Thursday, September 22, 2016

My One Concession to Donald Trump

Having now officially heard more out of Donald Trump's mouth than I think I ever want to in this lifetime, I'm willing to concede one important point that he's been hammering on for the past...oh dear god it's been almost a year will this endless stream of verbal diarrhea never CEASE?

(It's not the one about the Mexicans.)

Donald Trump has been saying, almost from the beginning, that he's fighting a "rigged system". And after watching him in action, I'm willing to say that yes, absolutely. The system is rigged in such a way as to make it harder for liars, fraudsters, crooks, cheats, con artists and swindlers to get into a position where they have the power to siphon off vast amounts of public money for their personal aggrandizement, and to use the bully pulpit of running for office to steal money from American citizens under the guise of "soliciting political donations." We make it hard for people to do that. Entirely on purpose.

(Clearly we haven't made it hard enough, because Trump, but that's another conversation.)

Basically, yes. The system is rigged against Donald Trump. The system was also rigged against Bernie Madoff. The only difference is that Donald Trump is better at getting around rigged systems than Madoff was.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Review: The Fog

This is not a review of the 1978 film 'The Fog', directed by John Carpenter and starring Adrienne Barbeau and Jamie Lee Curtis. This also isn't a review of the 2005 remake starring Superboy and a bunch of other people who singularly failed to make an impression on my memory, probably because they weren't rocketed from the distant planet of Krypton. No, this is a review of Dennis Etchison's novelization of the '78 movie, which I picked up in a used bookstore because I saw Dennis Etchison's name on the cover and I wanted to see a bit of what he was about.

And look, there's no question that he gives it his all. He cranks up his descriptions of glowing fog to eleven with phrases like "the reptilian swishing of the cloud as it withdrew", and "It gathered in a cold boiling on the ground and grew amoebalike pseudopodia in glutinous chains" and "The fog contracted, strengthening its substance, and expanded again, solidifying an ectoplasmic net". This is a man who has realized that his brief is to make his reader buy into the idea of 'scary fog', and is determined to make the best of it.

The problem is that basically, this isn't a 'scary fog' story, despite the title being 'The Fog' and there being much made of 'scary fog' in pretty much every scene in the first three-quarters of the book. This is a zombie story. It's a zombie story that tries to make its zombies cooler by hiding them in scary fog, and cooler still by making them pirate zombies (well, technically they're independently wealthy leper sailor zombies, but the iconography is all piratical, so hell with it), but still, this is basically a movie where vengeful undead hunt and kill people. All the 'scary fog' stuff is just window dressing for boring old zombies that don't even really do any of the cool stuff that zombies do like eat brains or bring their victims back to life as more zombies.

(Which they could very easily have done! If they were actually pirate zombies instead of merely independently wealthy leper sailor zombies, then they could have a ship of the dead, and anyone they kill is damned to join their crew for all eternity. I mean, it would get a little crowded on board, but it's a spectral ship of the damned, so maybe it's got TARDIS-like insides that can hold a lot of people. Or maybe if you kill enough people to take your place, you're free, so there's constant crew rotation. The point is, the whole "actually really nice people in life who are just miffed about their totally unjustified murder a hundred years ago and are revenging themselves on the descendants of their murderers" thing is really only scary if you happen to be the descendant of a treacherous murderer who used stolen gold to make your family rich. And also that ghostly pirate ships are way cooler than scary fog.)

In the end, Etchison more or less manages to cover most of the weaknesses in the basic structure of the movie the same way that Carpenter did with the film version, through copious amounts of atmosphere both literal and figurative (see what I did there?) Honestly, that's probably the reason the 2005 remake made so little impression--without amazing people elevating the material, there's really not much there. Even with Etchison's prose, it's not great. But it's not terrible, it's short and there are worse ways to pass the time.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review: I Drink For A Reason

Wow, was that bad. I mean, it was really astonishingly terrible. Hacky, smug, lazy, unfunny, frequently cruel, and the kind of thing any comedian should have been ashamed of, let alone someone like David Cross who's genuinely got a claim to being one of the most groundbreaking comedians of his generation. This is so bad that I spent a good portion of the book trying to determine whether this was actually some kind of fourth-dimensional meta-satire of the flaws of terrible pretentious faux-intellectual comedians, but after a while it became clear that no, David Cross just crapped out a book to fulfill a contractual obligation.

The big problem with it...well, the big problem with it is that it's actually woefully unfunny. Large stretches of the book are just Cross suggesting that someone innocuous is actually suffering in some way, as an aside or as part of a portion of a list. If the words, "A Retarded Baby Gets AIDS," free of context or purpose, is inherently funny to you, then you are Cross's target audience and may God have mercy upon your soul. (Only, of course, as Cross never tires of bringing up, God doesn't exist and people who believe in Him are stupid and/or crazy. He doesn't make jokes about that--apparently just saying that religious people are stupid and/or crazy is enough work for one day.)

But the other, bigger problem with it is that it proffers no point of view beyond simply "David Cross is much smarter than everyone else." Cross obviously makes fun of people he thinks are foolish or hypocritical or morally bankrupt, because that's kind of what comedians do and what satire is--you expose the foibles of the pompous. But Cross makes no differentiation between, say, Catholic priests who molested innocent children and the system that shielded them, and the people at who gave his latest comedy CD a bad review. His negation is mindless and thoughtless, which makes it worthless.

Because all he does is point to things and say "That's stupid," there's no value to his genuine social commentary. Does he examine why it is that the Catholic Church rallies around its members and uses its institutional power to protect them? Does he find something meaningful to say about the idea that any institution, no matter how noble, eventually comes to be about holding on to its power and authority rather than its initial ideals? Nope. It's because they're religions, and religions are stupid. He doesn't critique things, merely criticize them.

And like all emotional thirteen-year-olds, he's more interested in finding a weakness he can use to attack the people he disagrees with than in holding any kind of an intellectual or moral philosophy of his own. He's perfectly willing to go after Larry the Cable Guy as "homophobic", because he doesn't like Larry the Cable Guy and he knows that homophobia is a charge you can successfully level at someone. But he's also willing to do an extended multiple-page gag about Jim Belushi dressing up as a woman and giving blowjobs in a truckstop restroom, because homosexuality is nothing to be ashamed of unless you're using it to humiliate a comedian you find annoying. The book is filled with these little hypocrisies and petty jabs...interspersed, of course, with Cross's insistence that he's not at all bitter about anything in his life, and that anyone who thinks he's bitter or angry about anything just doesn't understand how calmly he takes the endless frustrations of dealing with all the stupid people who aren't him.

Other than that, the book is mostly weak and unfunny nonsensical asides, a few of which land with less than a dull thud than others but none of which can struggle to life under the endless burden of having to co-exist with Cross's angry whinging. If you really like David Cross, do both him and yourself a favor and pretend this book never existed. All it can do is lower your opinion of him.

Monday, September 12, 2016

A Brief Word From the Ministry of Magic

Dear Wizards and Witches of the Ministry of Magic,

We are aware that security is always paramount in the minds of all those who work in these august halls--our duty is to work with those aspects of magic that are forbidden, after all, and the forbidden always has its own allure. So we appreciate that everyone is doing their best to secure unauthorized Dark Magic spells, magical items, and curiosities away from those who would abuse them.

Nonetheless, we wish to take a moment to discuss the topic of security. After a few recent high-profile breaches, we would like to offer a few helpful suggestions that might help make forbidden magical items that can...purely hypothetically speaking...alter the course of history or undo all our hard-fought struggles against the Dark Lord Voldemort...even more secure!

1) Information security is everyone's responsibility. Between the use of Invisibility Cloaks, Polyjuice Potions and other disguises, one must always be aware of the possibility of someone using "social engineering" to try to determine the location of forbidden magic. Avoid openly discussing the location of hidden items, and never share details on accessing these items with someone, no matter how well you know them, without first confirming their identity beyond a doubt. Remember, kisses are not personally identifying information!

2) A strong password is a safe password. We understand that items may need to be accessed for a higher purpose, and that magical barriers must therefore have a means of removing them in the event that it becomes necessary. When setting a password for your magical barrier, try not to use the names of family members or pets, as these can be easily guessed by intruders. Also try not to use phrases like "password", or your birthdate, as these are too common and can also be guessed. Also, if you do decide to use a cunning children's riddle answer as your password, do not put a "hint" in that is the riddle's question. This common mistake allows the item to be accessed by the clever thieves only, and frankly if unscrupulous people are going to have access to our magical items, we want them to at least be dumb enough to get caught.

Following these two guidelines will drastically reduce the number of times a certain wizard with a minor facial disfigurement has to save the world (please refer to our workplace sign, "It Has Been 9 Days Since Harry Potter Has Had To Bear the Great Burden of Heroism On Behalf Of Wizardkind"). And remember, if it wouldn't safeguard a computer, it won't safeguard the most dangerous magical item ever created. Thank you!

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Review: Prophecy

I'm going to break my habit of curling up into a little ball and waiting for the Presidential election season to be over to review a book I read recently, David Seltzer's 'Prophecy'. It's an adaptation of the screenplay he wrote that was turned into a 1979 movie directed by John Frankenheimer, and it says a lot about both movie and book that the term "prophecy" doesn't refer to anything within the story--Seltzer is saying that the story, itself, is a prophecy of what will happen if we don't stop polluting.

Which is odd, because the primary consequence appears to be "angry deformed 15-foot tall bears will come and kill us all", and I'm reasonably certain he's kind of winging that one.

To be honest, if he'd simply skipped the "deformed bear" angle and come at it as a straight-up ecodrama, it probably would have been a lot more effective. It's about a doctor who works in the inner-city and is frustrated by his inability to make a difference due to the entrenched power structures keeping black people in poverty, and his wife who's dealing with a pregnancy that she knows he won't want but that she also knows she can't get rid of. The husband gets an offer to do an environmental study for the EPA, and decides that maybe he can do something for the environment that he couldn't do for the inhabitants of Washington's slums, and his wife goes along hoping to find a good time to tell him about the baby.

But what he walks into is a powder-keg, as the results of the environmental study will determine whether the local paper mill gets to keep operating in the face of entrenched (and increasingly militant) opposition from the local Native American population. The paper company is doing everything short of bribing him to give a good result, while the Native Americans are distrustful of yet another well-meaning white man who says he's there to help. Meanwhile, people and animals are sickening, dying, and being born horribly deformed due to contamination of the watershed with mercury. (Nothing involving mutant bears is quite as horrifying as seeing the pregnant woman tuck into some freshly-caught fish.)

This is all a bit preachy, and it's all filtered through an oh-so-70s level of racial and environmental consciousness (the Native Americans are referred to as "Indians" and given an overlay of noble savage mentality, the questions about abortion are treated with a lot of patriarchal condescension even though the wife's right to choose is ultimately upheld) but then there's this giant bear lumbering through things. It feels like Seltzer is dangling the bear like a bright shiny object whenever the story gets too boringly didactic, as if to say, "Hey, I know you don't have the attention span for all this boring political stuff, so here's a big deformed bear mauling some people for you!"

And that's fine as far as it goes--certainly, a lot of sci-fi stories use allegories to sharpen and intensify the emotions surrounding their central concepts. But the problem is that Seltzer uses "deformed bear attacks everyone" as his plot resolution, and you'd be amazed at how many problems a giant mutant bear doesn't solve in this world. The third act is really just a bunch of people running around getting attacked by a bear, and in the end I guess enough people are killed that things are better now but not really but maybe a little? It's all sort of dumped in the lap of the gods (and you'll be so totally surprised that one of the Native American characters thinks the bear is an "Indian legend" come to life to protect the wilderness), and I think that the ending becomes far less effective as a result.

It's weird to say that a monster story would have been more effective without the monster, but it's kind of true here. 'Prophecy' is, at heart, about people willing to leave the planet uninhabitable if it helps them make a few extra dollars. Next to that, even a very big bear isn't that scary.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

My Current Punditry Pet Peeve

I keep seeing it in every single article about Trump that's been published in traditional media or online. This particular one is from a Salon article by Sean Illing, but they all say something similar:

"If any other candidate said what Trump said this week, his campaign would collapse immediately. But Trump has been saying and doing things that would disqualify anyone else for months, and yet he slithers on."

Look. I understand that Trump did defy the political odds during the primaries by thriving despite some glaring and horrible statements. But can we stop pretending that Trump is somehow "normalizing" horrible discourse, or that he's not paying a price for his commentary? His polling numbers are in freefall, he went from dead-even with Hillary to having (according to FiveThirtyEight) a 13% chance of winning, his brand is toxic, Republicans are openly fleeing him in droves, the RNC is being flat-out asked to stop spending money on the Presidential race, every single media outlet is raking him over the coals as an affront to democracy, and he's losing states that haven't gone to the Democrats in 24 years. The only way that he could be more ruined by his Presidential campaign is if he literally burst into flames in the middle of one of his rallies and was dragged down to hell by the fiery claws of the Beast.

(Which may yet happen at this rate.)

The point is, Trump will still be allowed to speak all the way through November, unless he drops out or the Republicans finally come to their senses and lock him in a small windowless room without access to Twitter until November 9th kick him off the ticket. But that's not the same thing as still having a political career.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Brutal Truth About the "Two Party System"

A lot of people will, as part of the ongoing debate about how miserable and grinding the current election is, talk about how frustrating it is that in America we only have Trump and Clinton as viable options because "we live in a two-party system". (Usually, this is right before they talk about writing in Mickey Mouse, and right before I deliver a long and boring discussion of tactical voting that I'm going to skip this time out, which is kind of a shame because I have a great analogy but I'll save it for later.)

The problem is, this isn't untrue. We don't live in a two-party system. We live in a two-competent-party system. There's no reason encoded into our nation's laws that genuinely prevents a third party from forming, and in fact there are actually something like one hundred political parties currently operating in the United States. But most of them are content to run essentially as ego-stroking campaigns for their members, insisting that they would totally win if not for "bias" and "a rigged system" while ignoring their own clear issues that prevent them from gaining a foothold beyond the occasional Congressperson or state official. Here's why you don't see a national third party that competes with the Democrats and the Republicans, and why it has very little to do with media coverage or any rigging that might be going on.

1. Third parties don't put in the work. The Green Party runs a Presidential candidate every four years, and insists each time that their momentum is growing and that they're going to take back the mantle of "liberal" from the centrist Democrats. But a) nobody has ever explained how President Stein will get her agenda enacted when she has literally no Congressional support, and b) nobody has ever explained how a party with absolutely no track record in government will suddenly do a great job in that field.

The fact of the matter is, a third party needs to be built from the ground up, not the top down. A Presidential run is great press, but any third party that wants to have a hope in hell of enacting their agenda needs to have a full ticket--a Congressperson for every district at minimum, Senators for the 33-34 seats up each year, and probably local representation as well. But that kind of work is boring and low-profile, while running for President is exciting and fun and entails lots of interviews with people who really want to know your opinion! So the Green Party is Jill Stein every four years talking about how unfair it is that she never gets elected.

2. Third parties are fringe. Both the Libertarians and the Greens this year are presenting themselves as alternatives for those in the Republican and Democratic (respectively) Parties who want a candidate who's more true to their beliefs. Meaning more conservative for the Libertarians, and more liberal for the Greens.

The problem is, a candidate who trends toward the far end of the political spectrum is going to have less appeal to the middle, for obvious reasons. And if you have less appeal, you get fewer votes. A third party that gets fewer votes doesn't get elected. Once you start selecting for ideological purity and campaigning for the outliers, you're not going to win. Hell, that's the problem the Republicans have this year, which is why they nominated a sculpture of Mussolini made entirely out of pre-chewed Cheetos.

3. Third parties tend to be single issue parties. This isn't so much true of the Greens and the Libertarians, who are least are making a pretense of caring about actual governance, but something like the Alaskan Independence Party is basically running on the issue of, "Hey, seceding from the United States would solve all of Alaska's problems!" (I assume the "Rent Is Too Damn High Party" in New York state has a similar approach, but I'm not quite sure what their issue is. Probably legalization of marijuana or something.)

The problem is, this is a nonsensical approach to governance. There's no single fix that can be pushed through that will solve the problems the United States experiences on a yearly basis, and generally these candidates tend to be delusional people who have focused their emotional energy on demanding one unworkable fix because it's easier to believe that you can Solve All the Problems with one heroic swoop than it is to deal with the years of constant and unrewarding work needed to make the world a better place. Most people know this, which is why these parties tend to only attract a few true believers who are just as delusional as the candidate. Which brings us to...

4. Most third-party candidates tend to be delusional nutbags who build the party around their particular hobbyhorses, and they wind up more as cults of personality than viable attempts to do the work of governance. The obvious example that comes to mind is H. Ross Perot, whose stated goal was to create a pragmatic third party focused on practical solutions rather than ideology, but that wound up being held hostage to the narcissistic whims of its eccentric candidate. (Yes, I know, it does sound like the Republicans are rapidly descending into third-party status, doesn't it?) But really, I mean something like this guy:

Take a look at those proposals. This is a man sincerely running on a platform of disclosing the Pentagon's secret time travel program and admitting that we're already on Mars. This is the kind of thing that third parties in America are doing right now. They're not out there trying to become a viable alternative to the current two dominant parties, they're out there trying to put Bigfoot on the Endangered Species List. This is why we live in a two-party system. It's not because the Republicans and Democrats suppress the competition, it's because third parties are more interested in being symbolic forms of protest against an unpleasant reality than any kind of actual group interested in promoting responsible governance. Until someone--a lot of someones, really, because a political party isn't just something you make with your buddies in the garage--is willing to change that, a third party won't gain traction in America.

In fact, at this rate, we could be down to a "one-party system" in a few years unless the Republicans get their act together. But that's probably a separate post.