Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Power to the People!

 Chicago looters strike a blow against oppression!

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

How Now Should We Live

I was tempted to title this entry "The Meaning of Life" after the very silly idea from St. Elmo's Fire that Andrew McCarthy's 24-year-old character would be able to write an article with that headline in The Washington Post. It was pretentious, but a different kind of pretentious than is the idea I will now inflict upon you, O Tolerant Reader.

In recent years I have come more and more to sympathize with the hidalgo Alonso Quixano, a 16th century Spanish noble whose binge-reading of medieval chivalric romances unhinges him to the point he decides to be Don Quixote de la Mancha, a knight-errant who will right wrongs and serve his nation. As Miguel de Cervantes describes him in his foundational novel, Don Quixote is clearly delusional, believing inns to be castles, prostitutes to be great ladies of the realm, a nearby farm girl his designated Lady and a neighbor farmer, Sancho Panza, his squire.

Cervantes suggests, using medical knowledge of his day, that Quixano is clinically insane due to a physical malady (his brain dried out). But a few hours spent in the company of modern political leaders and would-be leaders or the immense heap of Rocinantean by-product marketed as entertainment can easily bring on a strong Quixanian temptation.

Who, watching the bully Derek Chauvin kneel unconcerned on the neck of George Floyd, would not prefer Marshal Matt Dillon of Dodge City? Who, listening to the malicious sniping of the United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, would not prefer the straightforward and blunt confrontation of Tip O'Neill? Who, watching the careening narcissism of President Trump's style of governance, would not prefer the drab malaise of Jimmy Carter or the optimism of Ronald Reagan? Who, watching the disturbed freak show of American Horror Story, would not prefer The Twilight Zone?  The reader can provide his or her own examples, no doubt, from just about every field of entertainment, politics or public figures.

Despite some of the wonders of our modern world, a lot of those things were better than a lot of the things that are around now and human beings mostly have a yen for better things. Might a miscreant molest a woman in Gunsmoke, just as Ed Harris's Man in Black character does in Westworld? Yes, but rather than become a multi-season protagonist he will be dealt with swiftly, put either behind bars or in a pine box by Matt Dillon by episode's end. Which is preferred? Sure, the swift justice of the past may not be the way things really happened then or today, but relying on a show about intelligent robots weakens the counter-argument.

In 1966 Burt Ward comically declared "Holy ashtrays!" and some 300-odd other similar exclamations as Robin the Boy Wonder in television's Batman as he and Adam West climbed the outside of buildings thanks to transparent thread pulling their capes as they walked in front of a camera on its side. In Amazon's 2019 super-being show The Boys, Jack Quaid kills the degenerate "hero" Translucent by detonating explosives inserted in his colon and new super-team member Starlight is forced to fellate current member the Deep in order to join. Which is preferred?

The 21st century makes it hard to point fingers at poor Alonso Quixano, but easy to sympathize. His delusions were triggered when he overdid his reading about stories from the good old days and he decided to live like that was the real world. The modern Quixanian temptation comes not from overexposure to the past but from even minimal exposure to the present. 

Alonso Quixano dove deep into fantasy because he thought the past was better than the present. Maybe instead we'd phrase it that present seems so clearly to be much worse than the past.

Either way, the giants are still just windmills. And the public arena is littered with dried-out brains.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Lows and Highs

Light spoilers follow. You may wish to read the book first but the reveal in here isn't really too much of a twist.

Alan Lee's Mackenzie August is a compelling character whose attempts to grapple with the realities of his life as a private investigator make for very interesting reading. He's quippy (in a good way; Lee is actually funny and writes funny dialogue well) and his self-examination has a religious dimension that a fellow in my profession finds particularly intriguing. His description of how the woman in his life, Veronica "Ronnie" Summers, is trying to figure out her real self after a horrid upbringing and young adulthood is also well-done and reflects a care not always taken with female characters in tough-guy detective novels. While all of those features can be found in the fifth novel of the August series, Only the Details, they don't matter a lick because the story which contains them is so very, very stupid.

One of the less compelling features of the August books is their conception and handling of organized crime, which seems to owe more to comic books and bad Mario Puzo ripoffs than the more realistic world inhabited by the flawed characters on our side of the good guy line. Mack wouldn't be the first private eye to arrive at an uneasy and semi-respectful truce with the folks on the wrong side of that line, but all of the commandments, codes and a upright "honor among thieves" tropes Lee uses stretch credulity until it snaps in half. And unfortunately for Only the Details, its entire plot turns on a cooperative venture among different bodies of organized criminals to stage one of the most hackneyed clichés of '80s low-budget action movies, the faux-gladiator tournament in which our hero must fight to the death in order to survive.

The combination alone would wreck the book, but Mack comments more than once to his captors about the stupidity of their whole concept -- a lesson Lee should probably have taken to heart and scrapped the plot in favor of one that wouldn't have made Michael Dudikoff say, "Who writes this stuff?" Mack also lectures them extensively on why their ideas are so wrong in big and sometimes repetitive dialogue chunks that are only barely lightened by Lee's witty dialogue.

It's a rare series that doesn't have at least one dead mackerel slapped down on the nice white linen tablecloth and left there to stink the place up. Details is the fifth of seven Mackenzie August books (as of this review in August 2020) and it's the first one to really tank this badly. By steering away from his John Wick-ish concept of organized crime and from recycled American Ninja movie plots, Lee will probably produce better work as the series continues. 

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One of the reasons critical darling comic series Astro City had such an intermittent publishing life was that creator/author Kurt Busiek spent large chunks of the 1990s dealing with health issues eventually discovered to be the result of mercury poisoning. The interlocking narratives and richly-built world of Astro City, he said, demanded a level of concentration and effort that the sickness had made impossible.

Before his illness, Busiek completed Confessions, held by a number of Astro City fans as one of the top story arcs in the series. It focused on one of the city's nighttime vigilantes, the Confessor, and unspooled his secrets as public opinion soured on super-heroes amid several crises and a secretly mounting alien invasion. The conflicted central character, the widely-ranged slices of life in Astro City and the realistic way that ordinary folks tried to grapple with a world of heroes and villains with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men (and women) carried all of the strengths of Busiek, cover artist Alex Ross and series artist Brent Anderson, and very few of their weaknesses.

Long illness-related delays and a rotating series of publishers made subsequent story arcs shine less brightly, or at least quite a bit more unfocused and harder to follow. When Busiek at full strength reignited the series at DC's Vertigo imprint, he once again started showing why even a mediocre Astro City stood significantly taller than some other creator's best efforts. And while the tail end of the Vertigo period had some serious clunkers, its 2014 Victory arc, focusing on the the Greco-influenced Wonder Woman analog Winged Victory and a threat to both her work and her hero status, challenges the earlier Confessions for the title of Astro City's best overall arc.

Winged Victory's foes are going on low-level crime sprees, getting caught and hinting that they actually work for the hero herself. Former residents of her shelters, run as both recovery and education schools for women and girls victimized by abuse and other crimes, are claiming that she is a fraud. Astro City's Superman-analog, Samaritan, is also Winged Victory's lover and offers to help her as she needs. She declines -- partly because she believes she teaches the women who look to her by her example and she needs to continue to demonstrate her independence, and partly because she has no idea how the attack is being mounted or who's behind it. The Confessor, Astro City's version of Batman, appears on the scene with evidence of an electronic trail that may hold the answers. But even if he tracks the culprit down, will the damage to Winged Victory's reputation and work be too great to repair? And will her willingness to let men help her fight the threat cut her off from the source of her power?

Busiek doesn't let the limitations of dialogue and exposition forced on the comic format by the need for artwork keep him from writing characters and a story that goes deeply into their motivations and thoughts. Victory's previously unknown origin sheds a lot of light on the foundation for her non-heroic work and Busiek shows how her concern for its continuation keeps her from falling back on the old super-hero standby tactic "Just Start Punching." He establishes a great relationship between the three leads and spends time making sure some potentially cardboard characters do more than just show up. By the end of the story, all of our three main characters have grown in different ways as they've seen how choices they have made in their lives until now might actually have offered their opponents avenues of attack.

Anderson is as reliable as ever in conveying emotion as well as action and feeding the comic junkie's need for cool art. Ross's covers are, as almost always, superb and are subtle twists on iconic scenes between the three mainstream comic heroes on which Samaritan, Winged Victory and the Confessor are modeled.

One appealing part of the Astro City project was how it was not only told great super-hero stories with great characters but how it also commented on the comic medium and its history. If Busiek ever manages to do that as well as he did in the Victory arc alongside Anderson, Ross and colorist Alex Sinclair, he'll have another fine feather in his cap.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Balance

Hanging out with the folks for dinner and caught one of the network newscasts and remembered why I stopped, even before they became so Trump-centric.

Story 1: Civil unrest in Beirut following this week's massive explosion, as protestors demand to know what the heck their government was doing by storing 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in a hot, unsafe warehouse. Duration: Approx. 22 seconds.

Story 2: America's Got Talent judge Simon Cowell falls off of an electric bicycle and breaks his back in six places, and is now being monitored following surgery. Electric bikes are now a thing because they're enviromentally better than cars but the electric motor on them reduces the strength needed to power them and makes them a favorite among aging Baby Boomers. Who, consequently, can find themselves with more broken bones that younger folks when they fall off. AGT's season premiere up in the air following injury. Duration: Bit more than two minutes.

A national newscast spent just about six times as long on a story about a talent show judge as it did about the site of a world tragedy. This is why what's sometimes called "liberal bias" is hardly the modern media's worst problem.

Friday, August 7, 2020

MatheMADics

Writing at New Discourses, James Lindsay covers a recent low-scale dustup among academics about the idea that 2+2 could equal 5.

As Lindsey points out, a number of different academics in different fields attempted to "prove" not that 2+2 did equal 5, but that it could and the idea that it 2+2 always and must equal 4 is a form of hegemonic thinking. Lindsey's piece is long, but the upshot of it is, of course, that 2+2 equaling four is not hegemonic thinking, it's plain old logical thinking. And the idea that 2+2 could equal 5 is not a form of open-minded thinking, it's plain old illogical not thinking.

There were a couple of hilarious examples of folks trying to come up with situations in which 2+2=5. One involved two factories with two machines apiece and an assortment of spare parts. If the factories were merged and the assorted spare parts were assembled into another machine, then 2+2 would equal 5! Except, as Lindsay points out, the example actually proves that 2.5+2.5=5, which is the exact same kind of statement as 2+2=4. Other finagles may have smelled mathier but none of them provided any real case for saying that 2+2=5.

Sure, Kurt Gödel's "Incompleteness Theorem" makes it impossible to prove that 2+2=4 using just plain old arithmetic. But in the history of humanity's use of simple arithmetic it has always done so and every mathematical operation which has assumed basic addition to be true has shown itself to work. 

Lindsey quotes some of the tweets that sniffed down their collective noses at his posts (Jack Dorsey, I don't know if you are a praying man but if you are, a fit subject for your most fervent, ground groveling petitions is that karma is not real, because if it is your invention has loaded you up with enough of the bad kind to keep you reincarnating as a bug long past the heat death of the universe). It emphasizes something that people in my line of work need to remember.

People who follow Jesus and proclaim him as Lord are not, if they obey the instructions, permitted to hate other people. Especially just because of disagreements over worldviews.

But we are not required to pretend they are not stupid as all get-out.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Why Yes, This Is a Pleasant Outcome

The season is truncated, weird. It's a house of cards that could collapse any day with a handful of bad medical reports, it has no fans in the stands except when weird CGI is used to play Let's Pretend. It has some weird rules that will probably stick even though they shouldn't.

Worse, my preferred team has had a terrible start -- if this was a regular season they would have begun with an 8-27 record as of tonight. They haven't been able to hit when needed and they've left more runners stranded than there are people at the ballpark (and this year that's not hyperbole). COVID-19 and injuries left them with a starting rotation that was a welcome sight to every team they faced.

But then, like it sometimes does, the dam bursts. The bats awaken (and are no longer afraid!) Pitchers throw the ball past the hitters instead of to them. And even if there's a pretty good chance that in the very next game things might still be no good, at least tonight they treated their opponent like Conan treats his enemies.

And it was glorious.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

I Think I'm Going to Kathmandu...

Well, probably not really, in spite of Bob Seger making it sound like a cool place to visit. But thanks to these photos from Ashraful Arefin, I can see pretty clearly what it would look like if I did go.