Saturday, December 21, 2013

We Wish You A Merry Non-Denominational Winter Celebration

People should just wish each other a "Merry Christmas!" and drop all this silly, non-denominational "happy holidays" nonsense.

There. I said it.

I support being inclusive as much as the next American, but nobody really means "have your own solstice-holiday, regardless of your personal faith or lack thereof" when they say "Happy Holidays". What they mean is "Merry Christmas", and everyone knows it. Hanukkah ended in the evening of Thursday, December 5 this year,and Kwanzaa doesn't start 'til the day after Christmas. Today is Yule, but store-workers are still going to keep wishing us "Happy Holidays" until December 25th, when they will abruptly stop. No They're not wishing you a happy holiday, they're just afraid to say the name of the holiday they're actually talking about.

I feel like it's dishonest for stores and advertisers to wish [people a "happy holiday" when they don't even know what other early-winter holidays there are, or how they're celebrated. Store displays may say "happy holidays" in the front window, but I guarantee that the decorations they set up do not include menorahs, Kwanzaa kinaras, or Stars of David. The decorations will probably include an evergreen tree, but most people don't even know that's a pagan thing to begin with, so it hardly counts as multicultural.

There's a sign at the recycling center near where I live which tells motorists where they can drop off their "holiday trees". But let's be honest for a second here: it ain't a Hanukkah bush, and it ain't a Kwanzaa conifer, it's a Christmas tree. Reindeer were not present when Judah Maccabee drove out the Seleucid Greeks and lit the first menorah. Snowmen have nothing to do with Pan-Africanism.

So let's be done with this fake, bland multiculturalism that fails to accurately recognize anyone's holiday. Rather than acting like we're celebrating everyone equally by simply replacing "Christmas" with "holiday", let's call a reindeer a reindeer.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Founders' Arms

At the climax of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry pulls (unnecessary spoiler alert) the Sword of Godric Gryffindor out of the Sorting Hat, and uses it to great effect against the Heir of Slytherin and his pet monstrosity. Like King Arthur before him, Harry draws a sword out of an unlikely place (get your mind out of the gutter!) and fulfills his heroic destiny; all's well and good.

"All hail Harry, King of the Britons!"

But it's never established whether any of the other Four Founders have weapons of their own hidden in the depths of the Sorting Hat. They've all got items which are important to them (the Diadem of Ravenclaw, the Cup of Helga Hufflepuff, Slytherin's Locket), but these last three are merely powerful objects, not weapons they might hand down through the fog of ages to help their future students in their hour of need.

Personally, I like to think that there are weapons for each Founder, and for the amusement of my readers I will now take a moment to do some baseless conjecture on the subject.

The Dagger of Salazar Slytherin

Figuring out Slytherin's weapon was almost too easy. It's obvious, really. For a House that's willing to "use any means / To achieve their ends", a dagger is really the only option. Naturally, it would be a poisoned dagger. Possibly made of a basilisk fang, or at the very least imbued with the beast's venom.

The Shield of Helga Hufflepuff

Hufflepuff's weapon was harder to decide on. We all know that "Those patient Hufflepuffs are true / And unafraid of toil", so their weapon must needs be something heavy, probably blunt, which requires great strength to wield.

At first, a club or mace seemed like the obvious choice. They're heavy, blunt, and associated with wood and stone, respectively. A morningstar (a spiked mace, usually round-headed) would even mimic the shape of the Earth, which is Hufflepuff's element.

But then I thought "perhaps not": Hufflepuff is defensive, not offensive. If the fight comes to them, they will meet it head-on, but they don't seek out battle. So a shield makes the most sense for the heirs of Hufflepuff. (And before you ask, no, I'm not sticking Hufflepuffs with the "lame weapon". Anyone who's familiar with Captain America knows that a shield bash can do some serious damage in the right hands.)

The Bow of Rowena Ravenclaw

Ravenclaw has her intelligence-boosting Diadem, which Hermione will tell you is a weapon in its' own right. But being wise, Rowena Ravenclaw no doubt realized that increased intelligence doesn't mean anything if it can't keep you alive long enough to use it. And surely she would realize that sometimes an application of force, in just the right place, is the wisest course of action.

With this in mind, a bow (and arrows, most likely bronze-tipped) would make the most sense as the signature weapon of House Ravenclaw. A bow allows the wielder to observe any conflict from a distance, carefully select the foe who poses the greatest threat, and fell them before they get close enough to do damage to one's self or allies.

Discuss: Do you disagree with any of these choices? What do you think the Founders' weapons would be?

Monday, August 26, 2013

On Birthdays, Post-Adolescence

As some of you may already be aware, my birthday is tomorrow. And once again this year, I managed to pretty much forget that my birthday was even coming up until just a few days beforehand, and as a result I haven't made any plans for a party, or even a little get-together with friends.

Having birthday parties as an adult feels a little weird. Not that I'm embarrassed about my age (27) or don't want an excuse to celebrate something with my friends, mind you. It's just that after your twenty-first birthday, you stop unlocking new abilities (like voting or drinking). There's a decrease in insurance costs in the upper twenties, but after that there's not much to unlock until you reach level 65 and can multiclass into "Cranky Old Fart".

Plus, we're taught as we grow out of self-centered childhood that we're not supposed to make a big deal of ourselves, or expect others to come over and celebrate our achievements. Going up to a friend and saying Hey, wanna come to a party in honor of how great I am at staying alive? just feels strange, somehow.

It never felt strange when I was a kid, though. All of my friends and relatives just lined up to wish me a happy birthday and give me gifts, and that was the way of the world. I recognize now that much of that wouldn't have happened if my parents hadn't been there to spread the word and make preparations, but now that that duty falls to me alone, I find it a little... Self-aggrandizing? Narcissistic?

...But maybe I'm over-thinking it. Maybe I'm just naturally a little disorganized, and don't like making people rush around at the last minute on my behalf. Or I could just try a little harder to think about it next year, before the day itself is upon me.

Now, I'd say that's quite enough existential navel-gazing for one day. Birthdays are supposed to be fun! So, for everyone out there who has a birthday, here's a celebratory song from a very special musical guest:

Happy birthday, Dear Readers. Whenever that may be.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Great Graphic Novels in My Life

Last week, I compiled a list of books which have had the most significant impact on my life and worldview. Like many bibliophiles, a large portion of how I interact with and understand the world has been shaped by what I've read. But reading is only a part of the whole picture, and if picture is worth a thousand words, than any graphic novel is worth at least a dozen books. The image can convey many things that the written word alone cannot, and when the two modes of expression work in tandem, marvelous things can happen.

I would like to present you, Gentle Dear Reader, a few of the graphic novels (and one comic strip) which have had the greatest influence on my worldview, more-or-less in the order in which I first encountered them.

Which comic books would be on your personal list of the most meaningful graphic novels you've ever read? Leave your list below in the comments!

1) Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson
“Hold it. You know what I'd like to see? I'd like to see the three bears eat the three little pigs, and then the bears join up with the big bad wolf and eat Goldilocks and Little Red Riding Hood! Tell me a story like that, OK?”
― Calvin

These comics are among the first things I remember reading as a child. To my mind, Calvin and Hobbes is without question the single greatest body of sequential art ever assembled. By turns philosophical, hilarious, poignant, and incisively witty, six-year-old Calvin and his tiger-friend Hobbes informed a great deal of how I spent my time as a child. Like Calvin, I was possessed by a great love of nature and exploration, and he inspired me to make many unsupervised trips through forests and go mucking my way along creek-beds, looking for whatever "weird stuff" I might be lucky enough to find.

I also inherited Calvin's disinterest in organized sports (which I carry to this day, though not as fervently as I used to), his love of unstructured learning, and the joy he took in noticing the beautiful details which grown-ups miss.

2) Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, by Scott McCloud

"Space does for comics what time does for film!"
― Scott McCloud

Unfortunately, one of the views that I absorbed from Calvin and Hobbes was Mr. Watterson's disdain for comic books and graphic novels, which he called "incredibly stupid" (which I feel is a little hypocritical of him, since he wrote comics which were eventually collected and sold in book-format, but that's beside the point).Luckily for me, I stumbled upon a copy of Mr. McCloud's excellent book in the bookstore at Eastern Michigan University, and he immediately blew my mind clear out of the water.

Understanding Comics taught me to reconsider art forms that I had previously written-off, like rap and modern art. It taught me not to confuse the medium with the message: just because comic books have historically been the domain of cheap, badly-written, easily-disposable kiddie fare doesn't mean that all of them have to be, all of the time. What if people had persisted in believing, as they did in Shakespeare's day, that  theater could never be anything more than a cheap, frivolous distraction for the lower classes? Imagine how much poorer the world would be today, as a result of their shortsightedness.

3) Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman

“Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week…Then you could see what it is, friends!" 
― Vladek Spiegelman, to his son Artie (age 11)

Maus is an oddity, and not just because it's a Holocaust narrative in comic book format, or because it's a Holocaust narrative starring cartoon animals (Jews are mice, Nazis are cats). It's also the most unsentimentally honest portrayals of a father that I've ever read. Despite living through one of the most horrific examples of institutionalized racism in human history, the Vladek Spiegelman is still intensely prejudiced against African-Americans; he's emotionally manipulative of his son, wife, and daughter-in-law; he's a tight-fisted cheapskate; he dismisses the feelings and concerns of those closest to him; and he constantly comparing his second wife unfavorably to his first wife (the author's dead mother). In a weird way, all this behavior this makes Vladek intensely... human, I suppose. Filled with all-too-human shortcomings and weaknesses. We can't all be Anne Frank, believing, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart. Suffering does not necessarily make one more compassionate towards one's fellow sufferers.

3) Watchmen, by Alan Moore (illustrated by Dave Gibbons)

“There is no future. There is no past. Do you see? Time is simultaneous, an intricately structured jewel that humans insist on viewing one edge at a time, when the whole design is visible in every facet.”
― Dr. Manhattan

Calling Watchmen "mind-blowing" doesn't do the book justice. That's barely scratching the surface of what this novel is, of what it does. Every single time I read this book, I stumble across some new insight, some new interpretation of the characters, their motivations, their inner workings. In eschewing the self-narrating thought bubbles of past comics artists, Alan Moore forces the reader to delve deep into complex and messy psychologies of these "real-world" superheroes, and the mechanisms which drive them to spend their nights dressing up in kinky, colorful skintight costumes and beating the stuffing out of petty criminals (which, if you think about it, is more than a little weird).

Moore also does an excellent job of pointing out that beating up random lawbreakers isn't going to solve anybody's problems in the long run. When Ozymandias (the self-styled"smartest man in the world") proposes taking action against a recurring villain who has just returned from prison, a bitter and cynical hero called The Comedian turns his acidic tongue on his fellow heroes, pointing out how ultimately pointless their nocturnal beatdowns are, in a world living in the looming shadow of the Cold War:

"You people are a joke. You hear Moloch's back in town, you think "Oh, boy! Let's gang up and bust him!" You think that matters? You think that solves anything? ... It don't matter squat because inside thirty years the nukes are gonna be flyin' like maybugs...and then Ozzy here is gonna be the smartest man on the cinder."

4) V for Vendetta, by Alan Moore (illustrated by David Lloyd)

"You're in a prison, Evey. You were born in a prison. You've been in a prison so long, you no longer believe there's a world outside. That's because you're afraid, Evey. You're afraid because you can feel freedom closing in upon you. You're afraid because freedom is terrifying. Don't back away from it, Evey. ... You faced the fear of your own death and you were calm and still. The door of the cage is open, Evey. All that you feel is the wind from outside.” 
― the anarchist known as "V"

I can't say that I agree with Alan Moore's politics, but they certainly make for thought-provoking reading material. I've never really read a coherent, well thought-out argument in favor of anarchy before or since, and some of the points that he brings up are pretty good ones. Governments always involve a loss of freedom on many levels, but these bodies to whom we hand over our liberties frequently do not have our best interests at heart. They're made of humans, who have their own interests at heart, as all humans inherently do. We tell ourselves that it's for our own good, that the alternative to government is chaos, etc., but ultimately, we're all free, all of the time, to do whatever we want. Most of us just choose not to, out of fear, uncertainty, the implicit or explicit threat of violence against our bodies and our families, etc. But the world only works that way because we allow it work that way.

5) The Sandman, by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by various artists)

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people in the whole world. I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they've all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”
― Barbie (a.k.a. Princess Barbara), "A Game of You"

What can I even say about this series? It might be the best thing I've ever read, in any medium. And that's really saying something, considering how much I've read in my life.

For the first few chapters, The Sandman is a pretty standard horror comic about Morpheus, the King of Dreams, trying to regain his kingdom after seventy years' imprisonment in the mortal realm. It's good; spooky and atmospheric, but not great; not yet. Not until the last chapter of the first volume, when Gaiman introduces the most endearing personification of Death herself that's ever been penned, and then shit starts to get weird (in the best possible way). Jumping between the Dreaming, the "real" world, the skerries of dream, Heaven, Hell, Limbo, Faerie, the Underworld, various historical pantheons (both real and invented, ancient and modern), and an innumerable host of stories, The Sandman is a shifting, shimmering phantasmagoria of images, words, and complete self-contained universes, each one stranger and more sublime than the last. Reading this series will forever alter the reader, because it forces one to question the nature of reality, time, of the primal power of storytelling to (sometimes literally) reshape one's world.

It is damn good stuff. You should go read it. Right now.

6) Scott Pilgrim, by Bryan Lee O’Malley

“I feel like im in this river just getting swept along... And if I hold on to anyone, if I'm holding on for dear life, I'm not getting anywhere. I'm stuck. ...I never wanted to get stuck.” 

―Scott Pilgrim, Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour

Scott Pilgrim is a coming-of-age novel for the Nintendo Generation, and I really, really wish that someone had shown it to me before I came-of-age. I think that it would have made me a little more at-peace with being single, and maybe a little more willing to ask myself some hard questions about  my approach to the opposite sex.

In musicals, when emotion becomes too high onstage, the cast spontaneously bursts into song. Scott Pilgrim does something similar, only with video games instead of music. But behind the magical realism and plain old silliness, there's a lot of important questions about the baggage that each of us brings to a new relationship, and the ways in which our past romantic failures (whether they were our fault or not) makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to start afresh. But that's actually a good thing, because if you forget your past mistakes, you won't be able to learn from them, and you'll just keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

7) Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi
“In life you'll meet a lot of jerks. If they hurt you, tell yourself that it's because they're stupid. That will help keep you from reacting to their cruelty. Because there is nothing worse than bitterness and vengeance... Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.”

― Marjane Satrapi

I'm abashed to admit that I never really gave much thought to Iran before reading this book. I pretty much just swallowed what the news told me without question: Iranians were crazy zealots who fund terrorists and jihadis and other unpleasant men with beards, and all they want is to see America burn. How ignorant I was.

Not only was Iran a pretty nice place to live before the Islamic Revolution, women had more freedom in Iran than just about anywhere else in the region. Which made it all the harder for them to accept the veil, and the chaperone laws, and sending their sons and brothers off to become martyrs of their faith. Persepolis made me wary (or at least aware) of the possibility that even in a prosperous and stable country, a small band of violent extremists can waltz in, play off the public's fears, and really eff things up for everyone else.

Discuss: Which graphic novel(s) do you feel have the potential to change my life? Tell me about them in the comments!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Great Books In My Life

I've been compiling a list of the books and novels that have had the greatest influence on my life. Not just in terms of when I read them or how I came into contact with them, but the novels which have left the most marked impression on my psyche.

These are the books that changed how I view the world. Each one of these books left an indelible mark on me, and in some way changed the way in which I experience one or more of the deep themes in life: growing up, relationships, war, poverty, adversity, triumph, defeat, anger, joy, love, and many, many, many more.

It's sort of like a bibliography of the research paper that is my life. The subject of my thesis? Life itself! The professor? Existence. The deadline? To be announced.

Lacking any better system of organization, I've tried to organize my sources not by title or author's name, but by the order in which they first entered my life.

The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
An excellent introduction to weighty themes: travel, adventure, growing up, stepping outside your comfort zone, and epic fantasy adventure.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The first time I tackled this monumental series (in the fifth grade, no less!), I set myself firmly on a path of lifelong bibliophilia. To this day, I still have a great weakness for any fantasy novels with appendices in the back.

D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, by Ingri and Edgar d'Aulaire
It's hard for me to imagine not knowing Greek mythology. This book is probably the biggest reason for that. I got my copy from my Grandma when I was twelve or so, read it cover-to-cover in a day or two, and probably haven't forgotten a single detail since then. I can still tell you any story in that book with only the illustrations as a prompt.

Animorphs, by K.A. Applegate
Teenagers who use alien technology to shape-shift into animals. Slowly, over the course of many books, the strain of losing loved ones, living double-lives, and always running scared actually begins to warp and damage their personalities. Practically an instruction manual for running a real-life underground resistance against an equally-underground invasion force.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
This blew my mind when I first read about it in Muse Magazine when I was twelve. The author's deep-seated awe at the simultaneous diversity and unity of the human condition is about as close to religious as I get.

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling
I'm getting married in about two months, and the ceremony is going to be Harry Potter-themed, so you can probably tell that this one's had a larger impact on my life than almost any other book on this list. Harry taught me so many important lessons: that bullies are even more scared than their victims; that bad people can redeem themselves; that love is truly stronger than hate; and that it is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman
Ever since I was a child, I've never understood why so many authors like to portray children as innocent, or essentially good. This trilogy does a pretty good job of ending that old lie.

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
I'm still grateful to my father for making me read this when I was in middle school, well before I had a chance to start nurturing any adolescent fantasies about fighting wars.

Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
This is hands-down the funniest book I've ever read. It has caused me to literally ROFLOL. And it's also one of the wittiest and most insightful commentaries on religion, belief, and faith that you will ever encounter.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Even though this is definitely fantasy, I don't think I've ever encountered a more unsentimentally realistic portrait of the true driving forces behind the march of history: sex, blood, and personal grudges between members of the ruling class (whomever they might be). If you're going to try to rule something, anything, then read these books first.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks
I don't think that I have ever read a more frightening book in all my life. Not because a zombie apocalypse is a plausible scenario for how the world will end (it isn't), but because of the horrors that human beings would be willing to inflict on one another in their struggle to escape such an end.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
Katniss Everdeen does the impossible: she's an independent, resourceful, eminently badass young woman who's willing to do whatever it takes to survive the Hunger Games, yet despite her incredible feats of endurance and fortitude, the acts of violence she commits to stay alive are never, ever glamorized. Which is the only way a story like this could possibly be told, if the author has a shred of integrity.

Next  Week: Dave's Compendium of the Greatest Graphic Novels

Monday, August 5, 2013


As some of you may already be aware, my brother and I have been working for some time now on a custom Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting called Crossroads: The New World. It's based on mid-1700's North America, with a few "improvements" (like Inuit frost-giants, a still-living Aztec Empire, and Chinese colonies on the west coast).

Naturally, this kind of exercise in world-building has involved a large amount of research into the world of the precolumbian Americas, and the early days of colonization by Europeans. As a byproduct of this research, I learned substantially more about Native Americans in my first two months of casual research in my free time than I did from kindergarten to my senior year of high school.

That's scary. I mean, that's seriously messed up. I realize that I've probably forgotten a lot of what I learned about the paltry handful of tribes we "researched" in fifth grade, but there's no way I used to know most of this stuff, 'cause when I'm reading it now, it's blowing my freaking mind:
  • The road system of Inka Empire was more than twice as long as the fabled Roman road system.
  • Cahokia was the largest city in North American history until the mid-1800s, and most Americans have never even heard of it.
  • The Pacific Northwestern tribes had caste systems and matrilineal nobility, and slavery was common among them.
  • At the time of their conquest by the Spanish, the Triple Alliance (a.k.a. the Aztec Empire) was the only society on Earth (as far as I'm aware) that educated girls equally with boys.
  • The U.S. government has officially acknowledged that the Great Law of Peace (or Gayanashagowa) of the Haudenosaunee ("People of the Longhouse," a.k.a. the Iroquois Confederacy) helped shape the U.S. Constitution, and American ideals of personal liberty and freedom.
I'm not blaming my teachers; I'm not blaming the public school system. I'm not blaming anybody. But there has been a massive oversight in the education of young Americans, and it needs to be corrected.

I pride myself on being a well-rounded, well-read person, with a fairly good grasp of history; not just European history, but all history. But even I was astonished and shamed ay my own ignorance of what had been happening before 1492 in the very continent I've spent my whole life living on.

Not only did I not know what was going on here before white people showed up, I never even thought to ask that question. I assumed, as I'd alwasy been led to believe, that Native Americans just sat around in the dark until white people showed 'em what was what.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Veganism at Hogwarts

Imagine a girl. An ordinary, average, everyday girl, whose name is, say, "Fiona Chadwick". Fiona is ten-but-almost-eleven years old, lives in London, loves animals, and just got her acceptance letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Good for her, right? Congratulations, wish you the best of luck, don't forget to write, yadda yadda yadda.

Well, there's just one problem for Miss Chadwick: she's a vegan, which means she's gonna have a really hard time at Hogwarts.

It starts right from the moment the owl (read: "animal-slave") drops the acceptance letter in her hands: it's written on parchment. Once she opens it (or gets a friend to open it for her, because it's written on animal skin), she sees that, among other things,"First-year students will require... One pair of protective gloves (dragon hide or similar)".

This relationship is not off to a great start.

"Can't I just wear enchanted PVC gloves instead?"

At some point Fiona will need to get to Diagon Alley, but no matter how she arrives she'll have to walk past Eeylops Owl Emporium, which sells live owls to anyone, without so much as a criminal background check for the purchaser (at least, none that the reader ever hears about), and past the Apothecary, which features such lovely window-dressings as bat spleens, live leeches, and black beetle-eyes. After seeing all that, Fiona may have to duck into Florean Fortescue's for a nice sorbet, to calm her nerves.

Fiona will also have some difficulty purchasing her textbooks, as most of them are going to be printed on parchment, like her acceptance letter. However, being a large bookseller with a good selection, it's likely that Flourish & Blott's will have alternative editions of standard schoolbooks in papyrus-scroll format. They'd be a little bulkier and heavier than standard books, but doable if you're committed (which, for the sake of argument, Fiona is).

Next up, Ollivanders!

Wand-shopping may be one of the most problematic steps for Fiona, because it's such an important part of her journey towards witch-hood, yet also so decidedly animal-unfriendly. We know that it's virtually impossible for a witch or wizard to perform anything but wild unpredictable magic without a wand to act as a focus for their power. The problem for Fiona is that all wands (at least all wands sold in Britain) seem to use animal products as their focus. For wand-cores, we only hear about dragon heartstrings, unicorn tail hair, and phoenix feathers ("veela hair" is mentioned only once, in Goblet of Fire). While harvesting a hair from a unicorn's tail certainly won't kill the beast, this is still a gray area at best for most vegans I've talked to. I suppose it might be possible to use certain magical plants like dittany as a wand-core, or perhaps even magical stone or crystal, they definitely don't seem to be popular options.

So Fiona has her scrolls, her supplies, and her wand. She can finally hop on the Hogwarts Express and start her education in witchcraft.

"Umm, that's not a solar-powered model, is it?"

... but Fiona's trials are only beginning. In addition to the normal dietary restrictions she would face (which are pretty steep), she'll eventually have to deal with the fact that all of her food at Hogwarts is made entirely by their staff of house-elves. Although most people wouldn't classify them as animals (they can speak and use tools), house-elves are definitely slaves, which is just-about equally bad, from a rights-for-living-beings perspective.

Potions class would be absolutely awful. Not only would Fiona be forced to brew potions with the rest of her year - potions which always seem to include some kind of animal product - but for some of them she would actually have to manually crush measurements of beetles or spiders herself, immediately before adding them to her cauldron to ensure freshness. (And there is absolutely no chance that Professor Snape would allow Fiona to pursue an alternative, animal-friendly curriculum.)

Not even Herbology is safe for our beleaguered Fiona. In a world where plants are not only motile, but seem to be aware of their surroundings, one has to ask whether even harvesting and eating magical plants is vegan. Do mandrakes feel pain when you cut them up? Do bubotubers dislike being squeezed for their pus? Does the venomous tentacula feel pain when Professor Sprout slaps its tentacle away from her? These questions are going to be at the forefront of Fiona's mind with each trip down to the greenhouses.

Now, I'm not trying to make Hogwarts into the bad guy here. But as Rowling demonstrated with the House-Elf issue, wizards are not perfect. But attitudes can change, given time, and a good reason to change. And maybe with enough time, Hogwarts can become a school which welcomes not only muggle-borns and purebloods with equal openness, but an institution which is welcoming to all students, of every lifestyle and philosophy.

Monday, July 22, 2013

[Movie Review] Pacific Rim

I paid for my ticket to Pacific Rim with the promise that Guillermo del Toro would spend the next two hours showing me 1) giant robots, 2) giant monsters, and 3) said titans beating the ever-loving crap out of each other and wrecking major metropolises in the process. And for this investment of eight dollars and two hours of my attention, I was richly rewarded in these respects.

A lot of people have complained that this movie is stupid, that the characterization is inconsistent, that it's too big and hectic and loud. To them, I say: it's a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters. What did you expect? This is a modern-day update of Godzilla movies, and nonsensical plotlines are part and parcel to the kaiju genre. If you go to this movie expecting believable science, then you're in the wrong theater.

This is a movie about action, on the grandest possible scale. It is not Shakespeare. It is not The Godfather. It will not make you weep, or think too hard, or care deeply about any of the characters. It will, however, make you jump out of your seat and applaud, if you let it.

Pacific Rim makes no pretension at being smart, or even at having especially realistic psychology or characterization. There is an English character in this movie who actually and unironically utters the phrase "by Jove". The main character reveals that he speaks Japanese in a single line in Act I, and it's never mentioned again, despite the fact that this would greatly ease communication with his Japanese co-pilot. The kaiju are explicitly and repeatedly said to be highly radioactive, yet nobody wears any kind of protection while standing around their corpses or their various organs floating in glass tanks. (In one scene, we see a business that's been built inside the skull of one of these creatures. I get that China doesn't have any such thing as workplace safety regulations, but come on!) They even make the erroneous assertion, easily spotted by and grade-school paleontologist, that dinosaurs were so big that they, like the kaiju, had to have two brains.

Despite my nerd-rage at some of the movie's grossly-inaccurate science, I had a blast watching these monstrosities carving swaths of high-definition destruction through harbors, oceans, and major cities. People really like to toss around the word "awesome", but really that's the only word that can reasonably be applied to to watching a robot the size of a building take on an extra-dimensional supermonster while wielding an oil-tanker as a katana:
awe·some  [aw-suh m]
adjectiveinspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear; causing or inducing awe
I mean, this movie really does a good job of impressing upon the viewer that the Jaegers, despite their tremendous size and arsenal, are hard-pressed to defeat their kaiju foes. The first monster of the movie (the creatively-named Knifehead) tears through the solid steel plating of the heroic Gipsy Danger with its bony head-protrusion like a bullet through a denim jacket. Even with all the wealth and wisdom and prayers of the most powerful nations on Earth behind them, the viewer never feels for a moment that the Jaegers are anything but dangerously outmatched by these hurricanes of claw and bone and radioactive super-acid.

Let's be honest: giant robots are unrealistic and impractical to begin with. The science behind them (and especially behind equally-large organic creatures) is highly questionable, even when you dress it up in technobabble. But scrupulously accurate science doesn't make the 12-year-old in me squeal with delight; the sight of rocket-punches, chest-mounted missiles, and nuclear-powered plasma cannons, however, does make that happen.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Greater Chainmail Bikini of +5 Distraction

Dear Fantasy, SciFi, Video Game and Comic-Book Artists/Designers,

Please stop drawing every woman in what amounts to combat-themed lingerie.

Exhibit A

Seriously, though, it's gotta stop. This stuff makes it really, really hard for us nerds to get our girlfriends, fiancés, and wives to show any interest in the games, books, and graphic novels that we love so dearly.

(...And I realize that part of this is the audience's fault for demanding it. I'll get to that in a minute.)

Now, I like looking at images of attractive women as much as the next guy. And seeing  those women wearing the trappings of my favorite genres (fantasy armor, superhero costumes, Starfleet uniforms, etc.) makes the experience all the better. I have fond memories of juvenile and adolescent crushes on Storm (X-Men), Misty (Pokémon), Chi (Chobits), and Slave Girl Princess Leia (if you don't know where she's from, you're dead to me). I know what it means to be the nerdy boy with unrequited feelings for imaginary characters. Believe me, I do.

But lonely teenage boys aren't the only ones who consume this media. (Well, OK, in some genres they still pretty much are. But they don't have to be the only ones!) There are girls and women out there who love this stuff, and their numbers are growing every day. And this is a good thing. We've been complaining for decades about the dearth of women who read doorstopper fantasy novels, watch sci-fi obsessively, and enjoy hanging out at comic conventions. So why are we driving them away with stuff like the 4th Edition Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook?

Strong enough for a man, but designed for a man.

I object to this type of illustration on two fronts:

First of all, it's a stupid idea to expose your chest and midriff in battle. If you're going to pay someone the equivalent an entire family of peasants' biannual income for a suit of armor, then why would you not demand enough material to cover your cleavage and navel? I guarantee that you will never see a male character in midriff-baring armor on the cover of an official D&D book. Some players will giggle and say "it provides a +2 distraction bonus against males!" Yeah. Right. When your body is overclocking itself on adrenaline and trying not to loose its' bowels in your armor from the sheer stomach-wrenching terror of battle, the absolute last thing on your mind is gonna be "Hey, that chick with the battleaxe has a pretty hot ra-"

Secondly (and more importantly), it sends an exclusionary message to would-be female players: it says to them that "This is a man's world. You can play here if you like, but you're only welcome as long as your body (or at least your character's body) proves pleasing in the eyes of our entrenched fanbase. Now, strap on your battle-thong and let's see ya prance around, hot-cheeks." This is not the best way to convince our girlfriends that our hobby is anything but adolescent wish-fulfillment. Because until we excise this kind of treatment of female from the official guidebooks, that's all our hobbies will ever be in the eyes of the women we love.

Gentlemen: the next time you're in a shop where nerds like to hang out (GameStop, Barnes & Noble, your local comic shop), take a good hard look at how most of the women in the works that line the shelves of the "Fantasy", "Science Fiction", and "Superheroes" sections of that store are depicted. Then ask yourself how eager you'd be to embrace a hobby of your girlfriend's if those costumes were the norm for all male characters.

Ohhh, baby.

Now, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that artists shouldn't be allowed to draw attractive women in sexy poses. What I object to is that virtually ALL women in roleplaying games, mainstream comic books, and even a surprising amount of science fiction, are depicted in these kinds of poses and costumes, almost all of the time. A few more female characters, in a little less-revealing clothing, would go a long way towards improving Geekdom's relationship with its' female participants. As a wise man once said, (and I know, I've quoted him before in this blog, but his words remain as true as ever):
The answer is always more art; the corollary to that is the answer is never less art. If you start to think that less art is the answer, start over. That’s not the side you want to be on. The problem isn’t that people create or enjoy offensive work. The problem is that so many people believe that culture is something other people create, the sole domain of some anonymized other, so they never put their hat in the ring. That even with a computer in your pocket connected to an instantaneous global network, no-one can hear you. When you believe that, really believe it, the devil dances in hell.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Much Ado About Nothing"

As always, this review will contain spoilers. But you really oughta read a summary of the play before you see the movie, so that's not a real problem here.

The other night, I had the opportunity to see Joss Whedon's new take on Much Ado About Nothing at the Michigan Theater (which is always the best place to see any movie, but it's especially perfect for Shakespeare). Whedon's little vacation between shooting and editing "The Avengers" was a lot of fun to watch, and I liked the homey, down-to-Earth feeling of the set and the cast. The movie was filmed entirely in the Whedons' own house, so it feels very personal and intimate. The fact that the cast are all actors who Joss Whedon has worked with in the past makes it seem more like a family reunion or a summer holiday at a friend's lakehouse than the big, sprawling spectacle that normally constitutes a Very Important And Serious Shakespeare Film.

There were parts where I felt like it kinda went on for a long time, though that might've been because I didn't get the chance to reread the play before seeing it (it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment decision). Familiarizing yourself with all the funny-sounding names and knowing the overall shape of the plot in advance can make all the difference to your enjoyment of the movie.

When I first realized that Sean Maher (Simon Tam from Firefly) would be playing the role of the wicked Don John, I had my doubts about his ability to really be a mean and underhanded jerk. But he handles the role better than I expected: rather than Keanu Reeves bombastic Saturday-morning cartoon villain in Kenneth Branagh's 1993 adaptation, Maher goes for a soft-spoken, understated sleaziness that's all the creepier for how quiet and emotionless it is.

A pleasant surprise: Nathan Fillion shows up two-thirds of the way through the movie playing a Sergeant Dogberry who has clearly made extensive use of the donuts in the police station break-room. He delivers the role with charm and unconscious wit, blundering through his malapropisms without having the slightest idea that he's just made an ass of himself.

I also liked that in Whedon's adaptation, Claudio is not a complete douchebag. Make no mistake, it is a terribly cruel thing to publicly accuse your fiancé of fornication on the altar at your own wedding, but the scathing words of Claudio flow more from hurt and betrayal than from a desire for vengeance. And that makes it much easier to like him, and to feel that his ending up with Hero is a happy ending, rather than entirely undeserved.

And of course, Benedick and Beatrice are (as always) the true stars. Their endless backbiting and witty repartee include all the best lines in the movie, possibly in all of Shakespeare's oeuvre (I'll give you ten points if you use that word in conversation correctly). The way they each flail around at the possiblity that the other might return their feelings are two of the funniest moments in the movie: Benedick listens-in on his bros while trying desperately not to be seen, dodging across the landscape like a low-rent Navy SEAL; Beatrice falls down a flight of stairs at the mention of Benedick's affection for her, and hides under a kitchen counter to eavesdrop on her girlfriends as they discuss her inability to open up emotionally. It's great stuff, and watching young lovers fumble at expressing (and failing to express) themselves is the very stuff of comedy.

So yeah, a good time was had by all. Go see it, have fun. Take your date with you: they'll think you're super-smart if you read the synopsis on Wikipedia beforehand and explain what's going on when they ask.

P.S. Film students remember: filming your movie in black-and-white will automatically make it classy.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Merchant Center Product Images

Feel free to ignore this post.

I'm making a Data Feed for my Google Merchant Center account, as part of my job. These are some of the images I'm using for my products in my made-up Data Feed. I just need a place to put them, on a website I control, so I can link to them from my Data Feed.

Cloak of Elvenkind

Ring of Invisibility 

Belt of Giant's Strength

Cloak of the Manta Ray

Crystal Orb

Halfling's Pipe

The Museum of Internet History

Recently, at a family gathering at my aunt's house, I mentioned that someday I'm gonna have to tell my kids that I'm older than the Internet, and it'd blow their minds. My cousin, who recently started driving, responded that she doesn't even remember a time without it.

Her comment also made me realize that if I were to explain what life was like before the internet, it would almost be equally difficult for me to explain what it was like in the early, untamed days of the "Information Superhighway". (By the way, if you remember hearing that phrase being used unironically, then congratulations, you're officially old now.)

Remember dial-up? Remember 56K modems? Remember Angelfire, Geocities, and Xanga? Well, if you don't, then you're kinda S.O.L. Unless you see people logging into America OnLine in a late-nineties romantic comedy, you're never gonna see how clunky those interfaces used to be. Nobody archives that shit. Who wants to remind their customers how long it used to take your program to perform the simplest tasks? Even if you were to find images of the old interfaces, you'll never really be able to appreciate how damn long they took to load, or how spotty the connection could be.

There are services out there that intentionally slow down your computer so you can run archaic programs (MS-DOS, anyone?) on modern rigs. Why not do the same with the Internet? The user would download a program that partitions their system to create a virtual PC that runs on Windows 3.2 and a simulated 56K modem. Once you're online (you might have time to go make yourself a sandwich), you could "surf the 'Net" and visit archived sites browse news articles from back in the day (sort of like how you can limit results from a Google search based on publication date).

Kids go on field-trips all the time to learn what life was like in the past. If we're gonna start preserving the early days of electronic media, now is the time to do it, before that data is lost. But we should also think about making the experience as authentic as possible. After all, how can you be grateful for what you've got if you don't even know how bad things used to be?

Friday, June 28, 2013

In Which Dave Makes a Resolution

I haven't been writing very much of late; that much is obvious.

Now don't get me wrong, I hate reading blogs that consist entirely of posts in which the author promises to post more often. Telling people you're gonna post more is a waste of everyone's time; either post more, or don't.

So why am I doing it anyway?

Well, it's partly to work through the hang-ups I have with posting stuff online. I often have thoughts that I'd like to share with the world, and I develop them to the point where they're almost blog-ready, but before I set finger to keyboard, I second-guess myself. Without a schedule for posting, without a regular audience to hold you accountable for missing updates, the experience of blogging can feel a bit like street-corner preaching: you step up onto your soapbox, fling your observations into the ether on gossamer word-wings, and the world just keeps on spinning.

So I tell myself that I don't really know that much about whatever it is I wanted to post about anyway, and I really should just leave the speculation to people who actually know something about it. Don't clutter up the Internet with pointless ranting, I tell myself. Just sit back down and keep quiet.

But what's the internet for, if not for cluttering up with pointless ranting? This is 'Murika, goddamnit! Where a man can say whatever the hell he pleases! I might not know everything about the various subjects I write about, but that doesn't disqualify me from having opinions about them. And dammit, I like writing! I've missed doing it regularly, and the best way I know to make yourself do something is to tell everyone you're gonna do it; that way, if you don't follow through, you look like a schmuck.

So I'm stepping up my game: I'm gonna start posing here more often. I'm gonna try for once a week, every Monday morning. They might not always be full-length posts, but I have a tendency to write too much anyway, so that's fine. What with the wedding coming up in October, I'll probably write shorter posts, or post less-often, so you'll all just have to live without the light of my empyrean wisdom for a few weeks at a time. Sorry about that in advance.

In the meantime, I'm following the advice of my my friend Jonathan Barkan (@jonathan-barkan) by making a Twitter account to promote myself and my writing. You can tweet me and/or follow me at @DWurtsmith. (Yeah, that's right, I broke down and got one. Joooiiiinnnn ussss...)

Anyway, the next one's gonna be up on Monday, July 1st. It's already waiting in the wings, just waiting to be loosed upon the world. Keep your eyes peeled for it, and all that'll follow it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Dowager Countess Should Have Her Own Series

Dear Julian Fellowes and the Senior Management of the BBC,

When you guys are done with Downton Abbey, please please PLEASE do a spin-off prequel series about the life of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. I'd pay good money to see a series starring the inimitable Dowager Countess of Grantham before she was a dowager. And even before she was a countess!

How It Would Be Different

Admittedly, there would be some major differences between Downton Abbey and the hypothetical Dowager Abbey:

The character would be very difficult to separate from the masterful acting of Dame Maggie Smith, but Dame Maggie could appear in flash-forwards, recounting and narrating (unreliably, of course) the exploits of her youth.

Second, you would need to hire several actresses, ranging in age from childhood to post-menopausal, to play Violet in the various stages of her life. I don't know if it would be more expensive to hire several up-and-coming actresses than one Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, but I don't imagine that

It might also be difficult to find that many talented actresses who all look more-or-less like Dame Maggie did at that age. Which limits the size of the available pool of actresses somewhat.

Also, I imagine that Downton Abbey saves a lot of money on set-building by filming everything at Highclere Castle. Dowager Abbey's later seasons could take place there as well, but you'd need to find locations and/or build sets to represent the house of her birth, important locations in Ripon and other nearby towns, and anywhere else she might have traveled. That would probably add to the cost of the series, having to build all those sets.

But it'd totally be worth it.

Why It Would Be Great


The Dowager Countess already has all the best lines. Many of these are so pregnant with meaning and half-veiled implications that they practically sketch the story of her life without ever revealing anything. The viewer's mind cannot help but fill in the blanks from her cryptic statements:

We know from one of the early episodes in Season One that Violet's sister Roberta took part in the Siege of Lucknow. "She loaded the cannons," Violet tells her granddaughters ominously. I want you to take a moment to think about what that means: for a Victorian woman, one of high birth and standing, the daughter of a baronetthe only reason for her to load cannons like a common soldier would be that they're trapped under siege, all the able-bodied men are dead or wounded, the enemy are pounding at the gates, and the final, desperate defense has been mounted against what is certain to be their doom if the besieged fail in their task.

"One way or another, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden." 
What did Violet not know about the 6th Earl of Grantham when she married him? What did he not know about her? Did Violet go to the altar with a secret as ruinous as Mary's one-night-stand with Mr. Pamuk, or Lord Grantham's near-affair with one of the servants? Did Violet, unlike her granddaughter, plan to take her terrible secret to her grave?
Then again, perhaps she's referring to closeted skeletons which came to light after her parents' marriage, or the marriage of one of her aunts or uncles? It's a possibility. A likelihood, even.

"Marriage is a long business. There's no getting out of it for our kind of people."
Do I detect a touch of wistfulness in her voice? Or is it resignation?

"We can't have him assassinated. [pause] I suppose."
This line seems like it's something more than old woman expressing her idle fancy. One gets the feeling that she's running over a list in her head, counting favors, considering options. I don't know if she'd follow through on it, but the fact that she might actually know where to apply pressure to get herself a free assassination is worthy of consideration. Who might she know that could provide such a service? How did she meet them, and why would she even entertain the notion that she might be able to get that person to do the deed?

 "You are not the first drunk in that drawing room, and I doubt you will be the last."
 She says it very understandingly, as if she's used to it. Who else has let slip embarrassing, even scandalous words in the drawing room at Downton, while Violet was present?

"Do you promise?" (Her reply when the jilted Sir Richard declares they will probably never meet again.)
Where did Violet get the chops, the chutzpah, the sheer brass balls to speak to a man as powerful, cutthroat, and ruthless as Sir Richard, and proceed to give him a verbal slap across the face after he's just been betrayed (as he sees it) by her granddaughter? She knows that Sir Robert is not to be trusted, that he knows Mary's secret, that he's got the means and the motivation to ruin Mary's entire life, and by extension the life of all the Crawleys. But she will not be cowed by threats, and she just can't resist giving the angry bear one more little poke before he goes. I really, really like that about her. But where did she learn to do it?

"Losing a child is a terrible thing. Your heart never truly recovers." 
We know that Robert and Rosamund are Violet's only two living children. but we don't know if they might have had a sibling which they don't talk about because s/he died very young. Perhaps that would explain part of the reason why Violet defends her son and granddaughters so fiercely.

I hope that I've made my case effectively, Mr. Fellowes and Company. I certainly hope that your most excellent series continues for many more seasons. But if you're ever looking for a character on which to focus more deeply, you know who would get my vote.