Thursday, December 31, 2015

Want Some Wacky Spelling Humor? You've Come to the Right Place!

Coming this fall, to TNT:

When magic returns to the world, this elite team of experts feels that it's really not their place to decide whether it's being used ethically or not--after all, if magic is being misused, then surely the reputation of the individual sorcerer will suffer and people will choose not to work with them in future. This alone provides sufficient safeguards on the bad behavior of others, without needing some sort of state apparatus providing surveillance and control over the lives of everyday citizens acting in good faith. That kind of apparatus eventually finds continuing ways to justify its own existence, turning every magic user either into a slave of the state or a rebel against it. Minimal regulation of magic is the best regulation, they say, and so they refuse to participate in the oppression of their fellows by committing theft in the guise of artifact "confiscation" or by depriving others of their civil liberties simply because those others devoted their lives to esoteric studies in expectation of a reasonable reward. After all, doesn't the exchange of time and effort deserve to be compensated with otherworldly power? Of course it does! So these experts...pretty much don't do anything. Ever. Because to do so would be against their deeply held philosophical beliefs regarding the social covenant between individuals.

The Libertarians. This fall, on TNT.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: The Sparrow

There's always an odd feeling that comes when you read a book and appreciate it while feeling fairly certain you took away a completely different message than the one the author intended. It's sort of awkward--it seems almost churlish, like you're refusing a gift the writer gave you and instead rooted through their stuff to take home a souvenir. It makes one want to keep silent, for fear of offending fans who no doubt appreciated the book the way it was supposed to be read.

Which brings me to Mary Doria Russell's 'The Sparrow', which was recommended to me by some good friends. And I'm pretty sure it was intended as a science fiction religious parable, a meditation in the spirit of Job on a devout and saintly Jesuit man who believes that divine providence has set him on a path to first contact with an alien race, only to have his faith tested when the mission (in both senses of the word) goes horribly wrong.

What I instead took away was a cautionary tale about the very real need for laws regarding who can initiate first contact with an alien species, because there are definitely some really stupid people out there who will jump in with both feet and mess it up beyond all hope of fixing if we're not careful. Father Sandoz, the main character, is instantly convinced that their trip to Alpha Centauri is divinely ordained because a) he is one of the first people to discover the message that the aliens send, b) his friends all have technical expertise that would come in handy on a mission to Alpha Centauri, and c) he doesn't know enough about what he's contemplating doing to even understand how badly he's about to mess it up.

Seriously, the Jesuit expedition to Rakhat (the planet orbiting Alpha Centauri whose messages Earth receives) is a classic example of Dunning-Kruger in action. They don't even think about the risks of biological contamination--when the first crewmember dies (I'd apologize for spoilers, but most of the book is told in flashback well after it's established that Father Sandoz is the only survivor) they bury his body in the alien soil because, well, they've already breathed the air and eaten the food and defecated onto the ground, so what's the good in preventing a human corpse from rotting in an alien ecosystem? They plant a wide variety of Earth vegetables, all the while patting themselves on the back for using "low-germination" seeds know, probably...won't become an invasive species that overruns a completely alien world and destroys its delicate balance of nature.

You know, probably.

And if their grasp of biological contamination begins and ends with "don't bring along breeding pairs of predatory animals or anything," their grasp of cultural contamination is equally criminal in its naivete. They encounter two sentient alien species in the course of their expedition, and by the end (mild spoilers) they've touched off a civil war and at least one genocide through their interference in an elaborate social structure that they don't even begin to understand. To say nothing of what happens to the expedition and Father Sandoz,, okay, some serious spoilers here, alright? (If you don't want to go any further, assume I recommended the book but really didn't like any of the characters in it.)

Monday, December 21, 2015

It's Christmas Week!

And since it is Christmas week, I'm afraid I'm not going to be blogging a ton. In lieu of a post today, for example, here's a graphic I worked on last week:

Which, if nothing else, shows how bored I can get sometimes.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Review of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

I was lucky enough to get into a special screening of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' on Tuesday, and although I've been avoiding reviewing it until now, due to spoiler concerns, I figured that with the movie coming out I could at least share some of my opinions. The first thing, I have to say, is that I really expected higher production values. I mean, this is 'Star Wars'! You'd expect them to throw all the money in the world at this movie, but instead we got a dingy, grimy film that looked like it had been shot back in the 70s. Perhaps Abrams was trying to maintain fidelity to the original?

The second thing I noticed is that Mark Hamill really seemed to be phoning it in as Luke. Half his dialogue sounded like mumbled ADR added in post, and he gestured as though he was conducting some sort of drunken concerto. (And as for his appearance...I get that they wanted him to look older, but his beard was obviously fake.) I don't think you can fault Hamill, who's done great work elsewhere; this just seems to have been a shoddily directed production.

And the screenwriting was no great shakes either. It lacked the scope of the previous films--even the Prequels took us to strange, alien worlds and showed us astonishing vistas from across the galaxy. This looked like it was shot on a beach in Florida. And the plot--Luke's spaceship crashes, and he needs help from local kids to dig it out? That's the best they can come up with for a star-spanning epic? To say nothing of the bizarre digression halfway through, where Luke just stops to tell the kids a story that's a thinly-veiled version of "Jack and the Beanstalk". I don't know what they were thinking there.

To me, though, the worst indignity was when the Millennium Falcon (or what passes for it in the new film's budget) shows up to rescue Luke. We don't even get Han Solo--just Chewbacca, in a half-hearted costume that looks more like a gigantic white rabbit than the Wookie we've all come to know and love. It's a lazy, slapdash resolution, made all the weaker when Luke's spaceship simply disappears through "Jedi magic" and the kids all just go home. What were they even thinking with this--


...oh., I seem to have been laboring under a misapprehension, there. It appears that what I attended was not a sneak preview of 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens', but was in fact an encore presentation of 'Rifftrax Live: Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny'. (Which, if nothing else, explains the short Christmas films in front of the feature and the three guys who kept talking over every scene.) Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be seeing the theater about a refund.

Monday, December 14, 2015

It's Probably a Good Thing I Never Monetized This Blog

Did you hear that Robert Palmer is starting a new line of exotic cheeses? He's going to be using primate milk instead of cow or goat milk. The line will be called, "Simply Irresistible Cheese", and the slogan will be, "Cheese so fine, there's no telling where the monkey went.", you may need to Google this one.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Lazy Link Post 2.0!

Technically, I'm jumping the gun on this slightly--the finale of Season 27 of 'The Amazing Race' doesn't air until Friday, so there's still one more episode to recap before I can put this one to bed. But it's close enough that I can update this post on Saturday, so let's post a linkroll of the new season of the Amazing Race!

"A Little Too Much Beefcake"
"Get in There and Think Like a Dog"
"Where My Dogs At?"
"Good Old Fashioned Spit in the Face"
"King of the Jungle"
"My Tongue Doesn't Even Twist That Way"
"Full Speed Ahead, Captain!"
"Krakow, I'm Gonna Get You"
"It's Always the Quiet Ones"
"Bring the Fun, Baby!"
"It's Not Easy Beating Green"
"We Got a Chance, Baby!"

And that will put another season in the books. Season 28 has already been confirmed, and I'm looking forward to it!

Monday, December 07, 2015

The Greatest Mysteries Have No Answers

I was absolutely thrilled the other day to find a copy of 'The Secret Man', Bob Woodward's most recent book on Watergate and the one he wrote after the revelation of Deep Throat's identity. Because even as a kid, the identity of Deep Throat was one of those great historical mysteries, on a par with the true identity of Jack the Ripper and the fate of the passengers of the Marie Celeste. Everyone wanted to know the secret identity of the man who took down the President (even though Woodward and Bernstein were a bit more modest than the movies in suggesting the role he played), and it appeared for the longest time that the truth behind it would stay hidden forever.

And then it came out. And a lot of people looked very smart, and a few people looked very foolish, and Bob Woodward wrote a book about it...and when I read it, I learned just how little we really knew at all. Because Woodward makes it painfully clear in 'The Secret Man' that he didn't really know Mark Felt, the Number Two man at the FBI who provided Woodward and Bernstein with the road map they needed to uncover Watergate. They were casual acquaintances, and after Watergate they didn't even speak for decades. Woodward doesn't have the slightest clue what would make Felt do what he did. Nobody does.

Oh, he has some good guesses. He knew Felt was a Hoover loyalist who believed strongly in the ideals of the FBI, and that it had to have gutted him to watch a political appointee destroy evidence and allow the agency to become a political instrument. He knew Felt was an ambitious man who must have been furious to see himself passed over for promotion not once but twice. (Part of this, of course, was that one of the few people who wasn't fooled by Felt's deceptions was Nixon himself. He knew Felt was Deep Throat all along, but never did anything with the information because he was afraid that Felt would be even more damaging if Nixon forced him to go public.) Woodward knew a lot of things about Felt, but he didn't know the man.

And ultimately, nobody did. Knowing who Deep Throat is, while it certainly satisfies the mundane question of "Who was this person who knew so much about the Nixon conspiracy?", doesn't solve the mystery. The ultimate mystery is in the heart of a solitary, private individual who took his reasons to the grave--as with Jack the Ripper, the identity turns out to be the least important question, and knowing the answer means almost nothing.

It's haunting, realizing that there are things we can never know. Not just in the literal, historical sense--things are lost to history every day, even with the best of efforts from archivists. (18 1/2 minutes worth of things, for example.) I mean in the sense that ultimately, we can never truly understand the great decisions of history. People justify, they misremember, they lie and they obfuscate...or, as in the case of Felt, they simply take their secrets to the grave.

Mark Felt was Deep Throat. But who was Mark Felt?

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Review: The Disappearing Spoon

It's been a long time since I read a book as fun as 'The Disappearing Spoon (and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World From the Periodic Table of Elements' by Sam Kean. It's one of those magnificent polymathic books that flits madly from topic to topic, sometimes a history book and sometimes a science text, occasionally taking in a bit of economics and psychology and literature along the way as it covers the way that the elements define us.

Not just literally, although there's certainly some of that--Kean devotes entire chapters to poisons, how they work and how they've been used and how they've shaped our culture and history--but how the struggle to define the periodic table and to understand the elements of our universe is ultimately the human struggle. It incorporates politics--the very names of elements like Berkelium and Californium are at the heart of a Cold War race with the Russians to find the rarest and least stable elements--and art, economics and the biographies of some of our greatest minds. It's filled with amazing triumphs of the human intellect and astonishing depths of the human soul, a quest for understanding the very universe itself by understanding its fundamental building blocks.

All of which is great in and of itself, but Kean brings those stories to life in vivid, elegant prose. Every chapter is filled with tiny, brilliantly-linked anecdotes that are entertaining and informative in their own right, but which combine to fascinate the reader for hours. The sheer variety and profusion of cleverness on display is magnificent--there are pieces on the cold fusion debacle, on Japanese pollution crises, on Australian gold rushes and the life-cycles of stars, with none of them seeming out of place. The story of the elements is the story of everything, after all. There's nothing it can't encompass.

In case I'm not making myself clear, this is a wonderful diversion of a book. It teaches without boring, it entertains without being a mindless diversion, and it's well-written on every level. I can't recommend this one highly enough.