Sunday, December 28, 2008

Me Chinese, Me Play Joke...

One of my original intentions for this blog was that it was to be a culinary cooking and food blog. The blabbing about science fiction pulpsters was an entirely unforeseen development.

Check out this great and hilarious presentation about the origin of "Chinese Food" in the United States, including an explanation as to who this "General Tso" guy was, anyway.

The presentation doesn't talk about Cuban-Chinese food - it's not commonly known, but Havana's Chinatown was the world's 2nd largest besides San Francisco's. In a lot of Miami Chinese restaurants, you can get your honey chicken with a side of platanos fritos.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Some Hate for Proposition Eight

Do you believe that the government has the right to tell people who they can or can't marry?

Prop 8's the one thing that harshes my buzz about finally having a President that talks like a grownup adult (that, and the fact the Three Stooges remain in power here in Florida: I guess running Joe Garcia, a charismaless nerd technocrat, wasn't enough). Proposition Eight is an example of the ugly Karl Rove "old" school of politics the American people categorically rejected: divide the electorate with an issue and hope you end up with the bigger piece. Usually, it nearly always involves smearing a minority group (undocumented workers, homos, Ay-rabs).

This actually affects someone close to me personally, because my Mother has a "civil union" with her boyfriend that gives her hospital and visitation rights and allows them to share insurance.

Incidentally, I fully expect a lot of comments that go "Hey, if you're so tolerant, how come you're not tolerant of my intolerance?" Those just crack me up.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Iraq 'em up

If you knew you could get away with it, would you kill for fun?

It's a fair bet that half of my High School P.E. class would absolutely say yes.

Alright, now pretend I'm paying you (no joke) $160,000 a year to guard State Department officials - which in practice means opening fire on any Iraqi kid that so much as sneezes in your care. And also, you're from the boonies and don't have a college education.

It's obvious by now that I'm talking about the dumb, mean and incompetent employees of Blackwater. The funny thing is, I'm going to take the Foreign Service exam in a couple months, and I'd much rather be protected by a Blackwater merc than what passes for a Marine (or rather, "Freedom Scout") in the deleusional self-parody America has become. I'll take a mercenary in it for the money over a do-gooder anyday.

I don't blame Blackwater for the murders. While Nuremberg established that it is possible to prosecute a soldier even if they were under orders to kill civilians, so much chaos and carnage happens regularly in Iraq that a show-trial for someone that killed the wrong target is hypocritical and darkly comic.

What does gall me about Blackwater is how they reveals every lie we were taught to swallow when we're growing up: that the way to success is to study hard, be smart, and get good grades. If the current financial crisis is anything to go by, assholes like me that studied hard are going broke, whereas the dumb, mean guys that placed firecrackers up the anus of cats are buying McMansions hand over fist.

It isn't that Blackwater is brutal, it's that they're dumb: how many of them speak Arabic, for instance? This is important because in the modern, asymmetrical school of warfare, tanks and jet fighters and big 'roided out Texans with guns are not as important as intelligence operations. A lot of cracks are made at the expense of someone like James Bond, how he isn't realistic or relevant. Actually, with the importance of asymmetrical warfare strategies, now may be the only time that someone like Bond (a hitman with a brain) is even vaguely relevant.

Iraq is a war for linguistics and social studies, not engineering and metal shop. The failure to predict the ensuing sectarian violence after the fall of Saddam can be traced exclusively to the fact that most pundits just didn't get that there is more than one kind of Muslim, and they're not exactly bursting at the seams with brotherly love for each other. As Bob Woodward remembered in PLAN OF ATTACK, George W. Bush didn't even know - and the folks that did know better were too focused on playing with their Green Army Men and the usual military wargaming than focusing on the basic social facts of the region.

And...not to gloat, but this is something I saw coming. Without a strong central government, Iraq would break down into sectarian violence.

And finally, there's definitely an expiration date on this kind of Blackwater model. I'd say it passed in the fifties, when guerilla warfare came into style worldwide, or even earlier, though you wouldn't hear that from the Pentagon: they're still polishing their shiny new toys like they're going to fight the Wehrmacht and the Japanese Imperial Navy instead of al-Queda.

So maybe nerds get their revenge over the vicious after all.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Isaac Asimov's Lucky Starr Series

This is kind of embarassing, but the first Asimov stuff I ever read was the fiction he wrote as Paul French - the Lucky Starr stuff, space opera adventure for young adult readers.

Lucky Starr is an agent for the Science Council of the Solarian League, accompanied by his sidekick, the 5'2" ironically named Bigman. Some of the gadgets range from the cool (Lucky Starr's identifying science council tattoo is invisible and changes form beneath his skin), influential (the Force-Blade, the inspiration for all the laser-swords in science fiction), to the just-plain weird (Lucky Starr's hopper, a pogo-car as ludicrous as it sounds).

What's really amazing about the stories is how Lucky Star uses his head: his stories are, contrary to their superficial appearance as Space Opera, science fiction detective stories and mysteries. For that reason, I'll never forgive the cover artist for LUCKY STARR AND THE MOONS OF JUPITER in the seventies series, which blew the ending to the book on the cover!

In this series, the crew is plagued by a Robot spy from the Sirius League, settlers that became cold-war rivals to Earth's solar system. The whole mystery of the novel is who the robot spy might be. In the end, it turns out to be the seeing eye-dog of the blind astronaut.

Lucky Starr manages to beat the robot spy the same way everything gets resolved in an Isaac Asimov novel involving robots: by creating a situation where there's a conflict or loophole in the laws of robotics, so the robot shuts down. This is, incidentally, the same technique that would be a trademark of James Tiberius Kirk years later: using logic problems to destroy evil computers.

What strikes me as interesting about the Lucky Starr books is how they are something that Asimov (and for that matter, most good science fiction writers) don't really do: they have a story that can be rewritten without any science fiction elements as another work of genre fiction. Replace the Orion Confederation with the Commies and the Science Council with the CIA and you've got a mystery/espionage thriller.

The best science fiction is the kind that you can't rewrite as another kind of genre story. Science Fiction's best works aren't Westerns with six-shooters and aliens replaced by ray guns and aliens; they aren't fantasy with laser swords and gizmos standing in for magic and swords. Science fiction is a type of story in and of itself. Science Fiction has problems and conflicts that can only exist in science fiction. By no means is this list complete:

1) Communication. How do you express meaning to something totally different from yourself? "Communication" stories include Harry Harrison's WEST OF EDEN, or all those Ursula K. le Guin stories about cooperating with an alien race.

2) A story that provokes a sense of wonder just by its scale. An example would be Bradbury's "You Just Missed Him," about a crew that goes to another planet and discover that someone of great religious significance (presumably Jesus Christ, but this is not explicitly stated) was just there, but they "just missed him." So they rocket to the next planet, only to learn they were too late, he just left there...and so forth.

3) A strong central concept based on real science. The ultimate example would be Niven's Ringworld. The physics textbook has yet to be made that doesn't have at least one work problem and sample test question involving the mind-boggling math of the Ringworld.

4) Sentience. What exactly is sentience and intelligence? Do humans have it? Robots? The best work of this kind would be H. Beam Piper's LITTLE FUZZY.

In fact, all the hoariest science fiction and space opera cliches are stand-ins for tired elements in other kinds of stories. Space Pirates, for instance, or the unstoppable space-Mongol horde that threatens everything (how many quasi-Oriental stand-ins have their been through the history of space opera?), or the cheeseball story type used to lecture us on the evils of prejudice when two alien races fight. As they're aliens, it's perfectly okay for us to be judgmental and shake our heads self-righteously about their tribalism and prejudice. After all, we're so much better than they are, and since they're aliens, we don't have to admit or confront any real flaw in ourselves!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Ron Ely is Superman

In the 1980s Superboy series, Ron Ely briefly played the role of an alternate universe, adult Superman. It's funny how most Tarzan actors could conceivably play Superman and vice-versa.

Something about that set my mind on fire, even though it was an episode buried in the fourth season of a now mostly forgotten eighties show. It was not just because I'm a big fan of Ron Ely from his days as Tarzan.

The reason I was excited by the possibility of Ron Ely being Superman, the reason it feels so "right," is that Ron Ely personifies best how I've always seen the character of Superman: a quiet, cerebral guy. When I picture Superman, I picture him as an understated, intellectual person with quiet dignity. I've yet to see a Superman like this, though Brendan Routh comes the closest.

George Reeves was a blocky, aged fifties Father-figure, close to someone else's conception of the character, but certainly not mine. Christopher Reeve, as charming as he was, had the understatement down pat but his impish sense of humor felt all wrong. Come to think of it, with his deceptively nice-guy charm and quirky humor, Christopher Reeve would have been a better Hal Jordan than Superman.

A while back I argued that Superman's most important attributes as a heroic character are his experience and intelligence, even more so than his superpowers. Superman uses his powers cleverly, and I'm astonished at writers like Cary Bates and Len Wein that could come up with a new way to use superspeed and superstrength, a new "trick," regularly once per week. A good way to identify a true fan of Superman from a poser is to ask them whether they ever saw Superman throw an honest-to-goodness punch between 1956 t0 1985. Rather, Superman uses superstrength and other powers in really ingenious ways. When a tidal wave threatened to smash a beach, he used superspeed and strength to compress the sand, rub it and turn it to glass. Another example would be how he stopped a burning building by twirling around really fast in a circle to create a vortex that deprived the flames of oxygen. What's more, Superman tends to find ways to benefit people in weird ways. If he has to melt the ice of a speeding comet, he'd do so over a drought-stricken community as an added side-bonus. If Superman was just a really strong flying guy, he'd be indistinguishable from a ton of superheroic characters.

Likewise, a lot of people see Superman as the sort to inspire others and give speeches, a Kennedy, Obama or Churchill type. Thankfully, none of the actors have played Superman this way, as the character would be absolutely unbearable and nauseating, though the Superfriends writers featured Superman giving a Shatner-esque speech as the finale of many episodes. I've never agreed with this characterization.

My good friend Eddie Michigan once said one of the fundamental difference between Captain America and Superman is that Captain America is aware of the effect he has on people, and his ability to inspire (which is partially what led to panics like "Man Without a Country"). Captain America is a leader, a hero that fought in World War II. Superman on the other hand, is a very humble guy, and someone that is very self-sufficient. Captain America leads his friends into battle. Superman, though, charges into battle and looks back and sees his allies flying behind him, ready to go where he goes.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Science Fiction Greats: David Gerrold

I find it hard to believe that one man could create both the loveable tribbles AND the Chthorr, who are nothing short of the stuff of nightmares.

I suppose at this point I'll have to give a shout-out to my bud Paul Chapman, currently in Tarpon Springs, Florida, who got me into David Gerrold out of Paul's interest in the WAR AGAINST THE CHTHORR novels. Sure, I read THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF before, and I knew who the guy was, but I wasn't a fan of his until the Chthorr books.

THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF is in the category of unusual time travel stories along with Julian May's THE GOLDEN TORC. I've always enjoyed unusual takes on time travel, and this one posits a fascinating idea: eventually a guy travels through time enough to the point where he "folds himself," and multiple variations of himself exist through time.

It's worth noting that THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF was the direct inspiration for Roger Stern's "resurrection" of Kang the Conqueror (and Immortus). Stern refused to use any of the usual cheeseball techniques for bringing master villains to life, namely robots and clones, and instead borrowed a page from Gerrold: as a result of Kang's time travel escapades, there are dozens of different "variant" Kangs in existence, ruling different branches of the timestream. Thus, Kang really did die in the Old West (or at least that particular variant Kang did).

The CHTORR books have a particularly brainbending and terrifying idea behind them. It is a book series about alien invasion, particularly by formidable worm monsters called Chthorr, but the twist is that the invasion is ecological in nature, an entire biosphere attempting to replace earth life. Chthorr is a world where life is more hostile and lethally progressed evolutionarily speaking, and gradually parts of earth become more like the Chthorr homeworld, including its nasty flora and fauna that outperform our comparatively milder earth life with their toxic, polluting and carnivorous adaptations.

With the Chtorr worms, the question of what qualifies as sentience rears its head, a common science fiction theme also explored in H. Beam Piper's LITTLE FUZZY. One of the worst legacies of science fiction's early years is the tendency to anthropomorphize aliens, particularly in how they think. And, well, not to give any spoilers here, but the Chtorr worms don't think like humans, more like gods. They easily take their role as one of the most fascinating alien races in science fiction, along with Arthur C. Clarke's Overlords, Larry Niven's Puppeteers and Kzinti, and Alan Dean Foster's Thranx.

David Gerrold is best known for "The Trouble With Tribbles," but the one Star Trek script of his that I would most like to see, is one that was ultimately never made: "Blood and Fire," which was supposed to be in the Next Generation's first season. It dealt with the one topic that was taboo even for Trek: homosexuality, and featured an AIDS analogue, bloodworms, a disease so vile Starfleet orders are to kill patients infected with them. Gerrold himself is one of the few openly homosexual science fiction writers. "Blood and Fire" dealt with the way the treatment of fearful diseases creates a kind of anxious, ruthless inhumanity that lets us ignore suffering, which has always been a favorite topic of mine.

And the guy's still writing, too: I for one would love to see the next book in the Chtorr series. At least when it comes out, which at this rate sounds like sometime next century.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Spock's Brain

I vowed I wouldn't use this blog to talk about things I don't like, as I save being confrontational and negative for other people's websites, but still, this YouTube video reduces "Spock's Brain," the worst episode of the original series of Star Trek, into a hilariously awkward, sleek edit lasting four minutes.

It isn't that they say "Spock's Brain," it's that they. Keep. On. SAYING. "Spock's Brain" over and over. Even in the original episode, the effect is, er, impressive.

It's like in one episode they've distilled everything that was head-shakingly embarassing about the original series: female aliens with go-go boots and miniskirts, Shatner overacting and pretending to fall down, accents as unlikely as they are inconstant, and science fiction concepts that Hugo Gernsback would have thrown out from AMAZING for being too ludicrous.

To its credit, most of the original series was cutting-edge in many ways. It also ranks as the only work Theodore Sturgeon (yes, that Theodore Sturgeon) ever did that he somehow didn't insert his creepy incest fascination. Still, it's hard to talk about how the original TREK was a drama comparable any non-genre television before or since, when "Spock's Brain" makes the whole thing look like a goofy comic book.

"Spock's Brain" is like discovering a diary you wrote at age 15. You used purple prose to talk about your greatest crush a girl that, with 20/20 hindsight, you realize was a dimwitted peasant; you read Ayn Rand and had your world "transformed," as if you were the first self-absorbed teenager in history to ever do so, instead of the billionth; you talk about how the only person to ever really express how you feel are Morissey lyrics.


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Barack the Vote!

I could hug a random stranger right now, that's the general feeling. I'll be back to being a bastard that hates being touched in the morning when the euphoria wears off.

It's so weird to know I'm living in a blue state. "Landslide" would be putting it mildly.

The Obama campaign was a victory of ideals: the power of hope over the power of fear. Obama spent oodles of cash on advertizements where he didn't mention his opponent once. McCain spent his campaign either duplicating what Barack was doing (even his Iraq policy!) or arousing our fears with "boogedy-boogedy SOCIALISM!!!" cries.

Hope triumphed over the politics of fear.

The success of Barack Obama was made possible (and I can't believe I'm typing this) due to minorities: latinos, African-Americans. And especially by idealistic young people, who were able to tip the vote in nearly all swing states.

It's revenge of the nerds, like those movies where a bunch of loveable slobs and geeks beat the snooty blonde jocks that run the summer camp: the disparaged underdogs of America (young people, minorities) beat out aged geezers, traditionalists, jocks and snotty cheerleaders. Come to think of it, that's why Sarah Palin seemed to have such popularity: shallow, mean and unintelligent, she was the ultimate High School "Queen Bee."

The contrast couldn't have been more different than the crowd shots of both rallies. McCain's rallies all had reaction shots of depressed looking blonde Scandinavians and other assorted corn-fed douches. The reaction shots of Obama's rallies looked like real Americans.

All through the Bush years, I hoped for something like this to happen: a crushing landslide made possible by the young and by people at the fringe of America. They elected someone that otherwise wouldn't be electable: a black guy with an Arab-sounding name, who was the son of a single mother, who by his own merits rose to head of the Harvard Law Review and graduated at the top of his class in an Ivy League School. He was from Hawaii, not "the heartland."

God, how I hate "the Heartland." Not the actual place, but the dishonest, manipulative concept that America is about white working class Christians from rural areas. It's always irked me that because my parents are both immigrants I'm considered "some Spanish guy" despite my loyalty and love for the United States, the country where I was born and raised...yet Rene Zellweiger, who is also the daughter of immigrants and raised in the United States, is considered the "All-American Girl."

If America was all, or even mostly "hockey Moms" and "Joe Sixpacks" like Sarah Palin famously said, she'd be vice-president elect now. America is about Pakistani-immigrant cabdrivers working to send their daughter to college. It's about homosexual half-Mexican, half-Italian electrical engineers in Brooklyn. America is Christian, but also Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish.

That said, what is shocking is how broad the appeal of Barack Obama is: rural people, working class, whites, blacks, Latinos, urban white collar people, the elderly...heck, if McCain hadn't voted for himself, the win would probably would have been unanimous.

In other words, this election transcended just a mere victory for a single man. It was the victory of a broad, inclusive idea of America. It was a victory for youth and idealism. It was a moment where we shed our cynicism and said that government can be a part of the solution, and not the problem.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Demons are the reason for the season

In The Know: Has Halloween Become Overcommercialized?

Happy Halloween!

Just a reminder that costumes and candy are just a distraction from the true purpose of this holiday: to placate demons and ensure a bountiful harvest. Don't let the "War on Halloween" by our politically correct, secular society distract you from its true, malevolent and occult significance.

Hail Shoggoth, Black Goat of the Woods with the Thousand Young! May we not be devoured by invisible demons in front of screaming onlookers!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Man, I wish this election would never end

I always wished real-life sports would be as nutty and wacky as movie sports, where giraffes play soccer and the most undefeatable hockey formation is the "Flying V."

This election is like a screwball movie about an election. It's like the hilarious, Hail-Mary stunts from the McCain camp never come to an end, and never seem to stop backfiring.

First, there's Caribou Barbie herself, Sarah Palin. I've never seen the American public fall in love and fall out of love with a politician over the course of 72 hours. As we really knew nothing about her, at first, she looked like the perfect choice for Veep: she was, like Barack, an energetic political newcomer, she was a woman so she gave the campaign an Obama-esque dynamism an aging white male career politician wouldn't have, and finally, she could win over all the backwoods godfuckers in the Red States that believe the below scene actually happened, who McSame was never able to court.

FACT: the speech she prepared at the Republican convention was written before the Veep nominee was announced. I have a suspicion David Frum and the rest of the GOP speechwriters wrote the speech banking it would be Mitt Romney. It just felt like a Romney speech: the smarmy, self-congratulatory tone and false populism was all over it.

The exact moment the American public fell out of love with her would have to be the exact moment she opened her mouth without a script in front of her - something GOP mythology says would happen eventually to that style-over-substance silver-tongued phony Barry O but, one week before the election, has yet to happen.

It wasn't that Palin couldn't answer a question about what she read, though that alone is weird, because I usually read about three or four books in a week, in addition to newspapers and fun, junk stuff like comic books and internet blogs, and like most people, I am very proud of what I read. Rather, it was that Palin interpreted one of the ultimate softball questions ("What do you read?") as an assault and then hemmed and hawed like a kid trying to cover up the fact he didn't do his homework.

Another of my favorite parts of this campaign are the constant Republican attempts to smear Barry O not because of something he's done or policies he's in favor of, but because he knows somebody. Really, that's all they got? Barry knows a guy that's bad? Ayers, of course, is one, as is his preacher. What's even more incredible is the great dichotomy between how little the American public cares, and how frothed up and frustrated the GOP gets that the American people don't care. It's like Monica Lewinsky all over again.

Then we have Ashley Todd, the Demon Cutter of Fleet Street. This is, naturally, the single most overt racist "dogwhistle" move we've so far gotten in the campaign, which comes as a surprise to me: I was expecting at least one McCain staffer to slip and say a racial epithet as early as September. It was, naturally, a lie: nobody believed it except the conservative blogs and Fox News, and that was because they desperately wanted it to be true.

Best of all, with the fake black eye, constant updates on her position via cel, and cuts that didn't break the skin and the "backwards-B" that looked like it was done in the mirror, this was one of those cases Encyclopedia Brown could have cracked:

Bugs Meany clutched his crying girlfriend in the Tigers clubhouse. "So, Brown? Are you going to get the nigger that did this to my girlfriend?"

Encyclopedia scoffed. "I'm not taking your girlfriend anywhere, Bugs. She's lying like a rug from start to finish."


(For the answer, turn to page 47.)

Of all the squashed October Surprises, this one struck me as the most pitiable. There's nothing sadder than the displaced rage of a conservative young fat girl. I see them all the time around the university, carrying their iMacs, their desktop wallpaper made of shirtless pics of the captain from "Firefly."

And finally, we have Joe the Plumber. Explaining the joke would probably destroy it, but here goes: the boogedy-boogedy SOCIALISM!!!!! scare tactics about high taxes were as laughable as they were transparent considering Barry intends to lower taxes for the middle and lower class. The patronizing attempt to appeal to "Joe Sixpack?"
GOP? Might I suggest a few other populist mascots?

  • George the Lockheed-Martin Executive

  • Kathleen the road-rageaholic soccer Mom

  • Chad the C-student son of a law partner

  • And finally, Zoltan the Incredible

In the interests of fairness, it should be noted that Biden has gaffed tragically all over the hemisphere, but this is less of a big deal because really nobody cares what Biden has to say anyway. The idea that the Vice-President is the fourth branch of government is a post-Cheney Republican idea without support in the Constitution. The most righteous moment of the third Presidential debate was when Joe Biden corrected Palin: the job of the Veep is to cast the tie vote in the Senate, replace the president if necessary, and that's all.

That's one thing I'm loving about the Obama campaign: it restores the Vice-Presidential role to its former irrelevance. At first it looked like Obama messed up when he picked a predictable choice like Biden (I was saying it was going to be either Biden or Bill Richardson), but it's all a part of the plan: the executive branch isn't about the Vice, anyway.

I can't wait for election night. I'm looking forward to it like kids look forward to Christmas. With talk that Virginia (!) and Georgia (!) might turn blue, we're looking at one of the biggest landslides in American history. I'm going to Bicentennial Park to celebrate; the end of the Bush years would be like the fireworks scene in "Return of the Jedi."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Savage Dragon weighs in...

I've never seen people as excited about any candidate as they are about my buddy Barry.

Critics dismiss him as style over substance that gets ahead on a silver tongue and a strong speaking voice. Actually, I'm pleased to see Obama restore eloquence to the institution of the American presidency. After years of divisive, nasty politics that revisit old grudges from the sixties that are no longer relevant, here's a candidate that really is a "uniter."

There is something admirable about the campaign, which is one the best-organized I've ever seen. My Dad gave some money to Obama, and received an email that told Papa all the people in his area that did the same, and also gave him a list of people that are on the fence and need to be convinced. Wow!

Obama dominates the debate in such a way that makes what his opponent does seem like a sorry afterthought. After Obama's Kennedy-like speech in Berlin drew the press and world attention, McCain gave a series of speeches in all the small-town Berlins in America. Obama's refusal to knuckle-under to McCoward when he rightfully figured he'd get a drubbing by Hawaiian Abe Lincoln in the debates, and tried worming out with the "I'm busy" excuse. Obama's response was as classy as it was firm: "As President, you'll have to do more than one thing at a time." By standing firm, McChicken's grandstanding scheme backfired. It was great to see that after years of liberals rolling over and giving Republicans everything they want.

Likewise, Obama had an impact on policy and world affairs just as a candidate. His plan for a withdrawl from Iraq after meeting the country's leaders was not only adopted by McCain himself (after a bumbling essay he sent to the New York Times that didn't even define what "victory" would even mean) but was incorporated by the Bush administration.

Change is important because institutions have become outmoded. The 2004 election - based on bad feelings about Vietnam - was outmoded. Obama's change isn't just a slogan, but a sorely needed attitude to a world like a too-tight sweater. There's a visionary element to his character: his Kennedy-like declaration that within ten years America would be energy-independent, and that by 2050 we'd slash carbon emissions by 80%. Likewise, institutions created during the Cold War are no longer functional or necessary, at least in their current form. Obama proposes restructuring NATO with allies.

Likewise, health care needs to be restructured, social security needs to be restructured. The bailout was legislation crafted in panic that wasn't thought through, which gives the "Finance Czar" zero oversight in buying worthless assets.

I don't mean to gloat, but Barry represents a cultural shift in the U.S. after the collective national insanity that was the Bush Presidency. Even at the Republican convention, no one defended him except poor Laura.

When I first got political consciousness in the early 2000s, it was a very scary time. There was talk that strategists like Rove would create a permanent Republican majority, by swaying Latinos. Of course, this master plan broke down when the massive campaign against undocumented workers began - a "dogwhistle" term for expressing anti-Latino and anti-immigrant sentiment. Still, I do remember the 2000 Republican convention where they invited some goofy mariachi on stage, who scared me even more than even Darth Cheney.

Nowadays, the public has wised up. Our current cultural problems - the worst economy since the Great Depression - can't be blamed on the liberals, who weren't in power. They can be layed exclusively at the feet of conservative ideals: free market de-regulation and tax cuts, as well as the use of force and unilateralism to solve problems internationally.

In other words, conservatism failed. Let someone else have a try.

Shock of the Century: Anti-drug ads don’t work!

Read the article here.

When I was in a Health Class back in high school, we received a brief test where we had to identify all the illegal drugs we had done. We didn’t have to attach our names to it, they just wanted to know how bad the problem was.

A little mischievous gleam entered my eye (one that I could see in quite a few other people in that classroom), and I started writing the most outrageously long list with every chemical substance I could possibly think of. I even wrote a few words that were meaningless but sounded malevolent, like “Chicken McNuggets.”

Being an H.G. Wells fan, I even put down “Recreational Cavorite.”

Apparently, Anti-Drug ads don’t work. Wow, what a shocker, eh? It seems to me they’ve amped up the scare tactics and unintentionally hilarious histrionics in recent times. I suppose they’re trying to get the Hannah Montana generation good and freaked, because mine is absolutely lost to them. In elementary school, we got buttons that said “I’ll Never Do Drugs” and we discovered almost immediately we could make a hilarious souvenir by whiting-out the “Never.”

Protip, guys: if you want something even resembling credibility, quit saying pot is as bad as crack.

I had an epiphany when I realized that anti-drug ads aren’t aimed at anyone that’s ever done drugs, or might do drugs. Rather, the ads are to give straight edgers and teetotalers a smug sense of superiority. They’re feel-good propaganda for the pasty virgins that go on “Teens Encounter Christ” bus trips. Your tax dollars at work!

The histrionic "say no to drugs" nonsense dovetails pretty nicely into a common experience that the children of boomers have: the way our terrorized parents gve us a sense that EVERYTHING CAN KILL YOU. This panicky overprotectiveness is one of the first things most of us remember rejecting when we reached our teens.

There was one anti-drug PSA that actually did look effective. Cannabis didn’t make you kill someone or smack a cute kid with a car or murder your parents. They did, however, make you sit around the house all the time, hang out with loser stoners, eat bugles, and watch "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." They left the part out about heading to the Taco Bell drive-thru at one in the morning.

Now there’s a painfully, tragically true anti-drug ad that I could get behind.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My favorite TV show of all time

If I was ever stranded on a desert island and I only could have one show to watch, it would be IN SEARCH OF… with Leonard Nimoy, a documentary show that examined paranormal mysteries from the nuttiest angle possible. It is nothing short of my favorite show of all time, and every day, Monday thru Friday, I watched it at 7pm sharp on A&E. The series appealed to the CHARIOTS OF THE GODS? craze that was so much a part of the late seventies zeitgeist, from Kirby to the original Battlestar Galactica, To this day, I can’t go to a single library book sale without seeing at least six “Ancient Mystery” casebooks from the years 1972-1982 on sale for a quarter.

Each episode began with (say it with me now, fans)

“This show is based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer’s purpose is to suggest possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine.”

And you always knew, without fail, that the producers’ would jump to the wildest and nuttiest conclusion possible. It’s sort of like IN SEARCH OF… was the networks’ attempt to give equal time, just like they do for Republican and Democratic politicians, to the view of reality that makes the least sense.

“Okay, you’ve heard from sane people and experts. Now it’s OUR turn!”

I laugh of course, because I don’t believe in Bigfoot, or spirit photography or the extraterrestrial origin of Tiahuanaco in Bolivia. I’m a rational, skeptical adult with a functional, built-in bullshit detector. I don’t believe in Bigfoot, but I wish I did.

The thing I loved best about IN SEARCH OF… was the the music: harrowing, bizarre synthesizer notes that lent the show a real aura of high anxiety, often done in a minor key, with buzzes and shrieks, and musical chants similar to the Gregorian. It was like the soundtrack to fear and mystery. It would be wrong to say that the music was just “spooky,” but rather, the music evoked the unknown in an almost religious way. The music lent gravitas and awe to things at the liminality of experience, and compared to its music, the “suspense” music in other documentaries and even TV shows have looked invisible and chintzy in comparison.

There was, intriguingly enough, an IN SEARCH OF... soundtrack LP, one that I've been searching for for my entire life. Listen to a section.

Leonard Nimoy’s voice, as cold and grave as the tomb, worked perfectly with the spooky music. The series began with a pair of popular TV specials hosted by Rod Serling. Only after Serling’s untimely death was Leonard Nimoy hired. Nimoy’s presence, I suspect, was what made the show so popular: six seasons for a documentary show on Network TV is unheard of. This was in the era when Star Trek became the most popular show ever, and there was precious new material coming out; Spock in anything must have been a good consolation prize.

It’s strange to imagine IN SEARCH OF… without Nimoy. It’s like imagining CASABLANCA with Ronald Reagan in the title role. This, I suspect, is why the Sci-Fi channel remake of IN SEARCH OF… didn’t really work: it was too much of a traditional unsolved mystery/paranormal show, not enough creepy music or wild speculation, and no Nimoy. I once heard Edgar Allen Poe describe the genre of horror as a detective story where God is the detective, and that’s what Nimoy’s narrator felt like.

Watch a few complete IN SEARCH OF... episodes. This one's on Dracula:

What gave IN SEARCH OF… its power is that ultimately, it didn’t resolve anything. It refused to give straight and definitive answers, because their conjecture was fundamentally unprovable. Was St. Germáin really immortal? Are Andean carvings proof that the city of Tiahuanaco in Bolivia was “Earth Base One” for space colonists? Who the heck could know, or even prove it? This fundamental ambiguity to the mysteries examined was the spookiest thing about them. At some level, I didn’t WANT any of the mysteries to be solved. The existence of these mysteries themselves was enough to set the brain on fire.

IN SEARCH OF… had a “look” that was pure 1970s. As a result of this, it has much greater potential to frighten than something slick, fake-looking, and recent. Any given recreation on UNSOLVED MYSTERIES (the show that wishes it could be as cool as IN SEARCH OF…) had the same lighting and look as the Dixon Hill holodeck episodes on STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION.

I can’t emphasize enough how important all these elements are. Alan Lansburg, the producer of the show, wrote a book that dealt with some of the themes of the show. Without the eerie atmosphere to provoke awe and anxiety, with Nimoy’s voice, and without the “seventies” film look, IN SEARCH OF.. just didn’t transfer to another medium. Landsburg’s book was just another paranormal casebook. Landsburg is himself an interesting figure: he created the only successful network TV documentaries, with THE UNDERSEA WORLD OF JACQUES COUSTEAU, IN SEARCH OF…, and THAT’S INCREDIBLE!

Here's another episode on the Tunguska Fireball of 1908:

My favorite episodes of the series were around religious or biblical themes in general, but specifically the episode where Coptic monks in Egypt claimed to find the resting place of John the Baptist hidden in their 1,900 year old monastery. To the best of my knowledge, the claim has been buried and not researched by any other source. Another story in the same vein would be the episode that argued that “Mt. Sinai” was actually at the only peak in the Sinai where there were Egyptian ruins – in other words, a site already sacred. At this mountain, the Egyptians worshipped Hathor, who assumed the form of a golden cow, which accounts for the Golden Calf.

My least favorite episode would be the one about the Grand Duchess Anastasia, because of the disappointment: recent genetic evidence shot down Anna Anderson’s claim to be the surviving Tsarina. It’s hard not to watch this episode with its speculation so utterly and definitively disproven. At some level, enjoying IN SEARCH OF… requires you pretend a little bit, to suspend disbelief.

All told, one thing that is interesting about IN SEARCH OF… is how, on some occasions, they were RIGHT. The very first time I ever heard the idea the Vikings landed in North America was in an episode of IN SEARCH OF… The idea Native Americans made landfall on North America was followed afterwards by an episode about “the Lake Monsters of Canada.” Nowadays, the idea the Vikings were bold enough to reach Newfoundland is now uncontroversial, a part of history. And this is a shift that happened within my lifetime.

IN SEARCH OF… was interesting in that it was a rare audiovisual treatment of traditional paranormal “culture.” For instance, they begin every anecdote about some weird creature with the ultimate “gotcha,” the Ceolocanth. They start with a statement like “If the Coelocanth survived, well then why not (fill in the blank)?”

I don’t miss being a kid. I value my independence and self-reliance. But one thing I do regret is the loss of the sense that there was something weird and miraculous in the world, that utterly fantastic is possible: witchcraft, hauntings, Yeti. A key piece to all of this is how the evidence was absent. IF ONLY someone could search under the left paw of the Egyptian Sphinx as Edgar Cayce predicted, there’d be a secret hidden library of scrolls that proved the existence of Atlantis!

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone were to find a lost temple in the Andes filled with flying machines? Wouldn’t it just be every comic book dream come true? When I was a kid, I used to wonder all the time why there were no real superheroes anywhere, even Batman-types with costumes and exercise routines. That's why I enjoy IN SEARCH OF... even more as an adult. It's like someone telling you Santa Claus was real after all.

Now that YouTube exists (God bless the inventor!) I can watch the series again. What’s really surprising to me is that the product I’ve come to know and love (the A&E edited version) isn’t the original. It was actually a little thrilling to see the original opening credit sequence. I remember being a little miffed that when the show was re-aired on the History Channel, they re-cut the opening sequence to something right out of BILL NYE, THE SCIENCE GUY. It seems I never experienced the “real” opening. Likewise, I was amazed to learn that the documentary movie I knew as THE OUTER SPACE CONNECTION was actually the original pilot special for IN SEARCH OF…, when the original intent was to have the series hosted by Rod Serling.

It’s a treat to watch ISO... again (at least the episodes I didn’t tape back in the VHS days – IN SEARCH OF… was the first show I ever used to regularly tape). It’s no exaggeration to say this show is a part of my life. There are several episodes I know by memory. When my Dad took me on a vacation to Arizona, I dragged him to see the Percival Lowell observatory because of the episode “IN SEARCH OF… Martians.” Whenever possible, I used to take dates to Coral Castle down around Homestead. When I visited Northern California for the first time, I structured my vacation video around the idea of an IN SEARCH OF… episode, with me doing my darndest to imitate Nimoy’s gravelly voice. And most importantly, while I don’t agree with their “theory and conjecture,” the show gave me awe and curiosity about myth, the past, and archeology that I possess to this day.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Sound the shofar! L'shana Tova!

I wish family and friends mazel and hazlocha today on the last night of Rosh Hashanah, highest of the Yamim Noraim. I wish everyone a happy 5769, full of mitzvahs.

If you like apples and honey, boy, is today ever your day. (Technically, the last day of Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown tonight, which is why I'm blogging here tonight. But you know what I mean.)

According to the Midrash, Rosh Hashanah is a day of atonement and rememberance for all the bad things we've done, as we go in judgment before God. My list is especially longer than most. I take some comfort in the fact God, being omnipotent, probably knows that guy at Macy's had it coming to him.

It's times like today I reflect on all the great Jewish men (Moses, Jesus, Einstein, Oscar Schindler), and one stands above the rest: Harlan Ellison. Neil Gaiman wrote the best description of Ellison I ever heard: "Some people live in castles, but Ellison lives in angry old Jew man world."

Everyone even remotely connected to science fiction knows who the guy is, and has a favorite Ellison story. My favorite is definitely that one where the sound effects guy in charge of "sweetening" the laugh track on a sitcom uses the communication reel to have a conversation with a long dead woman whose voice was recorded for the tracks. In the end, instead of laughing at the sitcom, the track boos and hisses their unfunny gaffes.

It's not the most popular story, but it's the most utterly Ellisonesque one. It combines sweetness and sentimentality with humor and bitter, opinionated cynicism, along with its glorification of average people.

Any story of Ellison's that glorified the average man was that one he did about a bitter nebbish that was revealed, by visitors from the future, to actually father children that would start a nuclear war that destroys the world. The office worker agrees to kill himself to save the world - because it was the first and only time in his life he was ever important. A very bittersweet ending.

Discovering Ellison's science fiction was something of a revelation for me. I started off as a science fiction fan reading Heinlein's juveniles, which I still love (especially HAVE SPACE SUIT, WILL TRAVEL and STARSHIP TROOPERS, which I read to the point of memorization). I read a few of the Poul Anderson FLANDRY OF TERRA books, and I thought he was one of the best heroes in science fiction. I had read Phillip Jose Farmer's VENUS ON THE HALF-SHELL, which to this day, I insist is his best book even over RIVERWORLD, and I was just getting into Andre Norton, Leigh Brackett, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and A.E. van Vogt.

I found the "New Wave" writers all around the same time, around fifteen: Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and the rest. I got into them after I read 1984 - which was a shocking book to someone that thinks of science fiction in terms of Heinlein and Burroughs. I was astonished there was no space patrol to come around and save the day at the end. It was a totally different kind of science fiction that I looked for ever after, and that's how I discovered Ellison and the rest of his contemporaries.

This was science fiction that wasn't formulaic, or adventure stories (though with his astonishing gift for flexibility Ellison could write both of those). Ellison's canon of work is legendary: "Repent, Harlequin!" and "A Boy and his Dog" among them.

To this day, I dislike admitting that I'm a Heinlein fan, because on the off-chance the other person is also a Heinlein fan, they'll start falsely thinking we have something in common. Heinlein fans, by and large, are a creepy bunch that close ranks around their hero with cultlike defensiveness.

They read Heinlein not for the spirit of adventure, but for a search for competent white male father figures they can project themselves into to forget their own very real human weaknesses and insecurities. Come to think of it, they remind me a little of the more loathesome fans of Hal Jordan or "Classic" Superman, who perpetually demand his immortality and guaranteed, constant victory with such loudness that it's psychologically intriguing.

Me, I already have a father figure: he's called my Father. And even he's a mortal, fallible human being.

And Edgar Rice Burroughs? Forget it. Every single fan of his, except Genevieve back in High School, was a giant tool. True story: I went to an ERB convention hosted on Miami Beach. The first sign I noticed something was up was that every other car in the hotel parking lot was a bright racing-red "Midlife Crisis" douchecar. When I finally got there, I was the only person in the convention to be under 30 that wasn't a trophy wife. It was like you got one as a door prize, available in your choice of Blonde or Asian.

The two kinds of fans I'm most comfortable around are Ellison fans, mostly because you can't appreciate Ellison without a sense of humor. Also, I have a passionate distaste for moralists, godbotherers, hypocrites, nosy people, busybodies, preachers, and the smug in general, prudes who dislike curse words and nudity on television, or who object to wholesome, All-American bloodthirsty violence.

Oscar Wilde once said that patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. If so, courtesy is the virtue of the hypocrite. Ellison's work tends to repel these people like crosses repel vampires.

Anyway, Ellison as a person is just plain cool. Admit it: it was one of the coolest moments in science fiction when Ellison backed Raymond Palmer in a corner and got that midget to admit that the Shaver Mystery was all a hoax he invented to sell magazines. Or remember when Christopher Priest (author of THE PRESTIGE) turned his Richard Dawson-like smarmy, sarcastic British wit on one of Ellison's dead friends? When Ellison tacked Christopher Priest, Priest's words were "You wouldn't dare hit me in front of all these people."

Big mistake!

Ellison has an acid wit and doesn't suffer fools gladly, but he's likeable because he only goes after the big guys, the same way Don Rickles only insults guys like Frank Sinatra. Ellison called Shatner an exhibitionist that would have sex with a moose in a store window for attention. He pulled his entire "Star Trek" scripted movie (that by the sound of things was absolutely mindblowing - the Enterprise journeying to the dawn of time) because the idiot executive said something like, "And could we have Mayans at the dawn of time? I like Mayans." Ellison's reaction was as hilarious as it was predictable.

I guess that's the lesson we can take away this Rosh Hashanah from Ellison is this: there's a little Harlan Ellison in all of us. Now that's something I can dip my apple to!

Ketiva ve-chatima tova!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My She-Roes: Good Female Science Fiction Writers

As shocking as it is today, there wasn't much of a place for women in science fiction and fantasy, both as writers, readers, editors, and even characters. When James H. Schmitz published his girl-telepath detective stories about Telzey Amberdon, the reaction was, "this could have been changed to a male character with no trouble."
I doubt that, but that's missing the point: the mentality was, unless there was a compelling reason to have them, a woman protagonist was hard to take seriously. Small surprise then, that most female sf writers have gender-ambiguous names, or use a male pseudonym.

I like these women not because they're women, but because they can write, because they create incredible worlds and live up to the promise of what science fiction is about.


She was the best writer of two-fisted men's science-adventure, but she wasn't a man.

Leigh Brackett wrote not only science adventure stories, but she succeeded in multiple fields of endeavor. In her 40 year career in Hollywood, Brackett wrote the screenplays for, arguably, the best Film Noir of all time (THE BIG SLEEP), the best Western (RIO BRAVO) and the best science fiction film (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), the last of which she wrote in her seventies.

Legendary Hollywood director Howard Hawks was almost bowled out of his chair when he read her hardboiled detective fiction, and when he called "that Leigh Brackett guy" into her office, he almost fell out of his chair. It was by all accounts, Leigh Brackett that came up with the idea that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father, but after Brackett's death in the 1980s, Lucas, that poisonous snake, changed his story.

As a person, Leigh Brackett always dressed like one of those "dress for success" articles, and she drove her red sportscar so fast that she often terrified passengers. Ray Bradbury remembers she once played volleyball with the men on Muscle Beach in California during the early 1940s.

Leigh was married to Edmond Hamilton, "the Planet-Smasher" himself, standby hack of the original space opera generation, and it's argued the only really good stories Hamilton wrote were those that the Planet-Smasher wrote under Brackett's guidance. Leigh Brackett's pupil was some punk teenager named Ray Bradbury.

Brackett's science fiction was best typefied by works like NEMESIS FROM TERRA. She took the Burroughs' style Sword n' Planet yarn and updated it, "improved" it with the sentiment she extracted from Noir and detective fiction and Westerns. It was Brackett, more than any other writer, that created the hardboiled, cynical "Han Solo" space pirate archetype, out for himself. Her villains were not pure "comic book" evil, but a kind of very real, human viciousness and ruthlessness found in gangsters and teamsters. Her heroes were every bit as nasty.

What's even more interesting was how seriously Brackett took the writing of atmosphere, something none of her contemporaries ever did: unlike Burroughs, her Mars was a shadow-filled world much like Robert E. Howard.


What do you call a science fiction writer that doesn't like technology, that thinks the industrial revolution was "a big mistake?"

The biggest not-so-secret secret in sf is that "Andre Norton" is a pseudonym for Alice Mary Norton. What surprises me most about Andre Norton is that she isn't the object of a cult, the way Heinlein or Robert E. Howard are.

Andre Norton's work show a fascination not with the "hard" sciences, the way Asimov or Heinlein shows, but with the "soft" ones: anthropology, human cultures, archeology. All of Norton's science fiction worlds have a defined prehistory, usually featuring billion year old "Forerunners" that preceded human beings. Her pre-Tolkien boom fantasy series WITCH WORLD had a vague primordial non-human past. She frequently featured non-white protagonists in a positive light; Native American main characters in novels like THE SIOUX SPACEMAN, THE BEAST MASTER, and even applied African culture in a science fiction context in ANDROID AT ARMS.

Andre Norton's stories are about outcasts and misfits finding their place in society, about the seduction of elite power groups, and the desire to start anew on wilderness planets. Her galaxies are usually wilderness worlds inhabited by Star Rangers that are space age versions of Daniel Boone, skilled in woodcraft, inhabited by hostile animals that are tamed by laser gun instead of Western rifles.


The first work by Tanith Lee I read, had to have been her sf ELECTRIC FOREST - a novel with so many twists it was downright unpredictable. It had at least six false endings, one after the other. This work, more than any other, "hooked" me.

Tanith Lee, unlike the rest, focuses more on fantasy than straight science fiction. Her defining qualities include a fascination with the Arabian Nights, which she used in her brilliant DEATH'S MASTER, a fascination with lesbianism, and frank sexuality. She derives more from Arabesques and the sensuousness and exoticism it implies, than the traditional Tolkien stuff.


I suppose I have to give a shout-out to my hometown girl, Daina Chaviano, don't I? A Miami-native, and the only other Miami science fiction writers I can think of, off the top of my head are the late Hugh B. Cave and...didn't L. Sprague de Camp live out his last few days in Palm Beach, if I remember right? A few friends of mine were THIS close a while back to stalking Encyclopedia Brown creator Arnold J. Sobol, but that's a story for another time.

Unlike Leigh Brackett, who died before I was born, and known J.D. Salinger-esque recluses like Cuban-born, Daina Chaviano wrote several Spanish-language books, that derive from Cuban folklore and myth. A lot of the books that inspire her, I grew up reading. My Dad had a copy of UNA BATALLA CUBANA CONTRA LOS DIABLOS (A Cuban Battle Against the Demons) on his shelf for years, and it spooked the heck out of me. Asimov was fascinated by Communist science fiction, which discouraged exploration into different types of societies out of the sentiment they were creating a new one, like good 19th Century Americans.

Because her work hasn't been translated into English, here in the States, she's mostly read by science fiction fans of Cuban descent in Miami that speak Spanish, which is a niche of a niche.

This is something I've been arguing all along: Spanish language television needs to take advantage of the resource that is the emerging science fiction writing markets. Spanish language TV, if it's at all possible, is even more thickheaded and resistant to change than North American TV: the same damn telenovela over and over. There needs to a be a science fiction anthology series on Spanish speaking TV.

Part of the reason the 1960s produced so many science fiction series of quality (STAR TREKM THE OUTER LIMITS, etc.) was because of the emergence of a real talent base from science fiction that were willing to write for television, that could produce science fiction of quality: Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, and so on.

A similar phenomenon could be happening right now in the Spanish speaking world.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Critics: what are they good for?

Why does Judaism have kosher laws? It’s related to why we have movie critics.

I have no idea whether this article is a parody or not.

As the writer of the article is a critic herself, it’s very tempting to look at her piece as a kind of satire that she’s writing from the point of view of an adopted persona: she’s not so much making fun of critics, as she is lampooning the whole internet-generation mentality, where the collective long-term memory has less than three months, the dominance of fanboys wowed by explosions, monsters and superheroes, raging anti-intellectualism, the importance of the blogosphere over traditional media, and last but not least, an overpowering sense of illiteracy and impatience. The over-the-top use of her language, liberally sprinkled with “totally” and “superawesome” while at the same time knowing who Fritz Lang and James Agee are, leads me to believe this is a joke.

I can just imagine the author cracking up at the idea there are some people out there that find themselves agreeing with the article.

On the other hand, there is a possibility all this isn't just fun and games. First, the obviously sincere envy and distaste for film critics, a print medium job that she correctly point out isn’t as relevant as it used to be in the age of blogs.

You get to see movies for free. You get paid to watch movies. You work part-time and get a full-time salary. You enjoy a private screening of "The Dark Knight" weeks before my buds and I queue up to pay big bucks at the multiplex. And then some of you have the nerve to badmouth Batman and the Joker! Show some love for the folks who keep you in lattes and DVDs.

Another interesting point that the article brings up: what exactly is the function of the critic?

I’m regularly known for having contradictory opinions. In fact, I’ve always thought that to agree with a large number of people on anything is a weakness. However, I’m just some random asshole on the internet beholden to no one but myself. I get paid nothing, I am not in a newspaper with an official position where I have to represent the moviegoing public.

As the article itself argues, “What we crave is consensus, write-ups that mirror the majority, the movie tastes of the teens and proles who rule the box office.” And also, “Shouldn't it be in the job description that if a critic sees a movie with 300 wildly applauding folks, it's against the rules to write as if that doesn't count? Like one fan wrote to a nit-picking critic: "If you do not like 'The Dark Knight' ... you should be fired because you do not speak for the people."

In other words, the film critic can be seen as having a position that isn't just giving their opinion, but is service-oriented. This is why we have film reviews in the entertainment section: to help people make decisions over where to go on a Friday night. If the film critic doesn't sync with the mentality of moviegoers, their ability to function should be questioned.

What the article seems to argue is that there is a disconnect between professional film critics and moviegoers, who are usually of an older generation, went to film school, and approach films from a different perspective. The article brings up the case of wildly popular comic book movies that critics don’t seem to "get." If that’s the case, how relevant is the function of the film critic, consulted not for their personal opinion, but for a recommendation as to the enjoyability of a movie? And if there is this disconnect, how important does the film critic become in the age of the blogosphere?

And this is something that is worth thinking about even if you don’t share the author’s anti-literacy and obvious anti-intellectual anxieties.

On the other hand, the average person is a moron. At some level, the function of the art, movie and food critic is to tell the average person they’re morons.

When the entire world was caught up in the mass hysteria that was TITANIC, the film critic of the L.A. Times had the stones to stand up and say the Emperor had no clothes. (If only someone had the guts to do the same to the schmaltzy, emotionally manipulative, dishonest FORREST GUMP as well!).

Here in Miami, there are two awards given for restaurants by the Miami Herald: one is given by reader poll, the other by professional food critics. A couple years ago, the award for “Best Japanese Restaurant” was given to, of all the places in this city, Benihana’s. Yes, Benihana's, the Applebee's of Japanese steakhouses. In an eighties ROLLING STONE magazine, there was a reader poll award given for the best guitarist in rock history, and the mental defectives chose the guitarist from the Bay City Rollers.

To answer the question at the beginning, the reason Judaism has kosher laws is a recognition of our humanity, that as human beings we don’t just shove anything in our mouths like an animal would.

And that, friends, is why we need movie critics. Because there is beauty and ugliness in the world, and it takes education and knowledge to discern one from the other. Food critics don’t just love every piece of teriyaki they shove into their mouths like the proles do, and critics know the difference between “Transformers” and “Dark Knight.”

Sunday, August 31, 2008

My Dad is my hero

Dad, together with the ACLU, struck down an state travel law that prevented academics from visiting Cuba for research purposes, either with private or public money. The law was an unforgivable act of Miami intransigence, and a violation of academic freedom.

Read all about it here.

I've never been prouder of Dad. There are some things that transcend politics and the political realm, that supercede the limited boundaries of politics, for which the intrusion of politics into that realm is unwarranted: learning, academic exchange, and science are chief among them.

I was a hell of a kid to raise, a pure demon, heavy-metal music lover, and a borderline pyromaniac...but I have always been proud of my parents, and they have both given me the guidance I need to be a good and moral citizen, American, and adult. I couldn't be prouder of them.

Papa had some good old Perez-style tough talk for the supporters of the bill:

''Increasingly what has happened is that this has become an agenda for some state legislators from the Miami area who want to stake their political careers on appearing to be tough on Cuba from Tallahassee,'' Perez said. ``This was an insult by David Rivera.''

I will admit, it was fun to watch a worm like Rivera squirm. It was a blow against those that believe that the solution to political problems is to keep others isolated and ignorant.

''I think this law was a slap to Cubans in South Florida,'' Breslin said.

Ha. Bwahahahahahahaha. Hahahahahaha. Oh. My. Let me catch my breath. Muhuhuhahahaha!

Friday, August 22, 2008

Henry Cejudo Wins the Gold!

Henry Cejudo became the youngest American to ever win the gold medal in Wrestling, a sport that the United States has won only six gold medals long-term. Americans don't usually pay attention to events like Wrestling or Shotput, but the rest of the world does: Wrestling is practiced almost everywhere in the world, and is the national sport of countries like Mongolia and many Arab countries, so it's definitely high-profile.

The reason this particular victory has significance to me is because Henry Cejudo had a mother that was an illegal immigrant from Mexico. As someone with two parents that are both immigrants, this was a particularly triumphant moment for me personally. I sincerely hope the honor brought to America by Henry Cejudo shames the vicious, toxic bigots into silence.

And hell, it made for some great television, too - Cejudo's a young, photogenic guy and he burst into tears when he won.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Georgia vs. Russia

It's a bizarre bit of synchronicity that the Russia and Georgia conflict should happen right in the middle of my series about world mythology, because the region of the current conflict - South Ossetia - is one of the most mythically significant bits of real estate in the world.

First, South Ossetia is right at the mouth of the Black Sea and is generally considered to be the site of the end of Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece. Also, the Ossetians are descended from the Alanii, cavalry barbarians that were frequently employed by the Roman Empire. The Alanii loved to make use of tactics like defeating horses with huge dogs not unlike modern great danes. But more significantly, an Alanii cavalry force was dispatched to Britain led by a fellow named Artorius, who may or may not have been the inspiration for King Arthur. I should go into my theories about the origin of Arthurian legend in the future, but it would suffice here to say I'm not as convinced of the Artorius origin as Hollywood is.

The conflict is shaping up to be a bloody mess. First, it has to be remembered there are THREE actors here: Russia (obviously), Georgia, and the Ossetians. The Ossetians are an independent tribe with a long history that want independence from Georgia, and they've cozied up to Russia, who have never liked the Georgians ever since they rerouted an oil pipeline to the West to compete with the Russians. Also, Russian politicians love to scapegoat Georgians and Georgian immigrants the same way American politicians love to pander to Mexiphobic sentiment. Georgia on the other hand, won't stand for a loss of its territory, and politically giving the finger to the Russians plays well with the voters.

In essence, both sides in the war have decided to be assholes, and it looks like this is shaping up to go the distance. Like the Lebanon conflict, this is a war where everyone sees the advantage in continuing, and it would be political suicide at the polls for Russian and Georgian politicians if they back down. The big fear here is, naturally, genocide: if the Ossetians are creating a problem, a solution, for the Georgian side, is just to wipe them out. In fact, the recent U.N. Security Council meeting used the most hilarious euphemism yet for genocide when they expressed "concern for future demographic shifts in the region."

Friday, August 1, 2008

Eberron Forever!

My long overdue D&D blog post!

This week I'm beginning a new sword n' sorcery game with my college buddies, so watch out for updates and even pictures here. You know, it's funny how times change. When I was an awkward overachiever in High School, I hung out with my fellow acne-covered members of the Mathematics Honors Society (mostly Asian, of course) and spent my Friday nights playing AD&D, telling calculus jokes, and ordering out for pizza, and dreaming what it would be like to smell a girl's hair. Things are totally different these days, naturally. For one thing, we no longer have acne.

My game setting of choice is, naturally, Eberron. I've loved EBERRON since it came out in 2004 and became the dominant D&D game setting, and I'm not alone: a recent poll showed it to be the most popular of all third edition products. The tale of how Eberron came about is nothing short of gaming legend, the story of a wannabe that got to be. Wizards of the Coast, owners of D&D, created a contest: they were looking for someone to design a setting that would be the new centerpiece for D&D. Over 10,000 one-page proposals for a setting were sent in from all over the world.

I was one of the 10,000 game masters that submitted a setting idea for the contest. A lifelong game master, I sent in a one page proposal of my homebrewed D&D third edition setting that I was running a game in at the time, a mostly underwater world of archiapelagos and sunken civilizations called UNDERSEA KINGDOMS, which combined dark horror with an underwater setting, sort of "Conan the Barbarian in Atlantis." My proposal didn't make the cut...which is a shame, because I think my game was a lot of fun and the gang loved it. It would take Kurt Busiek to realize the potential of setting horror Sword and Sorcery underwater with his series AQUAMAN: SWORD OF ATLANTIS.

(Intriguingly enough, in the original proposal, Eberron was to have a significant aquatic component as well, something that didn't make it to the final setting. According to Keith Baker, the underwater elements were not where WotC wanted for their keystone setting and requested he leave that part out. Well, if only I had known!)

I bear no ill will against Keith Baker, because Eberron is nothing short of a spectacular and unique achievement very different from the cookie-cutter Tolkien worlds standard for D&D. It was, instead, a very pulpy, Indiana Jones style world of ancient secrets that had elements of dark Middle Ages detective stories (think IN THE NAME OF THE ROSE), and unusual twists on the very stale traditional D&D elements. For instance, Hobbits are a race of Dinosaur-riding barbarians. This is the only setting I'd ever consider playing the lamest of all Tolkienoid races, Elves. There are two Elven countries: one an aggressive group of Mongol-style horseclans, the other an Ancient island civilization that worships their dead ancestors, who incidentally live as wise zombies in Necropolis, and who often tattoo their entire face with skull tattoos.

Eberron's dominant characteristic as a setting is the widespread use of magic. After all, if magic exists, and it obeys consistent rules, it stands to reason that magic would assume important functions in the world, like communication, transport, and so forth. What's important to realize here is that this is not magic used to approximate the 1930s or technology. There are no "magical dishwashers," as Keith Baker put it, nor does anyone use magic cars or anything like that. Eberron is fundamentally a world in the Middle Ages. In fact, it offers a pretty good explanation for why technology isn't getting any higher in a world with such a long history: because of how spectacular magic is, all the research and development and scholarship goes in that direction (as opposed to things like gunpowder and the printing press).

There are some pretty spectacular examples of magic on display in the world of Eberron. One of the "sexiest" are the elemental-bound airships, sky-galleons with elementals bound in them that allow for flight. Now, it must be remembered these airships are a very unusual part of the world, and usually only the super-rich can afford them.

A big part of the visual "look" of Eberron is a sort of magical technology, with clockwork monsters, constructs, and Guillermo del Toro-style diabolical, occult machines.

Likewise, because of the advance in low-level magic, Eberron is, at least in the cities and urban regions, a far more sophisticated setting than the usual Middle Ages world. For instance, banking is a big part of the world, credit exists, and with large sums of money it is more common to write checks and bank notes. Imagine the heroes of Lord of the Rings carrying travel and identification papers!

There are a few other distinctive elements to Eberron as well. One is the idea of the Warforged. They're a race of magical golem-like constructs made of wood and metal that were designed for war, and now that the Last War is over, they have no reason to exist. They have full sentience and rights as living beings, but that's not the same as social acceptance. Like modern-day war veterans, society would rather pretend they don't exist, an ugly memory of a bad conflict. The war was the Warforged's entire reason for existing, and now they have to choose their own purpose. Some of them work 24/7 at mindless jobs so they don't have to consider questions of this kind. There are labor tensions with Warforged as well: they're strong and never get tired or ask for breaks, so naturally employers are keen to exploit them and workers are keen to resent them, sometimes justifiably and sometimes not.

Warforged are not only the most distinctive player race besides humans, but also the most popular: I've never run a single Eberron game without at least one or two Warforged.

A few more distinctive elements include the Dragonmarked Houses. Dragonmarks are magical birthmark tattoos that give magical powers, that have allowed the families that use them to become rather like the Spacing Guild from DUNE: families with jealously guarded monopolies with vast economic influence that are (theoretically) politically neutral.

I've often found that when playing with D&D vets that haven't tried Eberron before, the easiest way to incorporate their character into the setting is to make their characters members of a Dragonmarked House.

Then there's the idea of Dragonshards. Dragonshards are unique magical gems that make magic possible. Wizards place their spells in Dragonshards over spellbooks, usually. This is an example of what settings should do: introduce distinctive world specific magical treasure. In fact, to bring home the fact this isn't your garden variety D&D world, I've often given out nothing but Dragonshards as treasure awards the first few adventures.

Another thing I like about Eberron was how the setting was designed with gaming in mind. I've always felt that even though roleplaying games have an element of interactive storytelling, they are GAMES first and stories a distant second. One example of the overlap is in the continent of Xen'Drik. It's sort of like an H. Rider Haggard or Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp version of Africa, with all the racist and colonial elements removed in a fantasy context. Xen'Drik is a continent that is barely explored where, in the undiscovered jungle and desert interior, there could be, literally, ANYTHING. A lost city of gold? A dragonshard the size of a mountain? Ding! Any kind of spooky monster you like? If a race of Bee People lived on the same continent as human civilizations, history would be different to reflect their presence. But the Bee People could be placed into the depths of Xen'Drik in their own nutty ERB-style lost city with no problem.

In other words, Xen'Drik was created with a game purpose in mind. I can respect this a great deal, because it is world background and story that explains how something can be used for a game, instead of the other way around: how something is used is determined by world background and story.

Another example of this phenomenon would be how, despite the fact Eberron is a setting with distinctive characteristics from the garden variety D&D world, everything that is in D&D has a place in Eberron. This is an innovation that is absolutely terrific, especially from the point of view of a DM: it means you don't have to throw anything out. Even absolutely weird supplements like ORIENTAL ADVENTURES have a way they can be used in traditional D&D: the civilization of hobgoblins have an ancient martial tradition, so a character class like Samurai would be very much at home there. The idea of a Kung Fu goblin made my day, by the way.

This attitude is especially helpful if you're a Dungeon Master, and you just got a fantastic new adventure supplement you want to use. I've been able to insert a great many non-Eberron products into Eberron. For instance, the adventure in the back of Frostburn for 5th Level characters and the recent FORTRESS OF THE YUAN-TI adventure (which incidentally, I placed as a lost city in Xen'Drik).

I have one other nice thing to say about Eberron: for the first time in a very long while, gaming fans have had the touchstone of a shared experience. Let me explain what I mean by that. In the beginning of roleplaying games, it was very rare for a game master to create their own world or adventures, and there were a set selection of buyable Adventure Modules to run your players through. So, it was very common for two different players from two different regions of the world, one from New York City and the other from Norway, to meet and chat about how they handled the Gargoyles in room 14-B.

With the variety of campaign settings (some of which are vastly different), homebrewed rules, and the realization among Game Masters that they too can create their own dungeons and monsters, suddenly every single gaming group was a totally unique experience. This is not necessarily bad, of course: one of the great advantages of roleplaying games over the traditional forms of media like television and movies, and why I think RPGs are perceived as a threat, is because roleplaying games are interactive instead of passive activities. Yet, it is a shame this shared touchstone of game experience is lost. Until Eberron, the only shared activity gamers had were experiences with the rules themselves, the one thing that is usually more or less consistent: how Wizards tend to start off low-powered but eventually come to dominate the game in the upper levels, for example.

Eberron though, had an adventure for first level characters right in the campaign setting book itself, which left a big fat "to be continued" for further adventure modules that the game setting published. Almost every Eberron group I know ran through that first level adventure (so did I!) and ran through the others like WHISPERS OF THE VAMPIRE'S BLADE. What's interesting about the adventure supplements was how important they were to the setting. For instance, the rules for handling the all-important Lighting Rail carriages first appeared in SHADOWS OF THE LAST WAR.

My one problem with the adventures was, because a lot of the supplements had the responsibility to introduce the unique elements of the setting, so the writers made a decision to throw in "everything but the kitchen sink." The worst by far was GRASP OF THE EMERALD CLAW by the otherwise wonderful Bruce R. Cordell (who did SEA OF BLOOD, my all-time favorite adventure modules for 2nd Edition that I rewrote for my aquatic horror game), which had elements of the Dragon Prophecy and an appearance by the Lord of Blades that was totally un-needed. My group had a great time in GRASP OF THE EMERALD CLAW story, but it's one of the few times I've had to rewrite an adventure module with a big black marker, going "okay, not gonna do that, it doesn't go anywhere..."

Finally, I think I should end this article by talking a bit about the future of Eberron now that D&D has entered into a fourth edition. A lot of the FIU gamers have already dropped to their knees to suck off D&D 4th. From what I've read of D&D 4th, it's a mixed bag that I'll probably eventually get used to, just like I did when 3rd came out. In fact, the fact there is no Eberron for 4th is part of the reason I'm slow to adopt it.

All I have to say is, thank God there are no longer any Grapple checks. I really hate those moments when someone wants to do something and everybody at the dinner table whips their books out simultaneously to look it up. It's a little thing, but I like that there are no longer any racial ability penalties. Even in 3rd, that was an anachronistic throwback to the old days of game design when you could never have an advantage unless you were slightly annoyed by something.

Then again, D&D now shows elements of video game thinking. For instance, there are Encounter Powers that can only be used once per encounter. An example of this would be Tripping an enemy. You can only do that once per encounter? I don't get it. I suppose it can be rationalized by saying that tripping is a maneuver dependent on surprise, and so once enemies see you do it they get wise, and that maneuver just won't work again on them. Still, an extremely awkward way to represent a combat move.