Thursday, February 25, 2016

Discredited Argument I'd Like to Stop Seeing Of the Day

"I'm not racist when I say Character X was white in the comics and should stay white, I just want them to stay faithful to the source material."

There's usually more to this argument, generally centered on the failure of the latest Fantastic Four movie (which is unambiguously blamed on casting Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch and not on any of the other changes they made from the original comic) and on how Marvel has been so successful because they stayed faithful to their source material.

So, let's just take care of this one now, shall we? Bucky Barnes is not an orphan and "camp mascot" who meets Steve Rogers for the first time after he becomes Captain America. Bucky also did not get strapped to a missile that was launched over the Atlantic and exploded, plunging him and Cap into the icy waters. The Red Skull is not a masked Nazi handpicked by Adolf Hitler as his personal attendant. HYDRA is not created by Baron Wolfgang von Strucker, who is not a World War II era Nazi and does not wield the Satan Claw as his signature weapon. Arnim Zola is not a bio-android wearing a TV screen on his chest that shows his original face (although that could still happen, Russo Brothers!) The Falcon is not a street-smart hustler whose memories were altered by the Cosmic Cube (which is not called the Cosmic Cube and does not have the same properties or origins as the Cosmic Cube). He does not have a trained falcon. Whiplash is not seeking revenge on Iron Man for the destruction of his home village at the hands of a man wearing stolen Stark technology. Volstagg is not a comedic figure whose cowardice and incapacity in a fight is played up whenever the character appears. The Destroyer is not animated by the consciousness of a living person. The Chitauri are not shapeshifters and have not been infiltrating human civilization since before World War II. AIM is not an offshoot of HYDRA headed by MODOK. Iron Patrior is not Norman Osborn and is not a super-villain seeking to masquerade as a patriotic hero. Ultron was not created by Hank Pym. Hank Pym was never Giant Man, Goliath, or Yellowjacket. The Purple Man is not actually purple. The Abomination was not a KGB spy who bombarded himself with radiation in an attempt to become a second Hulk. Sam Sterns is not a janitor from Boise. Drax is not an undead revenant created by the forces of the cosmos to murder Thanos. Nebula is not a cosmic con artist pretending to be Thanos' grand-daughter to make use of his reputation. Ronan is not an officially sanctioned law officer of the Kree government. Korath is not a blue Kree scientist who gave himself superpowers. Rocket is not a jet-booted swashbuckler created as a therapy animal for a planet-sized insane asylum. Yondu is not from a thousand years in the future. Yondu is not a wise and noble mystic from Alpha Centauri. Yondu does not use a bow with his arrow. Yondu is not disinterested in consuming human flesh. Star-Lord is not...oh, let's just say that Star-Lord is not anything Star-Lord ever was in the comics and leave it at that, okay?

In short, Marvel has taken vast liberties with every single aspect of their source material, and 99% of them have been greatly adored. It is significant that the only ones some people even notice, let alone take issue with, are the ones that change the skin color of their favorite characters. Let's not pretend otherwise, okay?

(Feel free to link to this post any time someone is making this argument online and you don't want to just retype it all, by the way.)

Monday, February 22, 2016

The All-Kidding-Aside State of the GOP Race

And now there are only five. A dying race, ruled by a dying emperor, imprisoned within themselves in a dying land.

No, wait. That's 'The Dark Crystal'. In the GOP race, they're not dying quickly enough for anyone's tastes. (And not metaphorically enough for some, but that's a whole other story.) We are down to five candidates, with the departure of Thank-God-He-Failed-Or-They'd-Dredge-Up-Neil-in-2024 Jeb Bush: Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump.

More importantly, though, there are only three viable candidates; Kasich and Carson have struggled to break out of single digits, with Kasich's only finish within sniffing distance coming in New Hampshire, immediately after Rubio's worst debate performance. Neither one of them stands even a microscopic chance of getting the nomination. That puts it at a three-way race--Cruz, Trump, and Rubio.

I can pretty much guarantee you that the GOP establishment would just as soon it be Rubio. They're terrified of the possibility of Trump actually getting the nomination--he's a gaffe-prone disaster whose every utterance is an airborne toxic event, and having him tied to the Republican brand would be exactly what they don't want in an election year that's probably going to have pretty high Democratic turn-out anyway. Cruz has his own problems; he has historically not worked well with his fellow Republicans, and there's some bad blood there. So they want Rubio.

And Rubio is doable. Not easily, but he is. Cruz and Trump are basically drawing off the same pool of voters, and I don't realistically think that Kasich supporters will go to Trump or Cruz. Carson supporters may go to Trump or Cruz, but I don't think he'll leave the race for anything short of an autographed selfie with Jesus. Kasich, on the other hand, could be lured into conceding with the promise of political considerations either personal or for the state of Ohio. (What they used to call "bribes".) And Kasich plus Jeb equals probably about fifteen percent of the GOP vote, enough to shift the conversation if they all break for the same person.

So if Kasich is lured into conceding, and he endorses Rubio, Cruz and Carson and Trump split each other's votes and Rubio winds up being the nominee. Which means the Democrats will win, because he's a callow dimwit who's less interested in the actual business of governance than he is in imagining himself to be a bigshot politician, but it's not like Cruz or Trump are going to shear moderates away either. Basically, I think what Republican insiders are hoping for at this point is to nominate someone who isn't such an obvious hot mess that he screws up their chance to keep the House and Senate. If they win the Presidency as well, that's great, but they really just don't want to backslide.

If Cruz drops out, on the other hand, all bets are off. I don't see Rubio picking all of those people up, even if a lot of them probably wouldn't go to Trump either. (I assume that if you're a crazy religious libertarian nutbag and you haven't already supported Trump, it has to be due to personal antipathy.) That could deliver the nomination to Trump, who will probably explain three days for the election that this was all a Stanley Milgram-style psychological experiment to see if the American people would vote for the worst human being imaginable and that he really wishes President Clinton/Sanders the best of luck.

Hey--it could happen. Certainly wouldn't be any crazier than anything else this electoral cycle.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

From the Yelp Reviews of the Hotel California

Power seemed to be out when we checked in. Staff was helpful, though, providing a bellhop to guide us by candlelight to rooms. Other guests were noisy and disruptive, and walls were thin causing us to hear their voices all the way down the corridor. 2/5, would not stay again.

Wine selection highly limited, and appears not to have been restocked in the last forty-five years. Loud and obnoxious guests kept us up all night singing, management was unresponsive to concerns. Outdoor dancercise program was a nice touch, though. 1/5

Restaurant service terrible. "Farm to table" generally does not mean that they bring a live animal into the room and stab it repeatedly in front of you. Animal was not killed humanely, and staff appeared to be unable to end its suffering. 0/5, very disturbing, especially to the children in our party.

Staff extremely rude. Night desk clerk attempted to detain us for unexplained reasons despite the fact that we had already settled our bill and checked out. On the other hand, the "Anytime Check-Out" system was convenient and easy to use. 1/5, do not recommend.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Review: All the Birds in the Sky

If nothing else, 'All the Birds in the Sky' deserves a ton of credit for the way that it more or less vaults over the high-concept obviousness of its premise like Evel Knievel jumping eighteen double-decker buses. (I should probably stop there, because I don't think I'm going to write a better sentence than that, but I'm going to press on.)

What I mean by that is that as soon as you hear that it's a story about a girl who grows up to be a magician and a boy who grows up to be a genius scientist and that they have to team up to save the world, there's a certain degree of ossification of concept that happens immediately. You just know that the magicians don't cotton to rigid hide-bound scientists, and the scientists hate the irrationality of magic, and they don't get along and it's up to these two best friends to find some way to make the two work together, because thesis-antithesis-synthesis is pretty much ingrained into SFF authors as an easy way to get a three-act structure out of their idea.

But Charlie Jane Anders avoids the obvious plot structure, more or less, by taking the audacious approach of ignoring it completely for a good three-quarters of the book. Instead, she focuses primarily on protagonists Laurence and Patricia initially as damaged kids from messed-up families whose friendship is just about the only thing that keeps them alive through their childhood, and later as slightly damaged adults who are recovering from a lifetime of trauma and who wind up becoming friends all over again. And oh yes magic is real and so is weird impossible super-science. It's actually a brilliant approach to the material, and the majority of the book flies by in an immensely readable fashion.

The end does suffer a bit from having to come back to the premise--there's a bit of Idiot Ball plotting as Laurence and Patricia suddenly find themselves on opposite sides and spend a bit of time assuming the worst about each other in an unconvincing manner--and I'll admit to not entirely liking the way that all the romantic sub-plots developed, but I confess that could be due to unfair expectations on my part. I'm a big fan of Charlie Jane Anders, and she's awesomely sex-positive and non-heteronormative, and I kind of thought that would come out more in the book than it did. But I've always felt that one of the cardinal sins of a reviewer is saying, "The author didn't write it the way I would have," so I will freely give her a pass on the latter issue.

Overall, the book is charming, witty, human and moving in a very fresh and modern way. It feels like a novel about people who live in a fantastic universe, rather than a fantasy novel, and I hope Charlie Jane Anders takes that as the compliment it's intended to be. I greatly look forward to her next work.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

2016 GOP Projections

There are now two primaries in the books for the Republican Party...and while everyone has focused on the winners, Cruz and Trump, it's distant last-place finisher Jim Gilmore that's got my attention. Gilmore finished with 12 votes in Iowa (not 12%, 12 votes) and 123 in New Hampshire. Everyone is saying this pretty much means what it seems to mean--no nomination for "Happy" Gilmore this year! (May not be his actual nickname.) But I'm projecting a very different result. Let's look at the timeline:

February 20: Jim Gilmore picks up 1,234 votes in the South Carolina primary. Still relegated to a joke mention at the back of the Rachel Maddow Show.

February 23: Jim Gilmore nabs 12,345 votes in the Nevada primary. Pundits mention his growing base of support, but suggest that he may be peaking too late to have a chance at the nomintion.

March 1: Super Tuesday brings about a wave of shocking events. Gilmore picks up over a hundred thousand votes in Alabama, and over a million in Alaska (the entire population of the state and then some). Pundits begin to suspect that something strange is happening, but nobody imagined the early returns in Arkansas, where ten million people cast their vote for Gilmore. This is well over five times the population of the state, and his opponents are quick to allege voter fraud until it's pointed out this is based on exit polling. People are, it seems, being summoned into existence spontaneously by deep-seated need the universe feels for a Gilmore nomination.

The disaster continues as Colorado reports a hundred million distinct voters all supporting Jim Gilmore. Journalists frantically check the records of these new specimens of humanity, but everything checks out--birth certificates, citizenship papers, the whole package. Reality is warping and shifting at a terrifying rate as history is altered to accommodate the ascendance of former Governor Gilmore.

By the time Super Tuesday is over, more than ten quadrillion new citizens have inhabited the states, causing massive and insurmountable infrastructure issues. Many of these new Gilmoroids die in the ensuing food riots over the next few days, but their votes are still counted, giving Gilmore an insurmountable lead in each state. President Obama begs the GOP to cancel the remaining primaries and anoint Gilmore the candidate by approbation, but Reince Priebus insists that the democratic process must be followed to the letter.

March 5: Over a hundred quintillion new citizens are created in the next wave of primaries, enough to carpet the entire continental United States to a depth of twenty feet. The voting process is bogged down in an endless line, as the process of counting eligible votes now is estimated to take longer than the entire span of human history to this date. President Obama declares a state of emergency, but the Gilmoroids have enough manpower to overwhelm the entire combined militaries of the human race.

March 6: Puerto Rico holds its primary. The earth shifts a small but measurable amount in its orbit as a sextillion new humans are instantly summoned into existence. By this point, the earth has sustained total ecological collapse as a single breath of the Gilmoroids consumes all the planet's oxygen at once. Humanity begs Gilmore to stop the process, but he has no idea what caused it to happen. All he can do is declare himself President in the hopes that it will stem the unending flow of Gilmore-worshiping parodies of humanity.

March 8: Hawaii, Idaho, Michigan and Mississippi all hold their primaries on the same date. Earth collapses into a singularity from the added mass.

So the outlook is a bit bleak, on the whole. But at least it beats the alternative, President Trump.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Review: Gulp

Mary Roach is a goddamn national treasure.

I almost stopped the review right there, but I should probably clarify. She's an immensely talented writer with a number of books ('Stiff', 'Spook', 'Bonk', 'Packing for Mars' and 'Gulp') that take a look at the science surrounding topics normally considered too taboo or too obscure for discussion and distill them down into a collection of facts so fascinating that you'll find that taboo breaking down just a little bit as you read. She discusses orgasms in an MRI machine and composting of human corpses with a slightly horrified thrill that drags you right along with her, and by the end of each of her books you'll feel a little bit smarter.

'Gulp', her latest book (I'm hoping she's due for another soon) is no exception. It's all about the way we process food, from the front--there's a lovely introductory chapter about the way we process flavors--to the back, with a chapter on the cutting edge of fecal bacteria transplants. Along the way, you get to learn about a man with a fistulated stomach who was so valuable to medical science that he had to tell his family to shoot anyone who tried to collect his body, about the science of making pet food palatable, about the tricks and tips for smuggling objects in your stomach, and all about the importance of swallowing to satiety. And how someone found that out the hard way.

It is a little squicky, don't get me wrong. Reading about a guy who had to chew his food and spit out the bolus into a little funnel that went directly into his stomach (due to damage to the esophagus) is actually a bit harder than reading about body disposal. But even if 'Gulp' is a little harder to read than 'Stiff', it's still filled with the amazing and fascinating tidbits that make Mary Roach so readable and entertaining. And even though she freely admits to not being a scientist herself, in many ways that helps her make a better book about science--she is constantly going to scientists and saying, "Could you please distill your work down to a level understandable by a layman?" The results tend to be far more informative than if a scientist had written them.

So yes, you will gulp down 'Gulp', one slightly wince-inducing but absolutely fascinating chapter at a time. Because Mary Roach is a goddamn national treasure.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Failure Mode of Clever

Apparently while I was out sick, John Scalzi wrote a piece on impostor syndrome. Now, in general I'd say that my opinion on John Scalzi is that he's right about 99% of the time, but when he's wrong he puts his foot in it hard and tries to pretend his shoe doesn't smell. This is one of those times he put his foot in it hard.

Because I honestly don't even understand the point of this piece. It's John Scalzi telling everyone he doesn't have impostor syndrome. He says he's not bragging about it, but my question is, if this isn't a brag, then what is it actually supposed to be? Is it some sort of advice to people who do have impostor syndrome? If it is, it's beyond terrible into actively cruel. His first suggestion-not-suggestion is that he never suffered from impostor syndrome because he knew he wanted to be a writer from the age of fourteen on.

Again, I don't know what this is if it's not a brag, because as advice, it's not just useless but outright harmful. Telling someone, "Hey, the reason I don't have impostor syndrome is that I knew I wanted to be a writer from a very young age. You should try that," is going to undermine their self-confidence, feed into that crippling sense of doubt that's at the root of impostor syndrome, and convince them that everything their negative self-talk tells them is actually true. Because here's a famous, successful writer who's everything they want to be saying to them that no, real writers know it deep down in their heart from a very young age so they never have to worry about it.

To understand why this is a horrible, horrible thing to do, imagine transposing it to a more commonly discussed mental illness, clinical depression. Imagine someone offering to you, as entirely unsolicited advice about your depression, "Well, I suppose it's never been a problem for me because I've had so much to be happy about. I don't know why other people don't have that." Can you picture the way it would make someone feel to be told that the part of themselves that's lying to them and suggesting the things that bring them joy aren't good enough or true enough is actually right? Can you imagine why this is an awful thing to say to someone even if you didn't intend it to be that way?

His second piece of not-advice-but-certainly-not-a-brag is that he never had a problem with impostor syndrome because everybody liked his writing. Which is a) again, a horrible thing to say to someone with impostor syndrome who might be reading this, because they already tend to magnify any criticism they get and a famous author telling them, "Oh, nobody really criticized me" is going to further magnify it, but b) shows a complete and total lack of understanding of the problem so thorough that it magnificently disqualifies Scalzi from writing this essay.

Because the problem with impostor syndrome isn't just that you magnify criticism. It's that you disbelieve praise. The thing that is utterly gutting about impostor syndrome is that you assume anyone saying nice things about you and your work is deluded or lying, that it's only a matter of time before they find out who you really are and turn that praise into withering scorn. People with impostor syndrome get praise all the time, just as much as Scalzi if not more. They just don't believe it when they hear it.

Points three through six are all pretty much reiterations of the same theme--Scalzi had success early on, was proud of it, and when he hit a stall in his career he just dug deep and recommitted to writing. Again, this is sod-all use to anyone suffering from impostor syndrome, and completely misunderstands the problem in a way that only someone utterly oblivious to their own privilege can. People with impostor syndrome don't have a problem attaining success, they have a problem believing their success is genuinely due to their talent and that they don't deserve it. Scalzi's point four is absolutely flabbergasting in its sheer boneheadedness--it's, "When I succeeded, I was proud of it. That may be one of the reasons I don't have impostor syndrome." That's not even a reason, it's just a tautological reiteration of the fact that he doesn't have impostor syndrome. It's like saying, "Maybe one of the reasons I don't have the mumps is that my glands aren't swelling up?"

All of this would have been bad enough, a sheer mountain of smug lack of self-awareness as he proceeds to sanesplain people's mental illnesses to them, if not for his first comment to the person who called him on his crap. He said to them, "You do understand that I don’t actually care what you or anyone else expects from me, yes?"

So that's John Scalzi, telling people who are mentally ill and upset with him for casually dismissing their very real problems in a fit of oblivious privilege that he doesn't care. Apparently this piece wasn't written for them.

But it's not a brag. Because he said so.