Thursday, October 29, 2015


I've never been much of a bird-watcher; my parents liked to have a bird-feeder outside their window ever since I was a kid, but to me they weren't nearly as cool as animals that would stay still and let you pet them (which we weren't allowed to have, I might add). Still, I'll admit I make exceptions for three factors, and today reminded me of one of them.

1) Color. Even though I never cared much about the birds at the feeder, it was still a special experience when a brilliantly vivid cardinal or blue jay stopped by. Crows (and similar dull-black birds), sparrows and the like were always just sort of there, but it was always neat to see a brightly-colored bird catch the eye.

2) Size. This is what today's bird sighting reminded me of--the building I work at is situated slightly oddly, at the very edge of a small industrial park that nestles up to a wildlife sanctuary. Which means that there are office buildings on three sides...and the window right outside my desk looks down onto a parking lot right next to open wilderness and a river beyond. There are twenty-three wild turkeys milling around the parking lot, any one of which would easily come up to my knee. They're not particularly pretty birds (although again, their head provides a vivid contrast to the gray-black pavement) but man, are they impressive to watch. They're just bigger than you feel a bird should be allowed to be, and you feel a little bit of that primal connection between birds and dinosaurs as you watch them strut around.

3) Propensity for violence. The Twin Cities has a thriving raptor population that has figured out that streetlights make much better perches than tree branches. They're taller, they support the bird's weight better, and they don't have any branches to obscure vision. So on just about any drive through the city, spaced roughly every two to three miles (raptors are territorial birds) you can see a red-tailed hawk watching for prey, or sometimes if you're very lucky a peregrine falcon or a bald eagle (the latter are more common around the Mississippi River). Again, right outside my window I frequently spot small flocks of turkey vultures, lazily surfing the updrafts and keeping an eye out for something they can scavenge. They're astonishingly beautiful birds, even the turkey vultures; their smooth, sleek lines make them look like they're swooping even when they're standing still, and occasionally you'll see one dive with amazing speed and come up with a small mammal gripped in their talons.

There are obviously a few birds that score in multiple categories--hummingbirds, for example, while tiny, get multipliers for color and propensity to violence (plus their speed makes them eye-catching in their own unique way). But for the most part, when you see me stop in amazement at a bird, it's either big or bright or a sleek hunter. I feel very privileged that I get to stop in amazement so often.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Crazy Fact of the Day

Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum have not dropped out of the Republican Presidential race yet!

Bonus crazy fact of the day: Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, John Kasich, George Pataki, and Rick Santorum are all declared Republican Presidential candidates!

Seriously, though, it is a little hard to understand why so many of these guys are running. The national conversation has been reduced to Trump, Carson, and Bush, with occasional comments about how Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Ted Cruz, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal are floundering/are keeping their powder dry for the inevitable implosion of Carson and Trump. (Delete where applicable, although I'm still waiting for an extremely bored opinion columnist to try to combine the two into one column.) To be honest, Jindal has already been moved into the "death watch" section, where the only articles he gets are speculation about when he's going to drop out.

But those other guys...they're not even being mentioned in the conversation about who's going to leave the race yet! They are seriously so irrelevant to the national political discussion that they're not even given consideration as potential losers. It's already assumed that if they're not gone already, it doesn't really matter because they soon will be. Basically, they're the Lincoln Chafee/Jim Webbs of the Republican Party, except that those two guys had the common sense to give up after humiliating themselves on national television. The Republicans appear to be clinging to delusions of grandeur until the bitter end.

My current hypothesis is that this is another unintended consequence of Citizens United. Because it is now so much easier than it ever was to raise vast amounts of money for political campaigns, and because the rules on how that money is spent have been loosened (and the laws that do exist have been loosely enforced) it is now at least a theoretically lucrative proposition to run a losing Presidential campaign. Basically, you find a few big-money donors and shake them down until their teeth rattle, then live high on the hog touring the country and spouting the kind of crap that stands no chance of getting you elected, but does loosen the purse strings on other donors. If you work this system right, you end up with a string of contact information for people with poor critical thinking skills and disposable income who you can milk for years in between elections by sending out fear-mongering emails about Planned Parenthood and Agenda 21.

(I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out why it seems to be the Republicans who have so many of these political tapeworms in their collective gut.)

As a lifelong Democrat, I'm of mixed opinions about this. On the one hand, I obviously think it's terrible that the current political system actively encourages con artists to pretend to run for President in order to prey on the gullible and stupid. I think it helps to encourage the notion that politics and policy are unrelated, and that the business of elections is a combination of sideshow and sporting event rather than a job interview for the people who will be in charge of our country for the next four years. On that level, I would really like all of these frauds and charlatans to get out of the process. (And yes, that goes for Trump and Carson too. They're no less frauds and charlatans; they're simply much better at it than Rick Santorum is.)

On the other hand, if the gullible and stupid will insist on getting involved in politics, and if they will put their money where their mouth is and throw cash at terrible human beings who spout racist, sexist, nativist garbage and whose idea of a solution to our problems is round up all the furriners and give everybody a gun...well, then I suppose it's not such a bad thing that they're spending that cash on people who have no hope in hell of being elected. If the net result of the Republican effort to openly sell our political offices to billionaires is that in the end, the billionaires are all taken for a ride by con artists and legitimate-but-terrible candidates like Jeb Bush flounder while Hillary Clinton (or better yet, Bernie Sanders) have a smooth path to the White House, I guess that's not the worst solution.

Basically, I think what I'm saying is that until we get real campaign finance reform, I'd much rather conservatives give all their money to the ineffective candidates. Because the alternative is them donating to people who actually stand a chance to win.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

My New 'Back to the Future' Headcanon

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of 'Back to the Future' nostalgia, as the celebration of the official arrival of Marty's future caused everyone to go back and rewatch the original movies and incessantly blog about them. (Those people blogging about 'Back to the Future' should be ashamed of themselves.)

While rewatching the movie with my family, we got into a conversation about Marty's dangerous tampering with future history--not the stuff with his family or Mayor Goldie Wilson or Biff. No, Marty dropped "Darth Vader" into conversation with a science fiction fan who goes on to be a published author, decades before 'Star Wars' even happened. (He also mentions the planet Vulcan, but that's a much less serious risk because Star Trek's Vulcan was named after the hypothetical planet astronomers once believed to exist inside the orbit of Mercury. It was actually used in several other science fiction stories that predate Trek.)

So, the question we had was, "Did Marty's slip of the tongue create a parallel timeline where Darth Vader wasn't the villain of the Star Wars movies?" We came up with three possibilities.

1) No. Marty's dad forgot the name and came up with something else for his radiation-suited matchmaker in his book, 'A Match Made in Space'. History stays on its track.

2) No. Marty's dad made his money (he doesn't appear to have the same office job he did in the original timeline) not through writing, but through creative lawyering; he published the short story that would later be used as the basis for 'A Match Made in Space' back in the late 50s/early 60s, and when 'Star Wars' came out, George McFly sued George Lucas for plagiarism. They settled out of court for an undisclosed sum that allowed McFly to live in comfort and write in leisure.

3) No. (This one is my favorite.) Instead, in this timeline, George McFly went on to write for television and film (remember, they only said it was his first novel) and worked with luminaries of science fiction like Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas. In the revised timeline, he actually suggested the names "Vulcan" and "Darth Vader". Basically, Marty McFly rewrote history so that his dad created both Star Wars and Star Trek.

Which means that JJ Abrams is, I suppose, his spiritual heir...

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Gweniverse!

Ever since Spider-Gwen introduced us to the parallel universe where Gwen Stacy was bitten by a radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker, we've been seeing Marvel react to the strong, unexpected demand for a version of Spider-Man who's also an adorable teenage girl. (I still insist there's something deeply Freudian about the "distaff counterpart to male superhero" trend in general, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what it is.) She has her own regular series, and they've gone so far as to release Gwen Stacy-themed covers of just about every Marvel title in order to show what it would be like if Gwen was Captain America, the Hulk, Deadpool, every single member of the X-Men, et cetera.

Which made me wonder--what if she was?

I'd love to see a Marvel one-shot that was an off-shoot of the classic Jackal storyline. For those of you who don't remember either the Jackal's first, legendary appearance or his later, extremely awkward and best forgotten return in the 90s, the Jackal was college biology professor Miles Warren. He had an inappropriate fixation on Gwen Stacy, and when she died, he blamed Spider-Man for not being able to save her. He created what was originally intended to be a clone of Gwen, which was later retconned as a gene-splicing formula capable of reconfiguring random people into Gwen Stacy (and which may later have been re-retconned back to a clone of Gwen, but for our purposes let's pretend it wasn't).

(No, we can do that, because it was later revealed that he also created a similar genetic cocktail that turned one of his students into a version of himself called Carrion, so the logic holds no matter how you come at it. Anyhow, this isn't the place to get into the finer points of Clone Saga continuity, as we simply don't have enough liquor to go around.)

The point is, I think they should do a story where the Jackal returns with his final, triumphant creation--a virus that will transform everyone on Earth into Gwen Stacy! He unleashes it in New York City, of course, but it begins spreading globally. If left unchecked, it will mean the end of the human race, as the entire population of human beings will be reduced to Gwen Stacies. Luckily, the virus interacts oddly with superhuman genomes, creating a sort of limited protection from the virus--superheroes aren't immune, but the transformation shapes itself around their powers to create variants on Gwen Stacy. The story becomes a race against time, as Gwen Stacy, Gwen Stacy and Gwen Stacy (formerly Mister Fantastic, Beast and Hank Pym) must find a cure while Gwen Stacy, Gwen Stacy and Gwen Stacy (Captain America, Spider-Man and Wolverine) track down the Jackal and stop him once and for all.

And then in the next Secret Wars, Battleworld can have the Gweniverse meet the Marvel Zombies.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Um...Also, Testing...

I'm trying out my first Teespring shirt design. It's pretty simple, just a phrase they used on last night's Daily Show that deeply resonated with me and I thought people would like on a t-shirt. I'll try to come up with something cleverer and more original next time. Here's the URL:

I tried to keep prices low, since the graphic is pretty simple. I hope people enjoy it!

Today, I Am A Superhero

Today, I am a superhero.

I am using my amazing powers to shape my thoughts into tiny patterns of light and communicate them to you telepathically, across the vast distances of the planet and even into the future. I am speaking to people far out of hearing range, using specially designed communications devices to come to their assistance without ever even being in the same room as them.

Later, I will travel far faster than any human being can run with the aid of a technological marvel I call "the Automobile", I don't use these powers to fight crime--I concern myself with the dilemmas that fall between the cracks, the problems the police don't notice. I use my amazing powers to help my family, my friends. They can reach me from anywhere, using a secret ten-digit numerical code known only to them that activates my communicator. And through that communicator, I can reach the entire world, using a special web that links our minds known as "The Internet".

I may get tired, but luckily I have access to a special "energy drink" that will boost my mental acuity and help me push past my physical limits for a while in order to do all the helping I need to do. I know that not many people will see my amazing physical and mental abilities as anything special, but that's what having a secret identity is all about. I don't need acclaim or financial reward--all I need to know is that I used these blessings wisely and well at the end of the day.

Today I am a superhero. And if you respond by saying, "But you could say that about anybody," well...isn't that awesome?

Thursday, October 08, 2015


Every once in a while, when discussing racism/sexism/homophobia/ableism/generalized prejudice with people, you'll see the classic line, "But I can't be prejudiced! My friends/family/significant others have been members of this minority and we get along great!" Occasionally, you'll see it pushed beyond "we get along" to "they agree with me", but the general thrust is that if you can find a member of the group who you're accused of prejudice against who shares your views and is willing to say nice things about you, then clearly you can't really be prejudiced against that group. This has become known as "using them as a shield".

(Every once in a while, by the way, you'll find someone engaging in the cargo cult debating practice of accusing people who argue against racism of using minorities as a shield by ignoring the members of the minority who agree with the racists. GamerGate loved this tactic, frequently making up fictional members of minority groups who agreed with them when the actual minorities who agreed with them proved to be rather thin on the ground.)

Often, the people who use women and minorities as a shield get very upset about being accused of using women and minorities as a shield, because they think it implies that not only are they prejudiced, which they clearly can't be because they have friends who are women and minorities, but that those relationships they value are false or only there to defend them from criticism. If you're one of those people, let me try now to explain to you, in what will hopefully be calm and friendly terms, why you're wrong--and not just wrong, but wrong in a way that is in and of itself prejudiced.

You're wrong because you're thinking about "prejudice" in its colloquial, everyday sense--hatred for minorities, or the belief in one's racial superiority. But really, prejudice is more than just that--literally, it means to pre-judge, to ascribe traits to an individual based not on the direct evidence of their personality or behavior, but because of the traits you imagine members of that group to have. It usually means negative traits, but it doesn't have to--deciding that all black people are good at basketball isn't hateful, because telling someone they're good at something is usually a compliment, but it is an act of prejudice, because it's not always true and it's making an assumption about someone based on race.

It's important to note that this prejudice works both ways. If you meet one woman who gets upset easily the week before their period, and you generalize that claim to "all women get really emotional right before their menstrual cycle", you are engaging in an act of prejudice even if you can point to specific instances that support your beliefs. Because you are judging every woman, in advance, based on the actions of one woman. (And again, this holds true even if the act of prejudice is behaviorally neutral. Liking watermelon is a behaviorally neutral act. Insisting that the stereotype of black people liking watermelon is true because your co-worker was black and he loved watermelon is racist.)

So if your defense against a claim of prejudice is to cite an individual who's a member of that group and point out that they agree with you, you're engaging in an act of prejudice right there. You are taking the opinions of one person you know who supports your position (or who you believe to support your position--I could probably write a whole additional column on the ways that "not arguing with me openly and continually" is conflated with "agreeing with me" by bigots) and generalizing them out to, "All people of this group support me, and so I can't be racist because I have so much support from minorities." The very defense of bringing in a minority as a shield is, in and of itself, a clear sign that you don't really get what your problem is.

That's why the "#notyourshield" argument that GamerGate made comes from a false place and inevitably fails. It assumes that people arguing against prejudice are doing the same thing they're doing--finding women who agree with their viewpoint and holding them up as examples--and that if they can find enough counter-examples, then they can "prove" that they're not sexist. But it doesn't work that way because the definition of "sexism" isn't simply "doing something a woman dislikes", it's ascribing traits to all women based on the actions of an individual woman, or ascribing traits to an individual woman based on your beliefs about women as a group. When you do that, you're being sexist whether or not you can find one or more women who say you're not.

To give another, purely hypothetical example, let's imagine a person named B. Torgersen--no, wait. That's too obvious. Let's call him Brad T. Let's say that Brad T. says that women and minorities "benefit from Affirmative Action" when they win an award--purely for hypothetical purposes, we'll pick the Hugo Awards, but it could be any major science-fiction writing awards. This is an act of prejudice--it is a direct implication that women and minorities are not as talented as white men, and that they need to have factors other than the quality of their work taken into account in order for them to win the award.

Now, Brad T.' comment could be defended on the grounds that he's not talking about all women and minorities; he's just giving specific examples of women and minorities who did win despite other work being better on the merits. It's a pretty weak counter-argument, because it denies the possibility of bias on his part while insisting everyone else is subject to bias, but he could try to make it work. Perhaps he could cite examples of worthy works that were overlooked in favor of these supposed inferior stories.

Instead, our hypothetical Brad T. insists that he can't be racist or sexist, because he's married to a black woman. Note that this is, in and of itself, a prejudiced act on a number of levels. He's assuming that the only kind of prejudice possible is irrational hatred of women and minorities, rather than unthinking assumptions about them. He's assuming that his wife's emotional support of him as a person equates to support for his beliefs that women and minorities are not as talented as white men. And most importantly, he's assuming that if one black woman agrees with him, then all black women must agree with him. In trying to defend himself against prejudice, he has unwittingly exposed a whole host of further unexamined assumptions about race and gender, and demanded that they remain unexamined because to do otherwise implies that he doesn't really love his wife.

This is using a minority as a shield. It's not a hateful act--again, this isn't an implication that the relationship exists only as a defense against criticism--but it is an act of prejudice. Every single time. And if you find yourself in that position, of saying, "But all my friends are--" or "My family members are--" or "My loved ones are--" instead of engaging with an argument on the merits, stop. Take a step back. Calm down. And try to ask yourself why it is that you need your friends or family or loved ones to validate your opinions for you.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Top Five Characters I'd Like to See in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

With the caveat that Marvel has movies planned out until at least 2019, and that they're pretty rapidly getting to the point where you could run a cable network that showed nothing but MCU properties...there are actually some characters I still think they haven't gotten past fan rumors. I've got a few favorites I'd like to see, like:

5. She-Hulk. I'd do this as a TV series like "Daredevil" or "Jessica Jones", only a bit more light-hearted. Jennifer Walters is a high-profile attorney (I'd probably make her a district attorney) whose life turns upside-down when she's injured by mob bosses and given a blood transfusion by her cousin, Bruce Banner. (Obviously, this is something you'd have to work in later, once Bruce's whereabouts became known. I'd toss out the "rare blood type" thing, and make it an emergency transfusion given on the spot using improvised equipment.) Now she's invulnerable, super-strong, and really not interested in being anything other than an excellent district attorney because she believes in the criminal justice system as a way of dealing with law-breakers. But of course, it's never that easy.

4. Quasar. What I've always liked about Quasar is the idea that what made him a hero was that he wasn't aggressive or bitter or generally angsty. Literally, that's what made him a hero--he got these super-powerful quantum bands that could do all sorts of amazing stuff, and he was the first guy that didn't think of them as a weapon. The people who did all wound up blowing themselves to kingdom come with them. I would run with that, and make it clear that he's a hero who thinks first of his powers in terms of protecting people and limiting the abilities of bad guys to cause trouble, and then put him into an escalating series of cosmic crises where it gets harder and harder to save everyone.

3. Monica Rambeau. I grew up with her as "Captain Marvel", so to some extent I think it's a shame they're using Carol Danvers even though she's pretty awesome herself. But I like the idea of a super-powered New Orleans harbor patrol officer who takes the same approach to big epic cosmic Avengers-themed bad guys that she does to her everyday police work, and who survives the craziness by bringing everything back to police procedural principles. Every crime has a perp, a motive, a method, and evidence. Oh, and she is so not impressed by Tony Stark.

2. The Runaways. I actually think the Runaways would work better as a series of movies than as a comic, because their one big flaw as a superhero team is that they don't really have any big reason to keep fighting evil after they take down the Pride. (Yes, I know, Vaughn tried to sell the whole "they feel responsible for the uptick in crime after the Pride are defeated" thing, but it never felt comfortable.) In the movies, having a smaller number of good arcs isn't such a bad thing. And frankly, you almost don't need to touch the first story at all to make a great film.

1. Ms Marvel. Honestly, who else was it ever going to be? I really think the only reason she doesn't have her own movie yet is because they're using "Agents of SHIELD", 'Inhumans' and 'Captain Marvel' to lay the groundwork for her admittedly complex origin. (Okay, I tell a lie, it's not that complex--she got gassed with alien mist that awakened alien DNA. But comics fans will tell you it's complex.) Seriously, they don't need to change a thing, just bring her into the movies with a good actress playing her and do all the stuff they're doing right now and it will be awesome.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Involuntary Decency

This one's as much a question as an answer: Does anyone else ever get a peculiar feeling of intense shame and frustration when you give up and decide to indulge in a bad habit you've been trying to be disciplined about, only to have circumstances conspire to prevent you from doing so? And if so, is there a word for that? I think it happens to everyone--you get so sick of your diet that you decide to go pig out on pizza, but the restaurant is closed. Or you decide to pick up a new book or game despite a tight budget, only to find out that it's out of stock.

To me, it always seems like the worst of both worlds--you have the shame of knowing that you don't have the willpower to resist temptation, but you don't get the compensation of actually having whatever it is you didn't have the willpower to resist. It's got to be the worst flavor of guilt out there, really. (In case anyone's worried, it was a very mild case today--I was planning on ordering out for lunch, but I left it too late and wound up deciding not to. It was less "circumstances" and more "my own personal laziness" conspiring to make me do the right thing.)

That said, I'd love to know if there was a word for it. Probably the Germans have something, even if it is thirty syllables long; they're good with giving names to obscure moods and feelings. You'd think that French would be the champion language for that, but what have they ever given us besides ennui?

...sorry, that should read, "What have they ever given us besides 'ennui'?" Big difference there. In any event, if you know the word for this feeling, or even if you just want to join me in disliking it, feel free to do so in the comments.