until other people left. I wasn't sure if that was true, but we didn't stick around to find out. We went back to our car and went home from there, and the whole experience was frustrating and disappointing, and I decided not to return until they took some steps to correct the problem.

We had gone up to Rhode Island Comic Con last year with some friends, We couldn't make it this year, and I was kind of disappointed, because Christy Romano was going to be there, and it would have been nice to meet her, as we're all huge Kim Possible fans.

As if in answer, a friend posted to my wall on Facebook that she would be at the Allentown Comic Con, this weekend, as a last minute addition. We didn't have anything planned, and I decided to suck up whatever vicissitudes the con would throw at us.

I started with Kim Possible before Lily was born.  I caught it for the first time when my niece and nephew were just little kids. We were watching it at their house a couple years back and my nephew said, "I love that backflip she does," to which I replied, "It's actually a back handspring", because, you know, kids love pedantic corrections. It had a fun, sly sense of humor.

I shared it with Lily as soon as she was old enough, and she loved it, because we're all about the girl power around here.

So, of course, we weren't about a miss a chance to meet Kim herself.  And the difference between this con and the previous one was night and day. I had seen on Facebook that they were making some changes to address the crowds (expanding the con to two days, tweaking the hours, allowing for overflow parking, and opening four lines for ticket sales/redemption) and they really paid off. We had no trouble parking despite arriving later than previously, we sailed through ticket redemption and the crowds were much more manageable.

We found Christy Carlson's table pretty easily. Lily had a sudden attack of shyness and I was trying to psyche her up when Christy called us over! She talked to Lily for a while, though I had to serve as an intermediary at first, because Lily was still feeling shy. Christy was engaged, she was attentive, she talked to Lily without talking down to her, she was everything you hope someone your kid idolizes will be if your kid gets the chance to meet them. She was, in a word, nice. She even played along and answered some Kim Possible trivia. (We gave her an easy one, Kim's middle name.)

Here's our picture with Kim:

The whole experience was great. Lily also picked up a Loki Charms t-shirt from Level-Up studios, which she really enjoyed, as well as some posters from the very talented Angela McKendrick, whose work can be found and purchased at her Deviantart page.

"So long, suckers."

We'd had a very negative experience with the Con previously, but I'm glad we gave it another chance.
 Special thanks to Frederick, for telling me about it before it was too late!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Choosing My Own Adventure

I think Choose Your Own Adventure books are as close to universally loved as anything in geek culture.  Geek Culture is notoriously contrarian, and you don't have to look hard to find those within who actively hate Harry Potter, Star Wars, and even, as hard as it is to believe, Firefly.

But I don't think I've ever met anyone who actively disliked them. I was first identified as "gifted" in the first grade, and I got to pick one of two books to read instead of doing regular classwork. My choices were some generic YA novel or the CYOA book, Your Code Name is Jonah. I picked Jonah, and that began my lifelong love affair with the books.

The creator of the series passed away earlier in the month. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy. His obit said, "Montgomery, who was passionate about education all his life, felt that interactive fiction was critical to reluctant readers in achieving reading fluency, which is the final stage of achieving true literacy."

He credited the actual authors of the books in the series, rather than forcing them to use an in-house pen name, a la Lester Dent, which helped some of them launch successful careers. He continued writing books in the series himself, almost until his death. He really, genuinely believed in what he was doing. The world is poorer for his absence.

Not to conclude on a down note, two CYOA links of note.

Mapping the outcomes: Maps of the outcomes of many of the CYOA.

You Choose Wrong: A Tumblr commemorating some of the more memorable CYOA deaths.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Review (Part 1 of 2): Big Hero 6: Or, Robots, the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems

We saw Big Hero Six over the weekend, and we all enjoyed it a lot. I tend to divide a lot of my movie reviews into two posts. The first post is primarily an introduction, a review of the previews we saw, and a little bit of context and observation, with the first part of the first act at the bottom.  Scroll down to the section labelled "The Movie", if you read movie reviews for the review. There is one spoiler in this review, but it's a minor one.

Link to the second part of the Big Hero Six movie review.

The Source Material

I was aware of the Big Hero 6 comics, but I never read them.  I thought, "Hmmmm...A team of Asian superheroes, created by two white guys, composed of heroes who have names like Wasabi-No-Ginger, and superpowers based on Western stereotypes about Asia. That sounds like it could be anywhere from a tiny bit insensitive to AMAZINGLY RACIST."

Skimming the Wikipedia article, it seems like I made the right choice in not reading them. But that's neither here nor there.  The movie is here, and it's much better.


Paddington:  Seems mostly harmless, but entirely bland. Hugh Bonneville is wasted here, though if the movie had taken place in Downton Abbey, I'd probably watch it. Nicole Kidman plays an evil taxidermist, which is just what the Paddington franchise needed.

(Untitled Christian Rock movie): It actually has a title. I just forgot what it was. It's a documentary about Christian Rock. It looks slickly produced, but I feel I'm not the target audience.

Annie: They've been advertising this forever. We went to see How to Train Your Dragon 2 over the Summer, where we first saw the trailer for Big Hero Six, and saw a trailer similar to the one we saw at this movie. A couple bigots online lost their shit on learning that Annie was going to be played by an African-American girl, but fuck them.

Sorry, bigots. It's a hard knock life.

It looks cute, the leads look engaging, and I hope it does well. Lily won some movie passes, and she planned to use them to see Annie. The only reason we used them for Big Hero 6 is that it came out first.

Spare Parts: On one hand it's a plucky underdog story, which tend to be inspiring in theory, but deathly dull in practice, and it's got what has to be the worst title imaginable. On the other, it's got George Lopez, an actor towards whom I'm always kindly disposed. (However, I see he's fourth-billed, so I'm thinking the trailers have probably exaggerated his role.) Jen will probably see this on her own with a friend, and I'll stay home playing video games.

Tomorrowland: There is no a lot of information on this one out there (compared to other blockbuster). The trailer is very intriguing, showing a girl being released from juvie, where she finds a magical token in her possession. It could be good, it could be bad, but the marketing definitely has me interested.

Penguins of Madagascar: It's hard to imagine anything worse than this trailer, except for the movie it's advertising. It was like listening to nails on a chalkboard, while chewing tin foil and watching a video of a kitten getting punched in the face.

Minions: Despicable Me is one of those series that doesn't really appeal to me, but I respect the craftsmanship employed in making it. I don't like it, but I don't hate it either. Minions is probably going to be more of the same. I was briefly excited when I saw that it was a period piece set in 1968 and Jon Hamm would be doing a voice. I thought he might be doing a cartoon version of Don Draper, but the summary suggests he's not.

Inside Out: It's Herman's Head, but animated! Pixar is almost always good, so this should be, too. I really like the design on Sadness.

Animated Short - Feast

This avalanche of previews was followed by Feast, in the vein of Paperman, from Wreck-It-Ralph. It was cute, and had a nice PSA in the end credits about adopting strays.


Aunt Cass: She was voiced by Maya Rudolph, and her expressions and mannerisms seem to mirror Rudolph's. The character really didn't work for me at all. She was frenetic and wacky and stream of consciousness and making her Maya Ruldoph face, but she just grated.

Hiro and Tadashi: I'm not a fan at all of white actors playing POC, so I think it's pretty cool that both characters were voiced by actors of mixed Asian and European ancestry, like their characters. Wikipedia claims (but does not cite references. Bad Wikipedia!) that Ryan Potter's (Hiro) first language is Japanese, which is impressive, because his English was flawless.

Alistair Krei: Ugh. This guy again. Alan Tudyk has stolen Walt Disney's frozen head and is blackmailing the company. Until he returns it, they will have no choice but to cast him in every movie they make.

Fred: I wound up liking Fred, and I didn't think I would. I gave him the benefit of the doubt due to his voice work on Gravity Falls, but he eventually grew on me on top of that.

Baymax:  Like Vin Diesel as Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, Scott Adsit infuses what could have been some one-note voicework with some real emotions.

And a spoiler-ish one too, but if you were surprised by this, you weren't paying attention.

Professor Callaghan: James Cromwell has a very distinctive voice. It took me about three seconds to peg him as the villain, using this handy flowchart.

The Movie

The movie opens by panning over the skyline of "San Fransokyo", which, as the name suggests, a a futuristic amalgam of San Francisco and Toyko. We zoom across the city, before closing in on an underground Battlebots-type robot fight, which is of course a thing in San Fransokyo.

A big scary bot controlled by a big scary man demolishes another bot, and then young Hiro steps up. His adorable bot

gets crushed. He begs for a rematch, and after he antes up, he gets it, whereupon his bot shreds the other machine easily. It's the second best hustle in cinema, right after the time Huey Lewis scammed a guy by pretending not to be good at karoake in Duets.   The champion is pissed about being hustled, and sends his goons after Hiro, who is rescued by his older brother on his motorcycle. Everybody's caught, the kids are thrown in jail and bailed out shortly thereafter by their Aunt Cass.

Aunt Cass gives us the infodump on the ride home. She's excessively quirky, and her characterization is of the few things that I dislike about this movie. When How To Train Your Dragon 2 came out, I was discussing it online and I observed that the characters tended to emote excessively and banter rather than speak. A friend agree, saying, "I was reading a Kung Fu Panda review awhile back that nailed it. Basically, Dreamworks' cartoons (and the vast majority of modern animated fare) are very uncomfortable with silence in the films."  I think that's the core of my dislike. Her mannerisms strike as those of a Dreamworks character. (And, to be fair, she gets better in later appearances.)

Tadashi is a great character. More on him a little later, but he's really trying to be a good guy and a good brother. Like the other characters in the movie, he's just fundamentally decent. He tells his brother that Hiro is wasting his potential, and Hiro wants to run off to another bot fight. Seeing he can't dissuade his brother, Tadashi offers to take him there, as it's safer than letting him go alone. He just needs to stop by his lab to pick up something there.

This is just a ruse to intrigue Hiro with all his cool friends and tools at the lab. I thought this was a pretty decent way to introduce the rest of the cast too.

In order, Hiro meets

GoGo Tomago
GoGo didn't really do it for me. I like badass action girls as much as anyone, and the creators said they looked at bike messengers for her look and personality. I liked the design, and her mannerisms with the gum, but I didn't feel a lot of personality.

Wasabi was Lily's favorite character. She liked that a character could be strong and smart, and we talked about how a lot of people are like that in real life. I liked him too. He's fussy and particular, and out of all the supporting cast, he felt the most authentic.

Honey Lemon
Honey Lemon. She's enthusiastic, but not in an annoying way. Another minor gripe is that the background information suggests that she's Hispanic,  but you'd never no it by looking at her. (Yes, there certainly are light-skinned Hispanic people, but Hollywood never seems to portray the Hispanic community as anything but light-skinned, and I'm somewhat disappointed that Big Hero 6 is contributing to the problem.)

I was extremely leery of Fred when watching the previews. Did we really need a second comic relief character? However, he's a lot less grating than I had feared. All the characters move in distinct fashions, but Fred's seem especially well-mapped to his character. Below there is some footage of how each character enters a room.

Tadashi shows him Baymax, the healthcare companion robot he's building, and also introduces him to Professor Callaghan, who's so smart that he doesn't even spell his name like a normal person. (Okay, some quick googling shows it's not that terribly uncommon, but I'd never encountered it.)

Science fiction is often technophobic. It seems strange to say, but "Science run Amok!" is a common theme. It's really nice to see a positive portrayal of both scientists and technology, particularly in something aimed at kids.

Hiro decides he absolutely needs to get into the school, so he builds a nanotech swarm, here called microbots, and shows them off at the school's annual exhibition. He wins and this guarantees him entry. (I assume there are other avenues as well, otherwise they'd have a pretty small student body.) He impresses Callaghan, as well as the needlessly sinister Alistair Krei, who's all like "I'm very impressed with your robots after that two minute scripted exhibition, and would like to offer you eleventy billion dollars." He then twirls his mustache and ties a woman to some railroad tracks. Callaghan warns him that Krei is not to be trusted, and Hiro turns him down.

Everybody's happy and they're going to the cafe to celebrate, but Tadashi wants to spend a few minutes alone with Hiro first.

This is a good point to stop.  For the second part of the review, click over to this post.