Friday, April 11, 2014

A Sentence I Can Never Finish

I've had the opening line of a book in my head for years, never quite knowing where it connects to. Today, I'm sharing it with you, because it's such a good opening sentence that I want to share it with people despite not knowing what comes next.

"They say that a man who seeks revenge should begin by digging two graves. I dug three; but in fairness, two of them were very small."

I dunno, maybe it's my "For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

'The Winter Soldier' Was In Color, but the Morals Were Gloriously Black-and-White

Recently, I read a very nice review of 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' at this blog(caution, contains spoilers for the film. Actually, so does this post.) It's a good review with some excellent points about the way that the film brings home the growing acceptance of constant surveillance and preemptive attacks, but there's one thing I have to disagree with it on. The reviewer suggests that the final figure arrived at by SHIELD/HYDRA in their quest to eliminate all the potential threats to global order is too high, and that it would have been a more interesting dilemma if there were only a couple dozen targets on the list.

I think this misunderstands the whole point of the film. It's not about an interesting moral dilemma. Allowing people to frame the question as a "moral dilemma" is, in no small part, what's gotten us into this mess, and it's telling that the villain attempts to do that even as the heroes are trying to stop him from murdering twelve million people. When the moral dilemmas are sliced thin enough, it's hard for anyone to know when exactly the line is crossed. Nobody's going to be the one to stand up and suggest that a single terrorist's life is worth more than a thousand innocents. Nobody's even going to be the one to suggest that one innocent life is worth more than a thousand. And at some point, the sunk cost fallacy kicks in, and saying "no" means that all those other deaths were meaningless because we still didn't make the world 'safe'. And each little atrocity justifies the next, slightly larger one.

'The Winter Soldier' cuts through all the justifications. The Insight Program is nothing more than the ultimate, logical extension of everything America has been doing for the last thirteen years. If you accept that it's okay to spy on people without evidence...if you accept that it's okay to attack terrorists before they attack us...if you accept that drone strikes are better because they don't put our soldiers in harm's way...then the ultimate extension of that is right there in front of you. And America supported it all the way. If A led to B, and B led to C, and C led to D, then this movie is saying, "Hey, I just found what Z looks like!" Moral ambiguity is exactly what's not needed here.

Captain America stands for something better. He stands for the ideals of America, not the debased realities we sometimes allow to overcome our better judgment. Yes, he would have stood up for a couple dozen people the same way he stands up for twelve million. But his point, as graphically made by the movie, is that once you become the kind of person who can kill a couple dozen people for 'all the right reasons' never stops there.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Other Paul Ryan Plans to Help the Poor

RYAN: "The other day, I saw a young child in a wheelchair. The poor thing confided in me that he didn't want to be in a wheelchair; he wanted to walk, like the other kids. That's why I believe it's important to take away wheelchairs from poor children, because the Left doesn't understand how stigmatizing it is to them to have one..."

RYAN: "This old man was forced to get a pacemaker, possibly by liberals who don't understand that medical intervention might keep your heart beating, but it doesn't keep your heart warm. That's why I want to rip his still-beating heart out of his chest, because I understand that 'free pacemakers' only sustain physical life, not emotional support..."

RYAN: "Being forced to work a degrading, menial job in the janitorial services for minimum wage, well...that's no way to live. I understand that, unlike the godless liberals. That's why I want to repeal the minimum wage laws entirely, so this man doesn't have to work for minimum wage..."

RYAN: "Due to his mother's substandard health insurance, little Timmy here is having to watch his poor mommy die a slow death due to a preventable illness. The Left thinks they can make things better through 'better health insurance' and 'reforming the medical care system', but what does that mean? Consigning Jimmy to watch his mom die at a later date? No. That might be what those monsters in the Democratic Party want, but we conservatives are filled with boundless compassion. One quick, humane bullet between the eyes, and we can make sure that Jimmy never sees his mother die."

"And we can also probably spare some ammo to shoot his mom, too."

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Truth About Cats And...Um, More Cats

As you might have noticed, the blog's been a little quiet lately; I've been indulging in my traditional February habit of huddling in a tiny ball under the electric blanket and cursing the hellish cold, and wondering if spring will ever come or if some demented sorceress has cursed our land to the blight of eternal winter as some sort of messed-up Narnia tribute. That doesn't leave much time for writing.

But it's March now, and time to talk about cats. Specifically, it's time to talk to all the people who hate cats. "Ewww!" they say. "I hate cats! They're so aloof! They're not affectionate and demonstrative like dogs are!"

This is, and I speak from personal experience, a load of hooey. I have cats, and one of them literally sprints into the room as soon as I come through the door and launches herself in a spirited leap to land on my shoulder (yes, this is slightly unnerving) in order to headbutt the side of my face with repeated nuzzles. This could not be defined, by any stretch, as "aloof" behavior. If a person did this, you would not be saying, "Oh, Phyllis, you're so aloof!" You would be saying, "Agh, Phyllis, get off of me, you just broke my collarbone!"

This brings up the most important point about cats: They're small. Smaller than people, but more importantly smaller than most dogs. Even the biggest healthy domestic cat probably weighs in at about twenty pounds, whereas your basic "mutt" dog tips the scales at closer to fifty. Dogs get bred down, of course, but the general canine mentality is of a sizeable-to-large pack-bound predator.

A cat, on the other hand, is a prey animal as well as a predator. At five to twenty pounds, it has to treat larger animals as a potential threat. A fox, wolf, bear or other large animal can do a lot of damage to a cat, and being territorial animals instead of pack animals, they can't rely on safety in numbers. This is an important point in the psychology of the feline: Until you demonstrate otherwise, a cat considers you to be something that wants to eat it.

So most of the people who consider cats "aloof" are people who are interacting with a cat in the same way they interact with a dog, and expecting the same result. They walk into a room, they see the cat, and they race over to it with a big smile on their face! They pick the cat up and they snuggle it and they roughhouse with it and they...well, they probably don't get past the "roughhousing" part without getting some nasty scratches, because from the cat's point of view, a large animal has just walked into the room, bared its fangs, charged, and grabbed it. The cat assumes that its only chance of survival is to scratch and bite until the horrible monster lets it go, and then run like buggery and find someplace to hide until it goes away. The bleeding human blames this on the cat, and the cycle of "aloofness" continues.

In general, the best way to get a cat to be affectionate to you is to present yourself as non-threatening. Don't go to the cat. Take a quiet seat somewhere, relax, and let the cat come to you. If it's like most cats, this may not happen right away. Survival instincts are strong, and the cat that survives best is the cat that's cautious about new things. It may take a day or two for the cat to let its guard down and decide that you're not a potential cat-eating monster. (It might take even longer if the cat spent any time as a stray, or had a previous owner that abused it. Operant conditioning is harder to overcome than simple instinct.)

When it does approach you, don't go nuts on the petting right away. Let it settle in and get used to you. Once it's sure you're not a threat, you'll know...primarily because it'll flop down in your lap and start purring. That's the point when you'll understand why cat owners look at dog owners funny when they complain about "aloof" cats.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Epic Fantasy Football Needs To Happen

Had this idea for a while now, but I need some help working out the details. The idea is that it's "fantasy football" mixed with fantasy gaming; you select a party of real-life football players, with the positions roughly corresponding to classes. (Wide receivers are rangers, quarterbacks are wizards, defensive players are thieves, running backs are fighters, et cetera.) Each week, you select a monster from a list of monsters ranging from "dire wolves" up through "dragons" to fight; the fantasy league points are translated into damage, and you kill the monster if you do enough damage to exceed its hit points.

Killing monsters gives you experience points, which you can then spend on magical items and class bonuses to modify your party's damage each week. This allows you to take on tougher monsters, which allows you to gain more experience, and so on. At the end of the season, whoever has the most impressive group of monster trophies wins.

I think it could work, but I don't know enough about fantasy football to be able to construct a workable baseline for weekly points scored, and that's needed in order to be able to build workable monsters for the party to kill. Anyone know more about fantasy football and want to help me out on this?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

And Doctor Voodoo Is the Sorcerer Supreme

Someday, I totally want to write a story where the Winter Soldier is drawn to an artificially-created Earth where all the superheroes are the edgy, alternative versions of themselves created to replace the real ones with anti-heroes. This world's Avengers are the USAgent, War Machine, Thunderstrike, the Red Hulk and the Scarlet Spider, and they're periodically joined in team-ups by Venom and the Red She-Hulk. They've just been waiting for the Winter soldier to join them on their perfect Earth, the ones where they're the real heroes...only, of course, there's a dark secret to its creation that they have to fight, because otherwise where's the conflict? But then at the end, their world is preserved as a running in-joke, a sort of Second Banana Heaven for superheroes.

And then a few years later, they can have a crossover with the Justice League, which is composed of Artemis, Azrael and the Eradicator...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: Buffy Season Eight

It's been a while since this originally came out, which means that I finally found copies that were sufficiently discounted that I could pick up the missing volumes and read the whole thing. And now that I finally caught up to the season behind the season that just finished, what do I think? (Oh, spoilers for a years-old comic book series ahead...)

The first thing I noticed is the same thing I noticed after Seasons Four, Five, Six and Seven: Joss Whedon has really had to reinvent the series a lot ever since Season Three ended. The central concept of 'Buffy', the idea that everything else grew out of, is that high school is hell. The series took the metaphor and made it literal, with the demons of adolescence transformed into actual demons and killed by a girl who grew into a woman. 'Graduation Day', where Buffy told the Watchers where to shove it and became an confident adult, was the culmination of everything that had gone before.

And without that central concept, the series has had to completely remake itself with a new core premise, time and time and time again. 'The Freshman', 'Buffy vs Dracula', 'Bargaining' and 'Lessons' all function as pilots for an entirely new series featuring the same characters (and some function better than others...) And likewise, Season Eight is a whole new, completely different series where Buffy runs a team of paramlitary Slayers that travel the world and fight evil monsters wherever they may go. It's the sort of epic, ambitious storyline that really could only be attempted in comics. Whatever else you might say about it, Whedon really tried to use the medium to its fullest extent.

Unfortunately, "whatever else you might say about it" is that it never really gels as a concept, and it's just not as much fun as the previous seasons, and it eventually devolves into a series of plot kludges designed to get us to the next reinvention of the series for Season Nine. (Which is, weirdly, what you can say about Seasons Seven, Six, Five, and arguably even Four.)

The first problem is that while there are some great moments to be had in making a big, globe-trotting epic with a Slayer cast of thousands, the concept really does get too far away from what made 'Buffy' good. The characters and their relationships get lost in the noise, and they feel like pale shadows of themselves in a lot of ways. Worse, the moments they do get all feel like rehashes of the stuff we've already seen; Buffy is still worried about getting her friends killed, Willow is still agonizing over magic abuse, and Xander is still trying to figure out what it's all about to be a grown-up. Oh, and Dawn is still metatextually complaining about her utter irrelevance to the story save as a replacement peril monkey for Willow now that she's competent, and Andrew is still nothing more than a vehicle for all the lazy "geek culture" jokes that the writers want to stick into the story. There were the same anchors that got hung around the characters' necks in Seasons Five through Seven, and they're still just as depressing and mopey as they once were. It'd be nice to change that up with a little, I Just a titch? Reading comic books shouldn't make me want to cheer myself up by helping out at food shelters.

The second problem is that the whole thing doesn't really feel like it makes any sense. The identity of Twilight, while it's a pretty good reveal, never has legs because nobody seems to know why he's doing anything he's doing. There are no less than three conflicting explanations given in the final two books--either Angel is running a con on Buffy's enemies by tricking them into letting him lead them, or he's been possessed by a baby-universe-to-be called Twilight who wants to bootstrap itself into existence by tricking Angel and Buffy into sexing each other up in the longest, dullest sex sequence committed to paper (for which I don't blame Brad Meltzer one bit--he got the absofreakinglutely nightmare brief for his arc). Or he's secretly helping Whistler with some other even more devious plan that involves tricking Twilight into making Buffy and Angel sex it into being so that reasons.

And the ending...ugh. The last two books involve Giles suddenly remembering an ancient prophecy that came directly from his butt, a mystical artifact that's just all of a sudden the most important thing in the universe and everybody wants to do stuff and things to it for reasons (because corks and bottles and other metaphors--like letting the air out of a balloon!), a baby universe as a bad guy who's possessing Angel and making him do more things for other reasons and it's bad because of its badnessness, the return of the Master because why the heck not at this point, and finally Buffy just literally gets sick of all this garbage and breaks the plot device and goes home. And that works because reasons too.

The only thing that really felt like it actually gelled, happily enough, was the epilogue, where Buffy is now living in San Francisco and slaying vampires. That whole idea of a "vampire slayer", which had gotten utterly lost by the end of the tangled mess of gibberish that was Season Eight's final moments, feels like it at least was part of a process to get Buffy back to where she should be. And while I'm aware that it's almost certainly not going to be that simple, it did give me at least a little optimism that this could be a series I might be able to get into again someday unequivocally.