Monday, November 26, 2012

The Art Wall!

Behold! Lily's Art Wall!

If I pan out a little, you can see the carbon monoxide detector plugged in to the wall socket.

That's an actual piece of equipment there; she's not doing some Marcel Duchamp thing.

Lily likes drawing, as most little kids do. It's too early to tell if she has any talent, but if she does, it will come from her mother and not from me. She's still at the stage where tenacity is the limiting reagent, and she certainly has that in abundance.

Here's something she did for Thanksgiving. You probably can't make out the writing from the picture, but it says, "I am thankful for: Being thrown by my dad."

I leave for work every morning shortly before Jen and Lily leave for the bus stop. Every morning, Lily runs out to me as I'm walking out to my car and I pick her up and throw her in the air. I knew she likes it, but it's just one of the many things we do together, and I never would have guessed in a million years that it was the one thing she'd single out as so special to her.

(Also, I have to wonder what her teacher imagined when Lily said that was her favorite thing. "Daddy, you're home!" "Outta my way, kid!" *Throw*)

But it's really moving, in its own way. Shortly after Lily was born, my best friend sent me an email that included something that stuck with me, "To the world, you're somebody. But to somebody, you're the world."

Friday, November 23, 2012

Shadows and Reflections: a Roger Zelazny Tribute Anthology

I saw this comment  from an anonymous poster earlier today:

What is your reaction to Trent Zelazny and Warren Lapine's Indiegogo Anthology project? Feel like taking a swing at a less than perfectly executed story's milieu? Or prefer to look at the popular ones for new angles?

And I clicked over, hoping it was real, but thinking it was some kind of bizarrely specific spam.  But, it does appear to be exactly what it says it is, a kickstarter-esque project for a Roger Zelazny tribute, featuring stories set in any of his worlds (save Amber, which he very explicitly said he did not other people writing). It looks incredible. There's a short video from Trent Zelazny explaining his purpose for the project and a longer summary than I've provided here.

So, please, check it out, and throw a little money their way if you can.

The link: Shadows and Reflections

Search Results, Part 4

We haven't had one of these in a while. So, for your Black Friday reading pleasure, a list of weird or unnerving searches people have used that have led here.

  1. major poop accidents
  2. krypto's first romance
  3. shirtless male redheads
  4. the bouncy guy that is friends with superman
  5. albino turtleneck
  6. hot ass cartoons lois
  7. lightning lad having sex (and too many variations on this with various members of the Legion of Super-Heroes and various sex acts)
  8. streaky and krypto doing it
  9. wrong interracial dating poems
  10. darkside super wipe same as dalik (I don't even know how to parse this one.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Roger Zelazny Book Review: King Solomon's Ring

Wow, two consecutive Zelazny posts. It's been a while since I've managed that (even if the other one was one of those "Who could beat up who?" fights that is only Zelazny-themed in the sense that it happens to feature one of his characters.)

I've heard several people advance the opinion that King Solomon's Ring is among the worst stories that Zelazny ever had published.  My opinions occasionally diverge from the majority of Zelazny fandom. I liked To Die in Italbar okay, disliked Eye of Cat, and while I didn't care for Damnation Alley, I was able to appreciate it as a well-crafted story.

Reading Solomon again for the purposes of this review...I don't know if I would call it the absolute worst but well, compared to his other work, I do find it lacking.

It's the story of Billy Scarle. Billy is a paraling, possessing the telepathic ability to understand and translate languages. He is recruited into the Circle of Solomon (a group of individuals with similar talents, and if you think my use of parenthesis in this review is excessive, I look positive restrained when compared to their use in the story) to expand human hegemony, but as he begins to have doubts, he is persuaded to talk on one final mission and things go all aft agley.

I like the first two sentences, but the last one in the paragraph just seems off somehow, like it was a placeholder that was never amended.

King Solomon had a ring, and so did the guy I have to tell you about. Solomon's was a big iron thing with a pentagram for a face, but Billy Scarle's was invisible because he wore it around his mind. The two rings did serve similar purposes though.

I enjoy the conversational tone of the piece. However, it goes off the rails as early as the third paragraph

I am writing this letter, Lisa, because you are the one who managed to recruit him, and I think he was in love with you. Maybe I am wrong. If so, I can only ask pardon for the intrusion and trust to your sense of humor to put things in perspective.

Now, I suppose it's possible that someone would choose those words when writing a letter, but it does strike me extremely unnatural. It reminds me of an example given of bad exposition in a book on writing I read years ago, where the author implores the reader to never have one character say to another, "You should call Ben, your brother, and have him come over here."

The whole story reminds me of To Die in Italbar, which I enjoyed, but which did strike me as unfinished, and almost unique among Zelazny's work in not being the best version of the story it could be.  It has some memorable images like "The Seal of Solomon became a hot scalpel in my mind..." It has some interesting details, like "Dozens of the worlds on the Exploratory Perimeter are no more than encyclopedia entries followed by a couple sentences..." but nothing comes together. Take this for instance.

After his apprehension on Martin VIII, it was his ratty luck to be shipped Earthward in the custody of an old Guardsman ready for retirement. As you know, the cop decided along the way that the arrest had been out of jurisdiction, and he also decided he did not want a black mark on his record at that stage in the game. So he changed a couple log entries and elected himself judge, jury, and executioner -- as you may not know. He never said a word while he made the preparations, but of course Scarle knew.

I suppose it would be interesting to tell you the details of the cop's not being able to pull the trigger and Scarle's smashing him to pieces with his arm collars, but I'd rather not be that interesting. I've heard the story too many times.

There's the kernel of an interesting story there, but it's never cultivated beyond that. Likewise, I like the description of Billy Scarle, particularly the last part: He was about five-ten, with that premature frost on his hair that comes of pushing poorly shielded cruisers too far; nervous fingers, light eyes, a preference for nondescript clothing; and when he talked, all his sentences seemed like one long word.

But the Ring metaphors are forced and there are just too many elements in the story. In the end, Billy is convinced that humanity's policies are destructive, so he works on changing the minds of policy makers with his newly augmented talent. This reminds me more than a little of Angel,Dark Angel, which did the same story a lot better.

Is it his worst work? Well, if you're ranking things from best to worst, something has to occupy that place at the bottom.  I personally think it's the weakest out of the stuff I've covered here, but I've loved Zelazny's work so dearly for so long that it feels like a betrayal to call "the worst" outright, so I will forebear.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Geekfight: Yama-Dharma, fallen, of the Celestial City versus Doctor Doom

I didn't come up with the idea of these hypothetical match ups on my own. They just seem to be the kind of thing every geek discovers independently. And Christopher Lee was publicly dismissive of them, I happen to think they're a fun way to pass the time, so here's my latest offering.

Doctor Doom heads a great number of lists and he's always a popular inclusion in these fights, and he generally performs well.  I attribute that to the fact that he's capable of operating in so many different arenas. Political? He rose from nothing to rule Latveria with an iron fist (literally) and enjoys diplomatic immunity. Technological? Among other accomplishments, he built his army of robot duplicates and his suit of power armor himself. Psychic? He learned a trick to transfer his mind into another person's body. Magical? Oh, yeah, he's a sorcerer too. (He also invented a time machine, but really, that's just gilding the lily at this point.)

I was originally considering Darth Vader as an adversary, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized Doom would crush him. So the problem is coming up with a worthy opponent, because, since Doom is so accomplished in so many different ways, he can switch the contest to an area where he has the overwhelming advantage. I thought about it and realized the problem with Doom was that he was simply too versatile in the ways of destruction.

And then I thought "Why does that phrase sound familiar?"

And then I answered my own question. "Because Sam said it about Yama."

And right there we had our contest.

Doctor Doom is well known. Yama is not, so I'll provide a little background. He's a character from Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, a novel where settlers from Earth have landed on a distant world and used the technology to take on the identities of the various deities of the Hindu pantheon. Yama, like Doom, is a polymath of Da Vincian scope, having invented many of the artifacts the gods use to maintain their rule.

"...I hear he's dreamed up some other little jewels, too, to serve the will of the gods ... like a mechanical cobra capable of registering encephalogram readings from a mile away, when it rears and spreads its fan. It can pick one man out of a crowd, regardless of the body he wears. There is no known antidote for its venom. Four seconds, no more ... Or the fire wand, which is said to have scored the surfaces of all three moons while Lord Agni stood upon the seashore and waved it. And I understand that he is designing some sort of jet-propelled juggernaut for Lord Shiva at this moment ... things like that."

He is also a brilliant tactician, though he leaves the work of strategy to others. He was an accomplished enough fencer to handily best an opponent who spent three lifetimes learning the use of weapons. It's unclear how old he is (he's described as "third-generation", but references are made to his childhood that imply that it was something that happened in living memory, so it's unlikely that generation has the meaning of twenty-five or thirty year span as it does in the modern world, but rather are probably on the order of the Yugas, or ages of the world, in Hindu belief), but he has at least several lifetimes worth of experience.

He also wields the power of the death gaze. (Though he needs to make eye contact for that and that's how Doom triggers his mind transfer, so he may wish to forebear.)

Let's set the rules for this engagement. We'll assume that the battle is taking place in a location where Doom either does not have access to his time platform or the local physics do not support it. So, no going back in time to kill Yama's grandparents. (Also, Marvel time travel has traditionally been held to be travel to another timeline, and your actions there do not alter the timeline you left. So if Doctor Doom did go back in time to give his opponent a retroactive abortion, from Yama's perspective, Doom would simply disappear entirely, never to be seen again.)

Magic is a little trickier. I'm tempted to go with Yama's naturalistic world view. "...The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable. The man who bows in that final direction is either a saint or a fool. I have no use for either." So, for the purposes of this exercise, I'll posit that Doom's magic is control of some energy field that obeys its own laws, is consistent within its own framework and ultimately knowable, but beyond Yama's current ability to comprehend.

Wikipedia attributes the following sorcerous powers to Doctor Doom: He is capable of energy projection, creating protective shields, and summoning hordes of demonic creatures. Those are all pretty irrelevant, because they pretty much duplicate abilities he already has, but I don't think some kind of supernatural scrying would be an unreasonable addition. Yama developed demon repellent, a chemical agent to repulse the rakasha, malevolent shape changing energy creatures that were commonly regarded as supernatural before he sat down and began the hard work of pinning down just how they work.  A similar dynamic is probably in play here. Doom's magic is outside his realm of experience, but given sufficient time, he could probably understand it well enough to develop countermeasures.

The Match

Putting aside outliers like the time Doctor Doom enslaved the entire world or stole the Beyonder's power, if we give each man his full compliment of powers and allies and transport them to some war world and have them slug it out for no reason, I would have to give it to Yama. "Hey, Agni, would you mind burning this guy's country to a cinder from half a continent away?"

Even if we limit it to his buddies, say the forces that assaulted Hellwell, (Yama, Agni, Shiva and Kali) or the Lokapalas (Yama, Krishna, Kubera and either Agni or Sam, depending on when in the story we're discussing), Yama would still win, because Agni's Universal Fire and Sam's Electrodirection are so overwhelming. You're not going to make such a great showing when Agni, blasts you from across the horizon or Sam makes your armor into a metal coffin.

So, let's say we drop them into two identical villages on opposite sides of the continent. Give them each a fully stocked workshop. Doom has a retinue of a dozen doombots, Yama has the thunder chariot, but it's not stocked with warheads, and also some growth tanks, body lockers and transfer equipment, because that's such an important part of the Lord of Light story.  They know that they have a counterpart with comparable skills, and we'll say that the specific circumstances of the scenario are such that each man is inclined to defeat the other.

In their individual canon, both Yama and Doom tend to invent idiosyncratic weaponry, but at least Yama has an excuse.  "I've been designing new weapons. It is a shame that there must be so many separate and exotic ones. It is quite a drain on my genius to make each a work of art, rather than to mass-produce a particular species of offense. But the plurality of the paranormal dictates it. Someone always has an Attribute to stand against any one weapon. Let them face, though, the Gehenna Gun and be fibrillated apart, or cross blades with the Electrosword, or stand before the Fountain Shield, with its spray of cyanide and dimethyl sulfoxide, and they will know that it is the Lokapalas they face!"

That doesn't apply against Doom, and I think Yama is fundamentally a practical man, as engineers are wont to be, so he's free to mass produce the most devastating armaments he can devise. We'll assume that unique weapons like Shiva's trident or Agni's wand require too great an investment in resources or time to be ready in time for the battle.

Give what's been outlined, I think Doom would take the early advantage, between his divinatory magic and the manpower he'll get by conquering the surrounding villages. I figure he'd set up Doombots at first and then relegate the day to day operations to ambitious and ruthless burgermeisters as he consolidates his power base.  

It's funny to think of Doctor Doom being more gregarious, but Yama is generally solitary and seeks solace in his work. I could see him working in isolation at first and developing some kind of drone or simple AI for recon and only mobilizing the surrounding villages when it became clear that he needed bodies for the war effort. However, once Team Yama is on war footing, I could see him outfitting his troops more effectively than Doom's. Either her developed the death bath that Kali uses to confer limited invulnerability to her assassins or he's capable of reverse engineering it. Ditto with Brahma's "special and improved body".

Once the two sides are engaged in open battle, I could see a number of clever ploys from each. The mechobra could distinguish the real Doom from the Doombots, until Doctor Doom figures out a way to spoof or dampen them. Yama gets one Get Out of Jail Free card in the form of radio transmitted body transfer until Doom figures out what's going on and how to jam it. Doom transferring his consciousness into a body from the lockers in order to sabotage Yama from within. That kind of thing.

They are pretty clearly matched in capability, but I think I would give it to Yama for three reasons.
  1. I could see him delegating aspects of the war effort more readily. Ganesha calls him "a technician, not an administrator", and while it's certainly prudent to take everything Ganesha says with a grain of salt, I'm inclined to agree with that assessment. That said, I believe he has a firm understanding of his own shortcomings and would appoint those capable of doing things he can't more than Doom would.
  2. This is almost an extension of the first point, but I think Yama is fundamentally more pragmatic than Doom. Part of Doctor Doom's character is the overwhelming, destructive pride. He's fond of the dramatic gesture, and when facing an equal, he's going to expend more resources than Yama, and he'll probably lose the war due to attrition as much as anything else.
  3. "The Lokapalas are never defeated."

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Chinese have a lot of Hells

Eddie: Well sure it was a war. And anybody that showed up was gonna join Lem Lee in the Hell of Being Cut to Pieces.
Jack Burton: Hell of being what?
Eddie: Chinese have a lot of Hells.

I don't know how true this is, but the story I've heard is that Christian missionaries warned all non-Christian Chinese they'd "go to Hell" upon death. The Chinese believed Hell was just the English term for the afterlife and incorporated the word "Hell" into their pre-existing cosmology of a underworld court, where the dead wound up regardless of their virtue during life.

I can't remember the first time I was exposed to the concept of Hell Money. If I had to guess, I would assume that it was through my copy of "Sex and Zen and A Bullet in the Head", which was a comprehensive (at the time of its publication) summary of the best Hong Kong flicks. It's also just about the best possible title for a book. The deal with Hell Money is that when you burn something in our world with the proper rituals, it goes to the deceased in hell. The burning of hell money enables the ancestor to purchase luxuries and necessities needed for a comfortable afterlife.You can also burn hell cars or hell houses or whatever. If you want to send a message to the dead, you can write a prayer on a piece of paper and burn it.

Wikipedia had this to add: In 2006, China's deputy minister for civil affairs, Dou Yupei, said he intended to ban at least the more extreme forms of joss paper (hell money), such as MP3 players, planes, boats and even paper condoms, paper prostitutes and Viagra. How awesome is that?!

I was rereading Bridge of Birds the other week, and it's such a great book. I can't remember the last time I cried over a work of fiction, but Bridge of Birds made me cry. There is this character, Miser Shen, who was a good man, who loved his daughter, but who became a miser in order to accumulate enough money to pay the wisest man in the world enough to bring her back to life. At this point in the story, Miser Shen was shot with a crossbow and he's dying and he believes he's talking to a priest.

"You are the priest?" he said hoarsely to Li Kao. "My little girl has been murdered by the Duke of Ch'in, and they tell me that I will feel better if I burn a prayer and send it to her, but I do not know how to write."

For Miser Shen it was forty years ago, when the death of his daughter had begun to drive him insane.

"I am the priest," Master Li said quietly. "I will write down your prayer for you."

Miser Shen's lips moved silently, and I sensed that he was rehearsing. Finally he was ready, and he made a terrible effort to concentrate on what he wanted to say to his daughter. This is the prayer of Miser Shen.

"Alas, great is my sorrow. Your name is Ah Chen, and when you were born I was not truly pleased. I am a farmer, and a farmer needs strong sons to help with his work, but before a year had passed you had stolen my heart. You grew more teeth, and you grew daily in wisdom, and you said 'Mommy' and 'Daddy' and your pronunciation was perfect. When you were three you would knock at the door and then you would run back and ask, 'Who is it?' When you were four your uncle came to visit and you played the host. Lifting your cup, you said, 'Ching!' and we roared with laughter and you blushed and covered your face with your hands, but I know that you thought yourself very clever. Now they tell me that I must try to forget you, but it is hard to forget you.

"You carried a toy basket. You sat at a low stool to eat porridge. You repeated the Great Learning and bowed to Buddha. You played at guessing games, and romped around the house. You were very brave, and when you fell and cut your knee you did not cry because you did not think it was right. When you picked up fruit or rice, you always looked at people's faces to see if it was all right before putting it in your mouth, and you were careful not to tear your clothes.

"Ah Chen, do you remember how worried we were when the flood broke our dikes and the sickness killed our pigs? Then the Duke of Ch'in raised our taxes and I was sent to plead with him, and I made him believe that we could not pay our taxes. Peasants who cannot pay taxes are useless to dukes, so he sent his soldiers to destroy our village, and thus it was the foolishness of your father that led to your death. Now you have gone to Hell to be judged, and I know that you must be very frightened, but you must try not to cry or make loud noises because it is not like being at home with your own people.

"Ah Chen, do you remember Auntie Yang, the midwife? She was also killed, and she was very fond of you. She had no little girls of her own, so it is all right for you to try to find her, and to offer her your hand and ask her to take care of you. When you come before the Yama Kings, you should clasp your hands together and plead to them: 'I am young and I am innocent. I was born in a poor family, and I was content with scanty meals. I was never willfully careless of my shoes and my clothing, and I never wasted a grain of rice. If evil spirits bully me, may thou protect me.' You should put it just that way, and I am sure that the Yama Kings will protect you.

"Ah Chen, I have soup for you and I will burn paper money for you to use, and the priest is writing down this prayer that I will send to you. If you hear my prayer, will you come to see me in my dreams? If fate so wills that you must yet lead an earthly life, I pray that you will come again to your mother's womb. Meanwhile I will cry, 'Ah Chen, your father is here!' I can but weep for you, and call your name."

Miser Shen fell silent. I thought that he had died, but then he opened his eyes again.

"Did I say it right?" he whispered. "I practiced for a long time, and I wanted to say it right, but I am confused in my mind and something seems to be wrong."

"You said it perfectly," Master Li said quietly.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"Don't blame me. I voted for Boogerjuice."

I voted yesterday, just like I always do on election day. We even vote in the non-Presidential elections. We're lucky to have a very good polling place too. It's within easy walking distance, though I usually drive, because they open early and I usually get my vote in on my way to work. I didn't appreciate how good the place was until I read the reports of people waiting hours in the cold. I was in and out in five minutes, and most of that was because the poll worker didn't hear me correctly when I said my name and had trouble finding it in the book.

I'm a Capital-D Democrat, and I voted a straight party line. The only exception was that we had a Republican running unopposed for County Clerk, so I put down "Charles Boogerjuice" as a write in candidate.

I asked Lily for whom I should vote as I was leaving. She was doing math problems on the computer and she didn't look up as she answered "Obama," and I asked why and she said, "Because he's nice. And he's a good president." And that was good enough for me. (More on this at the end.

A lot of my friends were worried, but I wasn't.  There are political sites on both sides of the spectrum, but I think the Liberal ones are better than the conservative ones. Here's why. Because they have different goals. Back in the dark days of the Internets, a friend said he didn't trust anything he read on Daily Kos. But from the beginning, the goal of that site was to elect "More and better Democrats", and to do so, they need to operate in a reality based milieu. You can't afford to spend four years flogging a conspiracy theory about fake birth certificates if that's what you want to achieve.  Kos is as partisan as they come, but it's also rigorously factual in its analysis.  Nate Silver, the statistician who predicted the outcome of 2008 and 2012 races almost exactly, got his start as a Daily Kos blogger. The GOP side gives us these prescient luminaries:

Peggy Noonan:

We begin with the three words everyone writing about the election must say: Nobody knows anything. Everyone’s guessing. I spent Sunday morning in Washington with journalists and political hands, one of whom said she feels it’s Obama, the rest of whom said they don’t know. I think it’s Romney. I think he’s stealing in “like a thief with good tools,” in Walker Percy’s old words. While everyone is looking at the polls and the storm, Romney’s slipping into the presidency. He’s quietly rising, and he’s been rising for a while.

Dick Morris:

We’re going to win by a landslide. It will be the biggest surprise in recent American political history. It will rekindle a whole question as to why the media played this race as a nail-biter, where in fact I think that Romney is going to win by quite a bit. My own view is that Romney is going to carry 325 electoral votes.

Michael Barone:

Bottom line: Romney 315, Obama 223. That sounds high for Romney. But he could drop Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and still win the election. Fundamentals.

Brian S. Brown:

Romney wins the Electoral College with room to spare — somewhere around 300 electors. All four marriage votes in the deepest of blue states (Washington, Maryland, Minnesota, and Maine) will be won by traditional-marriage supporters. This will happen even though supporters of same-sex marriage have outspent us by gargantuan amounts.

I went to CNN for the election night coverage as the returns started coming in, and the thing that struck me was how the blogs were much more accurate and much less sensational than even the most premiere mainstream news site. The election shook out almost exactly as the blogs had projected it.

I really don't debate politics on the Internets any more. I have more efficient ways to raise my blood pressure. The last time I did it on any large scale was the Summer of 2009. I remember it, because the fight was about how Republicans own up to their responsibilities. Specifically, a guy we knew as Icky Dave was claiming that Mark Sandford resigned from the governorship as soon as he was caught abandoning leadership of the state in order to engage in an extramarital affair. And I was like, "Well, then who's running South Carolina?" So Ick, blustered and bleated, making the lies faster than I could correct them. I called him a liar in no uncertain terms, and after the whole thing was done, a non-political friend said in a private message (as this took place on Facebook) "You were pretty mean to Dave last night."

Now keep my non-political friend in mind.

There were some reasons not to vote for Obama, though they were mostly variations of he didn't deliver on his promises to the extent we were hoping. There were no reasons to vote for Romney. His campaign was based almost completely on unspecified future changes and demonstrable falsehoods. He lied and he lied and he lied.

Kurt Vonnegut once likened the hierarchy of laws to playing cards. (I have the full speech at the bottom of this post, because it's one of my favorite bits of writing and worth reading in its entirety.)

"I will speak of Thomas Aquinas instead. I will tell you my dim memories of what he said about the hierarchy of laws on this planet, which was flat at the time. The highest law, he said, was divine law, God's law. Beneath that was natural law, which I suppose would include thunderstorms, and our right to shield our children from poisonous ideas, and so on.

"And the lowest law was human law.

"Let me clarify this scheme by comparing its parts to playing cards. Enemies of the Bill of Rights do the same sort of thing all the time, so why shouldn't we? Divine law, then, is an ace. Natural law is a king. The Bill of Rights is a lousy queen.

It seems like the truth, in this election, was just a queen. I'm still enough of an idealist that I believe that the truth should illuminate things. When it's demonstrated that he's lying, Romney should have enough shame or decency to recant, or at the very least, stop telling the same lies.  But as William Gaddis and Batman told us, respectively, "Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law " and "The world only makes sense when you force it to."

But, as reprehensible as it is, lying all the time is actually very shrewd.

Me: Why are you voting for Romney?
Friend: Because of X, Y and Z.
Me: Well, none of those are true.

But what am I doing here? I'm telling a friend that he's wrong. That he believes something that isn't true. That he was fooled. Nobody likes to feel that way, and if he's moved on to the point where he's committed to Romney then he's internalized the lies, and it's human nature to stick with what has become your established beliefs. It doesn't matter that they're not true. If Romney says them first, and he says them loud and he says them constantly, then it's hard to refute the lies with the truth alone.

Lily was sad when I came home last night. She told me that her candidate had lost the election. They were voting on whether the class turkey should be named Tom or Lurkey. She voted for Tom because "Lurkey sounded too weird. But if it was a choice between Lurkey and Cuckoo Locka, then I would have voted for Lurkey." I told her that her candidate isn't always going to win, but I read her a letter to President Obama from a little girl and his response, and told her that this is why I think he's a good President.

Dear Barack Obama,

It's Sophia Bailey Klugh. Your friend who invited you to dinner. You don't remember okay that's fine. But I just wanted to tell you that I am so glad you agree that two men can love each other because I have two dads and they love each other. But at school kids think that it's gross and weird but it really hurts my heart and feelings. So I come to you because you are my hero. If you were me and you had two dads that loved each other, and kids at school teased you about it, what would you do?

Please respond!

I just wanted to say you really inspire me, and I hope you win on being the president. You would totally make the world a better place.

Your friend Sophia

P.S. Please tell your daughters Hi for me!

And his reply:

Dear Sophia,

Thank you for writing me such a thoughtful letter about your family. Reading it made me proud to be your president and even more hopeful about the future of our nation.

In America, no two families look the same. We celebrate this diversity. And we recognize that whether you have two dads or one mom what matters above all is the love we show one another. You are very fortunate to have two parents who care deeply for you. They are lucky to have such an exceptional daughter in you.

Our differences unite us. You and I are blessed to live in a country where we are born equal no matter what we look like on the outside, where we grow up, or who our parents are. A good rule is to treat others the way you hope they will treat you. Remind your friends at school about this rule if they say something that hurts your feelings.

Thanks again for taking the time to write to me. I'm honored to have your support and inspired by your compassion. I'm sorry I couldn't make it to dinner, but I'll be sure to tell Sasha and Malia you say hello.


(Signed, 'Barack Obama')

Lily knows a family with two moms, and she's accepted that as a normal and natural part of the state of affairs (though it did lead to some confusion when she was younger when she proclaimed, "That's impossible! How can she have two mommies? That would mean that she was born twice!"). The last thing I want is to have Lily uncritically parroting our beliefs. I want her to reach her own conclusions. But we do believe in kindness and patience and tolerance and equality and if we can show her that the man we want to be President believes in these things too, then I think we're doing okay.

Kurt Vonnegut's speech

"I will not speak directly to the ejection of my book Slaughterhouse-Five from the school libraries of Island Trees. I have a vested interest. I wrote the book, after all, so why wouldn’t I argue that it is less repulsive than the school board says?

"I will speak of Thomas Aquinas instead. I will tell you my dim memories of what he said about the hierarchy of laws on this planet, which was flat at the time. The highest law, he said, was divine law, God's law. Beneath that was natural law, which I suppose would include thunderstorms, and our right to shield our children from poisonous ideas, and so on.

"And the lowest law was human law.

"Let me clarify this scheme by comparing its parts to playing cards. Enemies of the Bill of Rights do the same sort of thing all the time, so why shouldn't we? Divine law, then, is an ace. Natural law is a king. The Bill of Rights is a lousy queen.

"The Thomist hierarchy of laws is so far from being ridiculous that I have never met anybody who did not believe in it right down to the marrow of his or her bones. Everybody knows that there are laws with more grandeur than those which are printed in our statute books. The big trouble is that there is so little agreement as to how those grander laws are worded. Theologians can give us hints of the wording, but it takes a dictator to set them down just right–to dot the i's and cross the t's. A man who had been a mere corporal in the army did that for Germany and then for all of Europe, you may remember, not long ago. There was nothing he did not know about divine and natural law. He had fistfuls of aces and kings to play.

"Meanwhile, over on this side of the Atlantic, we were not playing with a full deck, as they say. Because of our Constitution, the highest card anybody had to play was a lousy queen, contemptible human law. That remains true today. I myself celebrate that incompleteness, since it has obviously been so good for us. I support the American Civil Liberties Union because it goes to court to insist that our government officials be guided by nothing grander than human law. Every time the circulation of this idea or that one is discouraged by an official in this country, that official is scorning the Constitution, and urging all of us to participate in far grander systems, again: divine or natural law.

"Cannot we, as libertarians, hunger for at least a little natural law? Can't we learn from nature at least, without being burdened by another person's idea of God?

"Certainly. Granola never harmed anybody, nor the birds and bees–not to mention milk. God is unknowable, but nature is explaining herself all the time. What has she told us so far? That blacks are obviously inferior to whites, for one thing, and intended for menial work on white man's terms. This clear lesson from nature, we should remind ourselves from time to time, allowed Thomas Jefferson to own slaves. Imagine that.

"What troubles me most about my lovely country is that its children are seldom taught that American freedom will vanish, if, when they grow up, and in the exercise of their duties as citizens, they insist that our courts and policemen and prisons be guided by divine or natural law.

"Most teachers and parents and guardians do not teach this vital lesson because they themselves never learned it, or because they dare not. Why dare they not? People can get into a lot of trouble in this country, and often have to be defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, for laying the groundwork for the lesson, which is this: That no one really understands nature or God. It is my willingness to lay this groundwork, and not sex or violence, which has got my poor book in such trouble in Island Trees–and in Drake, North Dakota, where the book was burned, and in many other communities too numerous to mention.

"I have not said that our government is anti-nature and anti-God. I have said that it is non-nature and non-God, for very good reasons that could curl your hair.

"Well–all good things must come to an end, they say. So American freedom will come to an end, too, sooner or later. How will it end? As all freedoms end: by the surrender of our destinies to the highest laws.

"To return to my foolish analogy of playing cards: kings and aces will be played. Nobody else will have anything higher than a queen.

"There will be a struggle between those holding kings and aces. The struggle will not end, not that the rest of us will care much by then, until somebody plays the ace of spades. Nothing beats the ace of spades.

"I thank you for your attention."

(And Vonnegut's speech in turn reminds me of my favorite part of a Man for All Seasons: )

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get at the Devil?

Roper: I`d cut down every law in England to do that.

More: "... And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!"

Monday, November 5, 2012

I'm Gonna Wreck It!: Wreck-It-Ralph Review

We saw Wreck-It-Ralph on Sunday and everyone in our party enjoyed it. It's the story of the titular Ralph, a video game villain who, on the 30th anniversary of his game, is tired of being hated for doing his job, which is destroying a building, so the hero of the game, Fix-It-Felix, Jr, can repair it. The Nicelanders, whose building Felix repairs, throw him a party, to which Ralph is not invited. Ralph crashes it, things go badly, and the Nicelanders tell Ralph they'll throw him a party if he can earn a medal. And Ralph abandons his game and goes looking for one.

In the movie, all the games in the arcade are linked by "Game Central Station", which was a cornucopia of cameos. We saw Chun Li chatting with princesses from the Mario series. Ralph gives a cherry from Pac-Man to a homeless Q-Bert. Ryu buys Ken a beer at Tapper's. I really like the shared universe of the movie. I've seen it likened to Tron, but I think a better comparison is Who Framed Roger Rabbit (with dashes of Scott Pilgrim and Toy Story to flavor) a movie that unifies number of disparate properties under a single multiversal umbrella.

Ralph learns that completing the game in Hero's Duty will earn the winner a medal, so he sets off to do that, encountering Jane Lynch's Sergeant Calhoun, the tough as nails commander of the force in the game. I don't care for Glee, the property for which she's best known, but I don't think I've ever been anything but tremendously entertained by any role I've ever seen her perform. She doesn't disappoint here either.

After an abortive attempt to play the game as intended, Ralph climbs the tower where the medal is housed and thereby triggers the victory sequence. (He declares "Shiny!" on seeing it, and I'm inclined to take it as a nod to Firefly, particularly in light of Alan Tudyk's presence.) Unfortunately, he awakens a Cy-Bug (the ravenous adversaries of Hero's Duty) and it gets stuck in an escape pod with him as they rocket out of the game. He lands in Sugar Rush, a candy themed go-kart racing game that I would absolutely play.

The Cy-Bug sinks into a candy bog, Ralph goes to retrieve his medal from a peppermint tree, but Vanellope von Schweetz beats him to it in order to buy her way into a race. Meanwhile, Felix and Calhoun do the buddy movie odd couple thing as they too enter Sugar Rush in pursuit of Ralph.

The malevolent King Candy (Alan Tudyk) doesn't want Vanellope to race, but through Ralph's intervention, she bakes a car and enters the race. Unfortunately, the Cy-Bug has laid thousands of eggs by this time and its offspring swarm the game.

And by this point we're getting into spoiler territory, so click on the button if you've seen the movie or don't mind being spoiled. Or you could stop here and look at this cute picture of Lily with the cast.



Random thoughts on the movie

The animated short at the beginning of the movie, Paperman, was really extremely well done. The music reminded me of the music from Flower.

The coming attractions:

Croods: You could not pay me to see this movie. By the numbers stinker, but I'm sure we'll get the Dreamworks face!

Dinotime: Impossibly generic. Oh! And Rob Schneider! The Poor Man's Adam Sandler. Chew on that for a minute.

Smurfs II: Our local library had one of those shelf-clearing sales that libraries occasionally hold, and I picked up anthology of short stories about different takes on Hell. It was pretty good. I remember that one of the stories was about this director and his movie star wife who were killed in a car accident, only they didn't realize it until the end of the story. Things got more and more miserable and frustrating and the movie they were making got more and more terrible. One of the details that sticks with me is that they were filming a movie at their home, but they had to drive to the studio and then be shuttled back to their home because of the studio's deal with the Teamsters. The movie they wind up creating was an absolute abomination that never would have been created in a world with a just and loving God, and I think something like this is the only explanation for the existence of the Smurfs sequel.

Oz: The Great and Powerful: This actually looks pretty good. James Franco and Sam Raimi! Yes, please! Also, the promotional art looks very nice.

I usually hate John C. Reilly. He is the kind of actor whose presence will keep me away from a movie (q.v. Adam Sandler), but this is the role that justifies his existence. I would go so far as to say that his performance has caused me to reassess him.

On the other hand Sarah Silverman, whom I usually like, was lackluster. She wasn't bad. She was fine, but she was the weakest of the main cast by a considerable margin, and there are just so many voice actors out there who could have done a better job.

As I said above, Lynch was characteristically great. I jotted down her one aphorism, but I'm not sure that I got it right, "A selfish man is a mangy dog who chases a cautionary tale." She's never overused, and never has a moment on screen where she's anything but perfect.

Jack McBrayer as Felix was Kenneth the page as a video game character, but it worked. He was mostly the straight man, but hey, comedy needs a straight man, and he does the job extremely well. The mannerisms for all the characters were very good, but his in particular were outstanding.

Also, I'm loathe to say anything nice about a Firefly alum, but Alan Tudyk is pretty good as King Candy.

Though I like both her acting and her writing, I was kind of disappointed to see Mindy Kaling's name in the credits. I'm not a big fan of stunt casting in voice acting, and while she was fine, she didn't add anything,  I'd have preferred to have the role go to a less established voice actor.

The pacing was great and it was very tightly plotted. There was actually a lot going on, but it all tied together very neatly. And something I really appreciated was a number of transitional scenes. The one I'm thinking of is where Q-Bert sees Ralph in the suit of power armor in Game Central Station. That eliminates the moments of fridge logic where the audience stops and says, "Wait, how did Felix know to look for him there?" I love that kind of thing. It was barely more than a few seconds long but it really works to sell the movie as something that actually happened.

There were a lot of neat details. King Candy's combination is the Konami Code! That's awesome. The baking of the car mini-game was a lot of fun to watch too. I liked the Rampage gameplay from Fix It Felix. One of my favorite movies is Scott Pilgrim versus the World and this had the same wealth of details that will be missed by nearly everyone in the audience but are there for the careful viewer. (And too other things reminded me of Scott Pilgrim. The first was the logo in the beginning, and the second was that Calhourn says "Bullroar!" at one point and the only other time I've ever heard that phrase was from Todd in Scott Pilgrim.)

I remember Vonnegut's rules on writing where he said "Everyone should want something, even if it's only a sandwich." Every one of the has his or her own goals, and they overlap and conflict and make for a richer movie than they would be otherwise. Vanellope and Ralph each want the medal, and I'm pleased that the filmmakers gave her a reason other than peevishness for having her go after it. Likewise, Felix and Calhoun each have their reasons for entering Sugar Rush, and the fact that these reasons are not the same provides a little friction to their relationship.

It looks like the movie is on track to be a real commercial success, but I hope that they refrain from making it into a series, because it gets so much right the first time and part of the charm is it's uniqueness and I think capitalizing on that would only diminish it.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Playing games with Lily: Costume Quest

I really enjoyed Costume Quest.

First, a plug! I enjoy Phil's work over at Adventurous Endeavors, so I decided to see which other blogs he was following. One of them looked especially appealing. It was Life in 16-Bit. I like video games, particularly of that era, so I signed up to follow.

Part of his series for October was scary games and one of them was Costume Quest. It was on the strength of that review that I decided to check out the  game. My thoughts about the game were almost exactly the same as his, which turns out to be rather unfortunate, because it means that someone already wrote this review before I even started the game. Rather than retreading the same territory, I think I'll focus on my experience playing the game with a little kid.

My daughter Lily is in kindergarten. She reads extremely well for her age, but as that age is barely six years old, so I wasn't sure if she'd be capable of following it. Still, the full game (Costume Quest plus Grubbins on Ice) was available for $7.50 and I thought it would be nice to spend some of the money in my Playstation wallet on stuff other than more Little Big Planet Costumes. It combines two of Lily's favorite things, dressing up and scary things.  Also, it doesn't hurt that we're really into Gravity Falls, and the main characters in costume Quest, Wren and Reynold are also twins in a new town.

The game starts with the twins bickering until Mom puts one of them in charge, which is how you pick which character you're going to play. We think "Girls Rule!" around this house, so we played Wren, and I'll be referring the main character as Wren in this review, though of course, you can pick either.

Wren has her awesome robot costume and Reynold has his stupid candy corn costume. They knock on the first door, but instead of getting a massive haul, the guy gives them some LOSER CANDY. At the next house Reynold knocks on the door, but Wren hides behind a mailbox, too embarrassed to be seen with him. When the door opens, a monster emerges, and, thinking Reynold is a giant piece of candy, makes off with him!

And then the adventure proper begins. Wren discovers that she transforms into whatever costume she's wearing whenever she gets in a fight with the monsters, which is such a little kid wish fulfillment fantasy. This is the core mechanism of the game, and it was extremely well done.

A giant robot, a ninja and the Statue of Liberty walk into a bar...

Different costumes have different abilities. The ninja can sneak around (and it's weird hearing a six-year-old telling me that she's going to "enter stealth mode"), the robot moves around on roller skates (and wound up being my default, because movement is kind of slow without it), the knight shields you, etc.

Every review I've read about the game mentions Tasha Harris, the team's lead animator and a former Pixar artist, and for good reason. The graphics have an extremely distinctive style and they mesh very well with mood and the gameplay.

The dialogue is both funny and natural. The best of it has to be between Wren and Reynold, who have that mix of affection and animosity that all real siblings share. You recruit a gamer named Everett and a science geek named Lucy and they each have their own fun personality quirks too.

Since it was produced on a somewhat lower budget than most modern games, it harkens back to an earlier time, where the player actually had to read the dialogue. This is a plus for me, because whenever Lily asked me what it said, I would always reply "You tell me," and with a very few exceptions, she was able to read everything. (We had previously used Little Big Planet to practice reading until we got into the the user generated levels which are all like: "If u like teh lvl, plz heart it. kthxbai!" and are thus suboptimal for our purposes. As the other review mentioned, the only problem is that dialogue flows by without prompting in the cut scenes and I wound up having to read it for her there because it went by just a little too quickly.

I think she was a little young for the game, because the battles were tough for her too, and I wound up taking the controller for a lot of those. They have a quick time element to them and she's just not fast enough to do it, and they're surprisingly unforgiving for a game aimed at a younger demographic. I think battles were my least favorite part of the game, anyway. They were certainly Lily's. She enjoyed running around, exploring and collecting new costumes. She was a little disappointed that we never got the princess costumes we saw on NPCs, but the magical rainbow unicorn made up for that. She was also partial the vampire and the flaming pumpkin head.

In the third act, we ran into the dreaded French Fry bug. (Not to be confused with the horrifying crab-spider nightmare monster you become when you wear the French Fry costume into a fight).

 If you'll excuse me, I need to go clean off my chair, seeing as I have shit myself in terror.

Apparently if you apply the update after you've started the game, the mandatory quest where you have to lure customers to a french fry stand becomes uncompletable. We couldn't figure out what we were doing wrong and I finally resorted to going online to figure it out and that's where I learned about the bug.

And I was prompted for the update as soon as we finished downloading the game, but we wanted to get playing right away. Lily was understandably distraught. She's a drama queen anyway, but I think I would have been pretty upset too. I believe her exact quote was "All of our hard work for NOTHING!" I promised her that I would get her back to where we were, and I did, but I'll admit, I was a little nervous approaching that part, in case the bug did trigger again. It didn't though, and we progressed through the game.

We beat it last night.  With some games, the ending seems tacked on or unnecessary, but this one ended exactly as it should have.  Indeed, I'll go so far as to say that it ended the only way it could. We're looking forward to the sequel, Grubbins on Ice, and you can count on reading the review here.

Though we may not get to it right away. Lily was so excited about the game that as soon as we finished it, she exclaimed, "Let's play it again, but with Reynold this time!!!"