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?