Monthly Archives: November 2011

Undead sexist cliches: What women want is a mystery beyond any man’s comprehension

Sigmund Freud once started that for all his experience in plumbing the depths of the human mind, he still could not figure out the answer to the question, “What do women want?”
Astonishingly, people are still asking that question in the 21st century, usually in the same baffled tone. Women. So contradictory and illogical and confusing. Who can figure them out. How can any man know what they want?
You’d think in all that time, it would have occurred to more people what an astonishingly stupid question it is.
It’s no more possible to figure out what women want than figure out “What do Americans want?” Or blacks, Jews, gays, Italians, Latinos, Roma, Russian immigrants. Okay, we can figure out the obvious: Pretty much everyone wants to live another day, not be homeless under a bridge, not suffer wasting diseases, not get raped or mugged. We can safely assume all women want their SO not to abuse them, just like gay teens want not to be bullied in school.
Beyond that, anything goes. Even in relationships, there’s no hard and fast rule. I know women who stayed virgin into their thirties and women who lost it in their teens. I know women who long to get married, women who won’t go any further than serial monogamy and women who are recluses. Women who want kids, women who want a closer relationship with God, women who want to become president.
The question sticks around, I think, because the assumption that gender trumps everything sticks around. It’s the basis of lots of relationship and sex-difference books (Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, for instance): Women’s nature (whatever the author imagines that to be) is fixed and innate and universal. It trumps everything: All women, regardless of wealth, power, race, sexual orientation, etc. have this in common.
While part of that is marketing (it’s much easier to give advice about something if you make sweeping generalizations and ignore inconvenient details), I suspect part of that is the distinct spheres into which society has shoved the two genders for so long. If women exist in some completely alien sphere of housekeeping and childcare, it’s that much easier to imagine them as well, unimaginable.
And part of that, of course, is the stereotype of women as emotional creatures, ruled by their feelings (unlike us oh-so-logical men) and their hormones. Of course you can’t figure out what women want: They’re too crazy.
There’s also the problem of what happens when you know what they want and just can’t accept it. Freud assumed women who wanted anything but motherhood were driven by a jealous desire for a penis and needed to get over it. Ditto the stereotype of the guy who gives a woman everything she’s supposed to want and can’t figure out why she wants something else (likewise the idea that women have all the power they need because they rule men——why would they want to be equals when they’re really in charge?).
In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter what “women” want. All that matters is what the women you’re with wants.
In other undead sexist cliche news:
•The popular argument that men are hard-wired to favor a specific waist-to-hip ratio? Not so.
•Republicans who scoffed at charges Herman Cain was a sexual harasser are shocked that he might have had a consensual affair.
•Echidne dissects an argument that women cause their kids’ autism because they have too much of a male mind.

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Filed under Politics, Undead sexist cliches

New And column out on shopping as a moral obligation

Column here. It stems from my annoyance at the endless focus on “consumer confidence” and the insistence (as quoted in the article) that we have a duty to shop: Never mind whether we want the stuff or not, we have an obligation to pump up America’s economy.
As more and more accounts of companies seeing their profits swell but not hiring anyone (which I suppose is one reason they keep profits high) the argument that shopping will help the economy, rather than just the 1 percent, seems thinner than ever. However, as Roy Edroso documents, conservative bloggers are asserting that to question Black Friday spending is to attack America itself: “Occupy wall street wants you to damage the American economy by boycotting Black Friday” … “(Occupy America) wants to hurt the retail sales. Which means, by extension, that they are trying to harm the economic security of fellow Americans.”
Edroso shows some of them expressing the same disdain applies to suggesting we shop local businesses rather than chain stores. I’m not sure whether this represents an actual economic philosophy, though, rather than a reflexive response to disagree with anything a liberal (or Obama) says, whether to discredit them (“Look! Occupy is really against the working man!”) or just because they said it (like the time National Review responded to feminist criticism of date-rape at frat parties by running several articles defending college students’ freedom to have sex while drunk out of your mind).
Whatever the reason, I’m sure nothing they’ve said will stop them lecturing against consumerism (which will be liberals fault) in other posts, or explaining that anyone who does spend on Black Friday and runs into financial problems later should not have spent the money.
In other economic links:
•Paul Krugman argues that the wealthy don’t really create more jobs than anyone else: If an executive makes $100,000 less, that’s $100,000 he has less to spend, but it’s $100,000 his employers aren’t spending on him, so the net effect on the economy is zero. He also reports a study that suggests it would take a tax rate of at least 70 percent before high-earners started feeling it wasn’t worth earning the money.
•From Digby, the Masters of the Universe continue finding ways to make themselves richer while the companies they run keep tanking.
•An updated version of the parable of Lazarus and Dives asks why “economic efficiency” is the only goal we’re supposed to consider (courtesy of Slacktivist).

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Chekhov’s Mage: Dr. Strange in the Defenders

Those writers reading my blog are undoubtedly familiar with “Chekhov’s gun.” This is a rule coined (or supposedly coined) by the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov: If you put a gun on stage in the first act, you need to use it by the end of the play.
I personally don’t think as an absolute unbreakable rule (I may discuss that at a later date) but reading Marvel’s Defenders has reminded me a similar rule applies in fantasy and it definitely shouldn’t be broken: If you establish in the first act that your mage has a particular power, he’d better use it when the time comes.
The Defenders began as a team consisting of the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner and the sorcerer Dr. Strange (other members followed). Unlike the Avengers, they were a “non-team” with no formal structure or team leadership; they fought together because of chance or friendship as the circumstances dictated.
The late Steve Gerber’s run on the book is fondly remembered for some of the absurd features he threw in, such as an elf that randomly shows up and shoots people, and never gets explained. I’m less impressed because I bought the book for a supporting character, Valkyrie, and Gerber clearly didn’t like using her. Plus, when you end a big, multi-issue plotline simply by having Hulk hit things until you break——well, that’s kind of weak.
But the focus of this post is Gerber’s use of Dr. Strange, which comes off wildly inconsistent (and if you’d like to know more about Stephen Strange, master magus, this post on the Sanctum Santorum blog does a great job). Early on, asked why Dr. Strange was easily beaten up by the mundane thugs of the Sons of the Serpent, the editor explained that as far as Gerber was concerned, Strange’s power to affect the physical world was limited: Zapping demons is one thing, but taking out an armed mob was another.
Not only was this not consistent with previous stories (which I could forgive——comes with the territory in comics), it wasn’t even consistent with Gerber’s own work. Later on, Strange manages to paralyze an entire invading force; in the Defenders Annual, he restores and teleports hundreds of kidnapped miniaturized people home in the blink of an eye (and shrunk by science, I note, not by magic)

That’s sloppy. If Strange has limited ability in the physical world, fine, but he can’t then pull sweeping spells out of his hat to fix the plot. If he has that kind of power when the writer needs it, he has it when the writer doesn’t need it, so there’d better be a good reason he doesn’t use it.
For example, in Robert E. Howard’s People of the Black Circle, a sorcerer kills the King of Vendhya by magic in the opening pages. He also emphasizes that he can’t just zap someone dead: The stars have to be right, he needs a lock of the man’s hair, etc. While the mage does display deadly talents later in the book, they’re limited enough Conan can survive.
Likewise, Phil Lovecraft faces any number of evil enchantments in Cast a Deadly Spell, but nothing that simply casts death spells. The rules aren’t spelled out like that section of the Howard story, but it’s obvious the villainous mages can’t just zap him (I discussed when and when not to spell out the rules in fantasy back in March).
Dr. Strange, of course, suffers from being in a super-hero book when his own series tended to operate off from the regular Marvel Universe; his foes were other sorcerers, not super-villains, so physical battles were infrequent. In Defenders, they were the norm.
But that’s still no excuse for using magic as a deus ex machina.

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Is the first always the best?

I was never much of a fan of film critic Pauline Kael, but there was a comment she made after the success of Titanic that really made sense. Critics baffled by the film’s box office, she said, should remember that not everyone has their perspective: To someone 12 years old who hasn’t seen a lot of movies, Titanic really may be the greatest film of their lives.
I’ve noticed the same thing writing my movie books. When watching sf/horror/fantasy TV movies for Cyborgs, Santa Claus and Satan, I realized that some of the movies I was dismissing as generic and formulaic might have gotten a better reception if I’d seen them earlier in the game. They’d still be formulaic, but it wouldn’t annoy me so much (you would not believe the number of Poltergeist knockoffs I watched——but if you buy the book, hint hint, you’ll understand).
The same thought came to me recently while reading a couple of urban fantasies: If I hadn’t read Anita Blake and Harry Dreseden first, would I have liked them better?
Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue, for example, starts off very well: Changeling PI October Daye, who moves between the worlds of faerie and humanity (which intermingle more than we know) gets caught by an evil fae and turned into a fish. Fourteen years later, she breaks the spell, but her life——her PI business, her husband and daughter——are gone. Daye has to rebuild her life while investigating the murder of one of her few remaining fae friends.
It’s good, but it just felt too familiar to me. The hardboiled tone, the burned-out protagonist, the supernatural world existing along our own, it was all Harry Dresden redux.
I honestly don’t think that makes the book bad: The number of totally original fantasies (or hardboiled detective stories) is small. If I liked urban fantasy as a genre, I’d appreciate the differences rather than just see the similarities. Or if I’d seen October Daye before Harry Dresden, maybe she’d be the one I kept reading (while wondering why Dresden got all the attention).
Likewise Patricia Briggs Bone Crossed struck me as following more in the Anita Blake mold: The story of were-coyote Mercy Thompson emphasizes the relationships and romances more than it does the mystery she’s solving——prime-time drama style more than hardboiled detective. Which shows urban fantasy isn’t all stamped from the same cloth, but it still didn’t grab me (of the two, Rosemary and Rue was much more to my taste).
That being said, first doesn’t always mean best or best-loved. Glen Cook had a hardboiled mage-detective series out several years before The Dresden Files and I didn’t care for it at all.
Still, it’s safe to say being first doesn’t hurt.

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Movies and Books

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969) introduced George Lazenby as the intended replacement for Sean Connery; while Lazenby does have his fans, his wooden acting leaves me just as convinced as I was last time I saw this that he wasn’t the man for the job. The movie itself, is quite good other than the leading man (and in a Bond film of course, that’s a lot to work around): A good scheme by Blofeld to earn amnesty and an aristocratic title by threatening worldwide sterility; a very low-tech entry in contrast to the increasing use of high-tech gimmicks; and Diana Rigg as the Bond girl, because I can forgive almost anything for the pleasure of watching her. On the down side, it’s way too long with too many car chases across the snow, and Bond’s penetrating Blofeld’s base without a disguise when Blofeld knows his face makes no sense (I know it’s because this precedes You Only Live Twice in the Fleming book series, but that’s not an excuse).With Telly Savalas as Blofeld, Joanna Lumley and Julie Ege among his dupes and the revelation of Bond’s family motto (The World Is Not Enough, which explains the title of one of the Brosnan films). “You British—how you love your exercise.”
BREAKING DAWN (2011) is, of course, Part One of the Twilight finale, wherein the bun Edward puts in Bella’s oven throws everyone from the Cullens to the Native American werewolves into a panic while Bella finds herself slowly wasting away to nothing (“It needs to sink its fangs into something.”). Watchable, but way too soapish compared to the parts two and three, and the idea of Jacob imprinting on an infant strikes me as rather squicky. “First the spelling, then the grammar.”

CROWN OF DALEMARK was another finale, wrapping up Diana Wynne Jones’ Dalemark Quartet by having a girl of modern-day Denmark yanked back in time to find herself working alongside the protagonists of the first three books to find the mystical symbols that will justify her uniting the kingdom. But along with the heroes, the monstrous mage Kankredin (of The Spellcoats) is also back … Excellent, and more enjoyable for having read the others relatively recently, so the continuity touches are more obvious.
Having run into Bram Stoker’s relative Dacre Stoker at a book signing, I wound up picking up DRACULA THE UN-DEAD by Stoker and Ian Holt. In this sequel, the survivors of the original tale are still traumatized by their experience, Quincy Harker is beginning to learn his background and then everyone has to deal with the return of Dracula, the revenge of Countess Elizabeth Bathory and the discovery some guy named Stoker has written a book about their adventures. The writing is stiff, but the odd mix of historical and supernatural elements worked for me, particularly the rationale for the original novel’s existence: Van Helsing dictated his story to Stoker as a way to gain immortality (and also warn the world against the vampire threat) only to have Stoker make up a lot (which rationalizes the departure from the original).

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The Penn State case, and other links, including some for writers

Echidne discusses the possibility that the Penn State scandal would have been reported a lot quicker if the victim had been a girl. She’s dubious, partly because predators are careful enough that a serial attacker wouldn’t rape a young girl in a situation as obvious as a men’s locker room——he’d find somewhere else.
I’m skeptical too. Catholic priests, after all, raped girls as well as boys, but the church showed no more interest in prosecuting those cases (something I’ve discussed here). And Paterno fought against university efforts to discipline his players in multiple cases, including assault and sexual assault. So it’s not as if there was a big culture of accountability there. In general, organizations never want to see themselves held accountable to outsiders and they consistently protect their members (soldiers, cops, business executives) by covering up or stonewalling. So I’d say girl or not, we’d have had a cover-up.
•This article details how the Republicans are, as I’ve observed before, way to the right of Ronald Reagan, including on tax and spending policy. It follows the path step-by-step until we reach the present point where any increase in taxes is forbidden even though we know damn well that cutting taxes doesn’t boost the economy——and conversely, raising taxes doesn’t kill it.
•This article rips into liberals who ignore Obama’s horrendous record on government power, war-making, Constitutional violations and so on. The New York Times likewise says that while Obama’s administration may not be employing torture (though I don’t think ordering extra-judicial assassinations is an improvement), it’s done absolutely nothing to undo the Bush administration’s work legitimizing it as a tool. Which means sooner or later, we’re going to get someone in office who uses it again.
•The Rolling Stone says that pepper-spraying peaceful protesters shows how screwed-up we’ve become. And links to another horrifying example: In Indiana, private attorneys handle asset-forfeiture (the law that allows cops to take property from someone suspected of drug theft, even without convicting them) and get to keep some of the proceeds.
•For writers: What’s on Page 69 of your book?
•Richard Kadrey, who’s enjoying success with the Sandman Slim series, reflects on the importance of plugging away and not giving up. To which I’ll add a link to my own post on how nice it is to be in a field where I’m judged by my work, not my clothes.
•And speaking of work, I have a new article out at the Raleigh Public Record.

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Oh the things that I’ll think

As I’d hoped, starting the morning with fiction seems to have broken me out of my funk——somewhat. It’s still annoyingly easy to throw me off track if anything happens outside the usual, but at least I did get my fiction time in. And I do think having a four-day weekend will help when I start back up Monday.
I didn’t actually get any writing done, however: Mostly, I decided it was time to sit and contemplate my work:
•I replotted Mage’s Masquerade, keeping the basic framework but changing the villain’s motive and the timing of the magical attacks. Since changing the motive will change his goals, I think it will work together better——we’ll find out when I take a crack at it next week.
Brain From Outer Space continues running out of steam at around the same place, and I think I see why. The problem is, the good guys and the bad guys aren’t really working against each other: Torgo is forging ahead with his plan for world conquest, the good guys are investigating but up until the climax they don’t really lock horns. Torgo needs to take more of an initiative to swat them down——or else make it obvious that he’s playing a waiting game, confident they can’t reach him before he makes his master stroke.
Alternative A generates more conflict, but it has one big drawback: He’s probably able to kill them. Unless I can think of something to stop him, Steve and Gwen will wind up dead, which doesn’t do my story much good. One possibility is to combine A and B: He uses one of his backup plans or agents to get them out of the way with minimal risk of exposure. So long as it’s not the “I’m putting you in a deathtrap you can’t possibly escape … oh, bother” cliche, I’m okay with that. I’ll give it more thought this coming week.
And definitely no more months focusing on one project, nanowrimo style. It just doesn’t work for me because if the project goes splat, I go splat. Exception being if it reaches a point close enough to completion that I want to bring it home with a bang.
Ehows this week:
•Do I Need Adobe Switchboard?
•Snow Leopard Crashes With Firefox
•iTunes Echo Effect
•Showing Critical Path Vs. Critical Tasks in MS Project
•Mac Extended File Size Limits
•How to Monitor for IP Surveillance
•What Is Dual DIN?
•What Is an SLA for Computer Memory?
•What Is Microsoft PowerShell?
•How to Make a Flash Web Portfolio
•FIPS Compliance Guide List
•When Does a Session ID Cookie Expire?
•What Is the EDP System?
•How to Design an NGO Website
•Computer Technology & Beef Cattle
•What Is an ISO Programmer?
•Rules for Official Congressional Web Pages
•How to Replace Attributes Using XSL
•How to Build a Flash Portfolio Site
•Do You Need to Charge a Capacitor?
•Do Capacitors Have Anything to Do With FM?

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Filed under Brain From Outer Space, Personal, Short Stories, Story Problems, Time management and goals, Writing

Thanks

Three years ago, I was quite convinced that I would never find True Love (for want of a better word).
My finances sucked, and I couldn’t see any way they’d ever improve, or that I’d ever change … well, anything. I thought I saw my future clearly and definitely. I was wrong.
First I met TYG, then I moved up here. And everything has changed. And when we have problems, to paraphrase a friend of mine, they’re a higher class of problems.
So I have much to be thankful for, and I am. Especially as I can envision so many ways things might have turned out differently (if TYG hadn’t found out my email after we met, it would have been months before we got in touch again, for instance——if at all). Once in a while, the roulette wheel of life does stop on our number.

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No, seriously, economic crises are a good thing!

That’s a running theme that crops up in conservative arguments for why Washington shouldn’t do more to improve the economy——like this argument by David Brooks that tightening our belts is making us more moral. I’ve been seeing variations on it for years: Right-winger Walter Williams once argued that Social Security is bad because without it, old folks would have to move in with their kids instead of retiring to Florida (or wherever) and that would bring families together. Plus, parents who knew their kids would have to support them would damn sure make them study something useful in college instead of literature or art or any of that crap that doesn’t boost your career.
Writing in the New York Times, Edward Glaeser argues that the plight of older workers is overstated——after all, they’re almost all working retail and office jobs, not mining jobs (the fact that miners to old to work the mines are without a job doesn’t seem to phase him). And older workers bring valuable experience to the workplace! So if they can’t afford to retire, that’s all good. Just as Brooks thinks that having no choice about taking on debt or being afraid to change jobs are good things, Glaeser’s convinced that being unable to retire is really just as awesome as a seventy-year-old who chooses not to retire.
Glaeser also makes a claim that always infuriates me, arguing that the real reason we get less vacation than most European nations and don’t even use what we do get is that we have a “Calvinist backbone”——we love work, and we don’t really feel good about taking time off. And that may be true for some … but I know people for whom it has less to do with their passion for work and everything to do with how much crap piles up when they’re away (plus the fear that if their boss realizes they’re not indispensable, the axe will fall). But why spoil his glorious fantasy with details.
In another column,Tyler Cowan remains hopeful that the economic crunch will promote the values of hard work, discipline and thrift. As Kevin Drum observes, we’re in an economy where wages for the majority have been flat for years, even while productivity, corporate profits and executive paychecks go. It’s becoming harder and harder for someone to break out of the class they were born in. When the most you can hope for is that hard work and discipline will keep you from getting fired, it’s not surprising if people wonder why the hell they should bother. (Lord knows, getting a 5 percent pay cut at my last job when executives took home bonuses bigger than my salary didn’t exactly fill me with loyalty to my corporate overlords).
Meanwhile, Wall Street executives remain convinced they are (as Hullabaloo often puts it), Ayn Randian super-achievers and that people criticizing them instead of lauding their success just don’t get it.
In other matters:
•The collapse of the deficit cutting “supercommittee” wasn’t due to Democratic refusal to compromise. The Dems moved to the right, but Repubs, as always, push further right.
•For anyone who thinks Birthers and 9/11 Truthers are the same, how often do you see elected officials siding with the Truthers? Birthers, however——well, just check the link.
•The National Organization for Marriage protests that states should hide the names of people who petition the government against gay marriage because otherwise they’ll be criticized and laughed at! As I’ve noted before, people who believe they have the right to condemn, belittle and hate gays can’t stomach a fraction of what they give out.
•Some more thoughts about the militarization of our police force here, here and here.

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Spy Who Came in From the Zeitgeist

John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a terrific book (as mentioned last week), but I don’t know that it ages well.
First, some background for anyone young enough to need it: Following WW II, Germany divided up into Communist-controlled East Germany and democratic West Germany, with Berlin split between them. In the early sixties, East Germany found a solution to stop residents evacuating to West Berlin: It built a wall right across the city, manned by guards.
In the novel, (Spoilers Ahead) Alec Leamas is MI5’s Berlin head of operations. After his East German adversary Mundt assassinates yet another British mole, Leamas returns home in disgrace and slides into alcoholism, unemployment and burn-out. His only connection to life is Liz, a Communist Party member working at a library. Desperate for money, Leamas contacts an East German agent and offers to sell his knowledge for a price.
It’s alll a lie. Leamas still works for MI5: His story subtly fingers Mundt, a loathsome ex-Nazi, as a British agent, while MI5 plants evidence to confirm it. But when word of Leamas’ supposed defection leaks out, his East German handler kidnaps him to East Germany. He becomes star witness at Mudnt’s trial, but Mundt has a counter-move. It turns out MI5 has been helping the impoverished Liz, making it seem it comes from Leamas. Mundt brings Liz to Berlin in a cultural exchange program, then puts her on the stand: Her evidence implies Leamas has the money to support her, which shreds his cover story. Mundt clears his name and eliminates the underling who suspected him.
Mundt then sets Leamas and Liz free to escape over the Wall: He is the informant, and the whole operation used Liz and Leamas as pawns to place him above suspicion. The supposed safe point on the wall turns out not be so safe: The guards shoot Liz and Leamas, at the top of the wall, drops back to East Berlin to die rather than keep playing the game.
The book is way better than LeCarré’s first two novels, but I wonder how well it would work for someone the age of, say, my 18-year-old niece, someone for whom the Cold War is ancient history? I was alive during the era, and I still found the Berlin setting and the security and paranoid counter-spying almost as alien as the world of Avatar. Spying in a hot war is one thing, but I’m honestly not sure anyone who wasn’t there will make sense of the Cold War’s intrigues.
When I began the book, I also thought LeCarre’s cynicism about the petty, backbiting, status-hungry world of intelligence would date poorly too. While it was shocking at the time to suggest spies sometimes acted unethically, these days most spy fiction acknowledges the existence of ambitious schemers, paper-pushing bureaucrats and immoral acts.
There, however, I was wrong. Most spy stories I catch (and I don’t catch a lot, so take that into account) assume that while some guys in the agency may be bad, they’re just blemishes on a heroic face, so to speak. In LeCarre’s world, they are the face. The cold-blooded willingness to sacrifice Liz (or an intentional plan to have her killed, as this review suggests) isn’t some rogue operation, it’s sanctioned from the top. In LeCarre’s world, the work they do is vital, but the people who do it are immoral, often self-serving, bastards. And that’s their good points.
If anyone tried portraying the CIA like that today, I think the outrage would actually be worse.

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