Monthly Archives: July 2011

And some books!

MANSFIELD PARK is a surprisingly flat work by Jane Austen, mostly because the protagonist is so annoyingly wimpy—not only is Fanny hard to root for, but she aspires to so little (other than being allowed to live another day) it doesn’t give any drive to the plot. Despite the usual character touches like the odiously selfish Mrs. Norris, this is disappointing.
Diana Wynne Jones’ CASTLE IN THE AIR has an Arabian carpet vendor initially thrilled when his new acquisition turns out to be not only a genuine flying carpet, but to land him in the garden of a beautiful princess. Unfortunately, this turns out to be the opening to an adventure involving feuding djinni, a thieving veteran and a wizard with a moving castle (much like Chrestomanci’s appearances in the first sequels to Charmed Life, this has Howl (and Sophie, and Calcifer, and the castle) appear as guest stars late in the story, though more involved in the action than Chrestomanci usually is.
FEARFUL ROCK AND OTHER PRECARIOUS LOCALES: Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman, Volume 3 gathers Wellman’s four stories of Reverend Jaeger, a Civil War veteran turned preacher, and four of occultist Judge Pursuivant. A very good collection, particularly “The Black Drama” (pitting Pursuivant against an immortalist Lord Byron) and “The Dreadful Rabbits” (which proves Killer Rabbits don’t have to be Night of the Lepus).
LOOKING GLASS WAR: Hatter has legendary Wonderland warrior the Hatter hunting for Princess Alyss in Victorian Europe and encountering a cult feeding on the “black imagination” that spills out into our world from Wonderland’s current civil war. Part of larger series, this didn’t give me the urge to seek out more——the story isn’t without interest, but the art doesn’t work for me at all (I have a hard time figuring what Hatter is doing half the time). And Dark Alice isn’t exactly a new idea.
SUPERNATURAL LAW: Sodyssey collects some of Barton Lash’s stories of Wolff and Byrd, counselors of the macabre as they help out a guardian angel being sued for negligence, sue Anne Rice on behalf of Dracula and try to help out the Swamp Thing parody Sodd from getting led into ecoterrorism——not to mention coping with problems in their personal lives. Always a fun strip, or almost always (the Anne Rice parody was weak)
THE CHANGELING SEA by Patricia McKillip has a lonely girl in a seaside town discovering her attempts to curse the sea for killing her father have apparently resulted in the interest of the king’s haunted son and the arrival of a dragon chained by gold to the root of the sea. Not McKillip’s best, but entertaining.
100 BULLETS: The Counterfifth Detective is the weakest TPB of the series I’ve read to date as it tells the story of a hard-drinking, womanizing detective recovering from a scarring accident only to become embroiled in Graves’ war against the trust——which it turns out he’s already a part of. Author Brian Azzarello does much worse with hardboiled dialogue than with the book’s usual street lingo and I honestly have no idea what the whole plot was (and no real urge to go back and figure it out).
BATMAN AND ROBIN: The Sunday Classics collects the Sunday comic strip pages from 1943 through its expiration in 1946. Many of these are straight Batman-and-crooks stories (of varying quality) but there’s also a good story of the Joker battling a rival gangboss, a retelling of Two-Face’s origin and the story that gave the Penguin’s real name for the first time. Readable, if not up to the best material in The Batman Chronicles.


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Movies and TV

HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOW PART 2 (2011) is, of course, the big finish wherein Harry & Co. continue their hunt for the horcruxes, Voldemort explains Snape has to die for the Greater Evil, Harry learns Snape’s complicated backstory and we catch up with everyone 19 years later. A solid finish, with the obvious advantage of being more action-packed than Part One. “When have our plans ever worked?”
CAREFREE (1938) may be more comical than most of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, with Astaire a psychoanalyst whom best buddy Ralph Bellamy (as usual, the ill-fated third point on a triangle) asks to analyze Ginger Rogers to learn why she refuses to marry Bellamy. Needless to say, romance between the leads, not to mention hypnosis, ensues. Rogers does a great, funny performance but otherwise this is one of the weaker pairings of the duo. “What was that about doing two things at once?”
TARGETS (1968) is what happened when Roger Corman told Peter Bogdanovich to make a movie out of 20 minutes of the just-completed The Terror, 20 minutes of new Karloff footage and 20 minutes of new other footage (though as it turned out he got to use less Terror and more Karloff) the result being an oddball but absorbing character study as horror legend Karloff proclaims his career over (“They call my movies camp.”) while a young Texan goes on a shooting spree (patterned on a then-current random act of violence). What amounts is two neat little stories that tie together at the end, plus Karloff is quite chilling reading “Appointment in Samarrah.” A perfect capstone to Karloff’s career, but unfortunately he followed it up with several grade-z entries. “I’m going to shoot some pigs.”
Finally caught up on the 2009-10 season of BIG BANG THEORY, wherein Leonard gets and loses Penny, Will Wheaton and Sheldon go to war and Sheldon gets a girlfriend (I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out when I Netflix the next season). Always a fun show.
THE FLASH was a 1990 TV series that regrettably lasted one season alone. Probably the first live-action series since Batman to use supervillains rather than straight criminals, including Captain Cold, Mirror Master and Trickster (Mark Hamill, in what looks like a precursor to his vocal turn as the Joker on the Dini/Timm Batman)—though only the Trickster actually gets into costume. Good special effects and a solid cast (John Wesley Shipp as Barry Allen and Amanda Pays as scientist sidekick Tina McGee), it’s a shame it had such a short run (I interviewed one of the cast once, and he said CBS took the blame, saying they had no real idea how to jarket it).

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A good week, but it got busy at the end

But fun busy, a staff party at Raleigh Public Record. It was my first time meeting most of my fellow reporters (Raleigh traffic usually discourages me attending evening staff meetings). Part of this week’s work was finishing up a story on NC State’s nuclear reactor, which you can see here.
Breaking up my schedule with a long afternoon lunch did seem to improve things this week. I’m going to continue with it for now. On the downside, I spent way too much time internet-browsing——I still need to discipline myself.
Story wise, I finished replotting Brain From Outer Space. It still needs work, but it’s the first time I didn’t feel like screaming over all the loose ends. Everything ties up (if not quite neatly enough yet) and all the characters have a role to play. I feel I’m finally getting there.
Likewise, A Happening in Hell and my unnamed Jews-in-al-Andalus (9th century Spain) story are both shaping up, slowly but steadily.
I did bog down in a couple of eHows, but not as badly as when I was surging through the afternoon on them. So I think that’s a good sign I’m on the right scheduling path.
Oh, and I finished my second column for And. I’ll let you know when it’s out.
I still feel annoyingly tired today, but I suspect that’s more seasonal allergies as anything else.

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Comic books and realism

In the introduction to his first Astro City collection, comics writer Kurt Busiek said that people who describe his work (both Astro City and Marvels) as “what super-heroes would be like in the real world” are dead wrong.
As Busiek saw it, a super-heroic world wouldn’t look at all like ours. Take the Marvel or DC universes: All pantheons of gods exist (plus some totally new ones), aliens invade Earth regularly, magic works and so do Iron Man’s armor, artificial intelligence, nannites and other super-technology. Yet somehow, those universes still looks pretty much like ours.
What “realistic” comics give us (at least in the DCU and MU—though not exclusively) is usually an illusion of reality or a small, specialized piece of it. Part of Marvel’s success in the sixties was playing with the idea that being superhuman didn’t solve all your problems, make you a nice person or win you admiration. All of which is realistic, even if the MU itself is not.
Likewise, Astro City has done stories about how trials or newspaper reporting work in a world where aliens really could have replaced the president and a defense of “It was my evil parallel-world counterpart who committed the crime” actually could be true.
This is why I find comic-book discussions that begin with “In the real world of course—” to be fatally flawed. They never go all the way to the real world, they just stop where it’s convenient for the argument.
For example, I’ve heard several people say that in the real world, the only ethical thing for Batman to do would be to kill the Joker. Batman knows the Joker’s going to escape Arkham Asylum again; he knows he’ll kill more people when he does; letting the Clown Prince of Crime live puts those murders on Batman’s head!
What this overlooks is that in the real world, nobody escapes from prison as often as the Joker; Batman wouldn’t have to kill him because Joker wouldn’t be constantly adding to his body count.
Another example is that in the real world, super-powered individuals would never run around free; they’d have to undergo some sort of government registration just like Marvel used in Civil War.
Again, it’s a halfway argument. In the real world, figuring out who had to register would be a vastly more complicated challenge than just targeting the characters we on our Earth call super-heroes (I’ll have to go into why another time).
Or consider Gail Simone’s position about Batgirl regaining the use of her legs in DC’s upcoming reboot: Other super-heroes have recovered from crippling injuries (Batman had his back broken “permanently” for instance; Guy Gardner spent years in a coma) so why is she still in a wheelchair?
But if we accept that logic——that in the “real world” someone would have healed Babs by now——why stop there? The DC Universe has lots of people in wheelchairs (not to mention blind, deaf, quadriplegic, etc.) so why aren’t they healed to? Why only super-heroes? Why is “Batman got healed but not Babs” any more unrealistic than “Batman and Batgirl got healed, but nobody else?”
I can understand Simone wanting to make the best of her situation (apparently if she wanted to keep writing Babs post-reboot, it had to be this way) but as usual, the argument from realism falls short.


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Some links and a continuation of yesterday’s post

First, more economics: Here’s Al Franken on the Republican faith that tax cuts are always the answer.
Second, some discussion of the right-wing reactions to the Norwegian terrorist attack. Lawyers, Guns and Money dissects a WaPo column explaining how the obviously Islamic killing proves we need to revive missile defense programs; Roy Edroso browses the response from right wingers to the discovery al Qaeda didn’t do it.
Third, I’m now contributing blog posts to And magazine. Here’s my first, on Bobby Jindal’s claim that Louisiana’s new “you can refuse an abortion” sign law for abortion clinics is no different from reading criminals their Miranda rights.
Now, as to the continuation from yesterday’s post on the supposed threat to Christian freedom. In fairness, there is one area where their freedom is infringed on (even though I think it’s justified) in terms of business.
Quite simply, Christians do not have the legal right to discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring, firing, promoting, renting property, etc. And I know several churches have complained that extending antidiscrimination ordinances to gays means they’re having to serve people in church-related businesses (leasing land for secular events, say) or that landlords object to renting to couples they believe are living in sin.
This takes away freedom, no question. Personally, I believe it’s justified, just as refusing to allow people to discriminate in business for race, creed, handicapped status, gender, etc. is justified: The cost is too dear.
Accounts of black families having to map out trips across the south based on where they’re allowed to eat, sleep or use the bathroom show how unlimited business freedom to discriminate can make freedom an illusion for the victims.
But even there, Christians are no worse off than any other religion: Muslims and Jews can’t discriminate against gays/blacks/women either.
As for the fear that churches will lose the freedom to condemn gays from the pulpit or call for anti-gay legislation, that also affects every religion (Orthodox Jews have expressed the same fear as grounds for opposing gay marriage)——and besides, there’s no sign of it happening, as I noted here. I’m honestly not sure if this is a fallback political position (once the majority of voters starts supporting gay marriage at the polls the standard will switch from “the people have spoken” to “the majority is oppressing us”) or simple transference (assuming pro-gay forces have the same enthusiasm for banning other people’s speech as the anti-gay forces do).
Either way, the struggle for Christian freedom in America still isn’t the defining issue of our time.

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The kind of throwaway remark that always annoys me

Writing in Time‘s political blog, reporter Amy Sullivan discusses the prospects for a Rick Perry presidential run and his potential to win over the religious right. In so doing, she mentions Newt Gingrich’s collapsing campaign and that he initially attracted attention from religious conservatives because “the former Speaker has made religious freedom for Christians his signature issue over the past few years.”
What bugs me is that Sullivan throws that off as if “religious freedom for Christians” describes some sort of comprehensible issue——the same way you’d describe a candidate’s issue as being “banning abortion” or “securing nuclear stockpiles.” And well, it’s not.
I’m not suggesting religious freedom for Christians isn’t important——just that it’s not some kind of separate issue from religious freedom in general. Despite the repeated claims from some conservatives that the First Amendment only protects Christians, the amendment is a flat-out guarantee of religious liberty for everyone.
(Keep in mind that the people who claim the amendment is clearly Christians——despite the total lack of any reference to Christianity in the document——are often the ones who assert that “separation of church and state” is a myth because there’s no reference to that in the First Amendment. Double standard much?).
There are no religious tests for public office.
Nobody (at least in theory) gets to make laws based on their interpretation of their holy text. Everybody is entitled to propose laws based on their interpretation of their holy text.
Nobody (again, in theory) gets to use the school system to proselytize to students. Students are, however, free to pray, say grace, proselytize to each other or read the Bible (or the Koran, or the Vedas or Tom Paine’s anti-religion The Age of Reason at recess (no matter how many times the right-wing keeps saying it, God has not been taken out of the school).
The idea Christians somehow need special protection in this country (Saudi Arabia or China, now …) is a myth. I suspect it mostly resides in the awareness that 60 years ago, “Protestant” equated to “real American.” One of the standard rationales for specifically Protestant school prayers was that by making kids more Protestants the schools were teaching them Americans.
And for the nastier Christians, it’s the fact that they can’t impose their prayers, views on abortion or their views on gays as law on the rest of us. For some, not being able to oppress is a denial of freedom.
Gingrich isn’t fighting for Christian freedom. He’s catering to Christians’ delusions that they’re an oppressed, embattled minority crushed by an atheist, anti-God state (like the Catholic bishop who equated New York legalizing gay marriage to North Korea’s dictatorship). It’s like saying Gingrich’s signature issue is to stop UFO abductions or Muslim sleeper agents infiltrating Congress and the White House.
He’s fighting a threat that exists in right-wing voters’ minds and not really anywhere else.

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Economics and other matters

Rising early this morning (not intentionally), I indulged myself by going through a long list of bookmarked web sites I’ve been meaning to get to for some time. Before I actually clear them out, here are some you might find of interest.
•The Washington Post looks at the rise in executive pay and economic inequality since the 1950s (I know I’ve linked to this before, but it’s worth doing again).
•Economist Brad deLong explains why deregulating the financial industry seemed such a great idea back in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the government’s current view is that it should ease off prosecuting financial crimes and let Wall Street police itself.
•And when overseas labor gets too expensive, there’s always convicts. Who needs slavery? The Economist touches on the for-profit prison industry here.
•On the plus side, Starbucks employees are organizing.
Other matters:
•The long-term impact of online education.
•This 2006 column on air power seems eerily prescient.
•Glenn Greenwald catches the NYT’s asserting that if the Norwegian attacks weren’t by Muslims, it isn’t really terrorism. Fred Clark discusses Herman Cain’s conviction that all Muslims are anti-American by definition.
•Osama bin Laden’s dead. And there weren’t many al Qaeda in Afghanistan to start with.
•What’s the good of giving the president legal advice?
This blog post discusses the sexism of anti-VD military campaigns from World War II.
•Pharmacies selling your prescription information is just a form of free speech!
•Isn’t this the sort of thing we went into Libya to stop? I will note that blaming this on the victims (they were Kadaffi Loyalists!) is standards.

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