Monday, November 23, 2015

The Disney Movie I Want To See

Let's start with the statement of purpose: Disney Princesses have been getting cooler. Time was, their main job was to stand around and sing to woodland creatures and do the housework while the prince got on with the job of fixing whatever needed to be fixed in Fantasyland, but these days it's only suckers who wait for someday when their prince will come. These days, Disney Princesses have agency, they can fight...heck, they even have superpowers!

...wait a second...

I want to see "Disney's Avengers". Team up Merida, Rapunzel (she'd need to get her magical hair back, but hey, how hard can that be), Elsa, Mulan and Ariel (who would get her tail back when she went into the water, same as Rapunzel gets her magical hair back, because this is a reconceptualization of them as a team of superheroes and that means Ariel gets to be the Aquaman/Namor figure) to fight together against an epic Disney villain. (Or villains--maybe we could see an evil cabal of history's darkest sorcerers, Ursula, Jafar, Facilier, Maleficent and Gothel?)

Every second of this sounds like it would be awesome. The only way I could see to make it better would be to make it a time-travel story (yes, those five characters probably aren't in exactly the same time period, but they're close enough to make it fit if you don't sweat the details) so that you can bring in Lilo and Stitch for the grand finale. Because while Lilo is technically not a princess, I'm pretty sure she would tell you she was one if you asked, and her dog would be happy to back that up with all six fists.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Lazy Link Post!

Over on, a blog that I'm slowly running into the ground by guest-posting for, I've been doing weekly recaps of each season of the Amazing Race. Currently Season Twenty-Seven is ongoing, but I already completed a full run of Season Twenty-Six that it occurred to me might be something people here are interested in reading as well. So here's a link-post to the full recaps of Amazing Race Season Twenty-Six! (The "blind date" season--oh, not interested anymore? Well, it's here anyway.)

"Great Way to Start a Relationship"
"I Got the Smartest Dude"
"The Great Amazing Nasty Race"
"Get In That Lederhosen, Baby"
"Smells Like a Million Bucks"
"Back in Business/Moment of Truth"
"Can I Get a Hot Tub?"
"Fruits of Our Labor"
"In It To Win It"
"Monster Truck Heroes"

I'll be doing a similar link-post for Season Twenty-Seven once it's concluded. Until then, enjoy my recappy goodness!

Monday, November 16, 2015

I Wouldn't Keep Getting Political If We Had Smarter Politicians

Okay. I am going to try to explain this calmly and reasonably.

The most pessimistic estimates of ISIL's membership put it at about 200,000 worldwide. That includes non-combatants, support staffers, administrators and other political actors as well as fighters, but 200,000 is going to be our baseline estimate because it's always good to think worst-case scenario.

There are currently 1.3 million active US military service members, with a further 850,000 on reserve. This is solely the number of men and women that America can put into the field; it does not count our traditional allies such as France, Great Britain, Canada, et cetera et cetera.

There are 1.47 billion practicing Muslims worldwide.

Take those three sets of numbers together, and you will see a picture of ISIL as a tiny guerrilla force unable to do anything more than inflict cruelty on the defenseless. They are out numbered more than 10 to 1 by the United States military alone, and we are far from alone in our opposition to ISIL. Even many of the countries we have historically had a troubled relationship with feel that an apocalyptic death cult doesn't make a good neighbor. ISIL is politically isolated and counting on two things to help them in their struggle against the West.

One, they are counting on the fact that because they are small and we are large, we have more to defend and they can choose to strike us where we are not expecting it. This is in the nature of guerrilla warfare. It is utterly tragic, and it will mean that Paris is not the last place that ISIL attacks us, but the same tactics that make them effective as a guerrilla force make them ineffective as a conventional army. They are not able to destroy America. They are not able to destroy anybody. They are only able to inflict cruelty upon the helpless when nobody is watching.

Two, the only way that they can progress beyond their status as petty, vicious murderers is by reframing the issue from "ISIL against the world" to "Muslims against Christians". As a crazy, hate-filled death cult, they are a weak military force that has drawn the attention of some of the most powerful armies in history. As defenders of the Muslim faith, they have a potential army of over a billion that they can recruit from. They are desperate, literally desperate to convince Muslims everywhere that the West hates all Muslims with the same passion that they hate ISIL and want to crush Islam entirely.

In other words, when Donald Trump says that we need to shut down all the mosques to prevent ISIL from gaining strength in America, or when Ted Cruz says that we don't need to care about civilian casualties when fighting ISIL, they are making ISIL recruiting speeches. They are doing our enemy's work for them, and it is a testament to the kindness and decency of the overwhelming majority of the people of the Islamic faith that they have refused to give in to the hatred that their supposed allies around the world hold for them.

That doesn't mean that they don't need to stop and stop now.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Review: Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals

I am always up for a bit of pop science. Well-written, accessible books conveying interesting scientific topics to the layperson are right up there with gripping historical non-fiction in my list of good books to curl up with, and when I saw 'Zombie Birds, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals' by Becky Crew, I thought it had some potential along those lines. It's a series of essays on various animals with strange habits or odd biology, from the naked mole rat to the killifish (the titular "astronaut fish") to the great tit (the titular "zombie bird").

The problem is that Crew sells the book as a sort of humorous-yet-informative collection of essays, but the line of demarcation between "humorous" and "informative" is a lot thicker than it perhaps needed to be. Instead of trying to find interesting and funny ways to describe the unusual animals, she includes either a preface or a postscript that imagines the animal's behavior in human civilization. To be honest, these generally come off as somewhat strained ("Imagine if this frog jumped off of tall a job interview!") and repetitive, but the bigger problem is that the essays they bracket tend to be dry recitations of fact.

The facts are extremely solid, though. The book is drier than what I was expecting, but it's an extremely well-researched collection of facts about obscure animals and the way that new techniques have illuminated more and more details about the animal kingdom. From details about the way that a fossil's eye sockets can tell us what time of day a dinosaur hunted to descriptions of animals only found miles below the ocean surface, Crew does a magnificent job of showing the way that we are peeling back the mysteries of the natural world.

So although I could wish for a bit more of the book that was described on the back cover, I do have to say that in all fairness it's a sound science book. Just a bit less "pop science" than I was hoping for.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Today's Thing I Should Not Have To Explain: Of COURSE "Blue Lives Matter"

Despite the fact that we're now well over a year off from Ferguson, and despite the daily articles about yet another police officer using disproportionate force resulting in the death of an unarmed (usually African-American) civilian, I am still seeing people responding to the "Black Lives Matter" movement with counter-movements like "Blue Lives Matter" or "Cop Lives Matter". I am deeply and sincerely hoping that nobody in my regular audience buys into these counter-movements, but on the off-chance that you need to link someone you know through to an explanation of why they're a problem, here's one.

The problem with a "Blue Lives Matter" movement in response to the "Black Lives Matter" movement is that it suggests through implication that the opposite of policemen killing unarmed civilians who may not even have committed crimes is armed criminals killing policemen. This does not make sense. This does not even begin to make sense. This does not even exist in the same universe as sense. This is saying, in essence, that police brutality and extrajudicial executions of innocent people is so deeply ingrained into police culture that it is literally impossible for them to conceive of doing their job without just randomly choking someone to death for a non-violent offense or shooting a random black teenager in the chest for looking suspicious. Those are terrible, insane responses to suggestions that police be held accountable for doing their job badly.

To understand just how terrible they are, imagine transplanting the problem to another possession. Imagine a doctor going into surgery and, instead of operating on the patient to remove their gallbladder, they don full bio-hazard gear, douse the patient in kerosene, and set them on fire before sprinting out of the room, shrieking "UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!" And then imagine that the state medical board investigates and decides that the doctor is not at fault because there were indications that the patient could have had a communicable disease of some sort.

In this circumstance, pointing out that doctors are at risk of catching communicable diseases from their patient and that we need to care about their lives too does not counter the fact that the doctor in question was terrible at their job and murdered someone in their care through homicidal actions that went far beyond simple neglect or carelessness into active murderous incompetence and malice, and that the authorities whose job it is to make sure that malicious and incompetent members of the profession are not allowed to continue to practice have instead decided that it is more important to protect their own. This is Not Good.

Police lives do matter. Of course they do. It is a hazardous profession, and there's a limit to how much we can mitigate that, but nobody is suggesting that we shouldn't do everything we can to keep cops safe on the street. But a police officer who is killing unarmed people is not doing their job, full stop. They are dangerously incompetent, and the fact that they are killing African-Americans all out of proportion to any other demographic is not coincidence. Violent racism is not something that can or should be tolerated in our police force, and saying that is not "anti-cop" rhetoric. It is anti-racist-incompetent-cop rhetoric. The only people who should be opposed to that are racist, incompetent cops, and it is incredibly worrying that entire departments seem eager to step up and declare their membership in that demographic.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

What I'm Enjoying: The Quest

I found out that "The Quest", the reality TV single-season wonder from the producers of 'The Amazing Race', is now on Netflix. This thrills me to no end, as I saw the first episode during its original run and missed the entire subsequent event, and it really is one of those things you have to see in order.

For those who never saw it, it's basically a big-budget LARP. The producers have rented out a castle, hired experts in practical special effects, make-up and stagecraft, and gotten a bunch of actors to portray the inhabitants of the mythical kingdom of Everealm. Then they got a dozen genuine fantasy enthusiasts and brought to Everealm to spend a whole season competing for the right to save it.

See, Everealm has a problem. As with all mythical kingdoms, Everealm is under attack by Verlox, who goes by the nickname of "The Darkness", and only a heroic paladin bearing the legendary Sunspear can defeat him. But each of the twelve heroes from our Earth has just one piece of the Sunspear...and over the course of a season of mock-combat, tests of nerve and skill, and good old-fashioned Survivor-style voting, the false heroes are winnowed out leaving only the destined savior of Everealm to assemble the Sunspear and defeat Verlox!

(I will confess, due to a habit of slight mispronunciation on the part of pretty much everyone who isn't the closed captions, I keep hearing it as "Sunsphere". Which is a problem, because I keep hearing Bart Simpson say, "Remember, everyone. We're parked under the Sunsphere.")

I won't lie. This is cheesy as hell. But it's cheesy in all the right ways. It hits that sweet spot of SCA/LARP and low-budget fantasy movie, where all the professional actors are speaking in Fantasy Trope-ese and all of the paladins are reacting to it with genuine, sincere enthusiasm. They're living their dream--someone has actually constructed a fully immersive, days-long live-action D&D campaign just for them with Hollywood production values and they get to play it for FREE! That child-like excitement transcends the cliched nature of the storyline and turns any amateurishness into a virtue rather than a fault. It's at a strange crossroads between obvious fraud and vivid reality, and somehow both enhance the other.

The paladins were apparently not competing for a prize (hopefully they were compensated in some form, but the winner's only reward was in defeating Verlox and bringing peace to the Twelve Kingdoms). In a way, I think this was the smartest decision they could have made--if they'd been playing for money, it would have encouraged the worst Survivor-style backstabbing and conniving, which would have utterly broken the immersion of the heroes as paladins attempting to find their inner hero and save the day. There's still a little of that, of course; human nature being what it is, not all the paladins are equally noble. But that too is part of the fantasy charm--it wouldn't have much tension if all of the heroes were bland ciphers of nobility, would it?

(On a side note, there's a pleasingly large amount of race and gender diversity among the paladins. In fact, it's a lot better than most genre work in that aspect; frankly, I'd be a lot more likely to read a generic "Earth person is transported to fantasy realm and must defeat magical evil" if the hero was Shondo Blades, an African-American mixed-martial arts fighter who spoke almost exclusively in sports motivation cliches. Because he's freaking awesome.)

I know that there's currently a fan campaign to get a second season, but honestly I feel that it kind of stands perfectly as a single story. A second season would invariably have contestants who'd seen the original, forcing them to either rework the story in possibly-unsatisfying ways or deal with knowing, ironic contestants rather than the charmingly innocent folks they got. The Quest feels like lightning in a bottle to me, the kind of thing that you can only do well once. A sequel would suffer badly from diminishing returns, whereas this feels, in its own quirky way, just perfect.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Remind Me Of This On October 1st, 2016

The Halloween season has once again come and gone, although this time without me watching a metric ton of cheesy horror movies (my wife has suggested I watch them on November 8th, in honor of the astrological Samhain instead of the fixed calendar date). I did take my son trick-or-treating, though, because he's nine and I'm his dad. We had a fun time, but I did come away from it feeling like there's a fundamental lack of organization to the whole thing.

Because not everybody participates--which is fine. Nobody is morally obligated to give out candy to complete strangers on Halloween even if they are adorable and bedecked in hilariously cute costumes. (My child was a robot.) But it's very difficult sometimes to tell who's giving out candy and who is out at parties/working on Halloween (the poor bastards)/just misanthropic and hiding in the basement. Ideally, people who are handing out candy should have a porch light on, but lights burn out and some people have those automatic lights to discourage burglars and some parents want to start trick or treating before the sun has completely set because they have small children in black costumes and don't want to worry about cars and generally the whole system is a complete mess.

So here's my idea. Next year, we make up signs that you can print out and put on your doorstep, saying "Trick or Treaters Welcome!" or something more cutesy and Halloween-pun-themed. We print out a stack of them and hand them out around the neighborhood, saying, "Here! You can use this to help let people know when you're ready to hand out treats!" Then, on October 31st, we go to the houses that have the signs, and we skip the houses that don't. Am I crazy, or is this just the best idea ever?

I know. It's not an "either/or" situation. But still.