Monday, May 31, 2010

Julian Perez vs. the Fifties

If the fifties were a planet, it would be a papier-mache crust over a core of vacuum.


Now, I'm unlikely to ever win an award for totally understanding women any time soon, but it occurs to me that fiction aimed at women usually has the heroine as a scrappy underdog, like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or a spunky ordinary girl, like Anne of Green Gables or Pippi Longstocking. The idea of setting a series around the premise that the heroine is the loveliest creature in existence sounds unbelievably alienating.

I have no idea what the target audience is for this. The women thing was a guess because of the comic's mostly relationship humor and the fact it's set inside of a fashion magazine, but like I said, this doesn't sound like a concept that would be appealing to women. It's not for guys either, the way that say, the jungle girls or Bill Ward's Torchy Todd are, because Venus is hardly a jack-off fantasy for American GIs drawn in loving and horny detail. And I fail to see how kids would find the love, jealousy and working-girl comedy at all appealing.

I mean, I always hated stories where characters have only sympathetic flaws, like a sweet or nice girl that has a stutter or is in a wheelchair, where the flaw is used in a very cheap way to get us on the side of a character....but this is worse, because the problem she faces aren't problems in the conventional sense.

Worst of all, the "villain" of the story has a point. Venus has no qualifications and she comes in off the street and is promoted to the editor position of a beauty magazine. I'd hate her too, especially if I worked my duff off to get where I was.

One of the weirdest parts about Venus is that, as a book written by Stan Lee, towards the end the book undergoes a metamorphosis from office humor and becomes a dress rehearsal for Silver Age Thor. Like Silver Age Thor, the stories were centered around an immortal that had a forbidden love for a mortal earthling of modern times, a figure that nobody really believed was actually a god. And in both series, there was a haughty Big Kahuna god that didn't like the main character messing around and insisted they return. And finally, both have a main villain named Loki - and in both versions, he's a demonic god of evil that has horns (though in the case of Venus, he's drawn identical to the Devil).

Captain Science

I read this one as soon as I could because I am a huge fan of Wally Wood. Unlike "THUNDER Agents," here though it seems like Wood is just phoning it in for a paycheck.

One of the frustrating things about being a comics fan sometimes is that as everybody's such an insanely nitpicky nerd, and somebody somewhere is a hardcore fan of say, Donald Glut's "Dagar the Invincible" and "Tragg and the Sky Gods," it's very rare and ridiculously difficult to have a new revelation or a new insight, especially into really storied characters where everything that can be discovered about them has been discovered.

Here's something that I don't think any aficionados of classic comics have ever pointed out before: the similarities between the origin of the Silver Age Green Lantern (who debuted in 1959) and Wally Wood's Captain Science (who debuted in 1951).

Both heroes have their origin start off with a bald alien with an unusual skin color that crash-lands in the New Mexico desert. Before they die, the aliens give the hero an item of power. In the case of Captain Science, the alien's teaching machines give him all sorts of knowledge of scientific fact unknown to earth.

The Yellow Claw

Sorry to say the obvious here...but Good God, that was racist!

The revival of the Yellow Claw in modern Marvel Comics, including a really memorable story by Englehart (take a shot!) and a few other great ones including a tale where he actually killed the Mandarin (and he was really dead, too, though he came back to life when he placed his mind in his rings and some poor sap tried them on) made me very curious about the character and his 1950s origins.

The first issue with the Yellow Claw were well-plotted, atmospheric thrillers with extraordinary art. It definitely had strengths as a concept, though it was extremely derivative. Every panel looked like an extremely elaborate Chinese restaurant placemat. The next three stories were more or less Challengers of the Unknown stories: centered around a single weird occurrence, like a whole building where gravity reversed itself.

Hero System (Champions) 6th Edition Review

Champions, aka the Hero System, is my favorite tabletop role-playing game of all time, and so I grabbed the new edition, updated my running game to use it, and never looked back. Other superhero games are great, but none seemed as worthwhile as Champions. A majority of my long-lasting RPGs have been Champions games.

Like a lot of things I like, the Hero System is neither beginner or newbie-friendly...but while it looks difficult, the rules have such internal consistency that it's possible to understand how several rules work if you understand one. Character creation is infinitely customizable; there's never a danger of two characters looking alike.

My typical reaction to most of the changes in 6TH Edition was, “well, it’s about damn time!”

One thing that I’ve yet to see receive any praise as long, long overdue was the system for Long-Term END Loss. This is one of those so-called “Optional” rules, like the Dive for Cover maneuver, that in my experience, are ultimately not-so-optional because they fill a need and can be used almost every story. If a hero flies to South America, how tired are they by the time they get there? How exhausted are they by the cross over the desert? I have no idea why a system with this utility took this long to add.

What I find most impressive, and kind of creepy, is that an overwhelming number of the changes made are things that I personally used in my game on a haphazard basis. For instance, I used something quite similar to the Long-Term END Loss system for a while, and speaking of perfect timing…the very day before I got the book, a player asked if he could get an “all or nothing” limit on his Increased Density. At the time, I ruled that unless it was a huge amount, all or nothing is a -0 limitation. Imagine my shock to see that very ruling, with my exact language, in print! It was things like this that led me to believe this is a revision done by people that actually play the game.

The distinction between the Barrier and Entangle struck me as genius, since it was always unclear to me where Entangle’s ability to create barriers ended and Force Wall began. Further, the solution to Absorption – to list it as points to absorb instead of rolled dice – was exactly the kind of elegant, outside the box solution I hoped to see more of in this revision.

Another definite improvement was the unlocking of characteristics. On the plus side, the unlocking of characteristics means that combat doesn’t stop for 2 minutes while everybody figures out how their SPD is lowered by a Drained DEX. This is actually genius, since Drain DEX and CON are the single most common Drains. In addition to speeding things up, the unlocking allows greater character customizability. When I saw this change, the first character I immediately thought of was Marvel Comics’ the Thing: a guy that is big and rocky and slow, but who is very skilled and experienced at scraps and fighting. He’d definitely have a low-DEX and a high OCV.

This actually reduces the importance of super-crucial attributes like CON and DEX, which depending on their value, can make a character playable or unplayable. The single most common mistake that beginning players make is to have a low CON, which means every attribute derived from that stat is pretty low too.

The switch from inches to meters was an interesting one, but I’m not sure what it really changes. It does make me wonder, though. When I game, I usually do it with maps. A combat without a map, for me, is absolutely unthinkable – combat, to my mind, needs maps in order to be clear. Is it a common experience for people in other groups to play without maps? Is that the reason for the change?

What I find interesting is that most critiques I have of the 6th Edition can also be applied to 5th. The reason is, I’m just disappointed that the new edition didn’t go far enough in solving very basic problems with the Hero System.

1. Hey goober…where are the superguys?

When are they going to stop pretending this isn’t mostly a superhero game?

The Hero System started out as Champions and is first and foremost about superhero gaming. I have no idea why this is even contentious at all. The assumption of superhero gaming is built into almost every element of the system: two different damage types, knockback, END costs for everything, the way only high ability scores impact skills, the unreal damage done by Martial Arts damage, the fundamental durability of living things, down to the very names of powers themselves, like “Telepathy,” and the fundamental notion of powers as something distinct from skills and characteristics. There are a million little examples, even in the current edition: for instance, the fact that Barriers are not assumed to be opaque unless otherwise stated, is a perfect example of thinking that is so idiosyncratically superheroic. De-emphasizing the game’s superhero roots so it’s trying to be GURPS is downright confusing from nearly every angle, especially since the game only really works as-is for superheroes and needs patching and optional rules for nearly everything else.

The Hero System is like Starbucks: sure, it’s great they offer salads and organic juices, but at the end of the day, their business is selling coffee. I figured if anything would cure the Hero System of this tragic delusion, it would be a giant push by a giant, superpopular MMORPG that even goes by the game’s original name of “Champions.” The people that prepared 6th Edition didn’t even change the name of the RPG back to Champions, so connection can be seen. Essentially, the people preparing 6th Edition squandered the highest visibility that Champions has ever received and ever will receive! With the push from the top-selling computer game that uses an abridged version of its mechanics, Champions could have been able to reach a wider audience than roleplaying games usually get. As the “Hero System,” it’s only bought by the usual suspects. EPIC FAIL.

2. Adjustment Powers.

The Achilles Heel of the system is and always has been Adjustment Powers. If anything called for a revision it would be them, and it’s interesting how the section on Adjustment Powers in 6th Edition bloated out to a whopping three times larger than any other power category. The worst is that a crucial element of how they work remains undefined: how many points are required to lower or raise a Power? How much does a single unit (damage point, etc.) cost in active points? I usually solve this with a house rule: record the cost of each individual unit. For instance, an 8d6 Blast with Armor-Piercing would cost 8 points (7.5 rounded up) to lower per damage class. This is something so crucial to quick resolution of how these powers work, but it’s not even on the character sheet!

3. Mental Powers.

One of the first lines that Hero System zealots will parrot at you as a strength of the game is how you buy game mechanics first, and define what something is afterward. And to the game’s credit, it does work that way…except, y’know, for Mental Powers, which are treated separately, on an island from nearly the entire rest of the system. They have different rules for perceptibility, line of sight, and competing rolls…all because they have a distinct and uniting special effect. They even use a totally different characteristic to determine hitting! And there are two different versions of a power depending on whether it is mental or not: Images or Mental Illusions. A more elegant system would have brought them together by now. Something like the “attack vs. EGO,” “Invisible Power Effects” and “No Range Modifier” power advantages from 5th Edition were a step in the right direction.

4. Movement Powers.

No matter how you slice it, movement powers in Champions are so distanced from any real-world measurement of speed, to the point where I’m not even sure what a movement value really means, even in comparative terms. With lots of supergames, it’s pretty clear. In DC Heroes, if you have 10 APs of Superspeed, you can move the distance of 10 APs per round (which has a real-world distance). In Mutants and Masterminds, a Speed of 4 indicates the ability to move at 250 miles per hour. To figure out something as crucial as real-world speed requires a calculation that isn’t even a part of the regular system. This is a really big problem because the distance a character can move in a given time is one of the few occasions where knowledge of a long-term result outside of combat is more important than in-combat, “on map” results. Finally, there are so many variables, noncombat multiples, SPD, and inches – sorry, meters – of movement that the characteristics are meaningless.

5. Create any hero! Except the ones that the rules don’t like.

It is a bug that is desperately spun as a feature that in the Hero System it’s really hard to instantly kill or transform anything despite the fact that tons of fictional characters and devices have these ability. This is an example of the system telling fiction and the players how the world works instead of the other way around. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a GM, I know some things just shouldn’t be available as gamebreakers. But even if something is too abusive or powerful to allow player characters to have, a way should exist to create it where it can exist under GM control. Another example of the rules making awkward a concept that is intellectually easy to grasp would be characters that are just plain immune to something. I hardly see how having a PC or NPC that is just plain immune to fire, radiation or electricity is so game-destroyingly broken that there is just no way to do it under the normal use of the character creation rules. The Immunity power in Mutants & Masterminds did this very classily and elegantly and didn’t require insane uses of active points.

6. As before, Mimics, Shapechangers and “photographic reflexes” characters remain awkward to represent.

I always thought one of the reasons that Shapechanger and Mimic character concepts were a base archetype in the main Mutants & Masterminds book was a direct diss to their greatest competition – that this game can create with such ludicrous ease what is so awkward and difficult in the Hero System. Sure, in Champions there is a way to have Muscle Mimics and Shapechangers, but still. In practice, “on the ground,” they’re downright unplayable, especially for new players, since it involves a VPP, and designing powers is not always possible off the cuff. Even the most fervent Hero System partisan must admit that character creation is not the quickest thing in the world to do. Because skills can’t be placed in VPPs, and for good reason, the Muscle Mimic or photographic reflexes character remains the one power set that Champions just can’t reproduce under normal circumstances. This is a direct example of the rules and system interfering in character concepts that are very common in fiction.

As a Champions GM, I had to discourage a new player – naively under the delusion the game can live up to its promise and do anything she imagined - from creating a power-mimic character. I hated to do it. I hated to tell a player “no,” especially to a character concept so very basic to comics…but better to do that, than having her spend 5-10 minutes every combat assigning and building points for new powers, while a more experienced player stood over her shoulder and helped her figure it out. Does that sound like fun to anybody else? I had an epiphany when I realized that a VPP is suggested as a solution for any area the system can’t do well. To those that say the VPP solution to mimics works just fine, I ask you this: when was the last time you saw a Mimic character in your Champions game?

7. Lots of people are math-illiterate. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

I’m a mathy sort of guy; I took Calculus I and II in college and I was a “mathlete” in High School. I have periodically worked as a math tutor. I’ve often been alarmed at a world where most people are math-illiterate and seemingly proud of it, where even counting change is difficult for many. I don’t find the very basic elementary school math the Hero System requires to really be a problem at all. However, a stock critique of the Hero System is that it requires a lot of number-crunching, and it is an absolutely undeniable fact that character creation does take longer in this game than others. This critique keeps on popping up over and over and over and over. If so many people keep on saying it, if so many people bring it up, shouldn’t the people that design the game take the hint, realize there may be a problem, and do something about it? Maybe do something so character creation doesn’t take so damn long? So adjustment powers have an effect that results in quicker resolution? So figuring out your character’s actual speed in a meaningful real-world measurement doesn’t require an unintuitive calculation? So it’s possible to play a mimic or shapechanger for anyone but advanced players?

At the end of the day, that’s the biggest problem I’ve got with the 6th Edition: because it can’t acknowledge there might be something to the critiques, it doesn’t feel the need to do anything about them. Tweaking the cost of adjustment powers and their adders doesn’t change the basic problems. It really feels like the people that wrote 6th Edition didn’t think there were any basic problems with the game. Hero System fanboys and advertising copy go on about how “any hero is possible,” but game designers should know better than to drink the Kool-Aid, and strive to repair the real deficiencies that exist. The original Champions was not handed down on golden plates by archangels. Basic, fundamental things about it can and should be fixed. That’s the review of the 6th Edition Hero System in a nutshell: it didn’t go far enough.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

I kind of liked General Grievous

Yes, I know what you're thinking. What's the bland robot villian from Episode III doing on here, anyway? All most people can think of is that extremely undignified moment where General Grievous emerged in that Looney Tunes giant wheel vehicle.

Remember that scene in Batman Forever where Two-Face slaps the Club on the wheel of his helicopter? The giant Wile-E-Coyote wheel vehicle was sort of like that: a WTF moment where it was obvious the people that created this didn't actually believe in their own world, where the sense of whimsy officially went too far and became jarringly out of place.

To understand why I like General Grievous, you have to understand a few things about Star Wars, and what makes it different from Star Trek. (I provide this for the benefit of "Trek" fans, just to show the difference.)

Just before the prequels were made, there was a long drought where no Star Wars films were made at all, a situation that Star Trek never really encountered. Someone had the bright idea to call science fiction superstar Timothy Zahn and have him write sequels to the original movies.

Needless to say, the Timothy Zahn "Heir to the Empire" books were nothing short of the smash hits of 1991, among the top selling books of the year, on the best seller list for 29 weeks. They were direct continuations of the movies, and were fully sponsored by Lucasfilm. Every character was spot-on; it was possible to hear Harrison Ford's voice when Timothy Zahn wrote Han Solo's dialogue. There was an air of incredible authenticity to it all that dispelled the idea that all of this was just glorified fanfiction, and gave the books an incredible legitimacy. Many fans think of his trilogy as Episodes VII, VIII, and IX. That's the crucial difference: they were not just tie-in books, but allowed to be a continuation of a pop culture phenomenon.

What's more, character development logically continued into the books. Han Solo for instance, started to become responsible because he was married and had a wife, and Leia started to deal with the horror of the fact her father was Darth Vader, particularly when she has to assume the identity of "Lady Vader" to an alien race that worships him. And instead of just retreads of the original movies, the Timothy Zahn books were full of totally new concepts. Grand Admiral Thrawn, for example, was a totally new kind of villain not seen in Star Wars before: a calm, rational genius rather like Sherlock Holmes, in that he could identify what was going on with even the barest clues to the point he seemed near-omniscient.

If the Timothy Zahn books had been anything less than totally spectacular - the publishing event of 1991 - from either a creative or sales point of view, Star Wars canon would be totally differentnow. It might be more like Star Trek, where novels are seen as cynically produced, non-canon fluff to series that are continuing simultaneously. But thanks to Zahn's success, the degree to which the books were embraced by the fans, the priority with which the books were held by Lucasfilm, and the drought of Star Wars films, the Star Wars expanded canon went in a totally different direction.

Because of this, everything "Star Wars" was canon, even things produced before 1991, when the notion of an expanded universe was really legitimized by Zahn's success - and even things like the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian novels, and the Marvel comic book, were retroactively made official and "grandfathered" in to the story of Star Wars (to this day, details established by those series are used and crucial, like the idea that Han Solo started off as an Imperial officer that was dishonorably discharged because he saved the life of a Wookiee slave). Because the Han Solo and Lando Calrissian novels were considered canon to a world that people are still interested in, they have consistently been in print for years and years.

(Another thing that happened, unrelated to the novels, was the success of Star Wars comics and computer games. Star Wars comics were so successful that Dark Horse switched to making licensed Star Wars comics exclusively, just like Marvel and DC only really print superheroes. Since an entire company's identity is wrapped up with the Star Wars comics with a level of involvement that Marvel and DC never were had with Star Trek comics, Dark Horse's Star Wars funnies are always considered "official" and "canon." Likewise, Knights of the Old Republic is widely considered to be one of the best computer games ever made.)

One might argue there was some precedent for all this. After all, Boba Fett really wowed everyone as being the only part of the Star Wars Christmas Special that anybody found interesting or memorable, which he did long before his appearance in Empire Strikes Back. The energy his quiet coolness created from his Christmas Special appearance created a type of accidental hype around him disproportionate to his actual role in the story. But prior to Zahn and "Heir to the Empire," the supporting elements to the films were just peripheral.

And it was into all this, a very different Star Wars experience, that the prequel films were made and released and that has to be taken into account when discussing them. All of this seems meandering and long-winded, but I wanted to explain the context under which I found General Grievous fascinating.

General Grievous was introduced to the world in "Labyrinth of Evil." And like Thrawn, he deserves credit for being a totally different type of villain that had never been seen before. A general that was horribly mangled to the point where only his living brain survived, he was rebuilt in a robot body.

When Christopher Lee's Count Dooku saw him for the first time, he sarcastically proclaimed him "General of the Droid Armies." Just then, Grievous went ballistic and killed several of his handlers.

He loudly roared that "I am not a droid!"

Suddenly, after that moment, I understood who this character was, that there was an idea behind him.

In Labyrinth of Evil, the viceroys of the Trade Federation, arrogant Chinese stereotypes that use robots for labor and are used to them in positions of servitude and telling them what to do, were excessively commanding and domineering of General Grievous. He didn't like that. Not. One. Bit.

The character of General Grievous, at least in that book, gave me faith that finally, Star Wars was giving us an interesting villain with a clear-cut motive. Alas, he was wasted in a cheeseball fight scene that showed nothing of his personality, character, or horror at becoming a robot.

This was the beginning of an extremely unhealthy relationship between Star Wars and its expanded universe. Because the prequel movies made no sense, every flaw in the film, every unexplained motivation, had to be covered in the books. Because the prequel films didn't provide enough information to understand what was going on, it was necessary to turn to the books to get it. And because the prequel movies didn't provide any insights into character, character had to be provided in the books and comics.

A particularly terrible example of something that should have been in the main film itself? The novels explained that it was Captain Panaka - the pessimistic general devoted to protecting Amidala in Episode I, and the only rational, clearheaded guy in the entire film, who told the Emperor that Anakin and Amidala were secretly married. The finished films never explain this point! How did the Emperor know this? Panaka, interestingly, was another character from the prequels that I liked, a character I thought had potential...especially since, as an old friend of Palpatine, a guy that believes in a strong military and law and order, became a Grand Moff during the age of the Empire.

Incidentally, I never minded something that drove other people up the wall: the fact General Grievous coughed. I always assumed he was using an early version of the technology that was later perfected for Darth Vader.

Jaroo Presents... Cartoons on the Web

Over at, the entire library of DIC is posted, highlights of which include Captain N, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, and most importantly of all, Mummies Alive! Tragically, they only post a few episodes at a time of Mummies Alive!

Which is a shame, because if there was any show that I can watch for giant eight hour blocks on a lazy weekend, it would be that one: astonishingly well written (by comic book guys like Len Wein no less), well-researched, the series is all the more compelling because something is always at stake and going on in fight scenes apart from just the actual contest itself.

They have a few other series posted, but here are some highlights that I can snark about:

Action Man

Armed with a mysterious past and an accent that changes from episode to episode, Action Man was made in the nineties, yet it already feels like it was made on another planet. His catchphrase is "let's get X-Treme!" His airplane is called "Jet X-Treme." Somehow, though, the X-Tremeness is somewhat undercut by the fact that the series is done in the DIC house style and so looks incredibly like "Liberty's Kids" and the animated "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

The catch phrase "Let's get X-Treme!" is the all-time winner of the worst catchphrase award ever,

It's not the show's fault, of course, but Action Man is yet another series that really loses out from the pointless censorship of firearms on kids' TV. This means that Action Man and his commando buddies use "lasers." Ugh.

In addition, Action Man follows the usual formulaic plots of gutsy adventure cartoons. For instance, a satellite crashes in a mysterious and unexplored region and both Action Man and his archenemy race to find it first. Astonishingly, GI Joe did this episode, as did Chuck Norris: Karate Commandos.

What is it about the nineties that makes things made during that era age terribly? "Trainspotting," for example, feels more dated than movies twice its age.

Siegfried & Roy: Masters of the Impossible

In this series, Siegfried and Roy are magician adventurers in a magical kingdom and Manticore the white tiger is their magical sidekick. It was as weird as you'd expect. The first thing that went through my head when I heard about this series was...what, they couldn't get the licensing to the Harlem Globetrotters?

This one remains a favorite, not just because Siegfried and Roy are my childhood heroes, but also because of the incredibly perplexing decision to give them girlfriends. Now, I can understand why in a kid's series with a magical white tiger sidekick they'd avoid discussing homosexuality, particularly that of Siegfried and Roy, who keep it in their private lives and therefore it's none of anybody else's business. But making them not only straight, but also (in the case of Siegfried) a pussy-hound, was a bizarre act of overcompensation.

Evolution: the Animated Series

The opening says it all. I can't believe this series exists.

If you were to name movies that have potential for animated series, which would top it? For me, it would definitely be "The Last Starfighter," which had above-average sequel potential, or maybe something involving the continued adventures of the Goonies.

"Evolution" would be at the bottom of the list! Mostly because...conflict in fiction has to be between people to be interesting. People, with well-defined and comprehensible motives. Fights with non-comprehending animals and natural forces are not interesting, for the same reason that conflicts with inanimate objects (e.g. lockpicking) are uninteresting: they have no real goals to oppose or objectives to have, they're just there. They can't really challenge your emotions. When you lose the mystery of the weird alien cells in the movie Evolution, what have you really got except a bug hunt show? How is that fodder for a series, anyway?

I resisted the urge to make fun of the movie Evolution...but it has to be mentioned: the movie totally tanked. Maybe it wasn't the movie's own fault, or necessarily indicate the movie wasn't any good...but to make an animated series based on it is a downright baffling decision. Not only that, but an adventure cartoon where the heroes have power-suits, wield metal quarterstaffs and guns that look like super-soakers? It's like the cartoon was based on a first-draft script for the film that was extensively rewritten.

One thing I have to say in its defense: the only iconic image from the movie was the three-eyed "have a nice day" smiley face, and they found a way to incorporate that into a "slimer" character. Not bad. It baffles me all the more that the new Battlestar Galactica felt the need to change the appearance of the Cylons...the one part of the show that didn't look ridiculous and seventies, that remains intimidating and menacing. I mean, it's the one image from the original series anybody remembers.

Ripley's Believe it or Not!

Again, I ask: whaaaaa?

It's like they'll license anything into an adventure cartoon.

Hey DIC, I have an idea for Dear Abby: the Animated Series. Dear Abby's spunky, moxie-filled mystery-solving teenage grand-daughter, also named Abby, is called to respond to letters to problems that people have. She goes in and solves their problems, but usually they involve encounters with the Occult and possibly the Mafia.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Chuck Heston's been dead for a while now... is it finally far enough away from his death that we can all be objective and say he was a mawkish, hammy actor?

Biblical and Ancient Roman epics are my least favorite genre of all-time. They're always dead serious - with "dead" being the operative phrase. They're infuriatingly self-important, with pompous dialogue and grandiose but cold characters that lack anything like a sense of humor or humanity. Surely even the Ancient Romans must have laughed sometime.

As a human being, Heston was classless and tasteless (like when he held a gun rally in Littleton, Colorado two weeks after the Columbine massacre) so it makes sense to me that the only roles I've ever truly accepted and liked him in were ones where he played amoral, mercenarial and slimy guys like in "Secret of the Incas." The role was perfect for him, and he really did great in the part. People point to that film as being the beginning of Indiana Jones, but I see a little more of Han Solo and the dark streak that made him compelling.

Ordinarily it's unwise to link to material on YouTube, but the beautiful part here is that "Treasure of the Incas" is public domain now. An extremely enjoyable crime/adventure movie.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Let's not bicker and argue over who spilled what...the ethics of personal responsibility (for others)

On April 21st, 2010, the most extraordinary event in the history of mankind took place. The Finger of God Himself emerged from the heavens and touched the series of concrete and valves that drilled 5,000 feet under the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. But by no means was the Almighty's miraculous intervention limited only to this, of course. God also made sure the well was improperly cemented, increasing the pressure and creating an explosion and spill. In this miraculous and awe-inspiring event of which mortal humans had no involvement whatsoever, God also ensured that the breakers designed to keep in the well also automatically failed and didn't seal the well off. With a single wave of His hand, He caused methane sulfide crystals to form on the containment dome, which prevented it from closing.

According to petroleum industry apologists, this is the version of events as they would have it told: a horrible act of environmental destruction that no maintenance or higher safety and standards could have possibly prevented. C'mon, guys! Let's not bicker and argue over who spilled what...

If the above is a little over the top it's because I took the apologists at their word about the oil spill being an Act of God.

All this, despite the fact that the same exact thing happened before: in 2005, 212 gallons of a lubricant were spilled because of (deja vu!) improper cementing of the well. In 2002, the freshly minted Deepwater Horizon rig spilled 267 gallons of oil because of a broken tube. In fact, come to think of it, the Coast Guard gave no less than six warnings to the Deepwater Horizon rig. What's more, in 2003, a collision hit the Horizon rig and caused $95,000 in damage, which would have allowed the industry to remain blameless, if not for the fact the damage was never repaired.

Yet, if petroleum industry apologists are to be believed, not even Nostradamus could have seen the oil spill coming. This is the essence of corporate apologism: the insistence on personal responsibility (for others).

The Deepwater Horizon rig was contracted out by British Petroleum to (surprise, surprise) Haliburton, who long ago transcended ordinary villainy into the realm of cartoonish super-villainy.

My all time favorite justification was this, by oil rig historian Tyler Priest: "You're always going to have minor equipment failure and human error, and of course they're operating in a hurricane prone environment." How a hurricane could have resulted in this oil spill when there wasn't one anywhere near is anybody's guess (also: minor equipment failure?). Tyler Priest's comments in a nutshell summarize the very attitude I am against here. Yes, human error happens, but the evil here is that this was a rig with a history of problems, including a problem that happened before that no one did anything about that directly resulted in the oil spill. Spill me once, shame on you. Spill me twice, shame on you and the standards of your parent company.

The reason I find all of this so offensive is not just the zero accountability, the denials and the obfuscation...but the notion that nothing we do really can prevent accidents. They are inevitable, blameless creations of machine failure and human error instead of a result of human negligence that can in fact, be prevented. Believing something is inevitable has an interesting way of making something inevitable.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Broken Windows: Errors in Logic in Arizona's SB1070

As a Floridian, it's so nice to hear that some other state is now the national embarrassment. Thanks,'re making us look like the "good child" again.

Arizona's Immigration Law SB1070 is igniting a national controversy, and the first time I realized the sentiment dredged up by this reactionary piece of political theater is when there were actually protests against SB1070 at a Marlins-Diamondbacks game. This is nothing short of astonishing since in this infuriatingly candy-ass, fair-weather sports town, it's nice to actually see somebody care about something at a baseball game...alas, it wasn't baseball, though.

I am amused by people that claim that the law won't lead to racial profiling. Deeply amused, because racial profiling, and the codification of racial profiling, is the whole point of the law. SB 1070 allows for local police to stop and determine immigration status if they have "reasonable suspicion" that a person has a vague immigration status during a "lawful stop or detention." In other words, the entire purpose of the law is to increase the ability of police to hassle people and demand papers aggressively. There are a few token prohibitions in HB 2162, the follow-up law, of course, that officers should not take into account "race, color or national origin" in its enforcement, but that's a laugh: does Arizona share a border with the lily-white Ruritania from the Prisoner of Zenda? No - the race and national origin of people stopped for papers is the overwhelming factor at work in the decision to enforce the law.

I have friends that often say absolutely outrageous things about other races and religions, who then follow their statements with "...but I'm not a racist!" Actually, there's no more racist group on the planet than college educated, liberal whites, because they have the attitude that because of who they are, nothing they say can be viewed as racist, so they say absolutely terrible things. There's a point at which something can't reasonably be denied to be racist. When you have a law that increases the ability to detain, stop and question people and require them to carry specialized papers constantly or face prison, and its enforcement is specifically directed against a single racial/ethnic group to the exclusion of is this not racist?

Now, as everybody knows, I'm really hard when it comes to enforcing the law on violent lawbreakers. But not everyone that is an illegal immigrant is a lawbreaker. There is a distinction between people in the United States illegally to pick tomatoes (or because they were brought as children and know no other life) and violent and aggressive gangsters that border-cross.

There's a theory in criminal justice called "broken windows." In other words, tolerance for one type of crime (broken windows in a neighborhood) will lead to tolerance for other types of crimes (muggings). So, in order to reduce violent crime in an area, there has to be intolerance for broken windows. This is an error in logic related to the "lawn fallacy." Think of it like this: there was (seriously) a theory floated around in education that the key to the success of children in schools is a well-groomed lawn, because it was found that most high achieving students had well groomed lawns. Unfortunately, correlation is not causation and to suggest otherwise is a lapse in logic. The reason that broken windows are found in high-crime areas isn't because tolerance of one leads to another, but because similar causes result in both: poverty, neglect, and so on.

Likewise, intolerance of one type of illegal immigrant (migrant laborers) will not necessarily result in reduction of another (violent gangsters). Obviously violent Mexican gangsters should be deported and their privileges revoked, no questions asked...but that only applies when they have actually committed a crime - and guess what? That's how it worked before the new laws! (What a concept, eh? Deporting people in the U.S. illegally that have actually committed a crime!) Defenders of the SB1070 law frequently make a big deal about how SB1070 is only enforcing standard laws instead of changing them...but if the laws are currently acceptable, where's the necessity for this anyway?

The belief that all illegal immigrants are fundamentally lawbreakers is in fact, a racist belief that does not understand the Mexican experience, considering an entire economy exists that migration makes possible: if every illegal migrant worker were to leave tomorrow, most Americans would starve and the food shortage would be downright crippling. Also, the law is anti-humanitarian: a "no illegals, no amnesty" hard line doesn't make much of small children that were raised in the United States, that speak only English, that call America home.

Empathy is a crucial tool when relating to others. When that happens, ask yourself this question: did your great grandparents have their papers in order?

One of the ugliest aspects of America is the degree to which Mexicans -a group that has been in the United States in significant numbers longer than either the Irish or Italians - are permanent outsiders, a pain that the racial profiling SB1070 emphasizes. Americanism is, like it or not, determined by race. Long-dead pop star Selena's family came to the United States 150 years before and will forever be a "Latin Star," yet Rene Zellweiger has a German father and is the "All-American Girl."

Finally, I can't punish the Republican Party and Arizona any more than they will inevitably be punished in the coming years. The effects are immediate: Arizona is reeling from a big body blow, the loss of more than $90 million in conventions and other organizations that are moving away from the state. In the public mind, Arizona is now associated with reactionary racism and Mexiphobic sentiment. And finally, the dream of the Republican Party bringing in Hispanics to create a permanent majority in America are gone for the next foreseeable generation. The short-term energizing of the base that this piece of political theater creates, is nothing compared to the long-term political consequences.

Friday, May 14, 2010

It Came...From the Internet!

WARNING: this article requires a finely calibrated sense of satire. A good rule is, if you can't tell that Ed Anger and Steven Colbert are not really conservatives but are in fact goofing on conservatism, you probably won't get the joke here. And thus, become a part of the joke.

There are several writers of the blog "Calvinists 4 Conservatism." One of them is, by all appearances, a pretty normal and earnest guy that doesn't care for atheism and tries to use religion to make sense of disasters in the world in a way that shows real thought. I don't agree with him at times, but he's obviously the real deal.

The other one is a guy so laughably over the top that it's obvious that he's a liberal that's totally infiltrated this webpage, by the name of "Objective Scrutator." The fact that nobody on that website has figured it out is the best thing ever.

He amps the rhetoric up to such insane levels that it's funny and somehow perverse that there are actually people that find themselves agreeing with him. For instance, he defends Uganda's insane laws that punish anyone knowing someone is a homosexual and not reporting it with seven years in prison. Cheering on this obviously inhuman law is a direct satirical attack on conservatives' heartlessness and lack of concern about global savagery toward homos.

And what's more, his posts are a thing of beauty. Under "Turmoil in the Toybox," he's got this to say:

"There are other wicked cartoons, too. For starters, The Care Bears will indoctrinate your children into Hinduism and sodomy."

"The Big Bang goes against the 6000 year doctrine that has been repeatedly proven time and time again as Darwin, a man who had carnal relationships with Galapagos Tortoises, is continually revived by atheists and anti-Americans, so as to provide the antiChrist with legions of soldiers."

"I was seriously worried that I may grow lax on children’s cartoons, and perhaps allow my young children to expose themselves to the left-wing demons of pornography, the occult, and other Helioleftist Eratosthenian rubbish. "

The question here is, did the blog start as a joke and they just looped in some earnest but thickheaded guy into it, like Jolt from the Thunderbolts, who actually thinks they are heroes instead of criminals pretending to be superheroes in a scheme?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

If you don't get the joke, you're a part of it

"I'll kill you! I'll kill you to death!"

A textbook example of the phenomenon where, "if you don't get the joke, you're a part of it" would have to be Superboy-Prime, a villainous character that goes on a lunatic rampage when other heroes break his insanely exacting standards of what constitutes heroism, and in so doing parodies lots of old school fans that think this or that hero is RUINED FOREVER by once in a while demonstrating their human nature. The character's whiny rants hit a little too close to home for many old school prudes.

What they don't get though, is that their "we are not amused" reaction actually increases the entertainment value of the character! It's sort of like how Bill O'Reilly's attempts to boycott records actually increase their sales.

The character's overused and played out, which goes to show that even the funniest jokes can eventually die from exhaustion. But for a while there, Superboy-Prime gave me a glorious schadenfreude explosion.

Another, more frustrating example of this phenomenon would be the absolutely savage Family Guy parody on South Park...for the simple reason that Seth McFarlane didn't play along, and said he thought the South Park satire was "very funny." I find that monstrously upsetting because...well, you're not supposed to get it and play along - that parody was an attack at your expense, so massive, so merciless that the only way McFarlane can just let it go is if he's either biting his tongue so as not to look like a humorless dick, or he honestly just didn't get it. Either way, it's disappointing.

I always thought that Family Guy's attempts at shocking humor were a little gutless because none of their shock-value gags were at the expense of anyone that enjoyed the show. For instance, a lot of their gags are based on spoofing uptight, prudish religious and fundamentalist nuts. My question is...what uptight, fundamentalist religious people watch Family Guy, anyway?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

RedLetterMedia Reviews Episode I: the Phantom Menace

The entire internet has probably seen these by now, but have a look at this absolutely spot-on, go for the jugular review of the godforsaken Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The high points are all at the beginning where he asks others to find words to describe the personality of characters from the prequels and nobody can come up with anything.

The guy that created these trailers did something that I say, with sincere envy, that I wish I had thought of first. When you do a 70-minute review of a movie that's been out for more than ten years that calls it the worst thing ever, people are going to finger you, rightly or wrongly, as a total dweeb...and that's something that is prone to happen to anybody that gets into and reviews popular culture with enough fervor and energy. The way the guy that did the review headed these critiques off was absolutely ingenious: he created an alternate persona of a creepy, aging blue collar gambling addict and former stroke victim that dabbles in serial killing.

Yeah, I get passionate about very silly things about movies, books and comics. Frankly, I'm glad I have the human capacity to experience that kind of emotion. If you like anything enough, and get passionate enough about something to write about it, you're an unusual minority. The overwhelming majority of people on an evening out to the cinema don't talk about the movie they just saw; for most, as they leave the theater they've already forgotten it. The overwhelming majority of people approach things like they do junk TV: they don't think about it when it's not "on."

This is something I realize every time I'm called to do jury duty. The overwhelming majority of people in this world are soulless bores without any hobbies, interests, or books in their homes, that are just sort of...there. And people wonder why I'm an antisocial guy!

Here's a real-life story: when I was an undergraduate and wrote news articles for the FIU Library website, the Mets suffered a catatrophic choke right at the cusp of the finals, when it looked like they had what it took for the first Mets World Series since 2000. I still remember it, October of 2007: all of Shea Stadium had a morguelike atmosphere as people stared blank at the field. The worst part is that the Mets started off in first place.

I was so disappointed and heartbroken that I called in sick to work the next day. When I showed up the day after, my boss...a sweet lady that knew me very well...put her hand on my shoulder and though she was trying to be kind, she said the single worst thing anyone could possibly have ever said in that situation:

"Relax, it's just a game."

You see? You see what I'm talking about? Who are these people that don't understand what it is to be a fan, to really get passionate about something? I don't understand it either when people don't get what the big deal is about whether Kate gets together with Jack or Sawyer on Lost. That's a matter of frickin' life and death, people!

In a lot of worlds that I move in, there's often this false dichotomy, a false either-or between a work that is either for "newbies" or "fans." Something either appeals to new people, or to hard core, old-school fans. This was seen at work in the promotion for the most recent Star Trek movie: the fact that Trek came with a built-in world that fans love and indeed, one of the most energetic and enthusiastic fanbases in history...was seen as a minus and not a plus. Fans whining was something that was holding Star Trek back from being reinvented as a hip blockbuster action movie franchise like everything else.

This is why in (not all, but almost all) cases I tend to support the fans over the desire to reinvent something for general audiences. To care about something enough to passionately defend it is rare because the treatment of entertainment as cheap, forgettable and disposable is the norm. Sure, it's all just fiction, but fiction is unique among all fields of human endeavor in that it allows us to discover and connect to other people. Understanding fiction helps us understand ourselves.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Myths of World War II: How We Learned all the Wrong Things

One of the most frustrating things about history education in the United States is that it seems like our history courses start in 1939 and end in 1945.

This is reflected in our popular culture and discussion about world affairs, where every enemy is seen as the Nazis and it is always 1939, and those that strive for diplomatic solutions to problems are tarred as "Chamberlain-like appeasers" despite the fact that the situation is frequently different.

What's worse is that almost everything Americans know about World War II is either wrong, or a simplification of a complex situation. It's all to create a huge national myth about World War II and the Greatest Generation.

A few things to keep in mind about the narrative of World War II that we think we know, but we actually don't:

Chamberlain and the French. Chamberlain's name in the United States is synonymous with appeasement and cowardice before the power of the Nazis, a starry-eyed idealist that was tricked and bamboozled. In reality, if Chamberlain really believed in "Peace in Our Time" he would not have been re-arming and re-militarizing Britain. Chamberlain was a smart guy that saw the writing on the wall: in any battle that the British fought with the Nazis, Britain would have been totally creamed. In fact, the ability of Britain to even fight owes more to Chamberlain than to Churchill. This brings me to my next point...

The Cult of Personality of Winston Churchill. A British friend of mine was always amused by the American valorization of Churchill. When I asked him how most Brits felt about Churchill, the response was along the lines of, "the war was fought between two lunatics. Thank God that our lunatic won!" As I said before, any scenario where the Nazis outright invaded Britain (Operation: Sea Lion) would have resulted in a Nazi victory. The real reason that Britain survived was not due to Churchill and his oratory ability and determination to fight, but to the fact that Hitler was insane, refused to attack his racial brothers, and believed that Britain would support him once he attacked the Soviet Union. If the Germans actually did invade, Winston Churchill's woofing and posturing would have been revealed for what it was: "We will fight on the streets...for five minutes. We will fight in the field...for five minutes." This goes to show that Americans have a terrifying preference for woofers prancing in cowboy boots over actual heroes. How it was that a real war hero like John Kerry was presented as the anti-military candidate while a cowboy-hat wearing pansy like Dubya I'll never understand...or, in the interests of being bipartisan, how a real honest to goodness American hero like George Bush Sr. that delivered the only real decisive American victory since WWII, Gulf War I, was eliminated in favor of a guy that talked and looked like my high school class president.

The role of the Russians. Ask most Americans in which country most World War II battles were fought, and they probably wouldn't answer Russia, but it is true. What's more, Russia suffered more casualties and suffered the greatest financial losses of any country in the entire conflict. In the long-term, the seige of Stalingrad and the Russian winter did much more to destroy the Nazis than the D-Day landings did. In fact, if World War II could be summarized in a single sentence, it would be "Germany vs. Russia." It's only natural to take pride in our very crucial American role, however, the presence of Russia is inconvenient to the American narratives of World War II: it was a time when the world faced a great evil and the world united to destroy it. The idea that World War II was a grimy, ugly conflict that was the story of a bully that was beaten because it met a bigger bully destroys all the high-minded mythology that Americans have developed around a morally gray conflict between two equally genocidal and vicious combatants.

If you were to ask me why these myths persist, I would say that they are very, very attractive to authoritarians. A country united and with purpose, speaking in one voice instead of the rabble, must be absolutely fascinating to people that view disagreement as a weakness instead of as a strength.

In many ways, the conflict that has much more practical, applicable and useful lessons to us today is actually World War I, which is far less understood by Americans. Kennedy, a president that whatever else can be said of him was actually brilliant and read extensively, managed to avert the Cuban Missile Crisis because of Barbara Tuchman's book The Guns of August.

In brief, the lessons of World War I are:

If you believe that war is becomes inevitable. Lots of Germans and British wrote books with titles like "The Moral Right to Make War." Indeed, what made an unecessary and nearly accidental conflict like World War I possible was the assumption on the part of everyone that everyone else's motives were hostile, aggressive and belligerent. The fact this lesson wasn't learned by anyone but John Kennedy really makes me wonder how the world survived the Cold War. As Carl Sagan frequently pointed out, a comet hitting the earth in either the United States or the Soviet Union would be indistinguishable from a nuclear First Strike.

This self-fulfilling prophecy nature of warfare and hostility also explains the single biggest foreign policy boner of the entire bonerrific Bush years: the creation of a nuclear missile shield in Poland near Russia, which soured a potential ally to the United States for an entire generation for no real reason that I can detect. In fact, considering the role Russia played in supplying the Chavez government, there is a real question of how this boneheaded and unecessary act of hostility led to greater world instability and anti-US sentiment. There was a wonderful article in The Economist that argued that the only role of a missile shield in Poland would be to give the U.S. first strike capability. All this a decade after the end of the Cold War! People often whine that Obama got his Nobel Prize in the field of not being Bush, but dismantling that shield actually has resulted in a much safer world.

Wars inevitably lead to other wars. This is something to keep in mind when any general or politician calls a conflict "decisive."

It's possible to have a war where all sides involved lose. This is even more true when it involves nukes. And it is further possible to have a war that destroys even the winner - a place as a world superpower is not eternal or guaranteed, but is contingent on sane and rational decision making.

What is a hate crime?

One of the more interesting arguments against hate crime legislation is that hate crimes are problematic because they criminalize intent as opposed to action and behavior.

To that, I respond this way:

Hate crimes do not have a higher penalty because of intent. Hate crimes have a higher penalty because of their practical, real-world effect: they intimidate, silence and terrify an entire community. The reason that there are greater penalties beyond just that of the initial act itself (murder, rape, violent assault, etc.) is that a hate crime makes the community of the victim (particularly vulnerable minority communities, especially blacks) frightened and intimidated. The effect of events like lynching has, historically and presently, been to frighten and silence black people (and other groups).

Crimes have effects that transcend just that of their victim. Crime lowers property values because people feel more anxious and less safe. Crimes create an atmosphere of fear that go beyond one individual action. This is why terrorism should have higher penalties associated with it (although I don't agree with the legal action that a crime somehow transcends traditional law enforcement because of its nature).

Not only that, but hate crimes create racial distrust, disharmony and tension that is really destructive to communities in ways beyond just any individual action.

Finally, crimes are penalized not just because of the act itself, but because of what the crime acknowledges and says about the perpetrator, that they've shown traits that forfeit their right to be considered human. Racism - in the vicious form that motivates and makes a hate crime possible - is one such characteristic. All of these things are taken into account in the highly interpretive process of sentencing. For instance, the more helpless the victim, the higher the sentence. Robbing a child or a grandmother usually gets a higher sentence because the savagery and sadism of that crime against a more helpless victim, shows far less humanity. In many cases the law acknowledges this, and something like higher penalties for a hate crime isn't new.

The only way that liberals can refute the idea that we're soft on crime is to not be soft on crime. I never thought that I would ever say the same to conservatives - that they're the ones that are making excuses and apologizing for human slime. Hate crimes cannot be tolerated, and racism in society is not acceptable. Period.