Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Anyone Got An Extra $2800 Lying Around?

And while you're at it, you might as well thrown in an extra $400 for the stand...
In my last post I made a reference to how the one thing I really wanted for Christmas (I didn't get it, in case you were wondering) was a Wacom Cintiq 24HD Touch.
It's just as well that no one was up for getting me one, as Wacom just announced the Cintiq 27QHD.

Which is what I want, not for Christmas, but right now.
Right.  This.  Second.
Of course, that's not actually possible, as it's not for sale yet (but will be soon), but even so, I want one ASAP.
So...who's going to buy one for me?
Don't all raise your hands at once...
Honestly, apart from the whole "Ooooh, shiny and new!" thing, the fact of the matter is that my current, much-earlier generation Cintiq is nearly six years old - which makes it positively ancient in technological terms - and it's beginning to show signs of its age and the general wear-and-tear of constant use, so I really do need (for a given value of "need," I suppose) to invest in a replacement.
And, come bonus/tax refund time, there's a good chance that I will grit my teeth buy one my damn self.
That said, if you look over to the right and scroll down a bit, you'll notice that there is a "donate" button - which has never in the history of its existence been clicked on, or if it has, has never led to anyone actually donating - so, you know, it would be possible to contribute to a "Jon's Colossal Waste of Money" fund, which would help defray at least some of the costs.
Just throwing that out there.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

All I Want For Christmas Is…?

It’s officially the time of year in which I get asked the dreaded question:  What do you want for Christmas?
My standard reply – particularly when asked this by my mother – of “nothing,” is generally deemed as unacceptable.
Of course, my standard reply isn’t entirely true.  I am not, after all, some enlightened Buddhist who has transcended material attachments and the prison of desire.  I like having stuff, and I generally would like to have even more stuff or at least better versions of stuff that I already have.
The problem is, no one who is likely to give me stuff is willing or able to drop the kind of cash that would be required to give me the stuff that I really want, and even if they were, I won’t be willing to accept the stuff I want as a gift, because, seriously, regardless of your financial ability, there is no reason for anyone to spend that kind of money on me.
…okay, maybe if someone in my family or one of my close friends suddenly struck it rich and could easily afford to give such extravagant gifts, I might take a somewhat less principled stance, but even so, the point is, the stuff I want costs too damn much and it would be completely unreasonable for me to expect anyone I know to get said stuff for me.
Hell, even if all the people I know who are likely to give me a gift pooled their resources it would still be way too much money for them to invest individually.
Here’s a f’r instance:
What you’re looking at is a Wacom Cintiq 24 HD Touch.  This is a device that runs north of $3,000.
What do I want for Christmas?  I want that.
I only know one person in the world who can afford to buy that for me and with whom I’m sufficiently close that I’d be willing to accept such an extravagant gift:  myself.
And even I’m not willing to buy that for me, so I certainly couldn’t ask anyone else to do so.
Of course, there are smaller, more affordable things that I want – or need – but the problem there is that if I want something, and it’s affordable, I’ll just buy it myself.  That is, after all, why I’ve allowed myself to become a corporate drone and establishment stooge:  so that I make enough money to buy myself the things that I want (within reason) and need.  I mean, obviously I don’t work because sitting in a cubicle all day is my passion in life.  It’s a thing that I do so that I can keep a roof over my head, food in my belly, and keep myself well-stocked with comics and electronic gadgets.
You may object that Christmas and gift-giving/gift-receiving are about more than just getting the stuff you want, and I would agree with you.  It’s a big part of why I appreciate the gifts I do get, even though they’re generally things that I could easily buy for myself.  I understand that the gift itself isn’t the point.
But by that same token, it’s part of why I don’t like being asked the question, because if you like me well enough that you feel compelled to get me something, you should also know me well enough to be able to identify an appropriate (and affordable) gift.
So maybe what I really want for Christmas is for the people I care about – and who care about me – to know me well enough to not have to ask that question.
That sounds kind of harsh, and I don’t mean it to, but it is what it is.
The other reason I find the question irksome is that if I give an answer and that ends up being the gift the element of surprise is gone, and while I’m not nearly so invested in Christmas as I was when I was a kid, there is still that part of me that enjoys the thrill of anticipation and the joy of uncertainty.  Tearing open the wrapping paper is a lot more exciting when you have no idea – or at least are not completely certain – what’s inside.
However, I recognize that I’m not exactly the easiest person to know – or to understand – and when you factor in my tendency to just buy the things I want for myself, figuring out what to get for me is tricky without me providing some input.
So it’s a matter of trying to think of something that I want that I don’t yet know that I want, which, yeah, not easy.
But it’s not really any easier for me, frankly.  I have a difficult time thinking of things that I want that I don’t already have that are also reasonably affordable.
Then there are the non-material things that no one can provide, or at least, that no one can buy, the things that I want even more than that too-damned-expensive-for-anyone-to-buy Cintiq, which can’t be given, and which I don’t seem to be able to acquire for myself.  But we won’t delve into any of that…
Ultimately, while it’s not the most useful answer to the question, or an entirely honest one, “nothing” has been my go-to reply not because I don’t want anything, but because when I try to come up with an answer that hits all of the appropriate points, nothing is what I can come up with.
With all that said, no matter who you are, how close we are, or whether or not you can actually afford it, if you really want to buy me a Cintiq 24 HD Touch, in the spirit of the season, I will willingly set aside my principled objections to anyone spending that much money on me and grudgingly accept it…

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Band On The Run (Sorry)

A bit ago I decided that if I wanted to make any progress on my fitness goals I needed to do a better job of tracking my activities and calorie consumption, stepping a little further into “quantified self” territory.
After getting the firmware update that would allow the app to work on my phone, I picked up a Fitbit flex.
I knew going into my purchase that better, shinier gadgets would likely be released in the near-future, but I figured it was worth getting started anyway, and I went with Fitbit specifically because it does support my phone, which is a rare thing.
Overall, I was pleased with it.  It worked as advertised, and I have to say that there is a definite advantage to “gamifying” fitness and providing incentives.  It doesn’t matter that said incentives – badges, in this case – are ultimately meaningless; even when they know there’s no real value in a prize, human nature drives people to pursue said prize.  (See also reddit users and “karma.”)
Having a set daily goal – 10,000 steps – to achieve, with the potential to receive badges for hitting other goals served its purpose, and after hitting the daily goal for the first time, I thereafter always achieved that goal, and usually went well beyond 10,000 steps.
Like I said, even though they didn’t have any value, the badges served as an incentive.  When I found myself just a little over 1,000 steps away from achieving the 25,000 step badge at 11 PM, I spent the next 20 minutes walking around my house like a crazy person to get my step count up, ultimately leading me to get well over 25,000 steps for the day.
I also found myself watching my diet even more carefully after I began logging my food and setting a daily goal for calories in vs. calories out.  So overall, I was satisfied with the Fitbit.
My only real complaint was the lack of features on the band itself.  Sure, it would vibrate when I hit my goal, and the vibrating “gentle” alarm feature makes for a slightly less jarring way to wake up in the morning than a standard alarm (or even music).  But the display consists only of five little lights, each one representing a portion of your daily goal, allowing you to have a general idea of where you stand, and in order to get more specifics you needed to sync it and check your stats in the app (or online).
At a minimum, I would have liked for it to be able to display the time, as I disliked having to wear both the Fitbit and my watch (and I like to have a watch rather than having to check my phone to see the time).  Beyond that, I wanted something with some smartwatch capabilities that would allow me to view my calendar or receive notifications (again, without having to check my phone).
Further, while you can manually enter the information in via the app, the Fitbit isn’t great at detecting activities other than walking/running, and even there it kind of fails when it comes to using an elliptical machine.
I was a little annoyed – even though I expected it – when Fitbit announced an upcoming product that would address some of those issues, adding in things like heart rate monitoring, GPS tracking, and some smartwatch capabilities, to be released early next year.
However, I was even more annoyed when, while not quite out of the blue, Microsoft unexpectedly announced its own wearable device, the Microsoft Band.
I won’t dive into all of the specs, but suffice to say that the Band has a lot going for it.
Despite having just sunk money into the Fitbit – and despite the fact that it’s a 1.0 product from Microsoft – after looking over the details on the day of its release I ordered one.
After all, it checked off all of the items on my wish list:

GPS Tracking
Heart Rate Monitoring
More In-Depth Activity Tracking
Built-In Display of Progress Towards Goals
A Clock
Access To Calendar, E-Mail, and Other Notifications
Compatible With My Phone

While there are plenty of reviewers who are damning it with faint praise (it is a Microsoft product, after all, and there are plenty of people in the tech world who are not inclined to give MS much credit even when it’s due), and focusing on it being “ugly” and bulky, I quite like the look of it.  As for being bulky, well, your mileage may vary, but it’s lighter than my watch was, and not having to wear both a watch and an activity tracker has lightened the load on my wrist.
There are those who are also complaining that it’s not quite so feature-rich as other smartwatches, but it fits the bill for me, particularly given its integration with Cortana.
Again, your mileage may vary, but I’m not inclined to engage in terribly complex activities via a small device on my wrist, so the “limited” functionality hits the right balance in terms of convenience.
In terms of the overall strategy, Microsoft isn’t terribly concerned about selling a lot of Bands – though they did sell out of the existing stock very quickly, apparently – but rather on licensing out the technology and partnering with other manufacturers of activity trackers.  Indeed, they made the Band compatible with iOS and Android as well.  More to the point, they’re looking to corner the market on health data, and getting everyone to standardize on their cloud-based health data platform.  The Band itself is, in many ways, kind of irrelevant, and serves mostly as a proof-of-concept and showcase for their sensor technology.
To get back to the matter at, er, hand, however, I’ll focus on my own experience using the Band.
So far I have no complaints about the Band itself and have been quite pleased with it.  Some accounts complain about inaccuracies – particularly around heart rate monitoring – but I’m not a professional reviewer and so I haven’t done any of the comparison work that other reviewers have.  For my part, I’ve found the step count to be pretty accurate, and the data it provides seems to align with what I know about my heart rate and the ranges in which it tends to beat.
That said, I actually bought the Band at a lousy time.
I had been suffering from some serious lower back pain that had drastically impacted my mobility and motivation – not just my motivation to exercise, but even to just go on living – and a trip to the doctor led to me being put on a course of steroids.  Said steroids dramatically weakened my already useless immune system, so almost as soon as I went in to work and exposed myself to the hundreds of walking disease bags there I came down with a nasty cold that left me laid up for the past two days.
So there hasn’t been a whole lot of activity to track, but hopefully that will change soon.

Despite recovering from being stick, I still exceed my goal...because I'm just that awesome.

I have very few complaints about the Band itself.  I find it comfortable enough that I’ve pretty much stopped noticing that it’s there, and even though having it turned so that the display is on the inside of my wrist, I’m getting used to it – it’s definitely a more natural position for interacting with it – and rarely find that it interferes with things like typing.
That said, it would benefit from following the contours of the wrist at least a little and having a slight curve rather than being flat.
And while I don’t feel a need to engage in terribly complex interactions with it – I don’t necessarily want to be wearing a phone on my wrist, after all, at least not with the current options available – I do wish that acknowledging/dismissing a notification on the Band would serve to also acknowledge/dismiss it on the phone.  I’d even like to be able to delete an e-mail or text on the Band.  Of course, I’d also like to be able to do that directly from the Action Center on my phone itself, so…
The majority of my complaints are with the accompanying Health app that accompanies the Band.
First off, the Windows Phone app looks pretty much the same as the iOS and Android versions.  Sometimes standardization is good, but this isn’t one of those times, as the interface is not built according to the design language of Windows Phone/Windows 8.1 apps.  This is especially troubling, given that the Band’s interface is very much a “modern” (formerly known as “metro”) UI.  There has been a marked trend on Microsoft’s part of late to ignore its own design language, most notably with its recently-updated OneDrive app, and I find it troubling, as the modern design – particularly on Windows Phone – is a key differentiator, and it’s one of the elements of the platform that I find especially compelling.
Further, the tile for the app only has the small and medium options for size – and it isn’t live.
It also isn’t universal – there is no version of the app available for PCs/tablets.
I assume that one will be forthcoming, as there is a driver that gets installed if you connect the Band (via its USB charger) to a PC.
Which leads to the other complaint I have about the app:  it’s very basic.  While it does present you with options for viewing detailed reports and for personalizing the Band – changing the accent color, adding/removing tiles, etc. – there are no options for tracking how many calories you consume.  Ideally, as Microsoft continues to partner with Fitbit, they’ll add that feature, and have hooks into Fitbit’s comprehensive food database.  Fitbit aside, though, Microsoft already has a Health and Fitness app that allows you to track your calories, so at a minimum Health should integrate with Health and Fitness.
I’m also not particularly thrilled with the alarms.  Like the Fitbit Flex, you can use the Band’s silent alarm – if you’re wearing it while you sleep to track your sleeping patterns – to wake you up in the morning, and that works fine.  As I mentioned, I prefer being woken by the slight buzzing on my wrist.  However, the alarm has to be set on the Band itself, and you have to turn it on manually at night, every night.  With Fitbit, you set alarms and their recurrence pattern in the companion app.  Health should add that same capability.
Speaking of sleep monitoring, one other issue I have with the Band is that it doesn’t pay any attention to your phone’s “Quiet Hours” setting.  In Windows Phone 8.1, you can designate Quiet Hours during which your phone won’t buzz/ring (you can also set up exceptions).  The Band doesn’t care about that.  If its set to vibrate upon receiving an e-mail, it will do so, no matter what time it is.
This isn’t really an issue if you’re actually using the sleep monitoring, as telling the Band that you’re sleeping disables notifications for the duration, but it is an example of integration with Windows Phone that needs to be more fully-baked.
So the ultimate question is, would I recommend the Band?  If you have a wish list for a smart wearable/fitness tracker that I have, absolutely.  If you’re looking for something more basic, without any of the smartwatch capabilities, I’d say go with the Fitbit.  If you need more advanced smartwatch capabilities, well, I can’t help you there, but you have a wealth of choices.
Ultimately, though, I’d recommend taking a wait-and-see attitude, as the odds are you’ll have even more options in the near-future if Microsoft can succeed in getting other activity tracker and smartwatch manufacturers on board with its emerging platform and sensor technologies.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The REAL Challenge Lies In Reading This

A few days ago a friend on Facebook tagged me with the “12 Book Challenge,” asking me to list the twelve books that have had the most impact on my life.
It was something of a daunting task, as it’s difficult to pinpoint any specific book that had an impact on me; books and reading in general are what have had the most impact on me, so how do I narrow the focus?
So I had to give it some thought, and this is what I came up with, ultimately:

  1. Watchmen - Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (which could actually count as 12 on its own, since it consists of 12 individual comics)
  2. Lord of Light - Roger Zelazny
  3. Sandman #19 "A Midsummer Night's Dream" - Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess
  4. Maus - Art Spiegelman
  5. Jack of Shadows - Roger Zelazny (Mostly because it was the first book that ever really pissed me off)
  6. Candide – Voltaire
  7. Childhood's End - Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Miracle Monday - Elliot S! Maggin
  9. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension! - Earl Mac Rauch
  10. Understanding Comics - Scott McCloud
  11. Supergods - Grant Morrison
  12. The Illuminatus! Trilogy - Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson (technically three books, but I read them as one volume)

As you can see, there are lot of comics and comics-related items in there, which should hardly surprise anyone who knows me.  And it may seem like something of a shallow list, as there’s little in the way of weighty tomes on philosophy, religion, or politics in there.  “No Das Kapital,” or “The Wealth of Nations,” or “The Republic.”
*Shrug*  It’s not as though I haven’t read books of that ilk, but I have difficulty seeing any direct impact they’ve had on me or my way of thinking.   Which isn’t to say they haven’t, but I think much of the impact is more indirect, influencing me more through my actual experience in life in the world around me that has been impacted by the ideas contained therein. 
Basically, I don’t feel any sort of deep, personal connection with them the way I do with the books that made the list, and I see no ties between the books themselves and the person that I am in the way that I do with the books that did make the cut.
Of course, the follow-up question to the list is, “How have they impacted you?”  Let’s find out, shall we?

As someone who loves comics, it would be almost inconceivable for this to not be on the list.  I could spend countless hours writing at length about the impact that it’s had on me.  And then I could spend a whole lifetime writing about the impact that it’s had on comics and the comic book industry.
If your only exposure to Watchmen is the movie, this might be a bit of a head-scratcher for you.  At a high level, the story doesn’t seem that remarkable.  A costumed hero is murdered.  Another costumed hero investigates the murder, slowly uncovering a vast conspiracy and drawing other costumed heroes out of retirement, resulting in the final confrontation with the mastermind behind it all.
If you were to superficially examine the aspects that are most often touted as to why this is such a revolutionary work in the comic book medium, and the super-hero genre specifically, from your 2014 perspective, you probably wouldn’t be that impressed.  But in 1986, I can assure you, the manner in which the story was told was something of a revelation, bringing a level of gritty realism to the colorful costumed characters contained in the story, delving into the psychological issues that might drive someone to put on a silly costume and go out and beat up criminals at night, and what sort of off-duty behaviors they might engage in, that had rarely been seen.  For as much as the “Marvel Age” of comics added a certain depth to the previously shallow characterization found in comics – further expanded on in the “Bronze Age” of comics – little else had even come close to diving that far into the depths.
But there’s more to the story than just the story.  If you asked me, “What is it about?” I could provide the high-level summary above, but, as Moore himself put it, what it’s really about is its own structure.
It’s a multi-faceted, multi-layered work that tells a story, serves as a deconstruction of a genre and its tropes, and a powerful demonstration of the unique capabilities of the medium in which the story is told.  It does things that only comic books can do, and at the same time, without being distracting, draws attention to the fact that it’s doing things that only comic books can do.
That is a major reason why, despite being remarkably faithful to the source material, the movie was a failure.  It was an attempt at translating something that could not be translated.  (There was a way in which this could have been done; telling the same story but doing so in a way that is designed as a showcase to demonstrate the things that only film can do.  Though there were signs of attempts at doing just that, Snyder, alas, was not up to the task.  It would be interesting to see a version of the film made by someone else, someone who understands the language of film in a manner analogous to the way Moore understands the language of comics.)
And then there’s just the level of detail, the extent to which every individual element is the result of a very deliberate choice, from the typos in the supplemental materials that accompany each chapter, to the placement of graffiti in background scenes.
If you’re interested in learning more about that, there are plenty of resources available to you, or, you know, you could just read the thing yourself.
All of the above did, of course, have an impact on me, and my understanding of the art of storytelling and the sheer power of story and structure.  But what about the story itself, the more basic elements of plot and character?  Were there elements of the story itself that shaped my way of thinking, not so much as a consumer and sometimes producer of art, but as a person?
Oh.  Oh, yes.
There are far too many things I could point to, and I’ve gone on for too long already, so I will point to one particular passage.  I don’t know that you need to understand the full context of the quote – the nature of the man speaking, or the situation he found himself in – to understand why I found and continue to find the words so compelling:

Looked at the sky through smoke heavy with human fat and God was not there.  The cold, suffocating dark goes on forever and we are alone.
Live our lives, lacking anything better to do.  Devise reason later.
Born from oblivion; bear children, hell-bound as ourselves; go into oblivion.
There is nothing else.
Existence is random.  Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long.
No meaning save what we choose to impose.
This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces.  It is not God who kills the children.  Not Fate that butchers them or Destiny that feeds them to the dogs.
It’s us.
Only us.

…okay, that’s bleak and horrifying, I know, and seemingly nihilistic.  But only if you choose to view it in those terms.  When I read this, at the age of fifteen, I took a different view.
We have a choice.  We don’t live our lives according to the whims or plans of mercurial and capricious gods, we don’t have to follow a preordained path.  We can choose.  We can create our own design, find our own reasons to live.
There are people I know who would say that they can’t imagine what their lives would be like without their faith.  I can’t imagine what my life would be like with faith.
Yes, it’s scary, and often dark, and bleak, but it’s also liberating.  If it’s only us, then we can choose to live differently.  If there is nothing else, we have to choose to live differently.  We have to create our own pattern.
Unfortunately, all-too often, we continue to choose to kill the children, and butcher them, and feed them to the dogs.
But we don’t have to, and there’s no one who can tell us that we do.
So…yeah.  That’s the impact this had on me.

Lord of Light
If there’s anything that’s been published by Roger Zelazny, I’ve most likely read it.  There may be a handful of short stories here and there that I haven’t read, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying.
If there’s any one person who’s had the most impact on my own authorial voice (on those occasions in which I actually write), it’s Zelazny.
As a bit of trivia, the fake movie that was central to the whole plot to rescue American citizens trapped in Iran during the hostage crisis, as chronicled in the movie Argo, was an adaptation of Lord of Light.
In any case, by sheer volume alone, Zelazny has had a profound impact on my life, and given that this is my favorite of his many works, that’s enough to earn it a place on this list.
Naturally, though, there’s more to it than that.
I read this for the first time at around roughly the same time that I first read Watchmen, and there were some complementary ideas contained that have stuck with me through the years.
Part of it is about the power of ideas, and of story, and part of it is about rejecting the paths supposedly laid out for us by gods and making our own choices.
But one of the main things I took away from it – and it wasn’t so much that this served as the inspiration but more as a kind of encouragement – is a sense of irreverence, and an appreciation of the power of laughter.
It may not have been an intentional message, but a big takeaway from this book was the idea of not taking anything too seriously, even if it’s something that means a lot to you, and being willing – and sometimes required – to laugh about anything.  I don’t really have a lot of sacred cows in my life, but to the extent that I do, it’s likely that there will come a point when I will just throw up my hands and laugh about whatever situation is causing me distress in recognition of the ridiculousness of the very notion of sacredness.
Sometimes it’s a bitter, mirthless laugh, and sometimes it takes a long, long time and a lot of misery to get to that point, but it’s a laugh nonetheless.
Honestly, can you imagine anything more liberating than laughing right in God’s face?  Can you ever truly be damned if you can laugh at damnation?
…yeah, probably, but still, it’s worth a shot.
In any case, this book has, for my money, the greatest opening lines ever written:

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god.  He preferred to drop the Maha- and the –atman, however, and called himself Sam.  He never claimed to be a god.  But then, he never claimed not to be a god.  Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit.  Silence, though, could.

Sandman #19, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
More on the recurring theme of the power of story.  There’s a single exchange that makes this award-winning story, one of the many brilliant stories that occurred in the course of 75 issues of the series – that makes this one stand out:

Auberon:  We thank you, Shaper.  But this diversion, although pleasant, is not true.  Things never happened thus.
Dream:  Oh, but it IS true.  Things need not have happened to be true.  Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.

As with most things, this is a truth that can lead to either good or ill (or often a mix of both).  It’s an idea related to what Stephen Colbert dubbed “truthiness,” and a lack of appreciation for this truth drives a lot of the tension within, as an example, the White Evangelical culture in America,* with its obsession with the “inerrant” nature of the Bible, and the theological house of cards that such an insistence on events having “occurred thus” – it’s any of it isn’t true, that means that none of it is true – that results from it.
Alternatively, there are those who embrace this truth without ever realizing it, clinging to their own “facts” that align with the “truth” they have constructed for themselves (or had constructed for them), ignorant of the ways that the narrative lens through which the view the world obscures their view of life rather than bringing it into focus, or, indeed, of the fact that they are viewing life through a lens at all.
Metaphors, parables, allegories, and fictions of all stripes can contain their own kernels of truth, which means that we don’t have to rely on “mere facts” to know what is true, but by that same token, “mere facts” matter, and shadow-truths alone are insufficient.
Also, this story is one of the many in which we can see, in retrospect, the many ways in which Dream sows the seeds of his own ultimate destruction.

It’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book featuring cartoon animals relating the experiences of the author’s father before, during, and after the Holocaust.
It’s also the story of the effect those experiences had on the relationship between father and son, and how the author, despite living in another country entirely, grew up in the shadow of Auschwitz.
It is, frankly, a phenomenal work, regardless of the medium.
The particular impact on me was the raw intimacy of the warts-and-all storytelling, how deeply personal and human the story is, despite, or more properly, because of the anthropomorphized animals serving as stand-ins for the real people involved.
As a storyteller, and as a person, I struggle with my own inclination to keep things to myself, to never reveal too much, to ignore or gloss over the ugly parts.  Seeing Spiegelman completely shatter any barriers between his innermost self and his readers was something of a revelation for me, and I was struck by the fact that he found a conceit – the “funny animals” – that could serve as the instrument to shatter those barriers.

Jack of Shadows
More Zelazny, which is unsurprising, I suppose.  Not much to say on this one, it’s just that it was the first time a book ever made me mad.  I read the last line, hurled the book across the room in frustration, and swore to never read anything by Zelazny again.
(That lasted about six months.)

I am, you will not be shocked to learn, not an optimist.
While I am, in many senses of the word, something of a romantic, and I have been known to be hopeful, I have no expectation of everything working out for the best.  I’m also cynical and bitter, at times, but I think that’s better than just assuming that everything will work out for the best.
Not if everything is left to its own devices, at any rate, or if we’re willing to just let the status quo stand, and give ourselves over to a kind of passive optimism.
This is not the best of all possible worlds, and just saying that it is will not make it so.
Working at it and tending the garden that is the world, however, just might make things a little better.  It’s certainly going to do a lot more than just thinking that everything will work out for the best.
So…yeah.  It wasn’t a new idea to me – it’s an idea that complements my takeaway from Watchmen – but, you know, it doesn’t hurt to have a renowned philosopher express some of the ideas kicking around in your head.
There is an extent to which giving yourself over to unbridled optimism is fundamentally dishonest.  To quote another philosopher (of sorts), “Yeah, maybe sometimes I do feel like shit.  I ain’t happy about it, but I’d rather feel like shit than be full of shit.”
We also have to recognize that, gods or no gods, we don’t have full control over the lives we live, and our circumstances can change – for better or worse – in an instant.  What we can control is how we react to those changes and what we do about them, and merely being positive or optimistic, is not, in and of itself, a sufficient response.

Childhood’s End
Not a lot to say, just some more ideas on the power of story, and of archetypes in particular.

Miracle Monday
This one is an oddity, and I tossed around other options before settling on this.
In 1978, to coincide with the Superman movie, a novel called “Superman:  Last Son of Krypton” was published.  Despite featuring Christopher Reeve on the cover – and some grainy, black and white stills from the movie inside – it had nothing to do with the movie.  In fact, it was specifically set within the continuity of the comics of the time.
Along came Superman II, and with it came a sequel to the novel, which, again, had no real connection to the movie beyond some character names and movie photos.
I chose this book because if there’s any one fictional character who has had the most impact on me, it’s Superman.
When most of the rest of the comic book industry proved to have learned exactly the wrong lessons from Watchmen, Alan Moore launched a mini-series called 1963, a loving – but irreverent – homage to the “Marvel Age,” and in talking about it in interviews he mentioned that, probably more than anything else, the greatest influence on his sense of morality as a child was Superman.  He presented a simple – but workable and expandable – moral code: 

  1. Don’t kill anyone
  2. Try to help people

(That first point is part of one of the many reasons I have…complicated feelings about last year’s Man of Steel)
Despite his fame, longevity, and ubiquity, not everyone holds Superman in the same esteem that I do.
He’s boring.  He’s a boy scout.  He’s too powerful.  Blah blah blah blah fucking blah.
Superman means a lot to me and this particular book is one of the many reasons that he does.
In particular, the impactful moment comes when, after suffering a defeat, Superman withdraws from Metropolis and heads to his Fortress, where he just sits and, as the author puts it, listens to the “symphony of life,” all the little sounds of the world that are open to his super-senses joined together into a single, unified song.  It gives him the boost he needs, and leads to his inevitable victory.
It’s a beautiful moment, and it so perfectly encapsulates everything I love about Superman.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension!
The novelization of a cult classic movie written by the movie’s screenwriter.
I was obsessed with this movie the year it came out, and reading the novelization was part of that obsession.
Drawing from the same pulp fiction tradition that gave birth to comics, it’s a brilliantly over-the-top take on the crazy ideas that have populated the pages of funny books throughout the decades.
As much as I love the movie, I love the novelization more, as it’s free to explore the insane mythos of the titular Scientist/Adventurer/Neurosurgeon/Rock Star without the constraints of effects budgets or run-times.
What was the impact it had on me?  It was just pure, unadulterated fun.  Sure, it helped solidify my love for ridiculously outré fare, but that already existed anyway.
Seriously.  It’s just fun.

Understanding Comics
I don’t know what to say, other than that it’s always interesting – to me – to have someone else articulate ideas that you’ve had but haven’t been able to express, and to explicitly explain things that you have tacitly, almost intuitively, known to be true.
I suppose it also ties back to the power of story, and specifically the power of comics as a medium for conveying powerful ideas through story.

Hey, guess what?  More power of story and ideas!
From the opening paragraph:

Four miles across a placid stretch of water from where I live in Scotland is RNAD Coulport, home of the UK’s Trident-missile-armed nuclear submarine force.  Here, I’ve been told, enough firepower is stored in underground bunkers to annihilate the human population of our planet fifty times over.  One day, when Earth is ambushed in Hyperspace by fifty Evil Duplicate Earths, this megadestructive capability may, ironically save us all – but until then, it seems extravagant, somehow emblematic of the accelerated, digital hypersimulation we’ve all come to inhabit.

And yes, “accelerated, digital hypersimulation” is itself emblematic of Morrison’s writing…
In any case, the memoir of a comics icon is an entertaining read, and in the paragraphs that follow this opening he expresses something that gets to the heart of why I love Superman (and, again, the power of stories and ideas), as he discusses some of his specific fears as a child of the Cold War and the looming specter of the Bomb, and a discovery he made while reading comics:

The superheroes laughed at the Atom Bomb.  Superman could walk on the surface of the sun and barely register a tan.  The Hulk’s adventures were only just beginning in those fragile hours after a Gamma Bomb test went wrong in the face of his alter ego, Bruce Banner.  In the shadow of cosmic destroyers like Anti-Matter Man or Galactus, the all-powerful Bomb seemed provincial in scale.  I’d found my way into a separate universe tucked inside our own, a place where dramas spanning decades and galaxies were played out across the second dimension of newsprint pages.  Here men, women, and noble monsters dressed in flags and struck from shadows to make the world a better place.  My own world felt better already.  I was beginning to understand something that gave me power over my fears.
Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an idea.
Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.

There is also the exploration of his own creative processes – in which he manages to make ideas that I would normally find nonsensical palatable to me – which are rather illuminating.  Admittedly, I’m not going to travel the world doing all manner of exotic drugs, but there are some general concepts that I can apply to my own creative endeavors.

The Illuminatus! Trilogy
This is something I read later in life, and it’s something that didn’t exactly introduce ideas so much as crystalize ideas that I already had.
I don’t believe in Conspiracy Theories.  Are there conspiracies?  Sure, they happen all the time.  But are there major, capital C Conspiracies lurking in the shadows, underlying the façade that we think is the real world?  Yeah, probably not.
And nothing helps to make that as clear as a work that posits that all Conspiracies – even the ones that contradict each other – are true.  (Morrison, mentioned above, trod similar literary ground in his work The Invisibles.)
Why don’t I believe in Conspiracy Theories?  Really, it boils down to my understanding of human nature, best summed up in a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin:

Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.

Beyond that, Conspiracy Theories provide an inadequate explanation for why the world is the way it is.  Frankly, there’s no need for a Conspiracy developed in some smoke-filled room by alien reptiles and Jewish bankers.  Simple collusion, cronyism, and overlapping self-interest manage to explain things quite nicely.
Ultimately, to tie everything here up quite nicely, Conspiracy Theories are an example of the power of story and ideas, and of seeking to impose a pattern where none exists, and the need we seem to have to abdicate our own responsibility for the state of the world we live in, to embrace shadow-truths, and draw comfort from the fact that someone else, anyone else, even if that someone is some wicked monster lurking in the shadows, is in charge.
Because if no one is running the place, then it’s up to us to do so, and that’s just something we’re not prepared to do.
I’ll close this out with the words of Alan Moore.

*For much, much more on this particular subject, see Slacktivist.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Ten %@!#ing Years!

Click to embiggen.

...and it wouldn't be a Threshold Birthday Extravaganza without also wishing a very happy birthday to the always lovely and always talented Carla Gugino!

The Unofficial Patron Saint of Threshold standing at the threshold.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Fourteen (NSFW) #ThrowupThursday

There's a tradition in the social media sphere known as "Throwback Thursday," in which some artifact of the past is posted with all of the requisite hashtaggery.
Given that this particular #tbt falls on a very particular day, I thought I'd share the - NSFW - picture that can be seen after the jump.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

I Know That Fear, Bro

In my previous post, I mentioned that Dwight McCarthy – who has been portrayed in film by both Clive Owen and now Josh Brolin – is my favorite character from Frank Miller’s Sin City.
I’m sure most people would rank Marv as their favorite, and I can’t say that I blame them; Marv is cool.
Dwight, like Marv, is a violent maniac, but there is a bit more to him than that, or at least, Dwight himself hopes that there’s more to him than that, and he tries – and pretty much always fails – to be something more than that.
Marv, on the other hand, knows exactly what he is, and doesn’t try to pretend to be anything else.  He’s made a certain amount of peace with himself, and that’s part of what makes him cool, in a Popeye “I am what I am” sort of way.  Plus he’s just a badass.
Of course, Dwight is also a badass, which is par for the course in Basin City, but he’s a different kind of badass than Marv.  He’d have to be; after all, he’s not a seven-foot tall mass of unstoppable muscle.
To put it in terms of a different genre, Marv is a barbarian marauder, while Dwight is something more akin to a White Knight or paladin.
At least, that’s how Dwight views himself.  To the extent that Dwight is just as crazy as Marv, he’s crazy in a very different way.  In one of Dwight’s stories he’s captured by a couple of thugs who confiscate his twin Magnums, and one the thugs says something along the lines of, “This guy thinks he’s Lamont Cranston.”    (For those who don’t know, “Lamont Cranston” was the secret identity of pulp and radio hero The Shadow.)
The thing is, he was right.  Dwight does think he’s Lamont Cranston.
Not quite literally, of course, but that’s a pretty apt description of how Dwight thinks of himself.
Much has been said – much of it negative – about the slavish devotion to the source material that was on display in the first Sin City movie.  However, there were a couple of minor tweaks that were made that helped put the character of Dwight into even more stark relief than the bold black and white artwork of the comics.
In the adaptation of “The Hard Goodbye,” which is a Marv story, we first meet Dwight when Marv walks into Kadie’s Club Pecos.  Marv’s actions are accompanied by his voiceover right from the start, but as soon as he enters Kadie’s, the camera shifts over to Dwight and Dwight actually steals Marv’s voiceover.
Granted, in voiceover mode, Dwight is talking about Marv, but the manner in which he steals focus tells you just as much about Dwight as it tells you about Marv, if not more.
That particular monologue about Marv is lifted from another story – in which it’s just part of Dwight’s overall narration.
The other change also involves a voiceover.  All of the Sin City stories rely heavily on the protagonist’s voiceover narration – which was  function of Miller using captions in the comics rather than thought balloons, which was part of the overall application of the crime noir approach to storytelling – but there’s a scene in Dwight’s story “The Big Fat Kill” – a scene directed by Quentin Tarantino – in which we find that rather than using a voiceover that clues us in on Dwight’s innermost thoughts, Dwight is actually narrating his actions, to no one, out loud.
Coupled with the fact that he’s having an imaginary conversation with a dead man, that little detail speaks volumes about his mental state.
So what is it about Dwight that makes him stand out for me?  I find that I can relate to him in a way that I can’t with most of the other Sin City characters.  Like Dwight, I’ll never be a seven-foot tall mass of unstoppable muscle, and like Dwight, I have a particular view of myself that, at times, is at odds with reality.  Even if I don’t necessarily think of myself as being Lamont Cranston, or a White Knight, there are times when I’d at least like to do so.
And certainly I’m at least as self-centered – I would be just as inclined to steal someone’s voiceover.  I’m not as violent or homicidal, of course, and I don’t go to anywhere near the extremes that Dwight does, but there are times when I would question my mental stability, and I am more than a little inclined towards obsessive behavior.
But there’s a bit more to it than that.  In “That Yellow Bastard,” Dwight appears in the background in at Kadie’s, sitting at a table, whining about a woman (Ava from “A Dame to Kill For”), and trying to drown himself in a bottle.
The Dwight we see in “Dame,” which takes place after the events in “Bastard,” despite the publication order, Dwight is a very different person from the one we see whining about the sorry state of affairs his life is in, a state of affairs which is largely the result of his own actions.
In any case, this Dwight lives something of a monkish existence, having given up the sauce, quit smoking, and mostly spending quiet evenings at home when he isn’t working.
Admittedly, Dwight, who does work as some sort of PI, has a job that is a bit more exciting than mine, but when I first read the comics, my life was very much like Dwight’s – it still is, with the exception being that I started smoking again – and it was like that for very similar reasons.
This self-imposed monastic existence as all about control, about never again becoming what he had once been, and at the heart of it was a fear of any loss of control, because the slightest amount of wavering, the tiniest loss of control, any microfracture in the façade of self-control would let the monster out.
There’s a scene in which Dwight is driving home, refusing to give in to the demands his Mustang seems to be placing on him to let it cut loose and show him what it can do.

I think about all the ways I’ve screwed up and what I’d give for one clear chance to wipe the slate clean.  To dig my way out of the numb grey hell I’ve made of my life. 
Just to cut loose.  Just to feel the fire.  One more time. 
I’d give anything.
He hits the accelerator, then immediately slams on the brakes, and jumps out of the car.
No.  Damn it.  No.  Never.  Never. 
Never lose control.  Not for one second.  Never. 
Never let the monster out.
I know that desire to give up control, and I know that fear.  I lived with it for a long time, and it was probably at its strongest at the time I first met Dwight.
That fear has largely left me now, but it will never go away completely, and even though the “monster” I’ve kept contained is quite different – I’m not resisting violent, homicidal tendencies, after all – there is a need to keep it where it is.
So…yeah.  Dwight.  He’s a twisted, funhouse mirror kind of reflection, but I do see him as a reflection, and that’s why he stands out for me.
I should also point out, however, that while I like Dwight because I find him relatable, he is decidedly not a good person, and I wouldn’t want to emulate his behavior.  Beyond being a murderer and generally a homicidal maniac, he has a propensity for smacking women around.  Part of that, of course, is just Miller’s problematic misogyny, and there’s usually some narrative “justification” – sometimes it’s just a matter of being “justified” because Dwight said he’d do it and he meant it – but we don’t always get the exact details from Dwight as to what kind of "monster” he was keeping at bay.  However, I do think we get a glimpse from Ava.  While she’s a terrible person, and not in any way shape or form a reliable source of information, and she’s using her wiles to manipulate someone, when she’s laying it on thick and playing the damsel in distress, I don’t think she’s lying when she tells a cop that Dwight was abusive when they were together, particularly given that we see that Dwight has no qualms about hitting women.  That, of course, is metatextual analysis, and I don’t think Miller’s intent was for Dwight to have been abusive, but that’s where the signs point.  (I also suspect that Miller might argue that Dwight wasn’t abusive because Ava deserved it, which, ick.)
So, despite my fondness for the character, I do see problematic elements, but that’s hardly surprising given the author and the setting.
For my part, I don’t gloss over those elements, or ignore them, but, on balance, I still find reasons to like Dwight as a character, even though I don’t necessarily like him as a person.  After all, in the revival of Battlestar Galactica, my favorite character was Gaius Baltar, and he was pretty much the worst person ever.  He was, however, a fully-realized character with depth and understandable – if horribly twisted – motivations, hopes, dreams, and fears.  (Plus he had that whole “character you love to hate” thing going for him.)

Anyway, BSG, and the nerdiness of it, provides a good segue to this slightly less serious bit.
I mentioned that there were only three other people in the audience at the movie the other day.
To be more specific, they were three neckbeards.
As I said in a text exchange with the (former) Boss Lady, “Audience consisted of me and three neckbeards.  So in other words, four dorks.  Me and *sigh* my people.”
Because speaking of trying to maintain control to prevent yourself from being what you truly are, more than I struggle with my more Dwight-like tendencies, I also have to contend with keeping some of the worst aspects of being a geek from coming to the fore. 
Granted, a good 90% of that is just bathing regularly, but even so, I don’t always manage to achieve the level of control that Dwight did in containing his inner monster. 
During the movie version of the Dwight scene mentioned above, I found myself thinking, “Never let the neckbeard out.”
For fuck’s sake, one of them was even wearing a fedora.  *Shudders*