Monday, July 11, 2016

Review: The United States of Arugula

It's strange--looking back on our nation's history, we can collectively remember a time when TV dinners were new and exciting and frozen food was a miracle and SPAM was something to be lauded and celebrated. But somehow, it's difficult to connect our modern day Instagramming of "food porn", 24-hour food-based TV networks, celebrity chefs and McDonald's arugula salads to the days when the most exciting thing about food was how well it kept and how easy it was to make. What happened to bring us from food as a grim necessity to food as an epicurean delight?

That's not just the question I ask myself every time I walk past a Hungry Man TV dinner and wonder who still eats those, it's the basic premise of David Kamp's book 'The United States of Arugula'. The book starts in the 1950s, the era when fast food and processed food was at its ascendance, and introduces the key characters responsible for transforming our cultural understanding of food. He covers fine dining, cookbooks and cooking shows, and the process of food sourcing and how it changed slowly but surely over the decades.

There's a lot of interesting stories in the book, many of which show how the counter-culture movement of the 60s intertwined with the push for ethically-sourced and healthy cuisine, and he highlights a number of important figures in the history of the culinary arts that might otherwise have gone forgotten. In addition to obvious stars like James Beard and Julia Child, he covers Craig Claiborne, Jeremiah Tower, and a host of other people known primarily to foodies who he feels influenced the development of modern cooking and taste-making.

In a way, this is also probably the book's weakness. Because he wants to cover the breadth of the transformation of food culture as well as the depth of it, there's a lot of jumping around to focus on figures within the industry who play only a minor role, or who are more remembered for their influence on other famous chefs. Towards the end, without the organizing principle of "how did this person's legacy contribute to food culture as we know it?" (because as the book ably shows, it's hard to tell a food fad from a cultural contribution to our national cuisine right away) the book loses focus rather badly. The last few chapters are a dizzying leap from chef to chef to celebrity chef, with no real explanation given as to why some merit consideration within the book's pages and others are a mere footnote.

Still, the overall theme comes out very well despite that--the last fifty years have seen a national conversation about what we eat and how to make it better tasting and healthier. And while that's occasionally descended into faddishness, snobbery, scolding and absurd levels of bacon worship, it's still a conversation worth having. Kamp makes that case very well indeed.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

My Brief Take on the New Trek Fan Film Guidelines

There is exactly one thing you have to understand about the new Star Trek fan film guidelines. They are a promise, not a threat.

The promise is actually pretty impressive. Not quite unprecedented--Lucasfilm embraced the fan film community, albeit with a few reservations--but this is a pretty big deal. Paramount is saying that they will let anyone, for free, make their very own short film based on one of the four biggest entertainment properties in science-fiction (Marvel, Star Wars and Who being the other three), for free, gratis, so long as certain rules are adhered to. Are those rules pretty stringent? Sure. Do they let you make your very own Star Trek with absolutely no threat of legal action by the holders of the IP? Sure.

And if you don't want to adhere to those guidelines...you don't have to. Sure, you could be sued by Paramount, but what people are forgetting in their initial judgment of the new policy is that this was always the case. All Trek fan films prior to this point, every single one of them from the officially unofficial series that used Trek actors playing their copyrighted characters down to the guys wandering around in their heavily wooded backyards in pajamas yelling, "I AM KIROK!"...they all risked a lawsuit. Because they were infringing on someone's intellectual property. They had no legal defense against that, none of them. It wasn't fair use, it didn't matter that they weren't making a profit, it didn't matter how it was distributed. They all were potential targets.

So nothing has changed for these people. Officially, 'Star Trek: New Voyages' is operating outside the guidelines and is vulnerable to a lawsuit should Paramount decide to go after them. Officially, Paramount can't say to them, "Hey, we don't really care, you're not making any money and your show is good PR for us so knock yourself out." But that was the case yesterday too. All this is, when you boil it down, is a way for Paramount to cover their butts so that when someone like Alec Peters comes along and raises a million bucks to make a feature-length movie while selling bootleg merch, he can't say, "Well, I had no idea that I couldn't do it!"

Of course, that won't stop fans from freaking out about it, but hey. Fans gonna fan.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Review: The Tropic of Serpents

After gushing about Marie Brennan's first book about the intrepid Isabella, Lady Trent and her voyages to discover dragons, I felt like I would be remiss if I didn't spend at least a little bit of time talking about the second book in the series. This one focuses on her journeys into the swamps of Mouleen (an ahistorical continent with clear parallels to colonial Africa) to study swamp dragons, during which she gets unavoidably swept up in local politics.

It's the local politics that take up a lot of the book, which is a little disappointing if you come to the novel looking for dragons, dragons and more dragons. On the other hand, Brennan does a good job of conveying, through Isabella's slow realization that her country may not have the finest interests of Mouleen at heart, the contradictory and messy interests that lie at the heart of the colonial mentality. Being something of an outsider in her own homeland due to her decision to pursue a traditionally male career, she's positioned perfectly to notice that the Scirling (read: British) promises of aid and comfort tend to come with a lot of armed men, and not a few concessions to a superior military force. Her decisions regarding that ugly truth behind the "White Man's Burden" myth form the narrative's spine.

There are also further developments in the slightly ominous metaplot that was seeded in the first novel--having discovered that preserved dragonbone is as light as aluminum and durable as steel, Isabella spends no small amount of time in the book attempting to avert a resource war over the rare and endangered dragon species that we already know (since this is presented as her memoirs) has already happened. This book keeps that to the background, but it informs the entire story with the slow drumbeats of impending conflict. There's a lot of very clever metaphor going on here, with dragons standing in for any number of precious and irreplaceable natural resources...plus, they're freaking dragons, which is always cool.

I'd recommend the second book just as strongly as the first. It takes a bit longer to get to the dragons, but the time it develops other themes is time well spent.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Match-Making

Is it wrong that I really hope Tom Hiddleston turns out to be gay or bisexual so that he can be linked with Benedict Cumberbatch romantically (whom I also hope turns out to be gay or bisexual) simply so they can have the "power couple" nickname "Hiddlebatch"?

I would accept, as an alternative, a romantic liason between Tom Hiddleston and Mark Ruffalo, who would of course be "Hiddleuffalo". (I suppose technically they could be "Ruffleston", but I feel like that lacks the quiet dignity of "Hiddleuffalo".)

EDIT TO ADD: I would also be satisfied if Mark and Benedict caught each other on the rebound from that serial cad, Tom Hiddleston, and formed the power couple "Cumberbuffalo".

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Corrected Facebook Memes

Hi everyone,

I'm sure that some of you, in the wake of the tragic massacre in Orlando last weekend, may have gotten a few people posting a meme on Facebook about how they stand ready with their Second Amendment-approved legal firearms to defend you from the madmen. I won't repost the original meme, as it needed a few edits for factual accuracy (which I've helpfully made). If you do happen to see it, feel free to provide them with the corrected version below:

“I stand behind you in line at the store with a smile on my face...and a gun under my shirt which I occasionally stroke and pet like I’m masturbating with it in public, and you are none the wiser, yet you are much less safer for having me next to you. I probably won’t shoot you. My gun won’t pull it’s own trigger. I might pull that trigger, if my obvious power fantasies and propensity to believe problems can be solved with gunfire finally conflict with my deep-seated feelings of inadequacy to the point where I just have to show the world that I matter by killing a bunch of people, but my gun isn’t just going to go off or anything. It is securely holstered with the trigger covered. It can’t just go off. However, rest assured that if a lunatic walks into the grocery store and pulls out a rifle, I will get shot before I can do anything. And that’s really kind of the best-case scenario, because despite my erotically-charged fantasies of shooting down ‘bad guys’ with my penis substitute, I have no real experience of firing this thing at anything other than paper targets in a controlled setting. I’m just as likely to shoot a cop or an innocent bystander as the actual shooter, and that assumes it’s a real threat and not me just panicking at the sight of a black guy wearing a hoodie and staring at me too long. Because if that happens, I gotta tell you, I’m unloading every bullet in my clip at him and claiming ‘Stand Your Ground’ later, even if he’s eight. The point is, I’m dangerously unstable and prone to pulling out my gun whenever I think I’m in danger. I’m part of the problem, but I think I’m part of the solution. Repost this if you’d like to make sure that wannabe vigilantes like me are kept as far away from firearms as humanly possible.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Called It!

I was bored and going through some of my old posts, and I found my original reaction to the New 52 from May 31st, 2011. I would like, specifically, to draw your attention to the statement, "No, not the "We're relaunching everything at #1!" crap. That'll be retconned away within five years, max."

DC Rebirth #1? May 25, 2016. A week before the deadline. I don't know whether to be proud or disgusted.

Monday, June 06, 2016

CONsole Room Roundup

Sorry about the lack of a blog post last week, I was getting ready for a con, then attending a con, and am now recovering from a con. Said con was CONsole Room, a Twin Cities Doctor Who convention now in its third year; this year, we had as guests Dominic Glynn, composer during the Classic series era, and former companions Anneke Wills (Polly), Frazier Hines (Jamie), and Wendy Padbury (Zoe). All of them were really sweet and fun to have over to the Twin Cities, although what with scheduling of events I didn't get to see nearly as much of them as I'd hoped.

I also did several panels, which went quite well (I think). I talked about superheroes on TV, Doctor Who spin-offs and controversies, and where to start watching (and reading) Doctor Who. It was a smaller con than CONvergence (and needless to say, infinitely smaller than Dragon*Con or GenCon), so the panels took on a bit of a round-table feel. The panels I was at were more open to interjections from the audience, and it had the atmosphere of a discussion rather than a lecture. (Which is generally good, but can be harder to achieve as the audience gets bigger.)

Also, I watched an episode of "The New Avengers" with my son and he liked it and wants to see more. Not sure what to do about that.

It was a lot of fun, I'm already registered for next year, and I'd love to see some of you there! Also, if you want to be a panelist, go ahead and put your name in! We could definitely use more voices and more diverse voices, and goodness knows if I can do it, you can do it.