Brantley’s Blog:

Everybody seems to have a blog these days. Some are political rants, some are about the everyday lives of the bloggers, some are even fictional diaries of fictional characters. I’ve never been much for diaries. Long rants belong somewhere else on my site. And fictional characters belong in actual stories with a beginning and a middle and an end. That’s how I see it, anyway.  So I’ll let this blog be for my thoughts about one thing or another that don’t quite qualify as essays. Off  the cuff  stuff,  you might call it.

May 30, 2016

Superhero Reboots and Political Shenanigans

There's been a lot of commentary in the mainstream press about blockbuster comic book movies, especially two recent examples that focus on conflicts between superheroes: Captain America: Civil War and Batman v. Superman:

It's a tad ironic that Batman v. Superman is seen as a failure for having grossed “only” $871 million. But James B. Stewart at The New York Times has the right take on how Disney's Captain America succeeded because it was simply better conceived in the first place, and wasn't spoiled by too many cooks like Warner's entry. But Stewart's point that there was nobody to root for in Batman v. Superman seems lost on Marvel Comics, in its latest reboot of Captain America:

Captain America a Nazi ? It seems to come out of left field. But that may be exactly where it comes from, politically speaking. As Eliana Dockterman at Time observes, “Nick Spencer, the writer, is very politically active. He's a Capitol Hill head and following this election very closely.”

Which means he's in the thick of the fight against Donald Trump. Only, he had the Hydra scenario in mind back at the end of 2014, when Trump was hardly a blip on the horizon. There's a mind set among some liberal academics that “power fantasies” like superhero comics are fascist to begin with, and perhaps Spencer is playing to them – albeit he has an alternate Captain America (Sam Wilson as opposed to Steve Rogers) who goes after right-wingers who smuggle Mexicans across the border to kill them.

Back in 1972, Norman Spinrad came out with an alternate history novel, The Iron Dream , in which Adolf Hitler emigrates to America in 1918 and becomes a hack sf writer. His 1953 space opera Lord of the Swastika , which promotes his racist ideology, is supposedly embraced by science fiction fans of the time – who dress up in Nazi-like uniforms and sing a Nazi-like anthem. In the real world, most sf fans of the time were politically liberal (Ray Bradbury was the biggest name in the genre.), and there had even been a pro-Communist fan group called the Futurians before World War II – but no sf counterpart to the Bund.

KarkClent at Superwomenmania made the Hydra reboot of Captain America the subject of a thread there. Reactions to Spencer's story line were generally negative, and not only because the idea was offensive. Twice on Thursdays faulted its inherent implausibility:

I have read the comic in question, it seems a bit too gimmicky to me. Also, the quotes from the story are "it really is him" (and the story backs it up with when he was turned). And I claim it's too gimmicky as "why now?" There is NOTHING in the story that would make THIS the time he did something for Hydra. Unless we're told that the comics we read, those were the tales –after– the fact, and we didn't really see what happened. So it doesn't make a damn bit of sense to me with all the times he's foiled Hydra's plans when he could have just ... slacked off a bit and no one would have noticed. Unless the story can explain that, it's just shitty storytelling. Maybe they WILL address it, but I'd be surprised.

Shadar saw a more pervasive problem:

The problem with comic book characters is that [they] run out of stories. Generations of writers, all squeezed into the same box, will always try to break out with outrageous ideas just to enjoy a breath of fresh air. Which destroys iconic characters.

Imagine of Star Wars had to tell the same story over and over. Oh, yeah, well, hopefully that was just Force. At the very minimum, switch to telling the stories of their children and eventually grandchildren. While you can't fundamentally change the character of iconic characters (ala Captain America) without disappointing everyone, his daughter (for instance) could be very different, fresh and interesting. This is the problem with the classic comics houses... they don't do generations very well. If I ever get to define a topic for the writing workshop at SWM, its going to be: Tell a story about Superman's daughters. Lots of room for creativity there. How many daughters at what ages? Twins? How have their powers manifested as they grew up? Who is/are the mother(s)? Which vintage of Superman is the father? Are they fully Kryptonian or half something else? Human, Amazon, Almerican (Maxima), etc. What are their abilities? Their morality, their temperaments, their plans and goals? Good, bad, or morally ambiguous? Rebellious or cooperative? Carrying on the tradition or defying it? Etc. Etc.Etc. The idea of generational stories provides so much room for individual and interesting story telling that also comes with huge creative freedom (compared to working with variations of the original characters). DC touches on this from time to time in alternate stories, but this should be their mainstream. Just as it is in real life. Star Wars is working in this space, and if successful, it will keep their franchise alive for another generation. Who is Rey, who are her parents and what abilities has she inherited? And Kylo Ren, born the son of heroes of the Rebellion, but now taken by the Dark Side. But forever?

One of the advantages of the Aurora Universe is that it can get into the stories of children – as with the lives of Alisa, James and Nikki, which diverge drastically from that of their mother, Naomi Kim'Vallara. Moreover, the AU indeed offers a universe of superheroines – Companions and Protectors and other Velorians (including the men) who aren't all alike. Sometimes, as with Zar'ya in The High Cruel Years , they are even seduced by the Dark Side… the Aryans. Of course, we have the Aureans (formerly Arions; in my continuity, I changed their name to avoid confusion with a strictly local group in Reigel 5), but whereas they were nothing but villains to begin with, they can be seduced by the Bright Side. Yet another advantage of the AU is that it allows for gay and lesbian relationships and non-white superheroes and superheroines (Tanzrobians, and enhancees on or from Seeded worlds), thus avoiding a politically correct trend in comic book reboots: rebranding established characters at random to make them token gays or people of color – rather than going to the trouble of creating new characters.

But here's another take on the whole Captain America thing, involving another villain, the Red Skull, who has a magic cube that can alter reality:

Spencer and his ilk seem to have one thing in common with our politicians: their faith in magic wands that can solve any problem without the need for any thought or effort.


R.U.R, Jan. 10, 2016

All of a sudden, robots seem to have found this blog. There have been hundreds of hits in the past two weeks. At first, I thought these were from real people, but it turns out most have been from organizations like 188.143, based in Russia. There have been previous surges, but the blog didn't figure in those. And the surges in individual stories since then have all been for stories linked to a blog entry last March. I'm removing those links today in hopes getting real statistics.

Shoring Up Shore Leave , March 8, 2015

It was way back in 2003 that Shadar posted the original version of The Gwyndylyn – first book of the Shore Leave series – at Aurora Universe: Other Worlds. That was only the year after I had made his acquaintance, and begun writing Aurora Universe fiction. Primal War, the second book, on which I collaborated, followed the next year (That version isn't available at AUOW any more; it is reconstructed here.). Things were a lot less formal in those days; I hadn't gotten into the kind of world-building that has since become my trademark, and wasn't paying that much attention to consistency between one story and another.

At the time Shadar was writing Shore Leave , I was still working on the last episodes of Ordinary Velorians – the series he had begun in 2002 that had introduced Alisa Liddell. Earlier in 2003, Shadar had posted “Alisa's Story,” the account of her (ill-fated, as it turned out) affair with Captain Peter Durgin aboard the Anders Flame . Even before that, I'd given her a part in Throne of the Gods , and made her a lead character in Pictures of an Expedition , a prequel to Throne and sequel to Shore Leave – then still in the final stages of composition. But a lot has happened over the past decade, including another major Alisa Liddell story, Encounter at Westfold; and in looking over Shore Leave recently, I thought it was time for an overhaul of the first two episodes – and even time (Shudder!) to make a stab at completing the series – the third part of which has been in virtual limbo since 2004.

The lack of that third part of Shore Leave left a major gap in the life story of Alisa, and that may have been why my latest attempt to fill in the missing parts – Passion Play – hadn't played well with my readers. But in looking them over last year, I was bothered by a lot of confusing details and even inconsistencies in Shore Leave itself, and also between Shore Leave and McCloud's Daughters, Shadar's first story on Sanctuary, which he later tied in with Shore Leave . Some of the changes I made then were only a matter of convenience. There were characters named Tyla (Ann McCloud's daughter Aayla, playing at being a Goddess) and Tala, and Mara and Marla, which might be confusing to some readers, so I changed the latter in each case to Frida and Gudrid – old Nordic names, those. I also decided to Nordicise some titles – Prester for priest and Lawgiver for senator,   both actually adopted by the progeny of Vikings after they became acquainted with the rest of Europe. Kirke, likewise, was the Nordic word for church. Shadar had described Tala, head of the Gwyndylyn Salon as “Mother Superior,” but I thought that was confusing because it made the salon seem like strictly a religious order – and yet it is locked in a bitter power struggle with the Church. So besides changing her name to Frida, I made her title Heysta (Highest), and had Mara Kaltquest address her as such. In the same vein, “bishop” seemed an odd title for the head of the Lawgivers (senators), so I replaced that with First Speaker, a term used in sf by both Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven). I kept monyks for the younger acolytes of the Kirke, but latter added enrii for the elders.

In the case of Marla (now Gudrid), the revision clarifies her role in playing a double game as a disgraced former Gwyndylyn now working secretly for the Kirke. One other thing: to be consistent with my other AU3 stories, I toned down the effects of a Velorian removing her gold – that could cause some real problems in tight situations. Despite making these changes, I wanted to keep the complications of Rostran political intrigue – and how Alisa and Andre and then Durgin and his men become unwittingly involved in them. I wanted to keep the problematic details, such as the roles of the Kryp'Terran child-woman Lara and the Goddess Tyla/Aayla, and the connection between Sanctuary and Rostran. And I wanted to keep the raunch – can a Shadar classic be stripped of raunch and remain worth reading?

But for me the core of the story had to be the development of the relationship between Andre and Alisa, even if they didn't realize it yet, and narrative seemed to lose track of that – Andre had disappeared from the story after his chance encounter with the human underground (and was hardly mentioned in Primal War ). Alisa sometimes seemed slow on the uptake – from the start, I thought it was important for her to come up with a theory of her own to account for the origin of the Rostrans, based on what the Culture Section thought it knew about how long ago their world had been settled, plus her first-hand observations of their nature. When she learned the truth, and was told by Lara that Durgin was launching a rescue mission, moreover, she seemed slow on the emotional uptake – her reaction was just too casual. I wanted to convey how alarmed she must be about in face of what may happen – and how frustrated that she can see no way to do anything about it. For a hard-headed scientist, moreover, she seems all too gullible during her tźte-ą-tźte with Frida, coming out of it as practically a convert to the Rostran cause – like the “useful idiots” on Earth who bought into Soviet-style Communism in the 20th Century and are currently buying into religious fundamentalism (Christian or Islamic).

So in my reboot, she ends up playing a game – a game which she can only hope to win. That's not to say Alisa won't make mistakes, in this or other stories, but the very last thing I want her to be is a useful idiot. Yet I'm trying to remain faithful to the spirit, if not always the letter, of the original story. You won't catch me trashing a crucial Aurora Universe story the way J.J. Abrams has trashed Star Trek! It is the same with Primal War, and To Hold the Center (formerly Changing Goddesses), my take on what had been an aborted attempt by Shadar and others to complete the trilogy. Still, there are other changes I have to make. Alisa now makes it clear that she meant for Andre to be enhanced, even if she had never brought it up in conversation with him or (except by implication) with Gudrid. That makes for a story line I thought worth pursuing in new chapters, which also has to account for Gudrid's interest in his enhancement – and for why he and Alisa are kept apart. The fact that they long for each other, but neither realizes their longing is reciprocated, adds some spice to the relationship.

Durgin's awakening from enhancement by Lara has also been deferred in Primal War, as I think his recovery time would be longer than Alisa's. But there are other anomalies in the original versions of The Gwyndylyn and Primal War. In the former, Tyla is shown taking part in a ritual celebrating the history of Rostran, but in the latter she has already been recalled and dressed down by her mother. In that account, another sister, Myra had flown to Rostran to find out what Aayla was up to – but it had been specified in McCloud's Daughters that Myra was pure Aurean, and thus couldn't fly. Also in McCloud's Daughters, Aayla had told Ben Shaffer about her Rostran operation, something that hadn't been mentioned to him by Ann or any of the others. The only way out I could see was that they didn't know about it at the time. but that Ben had later let it slip to Myra, who brought it up with Ann, and that Ann had then sent Klara (who can fly) to investigate. I thought that made more sense because she could have seen and learned the basics. But Klara would still have to learn a lot of the details on her second visit (Aayla is supposed to Tell All to Ann, but would anybody trust her to be entirely forthcoming? In any case, there are new developments... including Frida's nuking the Kirke to rid herself of Gudrid, who was no longer of any use to the Salon.)

But what about that ritual with Tyla? I had to paper over the contradiction by having the Queen – never seen otherwise; the Crown Princess Andrea seems to be the formal head of state – enhanced by Tyla at some earlier date and perhaps turned into her avatar. That in turn forced me to further deconstruct the history/mythology of the Rostrans as seen from the inside and the outside, in the conversation between Andrea and Alisa – how much of it is “really” true, and how much of it simply believed? I'm being heretical here – it might drive purists nuts, and not only Shadar! Yet another bit of deconstruction involves Klara, who had actually killed some of her worshippers in McCloud's Daughters – I couldn't see how readers could identify with her after that, so in my reboot of that story, I've made it a close call for the worshippers and a wake-up call for her. I needed to reboot that story, in any case, to account for how Shaffer managed to get to Sanctuary, since the original version implied it was in a system visibly close to a Scalantran trade route. I also had to tweak that story and my own Bird in Paradise to reflect the fact that in AU-3, Earth is a closed world – and that there consequently had to be a different scenario for Ben to have encountered Xara, thwarted terrorists and earned kiral'ing.

Getting back to Klara, her game plan on Rostran involves demonstrating that she is not a goddess, but early drafts of Changing Goddesses (never posted) had her doing exactly the opposite, and sometimes even being bitchy about it. I had to get around that and make her a more sympathetic character, just as I had already done in revising McCloud's Daughters. Update: In a revision posted for May Day 2015, I fleshed out the story by having her work with Andrea and Alisa to trick Frida into believing she and the Crown Princess supports the rule of the Salon, then expose her at the Inaugural staged to announce the New Order. And in another update posted May 25, 2015, Passion Play has been reconceived in light of the changes to Shore Leave.

What Readers Want: June 6, 2014

People are currently visiting The Bright Empire at the average rate of about 5,000 hits a week, even if they aren't posting any comments at AURG. After several complaints to the Yahoo media address, the porn link spams -- which ended up totaling about a thousand -- have finally ceased. Overall site traffic is off from an average of more than 10,000 a week in 2011, but people are still reading, and it's possible to keep up with what they're reading. Below is part of a report from yesterday courtesy of my server.

The rankings of stories often vary wildly from day to day, let alone week to week, and there are such anomalies as sudden surges in traffic from countries like Romania that don't last for more than a week. But there seems to be a continuing pattern, although it isn't necessarily a consistent pattern. Before going into that, I should note that the total number of requests dates back to Jan. 31, 2010 -- why Hostway set that date, I have no idea. But the actual totals for stories and other links posted before 2010 are a lot greater.

The most obvious thing is the popularity of Evelyn York's "Fit for a Supergirl," a pure fun piece. I'd noted in an AURG post May 15 that it had passed the 8,000 hit mark, and you can see that as of yesterday, it had been accessed hundred of times in the past three weeks. It isn't necessarily the most popular story here; that seems to be Ultrasybarite's "Harvest" (misfiled in the Joe Haley folder when this site was set up in 2005). But "seems" is the operative word; it's possible that people accessing the origin story of the Diaboli are actually looking for something else with the same or a similar title; none of Ultrasybarite's other stories has been more than a relatively small blip. If we could only get more stories like "Fit for a Supergirl" from Evelyn or other women writers....

Going beyond the pure fun of Evelyn York (and before her, Jordan Taylor), there still seems to be a taste for stories of world creation and Aurora Universe history. While the rankings change from week to week, there are continuing strong showings for the "epic" stories by myself and Velvet -- Homecoming, Emigrants, Encounter at Westfold and Empress of the Dawn. Ditto Incident at Madstop. There are occasional spurts of interest in older stories, most recently Throne of the Gods and the last two chapters of Ordinary Velorians; and the final chapter of The Mission, "Judgment Day." Shadar's First Protector, currently in limbo and in need of a reboot, also shows up fairly often these days, as does his "Corrididor."


Still wondering: Where Is Everybody? Mar 4, 2014

Ten months have gone by, and the drought at AURG is even worse. The only posts lately besides my own have been spam messages promoting porn videos -- more than 70 thus far -- and a few comments about those. It got so bad that I had to impose a moderated format, so that I could reject the spam instead of deleting it after the fact.

Yet, as before, people are reading the fiction. There has been a spike in hits for Empress of the Dawn since I posted a retweaked ending to Book Two a few days ago; the totals have raeched 9,000 and 5,000, respectively, for Book One and Book Two. Evelyn York's "Fit for a Supergirl" has racked up 6,700 hits since it was posted at the beginning of last year. The count for First Protector has reached 3,200, and that's without any updates -- Shadar has yet to post a new version of Part One, on which the continuation of Part Two has to be based. I'm also still waiting for more by Evelyn. It's getting lonely here.

If any of you reading this aren't members of AURG or Superwomenmania, or if you just want to comment or offer advice off the boards, feel free to e-mail me.

Where Is Everybody? May 1, 2013

If you've logged in to the Aurora Universe Readers Group lately, you'll have noticed there hasn't been much activity there. Only 14 posts last month, and hardly any relating to the actual fiction:

Yet there are still hundreds of AURG members, and apparently they take notice of announcements there of updates to The Bright Empire, because traffic still runs at five or six thousand hits a week, with hits for new stories usually far exceeding those for the What's New page here. There have been close to a thousand hits for First Protector since it debuted March 8, and close to 700 for The Popcorn War since the completed version was uploaded March 30. People are reading the stories, but they aren't discussing them at AURG.

It may be mostly because those who were once most involved have drifted away. Shadar is rarely heard from, having retired from writing, at least for what we call Aurora Universe 3. Tarot, who began working on an alternative version a couple of years ago, seems to have hit a writing block. Ed Howdershelt, who bade farewell to both the AURG and the Aurora Universe Writers Group a few years ago, is still writing new stories in his Third World Products series – but no further episodes of In Service to a Goddess. AK has written a few new stories, but hasn't put up a new versioin of his Julie of Velor site. Lisa Binkley hasn't written anything new in ages, although on rare occasions she has expressed an interest in completing the Nova'yul saga. Moxie hasn't written anything new in ages, either.

But there seems to be a general decline in interest at superheroine sites. JonX hasn't done any real updates to his sites in quite a while, and the founder of the Steele sites seems to have disappeared. This is quite a different matter from the issue of "peril" sites I've complained about before.

Alternating Alternate History, Mar. 10, 2012

Ever hear of Fjándmethra? No? Then you haven't been to the Aurora Universe Readers Group lately.

Looking for Alternate Histories at the Aurora Universe Writers Group? You won't find anything there but the message, “Temporarily Offline.” But that doesn't mean Tarot Barnes, the man behind Alternate Histories, is offline. He's very much online with a new serial called Niflheim .

Niflheim? That's a moon of Eigheim, home of the Fjándmethra, whence come the Guardians, who fight on Earth and elsewhere against the Andskoti. You're beginning to get the picture. Those Norse words are from an alternate history that's really alternate. A lot of the background behind those words has also changed, as have personal names and the details of the lives of those who bear them. But two names remain the same: Linith and Faré. And the story begins as Faré receives a surprise visit from a Courier:

“Hoi zlut, husiunder Kattureen bag ochips!”

This babble, shouted from six inches away by a nearly naked stranger with dirty feet, launched me into what would be called in later years the Incident on Niflheim.

For others the Incident may have started as much as a year before, and the seeds were doubtless sown even earlier. But right then, staring at the man's broad chest, I was struck by the bizarre thought of how unfair it was that some people could have the physiques of gods and others… didn't.

I never got to the obvious: ‘who is this person', ‘why is he here' or even ‘what the hell did he just say?' I'd been too busy thinking of how my best friend was about to sacrifice a chicken in my name.

Niflheim (the correct spelling, notwithstanding the spelling in the link below) has been appearing in segments at Infinity Bridge, the site Tarot inherited from Lisa Binkley, who inherited it from Titan of Terrra, who got rights to it from the estate of S.T. Mac. Here's the link:

But right now, you're missing half the fun if you don't follow the posting of installment links at AURG:

This is very much a work in progress, and a work in refinement, as fans point out typos, seek clarification on matters of the plotting and background, the proper pronunciation of some of the proper names, and more. It can get pretty involved, but the story itself is a lot of fun, and touches on some of the fun basics of adult superheroine fiction, as when Ayjer – kind of a loose cannon – insists on teaching Faré how to shoot straight:

“ I missed the O rings.” I griped, hoping that my tone would give her a hint and make her let go.

No such luck. “But you hit the ‘Andskoti.'” Ayjer teased her finger around the loop of my ear, her Virginian drawl flattening the name almost to Andskoatee.

“So?” I drew my head away; I hated being tickled. “I was aiming for the rings.”

“Yes, but look where you hit.” Abandoning her game, Ayjer let go and drifted down range, leaving just the faintest breeze of honeysuckle. Reaching the target, she swivelled in mid air and indicated the holes with a long unpainted nail. “See; all within the lines.” She called back.

“Except the ones that missed completely.” I looked down at the heavy lump of metal in my hand; it had held six rounds, but there were only four holes dotting the white sheet.

When I looked up again, Ayjer was tearing the target from its bulldog clip, her slim body reaching up and putting her clearly unrestrained chest in profile.

I turned my head away quickly. “Close enough.” She held the target to her body, the head folded down so that the outline followed her slender curves. They were a pretty good match actually and her shadow silhouetted the outline almost perfectly. Running her finger around the edge of one of the bullet holes I'd made she remarked. “You might not have killed her, but look at the hole you made here; she's hardly gonna chase after you while she's coughing up blood from a punctured lung.”

I frowned, “Osterkligr are pretty tough?” There were two types of Andskoti; Osterkligr were the somewhat more survivable version. Vífmaethr on the other hand, tended to be immune to bullets.

“The only people that tough are in Schwarzenegger movies,” Ayjer scoffed, rolling the sheet up. “Anyone hit here in real life, isn't going to be doing much.” She started to stroke circles on her breast in the approximate location where my bullet had punctured the target. I swallowed, suddenly aware that while Ayjer's top covered her chest… a red silk diamond tied over her front didn't actually conceal anything.

“Something wrong, Squirt?” Ayjer asked, guileless demonstration replaced with a sudden, playful grin, “I'm just showing you where you would have hit on a real Andskoti, I mean you know your anatomy, right? The lungs are here and… here.” Her hand brushed from one side of her chest to the other.

Take a look. And take part.

--Brantley Thompson Elkins

Oh, Zuzana! June 1, 2011

For the last fifteen years, different people have had different ideas about what Velorian women should look like. Some like them to be just like Hollywood glamour queens, Playboy centerfolds or swimsuit models. A few want them really muscular. But Shadar, who started the whole fantasy and ought to know who can represent it, has just come up with a new candidate for the Ideal Velorian: Zuzana Light, a young lady from the Czech Republic who does workout videos:

While her abs come from hard work, two of her other assets appear to be enhancements. At least they were smaller when she made porn videos under another name. But I don't think Aurora Universe fans are going to complain. And she sure beats the soft-bodied types we've often resorted to for illustrations.

Doomsday Deferred, May 22, 2011

So the world didn't end yesterday. Big surprise.

Harold Camping, the crank who forecast global earthquakes and the Rapture of a select few of the living and the dead, can't be camping happily. You have to be sorry for the people who quit their jobs, or sold all that they had, in order to put up billboards warning of the End.

But as cranks go, Camping was a minor crank. For every person who believed in his prophecy, there must be hundreds who believed and still believe that the world, or at least our age, will come to an end Dec. 21, 2012, on account of a New Age take on the Mayan calendar. No doubt many of those who ridiculed Camping even before his supposed Biblical prophecy came a cropper are true believers in the supposed Mayan prophecy.

What's really troubling about these prophecies of the End is that they distract attention from real threats of, if not THE End, crises that could bring death and destruction on a global scale. Like the Mexican standoff between Israel and the Palestinians. When President Obama called for a peace settlement based oin the 1967 borders with some land swaps, it was denounced by both sides. Intransigent Israelis want to keep those settlements on the West Bank, or even annex the West Bank outright. Yet Fatah, previously the moderate voice of the Palestinians, has made common cause with Hamas, which wants Israel wiped off the face of the Earth. If the Arab masses in other countries that have been rebelling against their own autocratic regimes also make common cause with the Palestinians, all that Israel has left is... the Bomb.

Pakistan and India both have the Bomb. Having sponsored a terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008, and having played a double game with the United States – supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan and hiding Osama Bin Laden – the secretive agencies that seem to really run things in our supposed ally Pakistan are quite capable of setting off a regional holocaust. Even a small atomic war could have deadly consequences around the world, and worse if it draws in other nuclear powers... From global warming to nuclear winter? It could happen.

Of course, we all know about the right-wingers who think global warming is a hoax, and that even if the climate is getting warmer, it can't possibly have anything to do with human activity like the burning of fossil fuels. But I'm noticed a similar mass denial on the left – there isn't really any global debt crisis, and if there is one it can't possibly have anything to do with generous entitlement programs or the fact the the beneficiaries of those programs are living longer even if they aren't retiring younger. If the whole system collapses, we could all end up in the poorhouse.

Harold Camping is 89. He won't live to see any of the real disasters that might befall the world. But the rest of us?

Strange Bedfellows, Mar. 7, 2011

The fighting continues in Libya as I write this, but there's an ongoing story that goes beyond the fate of Moammar Qaddafi and the country he has ruled for more than 40 years. It has been alluded to only in reports that Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez had offered to "mediate" between Qaddafi and the rebels.

Chavez has been one of the most ardent supporters of the Qaddafi regime, and also a supporter of the Iranian regime. Now most alliances are based on ideological loyalties, but here is a three-way alliance between a socialist regime, a secular Islamic regime and a fundamentlist Islamic regime. They have nothing in common except that they hate the West, and especially the United States. The alliance also includes the old-line Communist Cuba and the new-line socialist Bolivia, but there aren't many Muslims in Latin America – if there were, and jihadists took over, say, Peru, you can be sure that Chavez would embrace them. Beyond that, some prominent figures on the Left have embraced Islamic fundamentalism – a case in point is Carlos the Jackal. Remember radical chic? Now it's Islamic chic; the same sort of people who denounce the religious Right here don't seem to have any problem with a radical religion that mandates stoning of women for alleged adultery, even if they were actually raped. Teachers in madrassas are said to routinely rape boys; but that doesn't get the kind of coverage given Catholic priests who do so. And then there was that college professor who famously declared that the people killed on 9/11 were "little Eichmanns."

Hatred rather than loyalty or love is the foundation of the new alliance of strange bedfellows. Much of the time, Americans who complain about anti-Americanism abroad are the very kind of people who help fuel it by their blind support for Third World dictators and quixotic attempts to impose "democracy" in Muslim countries at the point of a gun. They have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind. But the strange bedfellows don't care about that; they oppress their own people in the name of what might as well be called divine right, whether in Marxist or religious rhetoric. Yet the fact that ordinary Muslims have risen up against the "radical" regime in Libya as well as reactionary regimes in Egypt and elsewhere suggests that they may see more clearly than than either their own rulers or our political and military leaders.

Re: What's Opera, Doc? Feb. 19, 2011

Would you believe that opera actually opened to bravos and even a few rave reviews? Maybe it has something to do with the soprano, Eva Maria Westbroek, seen here in a Shostakovich opera:

What's Opera, Doc? Feb. 12, 2011

Would you believe that the Royal Opera in London is staging an opera about Anna Nicole Smith? You can read about it here:

An accompanying photo reveals that they've managed to find a soprano with the proper assets to play the title role. That may be an indication, if it weren't already obvious, that this is a deliberate venture in tabloid exploitation. Evita it's not. And if somebody wanted to make an opera about the tragic life and death of a sex symbol, why not Marilyn Monroe?

In the same issue of The New York Times, there's a complaint from Max Frankel, a reporter who covered President Nixon's 1972 trip to China that John Adams' opera Nixon in China (1987), now being revived at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, plays fast and loose with history:

I've never seen Nixon in China, although I've seen the opening scene on YouTube; it's ather silly. I've heard some of the music; "The Chairman Dances" is fun. Adams also composed Dr. Atomic, about the Manhattan Project, which also seems tendentious from what I've read about it. I keep wondering why opera has to be so topical these days. Nobody ever composed an opera around, say, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln or WoodrowWilson at Versailles. Verdi never made Garibaldi an operatic hero, but Stewart Wallace made one of Harvey Milk, the gay councilman murdered in San Francisco.

Milk may be a legitimate subject, but Anna Nicole Smith? Granted, her life and death are so familiar that I don't need to acquaint you with them here. Although I hadn't heard about it at the time, the Times piece on Anna Nicole mentions that a few years ago there was Jerry Springer: the Opera. What next? Eliot Spitzer: the Opera? Or Mark Sanford – imagine a tenor performing "Hiking the Apalachian Trail!"

Stay tuned!

Lessons Never Learned, Feb. 1, 2011

Velvet and I have been watching a Teaching Company course on European history. Just the other night, the lecture focused on waves of rebellion against autocratic regimes in 1830 and 1848. Just like the wave that may be sweeping the Arab and Muslim world right now. First Tunisia, then Egypt and Jordan and Yemen...

By the time some of you read this, Hosni Mubarak may be history. For good or ill, the entire Middle East as we have known it may be history. Will we learn anything from it? Back in the 1950's, the United States backed dictators all over the world in the name of containing Communism. One of them was the Shah of Iran. More recently, we have supported dictatorial and/or corrupt regimes in Egypt, Pakistan and other Muslim countries to contain radical Islamism. It seems to be having exactly the opposite result. A piece by David Brooks in The New York Times today decries the fallacy that dictatoral regimes are more stable than democracies --and should be supported on that ground.

Whatever. The dominoes may be falling. We might end up seeing Pakistan as a nuclear jihad state, and a new Egypt renouncing its treaty with Israel. That would almost certainly doom the Jewish state, and it might not stop there. Christians have nearly all been driven out of Iraq, a country we "liberated." We might see the same happen in Egypt, where there are about 8.5 million Copts, and in Lebanon. Maybe Europe will react by expelling its Muslim immigrants, already widely regarded as covert jihadists. Like the French Revolution, the Arab-Muslim revolution today may lead to an even greaer explosion of terror and war than we have yet seen. Could we have prevented that? Maybe not. But our policies certainly haven't helped.

Wild Cards Returns, Jan. 29, 2011

I happened to be at a Barnes & Noble today and noticed that there's a new, expanded edition of the first Wild Cards superhero sf anthology, originally published in 1987. Wild Cards, the brainchild of George R.R. Martin and his fellow New Mexican sf writers, had a good run for about eight years, but then seemed to run out of steam. But Martin has rebooted it over the last few years, with novels like Inside Straight (2008), and with the reissue of the original Wild Cards with additional stories he seems to be trying to re-energize the franchise. The series is basically a variation of the X-Men, but if Martin and company make a go of the revival, it might mean there'd be a market for other superhero/heroine sf.

Filapina Superheroine on Stage, Jan. 25, 2011

From ABC News:

MANILA, Philippines - When actress Eula Valdez tackles anew the role of wacky Zsazsa Zaturnnah - the gay beauty salon proprietor Ada who transforms into voluptuous super heroine - she has to sacrifice a lot.

Entertainment writer Dennis Adobas disclosed that Valdez had to say no to a more lucrative television work in favor of “Zsazsa Zaturnnah Ze Musikal...Vack with a Vengeance.”

Valdez herself confirmed the information but she said she could always make up for the lost time. She said missing the zany performance of the stage musical is something she could regret in her entire acting career.

“Theatre is really something addictive and it gives you the satisfaction. Of course, it doesn't pay well as compared to more popular media but I would want to be part of any theatre production especially if it suits my schedule,” exclaimed Valdez at the press launch in Bed Manila in Malate recently.

Valdez's commitment to Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) also made her accept the role, the main character in the entire musical play.

“I couldn't say no to CCP who gave me rare chances to appear on stage,” clarified Valdez.

Valdez said she would never get tired of portraying the red-haired heroine. “It's really a wonderful role. I find it challenging to do it all over again,” the actress said.

Since playing the character, Valdez has also been given a chance to show off her singing talent.

“Zsazsa Zaturnnah Ze Musikal...Vack with a Vengeance” will have its seventh run at CCP's Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino on February 18.

The Woman in the Hathaway Catsuit, Jan. 20, 2011

From People magazine comes word that Anne Hathaway will play Selina Kaye, aka Catwoman, in the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.

"I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Anne Hathaway, who will be a fantastic addition to our ensemble as we complete our story," director Christopher Nolan said in a press release, which also reports that Keira Knightley, Rachel Weisz, Blake Lively and Natalie Portman were also vying for the role.

There have been a lot of Catwomen before, from Julie Newmar in the campy Batman TV series nearly 50 years ago to Halle Berry in a solo venture that tanked a few years ago. But what counts now may be less who's playing the role than the fact that Nolan is both director and screenwriter for the upcoming movie, as he was for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, which reinvented the franchise and raised it to a new artistic level. If he can do justice by Batman, and such villains as the Joker, he should be able to do it for Catwoman.

Let's hope.

Thoughts about Jane Eyre, Jan. 11, 2011

Velvet and I saw a trailer for a new movie version of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre recently. That got me to thinking about the classic 1943 movie version, of which I had fond memories. So I got her the DVD for her birthday. We were both overwhelmed by its drama and passion, and it's hard to imagine how any of the later versions (which I've never seen) could have improved on it.

Orson Welles stars as Edward Rochester in what Velvet calls this "glorious black and white" version, and according to Wikipedia he "rumored" to be responsible for the look of the Yorkshire Moors (actually created on a 20th Century Fox sound stage) with the mists and the ominous shadows. Robert Stevenson, the director, isn't a name to conjure with – he forsook Britain for Hollywood after making Tom Brown's Schooldays, and in later years worked on mostly minor Disney comediies, although he did make Mary Poppins. And there is the odd credit for Aldous Huxley as co-writer of the screenplay; as far as I can determine, Huxley never wrote anything else for the screen, although there were numerous adaptations of his novels. Stevenson and John Houseman, who had previously helped Welles adapt the novel for the Mercury Theatre of the Air, share credit.

Joan Fontaine plays Jane Eyre, a poor orphan abused by her adoptive family and further abused when she is sent to a boarding school as hellish as any in the works of Charles Dickens. You can get an idea of just what she faces from this YouTube clip, in which the young Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) loses her only childhood friend (Elizabeth Taylor) to the cruelty of the school's master, Henry Brocklehurst:

Dr. Rivers, who comes to her moral support, is a more equivocal character in the novel – all surface and no substance. But his role in the screenplay is true to Bronte's belief in the true meaning of Christianity, as opposed to the religion of "bigotry and cruelty" practiced by Brocklehurst and his ilk. Jane grows up to be a passionate heroine, but with a strong sense of right and wrong, and the screenplay has a strong sense of the real and the false – we can see this even in a brief scene at a tavern where a couple of leering young louts try to come on to Jane and, later, when a blonde named Blanche Ingram wants to marry Rochester, and instantly reveals how shallow she is compared to Jane.

Many if not most of you know the basic plot of the story: how Jane, having gained an education at the boarding school, takes a job as governess for Adele, ward of the mysterious Rochester – a man who has turned his back on life for reasons we eventually learn. He is a passionate man who has kept his tender emotions bottled up, who longs for a "re-transformation from India-rubber back to flesh." It is Jane who works that re-transformation, against all odds, and even what seems certain failure when she learns... but for those who don't already know, I refer you to the novel and to the movie that is faithful to the spirit, if not always the letter, of that novel.

Ann Douglas Erotica, Jan. 8, 2011

Chances are most of you are familiar with Ann Douglas' The Erotic Adventures of Supergirl (1996). It was one of the first things besides the Aurora Universe that I stumbled onto after discovering the genre. I don't remember just where I found it, but I somehow got the impression that it was a one-shot. It was all over the place at different sites, and somebody at one of them wrote a (probably unauthorized) sequel called Climbing the Learning Curve. But when I Googled the title as a nostalgic exercise the other day, up popped her Archive:

It turns out that she's the author of a wide range of original erotica as well as fan fiction (some of it slash fiction) based on TV shows and movies (not just Star Trek or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but unlikelier targets like Ally McBeal, WKRP in Cincinnati, Friends, Boston Public and even The Flintstones, not to mention Robin Hood. Plus comics (mostly Batman and company but also Supergirl, and Douglas has a different take on what happens after Erotic Adventures). Plus there's an autobiographical piece, and a 2006 interview with a magazine called Journal of Desire. She began her career in 1994 with Alternate Sex Stories – then a Usenet group (Remember Usenet?) – and was really prolific over the first decade. Although she's slowed down over the past few years, she posted a couple of new stories in 2010, and there may be more to come.

Dumb-de-Dumb-Dumb, Jan. 5, 2011

I hadn't even heard of the ABC superhero series No Ordinary Family until the other day. Now I wish I hadn't.

Here we have the Powell family, who somehow acquired their superpowers in a plane crash in Brazil. Father Jim is super-strong and practically invulnerable, wife Stephanie has super-speed, daughter Daphne can read minds and son J.J. can speed read and soak up information like a sponge.

Here's a quick recap of last night's episode: Jim saves a stranger named Dave from being run over by a bus. Dave is so grateful that he and his wife Michelle invite the Powells over for a barbecue. Seems the Powells are really hurting for "normal" friends, because the only people who are supposed to know their secret are the cops they work with. Somebody is stealing art masterpieces from a local museum, and the cops alert Jim. The thief manages to escape him twice. One clue leads him to suspect that Dave is the thief but he dawdles and dawdles before trying to do anything about it. Even when he finds the evidence and realizes that Michelle is actually the thief, he defers to Stephanie, who confronts Michelle, and seems to buy her sob story about being a victim of circumstance and promising to fess up to Dave – but follows her to her meeting with her fence and almost gets killed. Daphne's running for class president, and can read what the students want and add it to her campaign speech to assure her victory. And J.J. learns how to punch out another boy at high school in order to impress another girl. The script is based on coincidence and stupidity. I'll bet a lot of people reading this could do better.

The Powells have to be the clumsiest superheroes ever. I guess it's supposed to be clever that Jim looks like Mr. Clean instead of Clark Kent. But who cares? It's not because the premise of the series is absurd; it's because it gives us nothing to care about. In Heroes a few years back, the fate of the world was at stake, and the heroes were real people – people who grew on us, people we could and did care about. Remember "Save the cheerleader, save the world"? We didn't know what that meant at the outset, but we were dying to find out. And the first season lived up to its promise. The only downside was that you can only save the world from apocalypse once, and Heroes went into decline as it attempted to repeat that feat in subsequent seasons. But while there are hints of serious trouble to come in No Ordinary Family, the Powells and their ilk simply can't carry a serious story.

Fetish Goodies, Jan. 2, 2011

Hey, if you're looking for video footage of the Japanese superheroine movie Astrogirl (described in 'Peril' Revisited) that has been deleted from YouTube, check out:

As the host puts it, "it's got a lot of good stuff (don't worry I didn't include any peril scenes) like superstrength, invulnerability (some nice bullet bouncing), and lots of fights. This girl seriously kicks a lot of ass. This is a long one. 11 minutes!"

And that's just one of the goodies in his archive of sexy superherone pix and videoclips – the latter are downloadable with a Firefox add-on.

Cooking the Books, Jan. 1, 2011

And nearly a year without an update this time. Maybe I should make a New Year's resolution. But could I keep it?

One resolution I wish both business and government would make is to ban creative accounting. Back in the day, that term was used almost exclusively in Hollywood to describe the process of hiding the profits of even blockbuster films, so that actors and others who'd been promised a share of the profits wouldn't get a dime.

But the economic meltdown has revealed far more alarming examples. Wall Street banks at least helped bring on the collapse of the real estate market by marketing derivatives that were given false ratings by agencies like Moody's and Standard & Poor's -- there were a few voices that warned these investments were shaky at best, but most of the financial industry ignored them. The titans of Wall Street cooked the books in other ways to assure themselves bigger bonuses, even when they were running their companies into the ground.

We supposedly have a financial reform law now to prevent that sort of thing. But nothing I've read about it mentions any limits on creative accounting, or eliminating conflict of interest on the part of the ratings agencies, which are paid by the very companies issuing the dubious securities they rate. Maybe Congress is afraid to do that because the federal government itself has been cooking the books for decades, vastly understating the true costs of entitlement programs, from Social Security to Medicare and the new health care law. It's the same with state and local governments; at least one city has already run out of money to pay pensions, and the state of California is at the end of its rope.

Maybe you've read the stories about Greece and Ireland and other European countries that have been cooking the books for many years, and are now on the verge of economic collapse. People are rioting against draconian austerity programs, because they've become too used to their entitlements and can't believe that the cupboard is bare.

It could happen here...

Mandates, Feb. 15, 2010

Skietra! More than a year since I posted anything here. I'd been working on a fiction update for Valentine's Day, but that didn't work out. Now it's Presidents' Day, and I couldn't have thought of a story to go with that in any case. But I can think of a blog entry that's appropriate, and nothing to do with Washington or Lincoln.

I'm talking about presidential mandates here. Every recent president seems to have thought he had one. In the case of Barack Obama, it had to do with health care -- but health care reform, if it ever had a mandate, has lost it. George Bush was convinced he had a mandate to privatize Social Security, but that turned out be be a non-starter. But I'm not going to address the merits of either proposal here; rather the fallacy of "mandates." First some figures:

Barack Obama got 52.9% of the popular vote in 2008, a margin of 7.3%.

George Bush II got 50.7% in 2004 and 47.9% in 2000; margins were 2.4% and -0.5%.

Bill Clinton got 49.2% in 1996 and 43% in 1992; margins were 8.5% and 5.6%.

Those margins, of course, were against the major party opponents. Counting third party votes, there were three cases of winners getting a minority of the total vote. Even Ronald Reagan, in his second run back in 1988, got 58.8%, which means that more than 40% of the voters were against him.

Now if each of these candidates had run on a single issue, and won a majority of the votes, he might have claimed a mandate to push for that issue. But in fact, all of ran on a whole bunch of issues, and besides the issues they ran on there were the issues they didn't run on -- the hidden agendas, as with Bush on Social Security. Voters may support a candidate on some issues but not others; elections can be a crap shoot -- or even a matter of hold-your-nose-and-vote. Yet every incoming president seems to believe that a small margin is a landslide, and that the people have mandated him to do whatever he wants to do.

Talk about arrogance!

I-dentity Politics, Sept. 15, 2008

Here's an election prediction I hope doesn't come true: if Barack Obama loses, it will be blamed on racism and racism alone. If he wins, black activists may denounce him as an Oreo – at least if he doesn't adopt their agenda chapter-and-verse.

Welcome to the world of Identity politics with the “I” writ large. We saw it in the Democratic primary campaign, where the text or the subtext of many an editorial or op ed piece was whether racism or sexism would prevail. Nobody, it seemed, could possibly vote for Hillary Clinton unless she hated blacks; nobody could possibly vote for Obama unless he hated women.

Now, in a clever move by John McCain, we're seeing it from the Republican side: a woman for vice president. Without even mentioning her lack of experience in national politics, one would think her conservative values would be anathema to Democrats. Yet McCain is obviously hoping that some of the PUMA (“Party Unity, My Ass”) die-hard Clintonites will swing her way, and therefore his. That could be happening -- just the fact that Palin's a woman seems to carry a lot of weight with swing voters.

As one might expect, the campaign has already gotten nasty. McCain recently ran an ad accusing Obama of supporting graphic sex education for kindergartners, when all he had in mind was warning them – in age appropriate terms – against pedophiles. But Obama himself has gotten down and dirty; he claims his snide remark about pigs and lipstick was directed against Republicans in general, but he can't have been unaware that Sarah Palin's quip about pit bulls and lipstick was still fresh in the public mind. So the pigs remark made it look as if he was putting Palin down just because she's a woman, and has allowed her to put on the mantle of victimhood that Clinton wore earlier this year.

It will be the same in the campaign this fall, no matter how careful the candidates themselves are. John McCain may avoid any racial references (aside from "community organizer," which seems to be this year's code term), but there will be plenty of 527 groups and bloggers determined to get out the message that Obama is secretly a Muslim – and people who want to believe will believe it. McCain, whether guilty or not, will be denounced by liberals as a maniacal racist – and people who want to believe will believe it (Novelist Gore Vidal declared earlier this year that McCain's imprisonment in Vietnam was a hoax – maybe they'll believe that, too.).

Nobody who wants to believe in them will notice that Obama and McCain alike have said stupid things and adopted stupid positions. One talks of change, the other of being a maverick, but both have pretty much embraced the tired old agendas of their parties, including the stupid budget tricks used to hide the true cost of their programs.

We can be pretty sure that we'll get more of the same-old same-old no matter who wins. But nobody cares, least of all the candidates; it's all about appealing to blocs of voters, from soccer moms and Nascar dads to working stiffs, evangelicals, young black people, old white people, gays – you name it. Especially if they have very noisy claques and make big political contributions. Or have sugar daddies who make them on behalf of the blocs they represent or claim to represent.

Ides Redux, June 15, 2008

Three years ago today, I thought June 15 must be the Ides of June, just as March 15 (the day Caesar was assassinated) was the Ides of March. But I recently did some online research, and discovered that the ancient Romans considered the 15th to be the ides of some months, but the 13th of others – June among them. Why this is, I have no idea.

But I wasn't the only one with this misconception. More than 50 years ago, Frederik Pohl wrote a story called “The Ides of June,” about a community that always thinks it's June 15 because the people are really just tiny robots programmed with the memories of real people killed in an industrial accident. Their only purpose is to serve as guinea pigs for obnoxious advertising campaigns like:

Have you got a freezer? It stinks!

If it isn't a Feckle freezer, it stinks!

You may have read the story, only it ended up being published as “The Tunnel under the World.” A lot of things have changed since then, but obnoxious advertising is still with us. Only the worst of it doesn't have to do with freezers (Anyway, freezers are good things to have. Maybe a Feckle isn't any better than an Ajax or a Triplecold (rival brands disparaged in Pohl's story), but it's an essential appliance.).

What aren't really essential are things like gas-guzzling SUVs, but the new recession has proved that no amount of advertising is going to sell goods people no longer want and can't afford. And at least the commercials for SUVs were honest – they never pretended the vehicles were economical, just that they were roomier and safer than ordinary cars. That last was seemed a sensible consideration, even if all it meant was that the drivers and passengers of SUVs would come off better if their SUV smashed into a smaller car.

In the time of Pohl's story, tobacco companies still ran ads claiming that doctors preferred their cigarettes, and OTC drug companies hired actors dressed up as doctors to pitch patent medicines. No more of that sort of thing today – but Dr. Robert Jarvik lent his name to commercials for Lipitor not long ago. Commercials for prescription drugs are much like those for sugary cereals on kiddie shows: the drug companies hope patients will beg their doctors for brand name drugs just as kids begged their mommies for Puffed Noodnicks. These include remedies not only for conditions like depression, which may require counseling rather than or at least in addition to drugs, but invented ailments like "Restless Leg Syndrome." What next, a prescription drug to cure straying husbands of Restless Cock Syndrome? On the OTC side, there are those vaginal deodorants and douches for women who, apparently, never bathe. One I haven't heard of lately was Legatrin for nighttime leg cramps; guess people figured out that getting up and walking would work faster than any pill.

There were plenty of high-pressure commercials pushing subprime loans before the market collapsed. There are still high-pressure commercials for “proven systems” to turn debt into wealth or become a millionaire overnight. These often run on the radio – in my area, it's WCBS – and the worst of it is that radio newscasters are often required to shill for dubious products and services. Just a few years ago, WCBS newscasters seemed to be constantly shilling for a laser eye surgeon, even when WCBS-TV ran a skeptical report on him (Guess the right hand didn't know what the left was doing); and one of the CBS radio sportscasters is still shilling for an online home loan outfit. But even on WQXR, a tony classical music station, the host of one program shills for some beauty cream.

There are all sorts of mysteries in the advertising business. Why, for example, isn't oatmeal advertised on kiddie shows? And why do ad agencies think nobody over the age of 50 is in the market for anything but denture cleaners and adult diapers? Supposedly only people younger than that are receptive to new brands, but what about all the new electronic gadgets that didn't even exist when these people were in their 20s?

Just a few thoughts for the day.

But We're Safe from Nipple Rings, Apr. 3, 2008

This appeared about a year ago in USA Today:

Security screeners at two of the nation's busiest airports failed to find fake bombs hidden on undercover agents posing as passengers in more than 60% of tests last year, according to a classified report obtained by USA TODAY.

Screeners at Los Angeles International Airport missed about 75% of simulated explosives and bomb parts that Transportation Security Administration testers hid under their clothes or in carry-on bags at checkpoints, the TSA report shows.

At Chicago O'Hare International Airport, screeners missed about 60% of hidden bomb materials that were packed in everyday carry-ons — including toiletry kits, briefcases and CD players. San Francisco International Airport screeners, who work for a private company instead of the TSA, missed about 20% of the bombs, the report shows. The TSA ran about 70 tests at Los Angeles, 75 at Chicago and 145 at San Francisco.

The report looks only at those three airports, using them as case studies to understand how well the rest of the U.S. screening system is working to stop terrorists from carrying bombs through checkpoints.

The failure rates at Los Angeles and Chicago stunned security experts.

"That's a huge cause for concern," said Clark Kent Ervin, the Homeland Security Department's former inspector general. Screeners' inability to find bombs could encourage terrorists to try to bring them on airplanes, Ervin said, and points to the need for more screener training and more powerful checkpoint scanning machines.

As far as I know, the TSA hasn't done anything about this. But when a woman complained last week about beiing forced to remove her nipple ring, it initially responded by saying it was afraid she had a bra bomb -- and showed a picture of such a bomb (Bra bombs have indeed been used by Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka.). But the agency later backtracked and said it would change its procedures and allow female agents to check out nipple rings in private. Wow!

There's a story that another passenger was kept off a plane a few years ago for having a Harry Potter book. Guess we're safe from wizards, too.

The Ides of March, Mar. 15, 2008

For some reason, nobody now mentions the Ides in connection with any month but March -- except Frederik Pohl, who once titled a story of his "The Ides of June." Only it ended up being published as "The Tunnel under the World." Anyway, Shakespeare made the Ides of March famous in Julius Caesar, although, according to Merriam Webster, "In the Roman calendar, the term ides was used for the 15th day of the months of March, May, July, and October, and the 13th day of the other 8 months."

Should anybody be killed this year on the Ides of March? There are people I can imagine really killing: murderers and rapists and terrorist fanatics. Like most people, I'll never be in a position to actually do so. Again like most people, I someimes get the urge to kill petty offenders. Like...

• Jerks who hug the fast lane on the freeway, then wait till the last few seconds to cut across the other lanes to make an exit.

• Little old ladies who hold up the checkout line at supermarkets and drug stores by waiting until the last minute to start filling out a check (If they're paying that way), instead of filling in everything but the amount well before the clerk rings up the total; argue forever about 25-cent coupons; or take forever to put their change in their matreshka purses before letting the next person in line through.

• Stock boys in the same stores who wheel a rack of merchandise from the back room, park it in an aisle (where it blocks access to the shelves, meaning you have to push it out of the way to get at what you want) and just go off and leave it.

• Gas station attendants in New Jersey (No self service allowed here!) who won't come around to the driver's side to get your credit card or bring you your receipt.

• The people at phone and utility companies who do everything in their power to keep you from reaching anyone there on the phone if you've got a problem (Thank Skietra for!).

• Whoever makes the tax code worse and worse -- I have a trust fund left me by my father, and it takes months for the bank to prepare the tax forms for it because some idiot in Washington did a favor for some business crony by slipping in a provision that dividends be taxed at different rates, depending on what company they're from.

• Katie Couric for her inane CBS radio editorials, which succeeded Dan Rather's inane CBS radio editorials.

I could think of more. So, doubtless, could you.

I won't bother with Spitzer, who has indeed resigned. He's already dead meat.

Dude, Where's My Brain? Mar. 12, 2008

So now Eliot Spitzer joins the ranks of disgraced politicians and other notables. By the time you read this, he may have resigned as governor of New York after being caught with his pants down -- literally. At least we have to assume he took them off for a high-class hooker (As opposed to the low-class hooker Rev. Jimmy Lee Swaggart picked up some years back).

There he was on the front pages of the Tuesday papers, with such a stupid expression you'd have thought he was trying out for a Three Stooges revival with Jim McGreevey and Larry Craig. There was his wife, standing by her man as seems customary in these cases. Tammy Wynette would have sat down. When is one of these betrayed wives going to have the gumption to say, "Fuck you, I'm outta here?"

What does it all mean? The speculaton and editorializing have been endless. Yet in the pages and pages of analysis, I've been missing one thing: the parallel between Spitzer and Rudy Giuliani as control freaks. As attorney general and governor, he had been as arrogant and abusive as the former mayor. The liberal media had cut Spitzer more slack because he'd been tough on Wall Street, just as the conservative media had cut Giuliani more slack because he was Mr. 9/11. But they were both potential dictators.

It's a good thing Giuliani's presidential campaign fizzled. It's a good thing Spitzer will never have a shot at the White House.

Dear Leader, Feb. 27, 2008

My wife and I watched the New York Philharmonic Concert in Pyongyang last night. It was a real ear opener, and eye opener. We'd seen the orchestra live before, and will again, but in the meantime we've begun watching a music appreciation course on DVD, so we have a better understanding of just what goes into the music and the performance.

There was some controversy about the trip to North Korea, especially after conductor Lorin Maazel put his foot in his mouth by saying that Americans shouldn't disparage that country's human rights record because our own isn't perfect. There were headlines about the New York Phoolharmonic, and complaints that the orchestra itself was being played by dictator Kim Jong Il.

Kim himself didn't show up for the concert, which was broadcast nationwide at the insistence of the orchestra -- though just how many people actually saw the performance was open to question: TV sets may be as rare as cars. Perhaps the Dear Leader was at home, watching Daffy Duck cartoons or James Bond movies -- said to be favorites of his -- or screwing one of his mistresses. But then, he's rarely seen in public, although his portraits are in every public square and North Koreans have to wear his image on lapel pins.

The PBS feed of the concert was interspersed with ABC footage of North Korean life, including elaborate precison rallies in which men and women act like robots to produce images like those at the card section of an American college football game -- only many times larger and many times longer and many times more complex. Even Stalin's Russia and Mao's China never went to quite such extremes; at least, not that I can remember. It was at once awe-inspiring and deeply disturbing, as were the canned responses of students to questions about their own country and ours.

In George Orwell's 1984, all love was reserved for Big Brother. In North Korea, all love is reserved for Dear Leader Kim. That explains the reactions of the North Koreans in the concert hall. Without Kim to tell them what to think and feel, they couldn't seem to think or feel anything. They sat there stone-faced through their own national anthem as well as "The Star Spangled Banner," Wagner's overture from Lohengrin, Dvorak's New World Symphony. Only for Gershwin's An American in Paris did a couple of them crack a smile -- and for all I know, that may have gotten them in trouble.

I hope not. But there isn't much hope in North Korea.

On Strike, Off Strike, Does It Matter? Feb. 14, 2008

So the Hollywood writers are back at work. If we're lucky, we'll get seven more episodes of our favorite shows. Or maybe if we're unlucky, that's what we'll get.

Am I just jaded, or is it true they don't make shows like they used to -- Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family and The Rockford Files? I don't watch nearly as much TV as I used to; I kind of like N.C.I.S. and The Women's Murder Club. I love Heroes. But C.S.I. seems to have gone downhill, and last year's 24 sucked. Just looking at the Sci-Fi Channel listings depresses me -- and I'm a lifelong sf fan.

I watched Bionic Woman this year. I loved Michelle Ryan, I loved the relationships, but the writing was just dreadful. They had a villanness who just disappeared, a kid sister who was deaf and then wasn't, frequent fights that pitted Jamie Sommers against ordinary people that she somehow couldn't put away with a single blow. They had her pretending to be a student from Britain for no good reason, with a no-good accent, and showing off her powers in a crowded restaurant when her existence was supposed to be a secret. And her cover is supposed to be selling time shares? Gimme a break.

My friend Martha Nochimson is working on a piece about soap opera. Maybe it should be an obituary. That genre is practically dead, with only half the shows that flourished 20 years ago still running. Part of it has to do with changing lifestyles -- a lot fewer women are home duriing the day to watch soaps while doing ironing. Yet VCRs are available; ditto Soap Net. But bad writing is killing the genre. Favorite chararacters are killed off or trashed, sexual pairings come out of a random number generator and other story lines are stupid. I watched one show die from an obsession with vampires, which the producers apparently thought would attract a young demographic but in fact turned off just about everybody.

Don't touch that dial. There's less and less to see, daytime or night.

Sucker Bait, Feb. 9, 2008

You've probably gotten those scam e-mails: Nigerians looking for help to transfer fortunes left by people who died without heirs, penny stock pump-and-dump schemes, college degrees without having to go to college, even penis pumps. You may have read stories of people taken in by these scams, including little old ladies who subscribed to a ton of magazines because they thought they'd win the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. And you may have been torn between indignation towards the perpretrators of these scams and pity for the poor suckers taken in by them.

As P.T. Barnum said, there's a sucker born every minute. But we think of suckers as coming from the ranks of those lowest on the economic and educational totem pole. How, then, are we to account for the executives of major financial institutions who were taken in by securities based on subprime loans, and ended up having to write off billions and billions of dollars when these securities went sour? It's not the first time something like this has happened; twenty years ago, there was the Savings and Loan meltdown, which was blamed mostly on bad real estate investments -- including office buildiings and shopping malls in communities where there were already too many of them.

Back then, home loans were tough to get, whereas commercial developers practically got blank checks. This time around, home loans were easy to get, and lenders like Howard Olmstead in the NewYork City area ran radio commercials promising no income verification and "payment rates" of only one or two percent. They were obviously playing homeowners and would-be homeowners for suckers, but their kind also managed to play the likes of Merrill Lynch and Citi Group for suckers by packaging their subprime loans as collateralized something-or-other that would bring in huge returns. For a while, they did, but prudent executives should have smelled a rat. A bank official who manages my trust fund told me that the higher ups were just "swimming with the fish;" nobody seemed to think the housing bubble would actually burst, although the cartoon below first appeared at least two years ago.

Suckers are often blamed for their own cupidity -- "There's a little larceny in us all" -- and some right wing commentators have blamed sub-prime borrowers for the latest mess, complaining that they had falsified their income and assets to obtain mortgages. But, even if that's the truth, why were mortgage lenders so eager to get their business? Some accounts say they plastered poor neighborhoods with flyers, and deluged poor people with high-pressure sales calls. Maybe it was because they figured they could make a killing by turning these same shaky loans around and selling them to suckers on Wall Street. But not everyone everywhere was taken in, it seems -- Deutsche Bank, the New York Times just reported, stayed out of the sub-prime swamp and out of trouble.

There was an earlier report in the Times that some executives at financial instituions profited from the mess by selling large blocks of stock before the latest meltdown -- stock they'd received as a reward for boosting their companies' bottom lines and stock prices when the sub-prime market was still hot. They made out like bandits, but ordinary shareholders were left holding the bag. Was this simply belated good judgment on the executives' part, or could they have been planning pump-and-dump operations from the start? Either way, good fodder for neo-Marxist diatribes, just like recent reports of Wachovia working hand-in-glove with telemarketing fraudsters to empty out the accounts of ordinary depositors. Only honest executives at other banks were among the first to protest against Wachovia's scheme, just as wise executives at Deutsche Bank decided against investing in the sub-prime securities.

Here's an angle the media have missed. Both conservatves and liberals have a vested interest in suckers. We have top-feeders as well as bottom-feeders in the business community who want to get rich or richer by taking people in with everything from sub-prime based securities to get-rich-quick schemes and miracle diets. On the other hand, we have politicians and bureaucrats who want to take people in with government programs that don't work, teacher lobbies with educational "reforms" that don't work, tenured radicals who want colleges to brainwash students (most recently at the University of Delaware).

Martial arts classes are popular. Maybe there should be classes in mental martial arts, including how not to be a sucker. If kids learned that in school, they'd be a lot less likely to become victims later in life.

Random Thoughts, Feb. 7, 2008

I really should come back here more often. This isn't really a proper blog, just a series of mini-essays that I haven't been able to, or maybe just haven't bothered to turn into major essays. This isn't going to be even a mini-essay, just some comments on current events.

There was a piece in the Style section of today's New York Times about a vogue in the European fashion industry for skinny male models -- the kind that, a generation or two ago, could have found employment only as the "before" images in Charles Atlas ads, or perhaps playing concentration camp inmates. They're every bit as pathetic as the anorexic female models that have aroused controversy -- two of them having died of eating disorders a few years ago. No normal man could wear the outfits they model, any more than a normal woman could wear the outfits modeled by waifs. But according to the Times, nobody seems to be upset by this trend. And nobody has suggested that there might be man-hating lesbians behind it, as in the recurrent canard that the waif look in female models can be blamed on woman-hating gay men. Anyway, I can't imagine any real women being attracted to these skinny men, any more than real men are attracted to the skinny women,

Another piece in the Times was an Editor's Note about a previous story about Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, an Afghan detainee who died of cancer at Guantanamo after insisting for years that he had nothing to do with terrorism and that there were witnesses in Afghanistan who could testify on his behalf. The Editor's Note reported that, unknown to the Times, Andy Worthington -- a free-lancer who shared the byline with Carlotta Hull -- was in fact a partisan who had written a book attacking the Guantanamo operation. How the Times failed to notice this is hard to fathom, but the paper stood by the main point of the story, namely that there was a good deal of evidence pointing to Hekmati's innocence, and that U.S. authorities never looked into it and never contacted any of the witnesses -- some prominent Afghan officials -- who could have exonerated him. As usual in the media coverage of Guantanamo, however, there was no mention of Abdullah Mehsud, a high-ranking member of the Taliban who was released from Guantanamo and promptly headed for Kashmir, where he took charge of kidnapping Chinese engineers. I once wrote the Times, suggesting that it look into why Hekmati was kept in detention while Mehsud was let go, but I never got a response.

Halloween Musings, Oct. 31, 2007

So Albus Dumbledore is gay. We have it on the authority of J.K. Rowling herself.

Maybe she's just trying to give the finger to the zealots of the Religious Right who have denounced the Harry Potter books as Satanic. Maybe she's trying to be politically correct, in line with a Cultural Left orthodoxy that wants to impose a quota system on the characters in works of fiction.

Inclusiveness, they call it, but it smacks of what liberals used to call tokenism. Now the Harry Potter saga has its token gay, the artificiality of which is clear from the fact that Dumbledore's sexuality never had anything to do with the story, even though Rowling planted what can now be considered hints about it. For that matter, there isn't that much about straight sexuality in the series – this is fiction for young people, after all.

Rowling is hardly alone as a smart writer going stupid about characters. Ridley Scott, whose “final cut” (I can't see any significant change from the 1992 Director's Cut.) of Blade Runner (1982) was recently released, has maintained for years that Deckard, the cop assigned to track down and destroy fugitive replicants, is actually a replicant himself.

That wasn't the case in the novel from which the film was adapted, Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But that is irrelevant; Scott and his screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, created an entirely different story, with only a few of Dick's details like the Voigt-Kampf test for detecting replicants through their lack of empathy in response to emotionally-loaded questions. What is relevant is that the story loses its power if we grant Scott's intepretation.

If Deckard is human, it is an ironic moral victory for him that he can come to see the humanity in the supposedly soul-less creations of the Tyrell Corporation, and even to fall in love with Rachel – to whom he administered the Voigt-Kampf test early on, and who never knew she was a replicant (implanted false memories) until after that test. As in the case of Rowling and Harry Potter, Scott has planted hints that Deckard may be one too – but the idea is counterintuitive, given that he doesn't have any extraordinary powers like the others. In any case, if Blade Runner is only the story of a replicant falling in love with another replicant, what's the point?


Inner city schools are rife with violence these days: teenage punks bringing in guns, even shooting each other in the hallways and playgrounds. But one school has found an answer to this: it's banned children from bringing in fake guns and fake swords as part of Halloween costumes.

Yeah, that school will be safe from Zorro or the Power Rangers. It's not the same one that will expel a kid who brings in aspirin for a headache, but force him to take Ritalin for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but it might be. ADHD is a syndrome that has supposedly reached epidemic proportions – but I suspect that a lot of it may be nothing more that acute boredom with dumbed-down textbooks and incompetent teachers.

Incompetent teachers are notoriously hard to get rid of in New York, that's what I read in the papers at any rate. But a co-worker of mine is living with a teacher at one of those New York schools, where a politically-connected principal managed to get rid of a slew of teachers – only the good ones, of course. She finally went too far, advising a girl to become a prostitute, and met her comeuppance – but the damage was done.

While visiting family in Virginia not long ago, I saw a story in the Washington Post about a city high school that had failed even the smart kids. One recent graduate who was smart enough in into college had to take remedial math because the math teacher at the high school had never bothered teaching math – he just had the class doing newspaper clippings and the like. Like most schools today, this school is probably top-heavy with administrators – none of whom, it seems, ever noticed that the math teacher wasn't doing his job. Or worse, maybe they did notice and just didn't give a shit.

There's a lot of talk these days about educational reform, most of it hype. We already know the results of trying to mandate results: school systems just dumb down the tests some more and, voilą , no child left behind. There are educational theories galore, most of them out of Cloud Cuckoo Land – remember the New Math? The one thing the theorists and bureaucrats never look at is schools that are working, and what they might have to teach the others. There was a piece I saw a few years ago, on 60 Minutes , I think, about some of the best schools in the country – the ones on military bases. Good teachers, good discipline and parental involvement were key elements, I recall.

But try to sell that to Washington, or any state capital, or any school board.


July 11, 2007

The Beginning of the End

It's coming, it's inevitable now: U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Republicans in Congress are deserting the cause, like rats leaving the ship. Only George Bush and his cabal seem to think we can still accomplish anything there. The Democrats are out for blood, and the 2008 election. They seem to think anybody they run for president will be a shoo-in. They may be right. But that's not necessarily anything to cheer about.

Nearly five years ago, I was working on a story called "You and Each of You." It was inspired in part by a serial "Sharon Best" was then posting called Desert Wind, which imagined Velorians and Arions covertly taking sides in the upcoming war. It was probably a dumb idea; real-life wars aren't and shouldn't be the stuff of superheroine fetish entertainment. I didn't have my own superheroine go any further than seek advice on the matter, but maybe even that was going too far. Early on in the story, I had my protagonist musing on what was clearly the run-up to the invasion. It didn't take any brains to see that, and not much brains to see this:

You'd been watching the news, and that'd already been giving you the jitters. The war. You hope the president knows what he's doing, because if he doesn't... Could turn into a disaster like the Little Big Horn or, barring that, just a long bloody mess.


What scares you the most is that, even if it's a walkover, it won't do us any good in the long run. It won't win us any friends, in the Muslim world or anywhere else. And if we find and neutralize weapons of mass destruction, it's not as if Iraq's the only country in the world that hates us enough to develop them. Hell, Pakistan's shaky; it could switch sides, and it has nukes already.

What I didn't see at the time was that it could be both a walkover and a long bloody mess. It could still turn into a Little Big Horn, too, and if you've been watching the news you know that Pakistan could indeed tip. What especially disturbs me is not only the stupidity of the president in getting us into this war and then mismanaging it, but the glee with which his opponents are looking towards the ultimate debacle. It's all about sticking it to Bush, as if he were the only one who could possibly suffer from what would be a military defeat in all but name.

How many of you are old enough to remember the fall of Saigon, with desperate Vietnamese trying to grab on to the last helicopters leaving the roof of the U.S. embassy? There were millions of others like them, like the Catholics and the Cao Dais -- a religious sect that hated and was hated by the Communists. The Left here seemed to assume that the Communists had the overwhelming support of the Vietnamese people, just as the Right assumed that the Communists were only invaders from the North. My guess is that the then-South Vietnamese were about evenly divided between the religious right, the mostly Buddhist center and the Viet Cong. But only the Communists had the will to fight. A passionate minority will inevitably prevail over a passive majority. That's how the Christians prevailed in the later Roman Empire.

From tapes that surfaced years after the Vietnam War, we know that Lyndon Johnson thought from the get-go that the war was unwinnable -- but went ahead anyway because he believed that the United States had to draw a line in the sand against Communist expansionism: the Domino theory and all that. And the Communists were indeed motivated and sustained by the Marxist myth of historical inevitability, supported at the time by the fact that every country which had ever gone Communist had stayed Communist. That myth was to be shattered in Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union with it. Nobody foresaw that at the time; nobody foresaw that Mao's China and Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam would become capitalist in all but name. Nobody ever foresaw that by arming the mujahadeen in Afghanistan we would be fostering a new deadly enemy -- madder and more brutal than the Communists.

It seems obvious now that the Vietnam War was a mistake, but it was also a betrayal. Rightly or wrongly, we promised those Vietnamese who opposed the Communists that we would stand by them -- and then sold them down the river. Those fortunate enough to emigrate here were relatively few; of those who remained behind, most were sent to labor camps and many were shot -- alhough the carnage and the persecution were fairly mild compared to the bloodbath in Cambodia (which we inadvertently helped bring about by overthrowing Prince Sihanouk's neutralist government and replacing it with an unpopular right-wing regime that was easy prey for the Khmer Rouge). The Vietnsmese Communists, who later invaded Cambodia to end Pol Pot's reign of terror, were relatively sane, you see.

Sanity is not a term that applies to any of the warring factions in Iraq, which have slaughtered each other by the thousands despite the presence of our troops. They have shot up and blown up mosques, spared neither women nor children, destroyed bridges, power stations and pipelines, frustrated every effort to rebuild the country's infrastructure. Once the U.S. withdraws, it can only get worse -- many times worse. Bush is right about that. It will be seen as a crushing defeat for America. Bush is right about that, too. But he is ultimately wrong about the war: it cannot be won, perhaps it never could have been. His "surge" strategy, with 20,000 more troops, is a sick joke: 200,000 more troops wouldn't be enough. We have nothing to show for our efforts but thousands of dead soldiers, trillions of wasted dollars -- and millions upon millions of new enemies.

Yet, just as in Vietnam, there must be millions of people who aren't bloodthirsty fanatics, people who want only a chance for a decent life, people we promised that chance. And we're about to sell them down the river. Neither Bush nor his opponents will lift a finger for them, and the rival Jihadist camps don't believe in any punishments as mild as labor camps. It frightens me to think what will happen to these people we are about to betray -- and nauseates me that hardly anyone will really care. The Right will only say, "We told you so," and use the bloodbath as a club against the Left. The Left, which often seems to fawn on the Jihadists as it once fawned on the Communists, will convince itself that our abandoned supporters deserve whatever they get.

Whatever they say or do, the world will get the message: the United States not only goes to war stupidly and recklessly, but has no more regard for its friends than its enemies -- that we can no longer be respected or trusted. Two films, The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Gladiator (2000), both saw Rome's cynical betrayal of its allies as helping seal its doom. Let us hope history doesn't repeat itself.

Jan. 29, 2007

Inflammable Pants

Fox News Channel got caught with its pants down recently when one of its commentators, John Gibson, publicized an accusation from a little-known online magazine that presidential hopeful Barack Obama once attended a madrassa, or radical Muslim school, when he was a child in Indonesia. The implication was that Obama must be a covert Muslim, maybe even a terrorist.

CNN, which is as liberal as Fox News is conservative, quickly shot down the story by sending a reporter to visit the school, which turned out to be a secular institution, albeit most of the students -- like most Indonesians -- are Muslims. But Gibson, rather than admitting he’d been taken in by Insight magazine, stood by the story and claimed that the CNN reporter must himself have been duped and overlooked the classes in the Koran and terrorism (Never mind that Obama was last there in 1971, long before our “friends” in Saudi Arabia began funding radical jihadist madrassas.).

Well, the liberal press has had a field day with that one. But liberal media are hardly entitled to pat themselves on the back, because the false story about Obama came not long after the New York Times was exposed – by its own public editor (ombudsman), Byron Calame, for running a story by Jack Hitt in its Sunday magazine which falsely claimed that a woman in El Salvador had been sent to prison for 30 years because she’d had an abortion. It turned out, according to court records, that she’d actually given birth to a child and then killed it. When Calame suggested it would be proper to run a correction, Times Standards Editor Craig Whitney at first refused – but finally issued a rather mealy-mouthed clarification a week later.

Hitt, a free lancer, had simply taken the word of a pro-abortion rights group that the woman had been jailed for an abortion, just as Gibson took the word of Insight’s anonymous sources (supposedly from the campaign of Hillary Clinton, which might want to make Obama look bad). But the reason was the same in both cases: the sources were telling Hitt and Gibson what they wanted to hear. Even worse, their reactions after the fact showed that they didn’t even care whether the accusations were true.

Only the political cause seems to be sacred to the likes of Hitt and Gibson. If they were honest journalists, they could simply have condemned the abortion law in El Salvador (which is certainly one of the world’s most draconian), or taken Obama to task for his 100% liberal voting record. But maybe they think the truth is too boring, that the truth won’t get them enough attention.

We don’t expect politicians to tell the truth. But when journalists lie to us, or at best are indifferent to the truth -- and even think that this is somehow virtuous -- we’re in big trouble.

Jan. 11, 2007

Brawn and Beauty

There was a piece in the New York Times magazine Dec. 31 about Abbye Eville “Pudgy” Stockton (1917-2006), a pioneer woman bodybuilder. I'd never heard of her, but she was famous in the 1940's when she hung out at Muscle Beach in California with her husband Les, an Air Force veteran and also a bodybuilder. Chances are they'd never heard of our superheroine fantasies, and yet there seems to be a certain resonance.

Tastes in female beauty differ, even among Aurora Universe writers and readers, and a lot of controversy swirls around the issue. AU readers generally seem to prefer the Playboy centerfold or fitness model types, but some prefer them a bit more muscular and a few go for the ultra-muscular. There are now contests, magazines and videos devoted to the latter, and their community considers the ultra-muscular look liberating (Some feminist critics, on the other hand, think female bodybuilders are only hiding their fear of Speaking Out against male oppression.).

In Pudgy Stockton's heyday, there didn't seem to be any such ideological baggage. For Les and Pudgy, it all seemed to be a matter of health and well-being and – sheer fun.   As Times contributor Elizabeth McCracken recounted, you could “find Pudgy as a top-mounter or under-stander, upside down and right side up, with two women on each arm and a man on her shoulders or alone in a handstand, muscular and pocket-size: 5 foot 1, 115 pounds. Make no mistake: She's not toned or firmed-up or any of those timid terms that even 21st-century women persist in using when they decide to change their bodies through exercise. She's built. Her back is corrugated with muscles as she supports a likewise muscular man — Les Stockton, now her husband, 185 pounds of bodybuilder — upside down over her head.”

Only they don't look like the bodybuilders of today, pumped up with steroids and/or showing off muscles so bulging they look repulsive. Pudgy – she got her nickname when she was an overweight telephone operator and picked up her then-boyfriend's barbells to begin working out and improve her figure. Improve it she did, and proceeded to invent the two-piece bathing suit to show it off. Only black and white photos seem to be available from those days, but she was a blonde with a winning face as well as an incredible body. She was sexy as all get out – the men who gawked at her must have wished they could have her in bed. Les didn't seem to mind – after all, he was the one who got to go home with her.

“Pudgy Stockton was something brand-new.” McCracken wrote. “Every inch and ounce of her body refuted the common wisdom that training with weights turned women manly and musclebound. She was splendid as a work of art but undoubtedly, thrillingly, flesh, blood, breath.” After World War II, she and her husband ran gyms for men and women, and she wrote a column called “Barbelles” for Strength and Health magazine, in which she praised the efforts of women who followed in her footsteps. “This woman over 30 years of age,” she wrote in one column, “with two children, and with no athletic background whatsoever, has brought about, by her persistence, these amazing changes. Her beautiful figure is a living proof of the intelligent application of this system of figure contouring.”

In later life, after retiring from the gym business and raising a daughter, Les and Pudgy Stockton took to mountaineering, and he was active in the Sierra Club. They were also avid collectors of butterflies, and had what may have been the largest collection on the world. By that time, the old Muscle Beach was gone, but there was a new generation of bodybuilders – Arnold Schwarzenegger and his imitators, and then the female imitators: often grim faced as well as overly pumped. Although she was celebrated by them as a pioneer, she would hardly have belonged in their company – she looked more like one of today's fitness models than some Ms. Olympia. And as McCracken suggests, the whole thing may have been more a matter of romance than exhibitionist vanity for her and Les:

“They have lifted all those weights so they can lift each other. The wind pulls back Pudgy's hair and makes her squint. She stands, blond and lovely, on the palms of her husband's upraised hands while she presses a 100-pound barbell overhead. Then they switch places, and she supports him above her, hand to hand, she smiling up and he smiling down, as satisfactory a portrait of a marriage as ever could be.”


Jan. 1 , 2007

The Great Game and the Rotten Game

Ever seen a movie called October Sky? How about Matewan?

Matewan (1987), written and directed by John Sayles, is the harrowing story of a coal mine strike in West Virginia in the early 20th Century. Life for coal miners was so rotten in those days that it became the basis for a song, "Sixteen Tons," made popular decades later by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

"I owe my soul to the company store," one of the lines in that song, referred to the deliberate practice of debt peonage, similar to that forced on sharecroppers, by which miners were forced to buy all their food and other necessities from a company store in a company town at inflated prices so that they could never get out of debt -- and never leave town to try to better themselves elsewhere. They were even required to buy their own tools to work the mine: can you imagine any company today telling you to buy your own computer if you wanted to work there?

October Sky (1999), directed by Joe Johnston, is the story of a bunch of boys experimenting with rockets in the 1960's, after Sputnik shook up America. It was based on Rocket Boys, the autobiography of Homer Hickham, Jr. who was one of those boys growing up in.... a company coal town in West Virginia.

Just like Matewan.

Except that Coalwood was a decent place to live, and had been for decades. Not that it was a utopia: mining was and is hard work, and sometimes dangerous. Yet the miners were treated fairly, they had decent places to live, provided by the company. They weren't cheated at the company store. They had access to decent medical care, schools, churches. Hickham remembered Coalwood as a great place to grow up; you'd think that it was almost like Mayberry on the Andy Griffith show.

Two company towns. The same system. The only difference is that one was run by rotten people and the other by good people. In our ideology-driven age, nearly everyone believes that systems are more important than people -- that simply adopting the right system will make life better, even make people behave better. George Orwell once observed that Charles Dickens had precisely the opposite idea: that if people would only behave decently, we would have a decent world.

In "The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet, a Sermon in Crude Melodrama," Bernard Shaw had his reprobate protagonist discover the inner rewards of doing good. All his life he's believed in the "rotten game:" that he's just dirt and everyone else is just dirt. The other game may be a silly game, he says, but having played it once to save a fellow human, he knows that it doesn't feel rotten -- it feels great.

Here's a New Year's resoluton that all of us could embrace: whatever you do, at home, at work, with family, with friends, with people in general, play the great game instead of the rotten game.

Dec. 15, 2006

Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men

There was something new at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade this year. At least, I think it was new. It was the costume Santa Claus wore. It wasn't the one we're used to seeing, from shopping malls and Coca Cola commercials, rather more in keeping with European tradition and Clement Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" that inspired Thomas Nast.

Nast (1840-1902) was known for hundreds illustrations of Santa Claus that expressed the Christmas spirit better than any before or since. He was also renowned for his savage caricatures of William Marcy "Boss" Tweed and his minions, who robbed New York blind when they were in control of the city government. When the jig was finally up, Tweed fled to Spain -- but was arrested there when police recognized him from one of Nast's cartoons. And it was Nast who created the enduring icons of the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey that are staples of others' political cartoons to this day.

What isn't generally known is that Nast, the spirit of Christmas and scurge of machine politics, also hated Catholics -- especially Irish Catholics. Irishmen were invariably portrayed in his cartoons as drunken louts, Catholics as engaged in a sinister conspiracy to take over the country, destroy public schools (which in those days forced pupils to recite Protestant prayers), and so on. Even Nast's campaign against the Tweed Ring was motivated as much by bigotry as moral outrage.

"The evil that men do lives after them," Shakespeare wrote. "The good is oft interred with their bones." Colin Wilson argued for precisely the opposite in The Criminal History of Mankind , and while Shakespeare was by far the greater writer, Wilson may have made the better point.

Today, we can still appreciate the benevolent spirit of Christmas that shines from Nast's Santa Claus. We can marvel at the satiric bite of his Tweed Ring caricatures. But we can ignore his drunken Irishmen and sinister Catholics, consigning them to the dustbin of history. For history allows us, if we so choose, to honor and preserve the best of the past -- and bury the worst.

Many icons of Western culture have been faulted in our time for failing to live up to contemporary standards of wisdom and decency. But the same argument that can be made for Nast can be made for them.

Geoffrey Chaucer has been accused of virulent anti-Semitism for his tale of the Prioress, which exploits the libel of Jews killing Christian children to use their blood in baking matzohs. Chaucer's defenders argue that he meant the tale to be a satire on bigotry rather than an exposition of it, but even if we are to believe the worst of him, should we refuse on principle to read any of the Canterbury Tales, with all their wit and (often) even wisdom?

L. Frank Baum wrote editorials advocating extermination of the Indians. At least one radical left critic, Thomas St. John, has argued that The Wizard of Oz is nothing but an elaborately coded exposition of the same genocidal agenda -- an argument that seems as specious as recent 9/11 conspiracy theories. But even if there is substance to that argument, the code book has long since been lost, and Baum's story can be enjoyed as the tale of Dorothy's quest and for its delightful portrayals of the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Cowardly Lion and the Wizard. And despite his disclaimers, the Wizard really is a wizard, just as the scarecrow really does have a brain and the woodman a heart and the lion courage: when I read the story as a child, I realized that was one of the points : it was my first literary insight.

With some writers, it's more complicated. Jack London was a radical socialist and, as such, canonized in the Soviet Union and honored by Marxist intellectuals here. But he was also a rabid racist; one of his science fiction stories even waxed rhapsodic about the imagined extermination of the Chinese through germ warfare. This posed a problem for H. Bruce Franklin, a modern Marxist critic, in a treatise on jingoism in American sf: he had to give the impression, without actually saying so, that London was just another typical right-winger. But when all is said and done, London's classics -- from The Call of the Wild to The Sea Wolf -- are still great stories, and none of us should apologize for enjoying them.

I could cite any number of other examples, and perhaps you could too. But Christmas seems an appropriate time to reflect on this: let us be thankful that the evils of our cultural forefathers can be interred with their bones, and that we can still celebrate their good.


Dec. 1, 2006

Al Sharpton's Cop-out

There was another police shooting in New York a few days ago. A black guy coming out of a bachelor party at a night club with his friends, apparently drunk, ran afoul of an undercover police team that had staked out the place looking for hookers and other violations.

One of the cops thought one of the black guys -- who had just started up their car, and either rammed or were rammed by a police van -- had a gun, and started shooting. The other cops thought the guys in the car were shooting at them, and opened up with 50 rounds. The groom-to-be ended up dead, and the others wounded.

Al Sharpton showed up to protest -- he always does. But unlike him, or those defending the police, I'm not going to pre-judge the case, which strikes me at first glance more like a monumental fuck-up than anything else. There have been worse cases of police violence. There was even one in the town where I used to live. An immigrant worker in a local factory had an epileptic fit, and his fellow workers called 911. For some reason, the dispatcher sent the cops instead of the paramedics. They assumed the guy must be high on drugs, and tried to arrest him. His seizure was taken as resisting arrest, so they beat him to death. Everyone at the factory, including the owner, told the same story, but the cops got off because nobody was sure which of them struck the fatal blow.

Al Sharpton showed up at a protest there, too. He had every right to, and in that case his cause was just. But the guy's still an asshole.

Police brutality is still all too real, and not just in cases of shootings. I've read a number of accounts of cops going to the wrong address because somebody screwed up the search warrant, and -- finding no drugs, guns or other contraband -- flying into a rage, vandalizing the place and pistol-whipping anyone in sight. And yet police brutality is on the decline. In the last wrong address case I read about, the cops realized their mistake and just left -- albeit without offering to fix the victim's broken door. And killings by police are far fewer than they used to be, for all the headlines.

A lot more innocent black people are killed in shootouts by drug gangs, rapper wannabes and other black guys with guns and grudges than by the police. But you'll never see Al Sharpton protesting those murders.

In the bad old days, white authorities often ignored black-on-black crime. Some cops even had an acronym for it -- NHI, for “no humans involved.” If a black guy robbed or murdered a white guy, or especially if he raped a white woman, his fate was sealed—and if he did it in the South, he probably wouldn't make it to trial. But if the same black guy robbed or murdered or raped another black -- big deal, NHI.

So how come Al Sharpton doesn't care about black crime victims when the perps are black? Is it NHI all over again, only “no honkies involved?” NHI is just as disgusting, no matter what it stands for.


Nov. 3 , 2006

Soaperheroine Redux

"She's a Marvel" was broadcast two days ago as a special episode of Guiding Light. But after all the hoopla, executives at the vintage soap opera may want to disown it: reactions from soap fans on message boards were almost unanimously negative. Chances are that Marvel Comics will also drop the new superheroine -- also dubbed the Guiding Light -- like a hot potato, after running tie-in inserts in a number of its titles.

I thought the episode was delightful. Velvet thought it was a riot. But we apparently speak for few other than ourselves -- other superheroine and comics fans seem to have been underwhelmed. But I think the crossover episode was fresh, witty and sexy: the first attempt to create a working mom's superheroine fantasy. We've had the typical male fantasies that began with Shadar, and the single woman's fantasies of Jordan Taylor, Evelyn Y and Daphne Orgone. But in "She's a Marvel," the fantasy related as much to domestic appliances as fightng crime -- and the denouement turned on Harley Davidson Cooper's concerns for her husband and children.

I've tried to be true to that fantasy in a sequel, Electricity. See more at What's New.

Oct. 31, 2006

La Super Chica Dorada

It was JonX at who first called our attention to a superheroine music video, available at YouTube, by Mexican pop star Paulina Rubio, But according to Shadar, this wasn't the sultry singer's first venture into superheroine costume play for a video: back in the 1990's, she appeared in a skimpy Supergirl costume. In both that and her latest outfit, clingy gold with a gold cape, she looks refreshingly spunky.

"Ni Una Sola Palabra" ("Nor a Single Word"), her first video since 2002, is based on a single that previewed her Spanish-language album Ananda. It was Paulina's third U.S. hit. The song was written by Xabier San Martín (member of the Spanish band La Oreja de Van Gogh) and debuted on radio on July 24. It was released on iTunes Aug. 15, becoming Rubio's first digital single after fans petitioned for a legal way to obtain it prior to the album hitting stores Sept. 19.

"Ni Una Sola Palabra is a song that captivated me from the first time I heard it, the lyrics, the rhythm," she said. I can relate to it completely. In the process of its recording and production, it shone right from the beginning... I am very happy to be able to hand out something that I am very proud of. I love it! And I hope that people will enjoy it as much as I do."

The lyrics don't have any obvious connection to the video, in which Paulina as "Pauwer-woman" sports a skimpy gold costume and cape (Fans call her "La Chica Dorada," or The Golden Girl, after her first album.). While belting out the song from a rooftop, she spots a woman (looking just like her) walking down the street and being tailed by a car full of thugs. The thugs surround her in a parking garage, but Pauwer-woman flies to the rescue and kicks the you-know-what out of them (Oddly, the intended victim doesn't stick around to thank her, but her dog appears in the finale.). Produced by Todd Young and directed by Paul Boyd, the video was shot overnight in Los Angeles July 28-29, taking 15 hours to complete.

Paulina Rubio Dosamantes, born June 17, 1971. in Mexico City, is the daughter of Susana Dosamantes, Mexican film star and actress in telenovelas. Rubio's music is popular in Latin America, Spain, and the United States. She first recorded with a band called Timbiriche, but made her solo debut in 1992 with La Chica Dorada. English-speakers may recognize her from her 2002 hit single Don't Say Goodbye, included in her first English album, Border Girl . Paulina has sold over 16 million albums worldwide and is the number one female pop singer in Mexico.

Who knows, maybe she'll star in a superheroine chick flick one of these days.

Oct. 27, 2006

Soaperheroine to the Rescue?

It's either an inspired crossover idea, or an accident waiting to happen. Marvel Comics is teaming up with CBS Television to transform Harley Davidson Cooper (Beth Ehlers), a Springfield cop on the soap opera Guiding Light, into a superheroine. The transformation -- only temporary for the time being -- is set for a special episode, "She's a Marvel," airing Wednesday, Nov. 1. At the same time, Marvel is putting eight-page inserts into a number of its titles, with the New Avengers converging on Springfield, anxious to find out whether super-Harley is on the light side or the dark.

Everybody knows that comics have an overwhelmingly male audience, while that for soap operas is overwhelmingly female. Can a crossover convince women to try comics, or men to try soaps? The whole idea seems to be counterintuitive. But the Marvel is desperate. So is CBS. Despite the success of the recent Spiderman and X-Men movies, sales of comics themselves have been stagnant, and publisher Stan Lee has been reduced to publicity stunts like the Who Wants to Be a Superhero? contest on cable TV. Guiding Light , meanwhile, is mired at number eight in ratings for daytime soaps, and soaps generally have been losing viewers for years.  

Marvel began trying to reach the female audience a little more than a year ago by publishing titles specifically aimed to at women like “Spiderman Loves Mary Jane” and the critically acclaimed, “The Runaways.” While these featured the usual superhero derring-do, they focused more on romance and relationships, and girls and women who look more like actual girls and women.

“It's a hard battle to get girls into comic book stores,” said David Gabriel, Marvel's VP of sales and marketing. “We assumed that just because a girl was the main character that it would appeal to them.” Instead, what the company has found is that women are more likely to read a standard comic book title involving writers they already like. So now the company has commissioned work by Joss Whedon, creator of TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer , and Laurell K. Hamilton, author of the Anita Blake series of vampire mysteries.

But how to get comics fans to tune in to "She's a Marvel?" And even if they do, it's a one-shot rather than a sure shot-in-the-arm for CBS -- which promises vaguely that Harley Cooper's powers might return some time in the future. It's not like the cloning story line of 1998 that bumped up the ratings briefly -- but also turned off a number of veteran fans. Will remaining GL fans be eager to head for the nearest comic shop on the basis of one episode, any more than comics fans will want to follow the show on the same basis?


Beth Ehlers, now 38, began her portrayal of Harley Davidson Cooper, in 1987, but left the show in 1993 to live with co-star Mark Derwin in California. But when they broke up in 1997, she returned to Guiding Light -- at first just for the 60th anniversary show but then, by popular demand, as a contract player. In 2005, fans voted her character and her co-star, Ricky Paull Goldin, as the top couple in "The Most Irresistible Combination" contest, partially sponsored by Procter & Gamble, the company that produces Guiding Light -- yes, the show is still literally a soap opera.

Guiding Light (known as The Guiding Light prior to 1975) is credited by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the longest-running soap opera in production and the longest running drama in television history. The 15,000th televised episode aired this past   September (The program began as an NBC radio serial on January 25, 1937 before moving to CBS on June 30, 1952, as a TV serial.).

But, like other soap operas, Guiding Light has fallen on hard times in recent decades. The traditional audience of housewives has largely vanished; no longer can women watch soaps while doing their ironing -- they're at the office. They may set their VCRs to tape them during the day, or watch them at night on the SoapNet cable channel -- but Guiding Light isn't carried there. Instead, CBS has made podcasts downloadable from its website -- but those are audio only, and do people really want to listen to an hour show on their iPods?

Faced with sagging ratings, Procter & Gamble ordered Guiding Light to take a large budget cut in early 2005. Actors found their salaries reduced; some were put on recurring as opposed to contract status, and others were fired. The show also had to move to an old studio on the West Side of Manhattan, from more lavish digs on the East Side. Some sets were scrapped, and some characters who had had their own homes or apartments on thre show were suddenly living in the Beacon Hotel. Two stars who had balked at staying, Jordan Clarke and Michael O'Leary, re-upped in June, about the time the Marvel proposal was first floated. But two other major stars are about to get the axe, and even Super Harley won't be able to save them. Can she save the show? Doubtful.

But we'll see in just a few days. Watch for further comments.


July 27, 2006

Super Bombshell? No, just a super bomb.

Christina Larson of Washington Monthly had it right about the Hollywood's latest disastrous attempt to make a superheroine movie. And she wasn't writing about My Super Ex-Girlfriend, because it was more that a year away from release at the time.

In "Seven Mistakes Superheroines Make" for the March 2005 issue, she analyzed the failures of recent movies in that small genre like Catwoman and Elektra, and blamed them on the failure of Hollywood to understand the appeal of more successful efforts like  Tomb Raider and Charlie's Angels: in those earlier movies, the heroines were allowed to be truly heroic. In the later failures, they weren't.

"Men wanted them, and women wanted to be them," Larson wrote of the better portrayals – by coincidence, Velvet Belle Tree later said the same thing in the blurb for Velvet's Velorians and More link at the AUWG. "Lara Croft may have originated as pure male fantasy—a buxom video game character with impossible proportions—but on the big screen, she became erudite, well-traveled, a working photojournalist, and went home at night to a house worthy of Architectural Digest. On the other hand, Elektra, another comic-book adaptation, might turn heads in her tight-laced scarlet bustier, but her personal magnetism doesn't measure up: She's a gloomy assassin who suffers from nightmares, insomnia, and OCD. Plus she hates her job but can't—or won't—figure out what else to do with her life. You're not likely going to see a bunch of little girls arguing about who gets to play her."

You get the picture, but Ivan Reitman and the others involved in My Super Ex-Girlfriend sure didn't. In theory, they had everything going for them, starting with an A-list actress, Uma Thurman, who had already played an action heroine in Kill Bill. And as G-Girl, she could have been every man's – and woman's – fantasy come true. She looks gorgeous, she's super-powerful and invulnerable, she can fly, she can stop crimes and prevent disasters. And when she makes love with a lucky man, it's bed-breaking time.

Only she has this secret identity as a mousy girl named Jenna who can't get a man and is hopelessly neurotic. Secret identities are nothing new, but even Billy Batson wasn't as pathetic as this. One reviewer, Mal Vincent of the Virginia Pilot, thought this was a refreshingly realistic approach, but it isn't. Jenna runs an art gallery; that's the kind of job where she could meet all kinds of men. And even with a brown wig and glasses, they can't make Uma look like a dog. But for the contrived plot of the movie, they have to make her such a loser that she'll settle for this dork named Matt, who wouldn’t even have asked her out if he hadn't been prompted by his dorky pal Vaughn.

This is supposed to be a romantic comedy, but in good romantic comedy, the leads are appealing to begin with – they just need to find each other. Neither Jennna nor Matt is appealing; the only appealing character is Matt's co-worker Hannah, for whom he ends up leaving Jenna after she turns out to be super-possessive as well as super-powered – and so petty that it’s all Matt can do to get her to interrupt a dinner date to stop a stray missile that's headed for New York. Of course, hell hath no fury like a superwoman scorned – you've probably read about her throwing a live shark into Matt's apartment even if you haven't seen the movie.

You'd think Matt must be the best she can get, and this is supposed to justify her borderline psychotic desperation. But come on, as G-Girl, she could have any man she wanted – and, because she was an ordinary girl who got her super powers from a magic rock (a silly idea, but no sillier than a lot of others in comic books), she can't be under any sort of geas or prime directive that would prevent her from inviting a worthy man to join her for the kind of flying fuck she gives Matt in one of the few amusing scenes in the movie.

Just in case you haven't seen the movie and still want to, I won't give away the contrived ending that improbably ends all well. But I can give away Christina Larson's seven rules for superheroines. Hollywood producers and directors should post them prominently in conference rooms during skull sessions.

1. Do fight demons. Don't fight only inner demons.

2. Do play well with others. Don't shun human society.

3. Do exhibit self-control. Don't exhibit mental disorders.

4. Do wear trendy clothes. Don't wear fetish clothes.

5. Do embrace girl power. Don't cling to man hatred.

6. Do help hapless men. Don't try to kill your boyfriend.

7. Do toss off witty remarks. Don't look perpetually sullen

Here's another withering commentary, this time on My Super-Ex Girlfriend itself, from Daphne Orgone at her teenage superheroine blogsite:

My Super Ex- Bad news for the Good girls


Ok, this may sound utterly ridiculous, but I wanted to say a few words about a new movie coming out, called my super ex girlfriend. I haven't seen it, and have no plans to, but even the trailer made me want to make some pretty darn serious points about this thing.

First off, as far as realism goes, this thing looks like typical hollywood drivel. First off, casting Uma Thurman. Give me a break. With legs that long, who in the blazes needs superpowers? I actually like her acting and all, but I mean, some of us superpowered types are vertically challenged and have to actually work hard to get respect. Get this ... superheroines do not necessarily mean supermodels.

Then there's this idea that the super -ex wants revenge. Give me a break again. Revenge? Just how hard do you think it is for a girl like me to get revenge on a guy? The tough part is constantly not using your superpowers or starting to think like.. like that blogger woman [Ouch, Conceptfan! --BTE], that men are just worms that you can step on when they get in your way. Guys are... um, let me see how to put this. They're fragile, really fragile, and I'm not just talking about physically either. Human girls, for example are just as fragile physically, but they're inherently more adaptable and canny, I guess is the word I'm searching for. If a guy really pissed me off, honestly, I seriously doubt I'd bother doing any of the stuff I saw in that trailer. I KNOW I wouldn't throw a shark at him, for example. Yuck! Plus, its just damned cruel to the shark.

Now, I'll admit some of this may be sour grapes. I understand that this G-girl chick actually managed to do it with her guy, which is something I doubt I'll ever manage. And she's got a job, and apparently some pretty awesome costumes too, things which I don't have. But beyond all this, honestly, my biggest problem with this movie, is the chick seems like a total nutcase. Like, I mean, if she's that crazy, you think there'd be much of a planet left?

So, you got this nutty bitch with superpowers. And she's pissed off, right? Well, guess what, I don't think thats funny, I think its totally terrifying. Nobody'd be safe, and people could die real easily. Us supertypes, we can't afford to be complete flakes like that, or at least not if we want to have any hope of playing for the good guys.

But its not just unrealistic. Its also dangerous and discriminatory. I'll admit I'm selfish and immature sometimes, but I'm also probably the most restrained teenager on the planet. I got to think before I act, because, well, if I don't, things can go to hell so easily. So I do. I don't go around hurting people or peeping into their bedrooms and pants very often, even though I could. And its not just some awesome moral code thing, either. Its like a PR thing. I sort of, um, liken it to the whole American foreign policy thing. If you got more power than other people and you go around flaunting it, what happens? They hate you is what. Theyre jealous, maybe, or scared too, but the end result is, they don't like you and before you know it, they're thinking of ways to put you down.

A movie like this, it seriously gives us superior girl types a bad name. I got enough problems relating to the human race without stuff like this floating around. Even if it doesn't engender out right prejudice and discrimination, fact of the matter is, after a movie like this, the odds of me getting outed for some dumb mistake probably quadruple.

Honestly, I'm halfway tempted to track down the guys who made this movie and give them a piece of my mind. Course I won't. Know why? Cause unlike that fictional superthin long legged nutcase, I'm not a bully. Doesn't mean I don't feel like it sometimes, but I can't get away with acting out on all my emotional problems. Still, sometimes, I really wish I could.



April 16, 2006

Tax Vobiscum

Well, another income tax deadline has come and gone, and Uncle Sam has taken his pound of flesh.

Nobody likes to pay taxes, of course. Some oppose them on moral (pacifist) or philosophical (libertarian) grounds, but almost everybody considers them onerous and unfair.

One thing that makes them onerous is the complexity of the US tax code. I happen to have a trust fund, left to me by my father, a collection of stocks, bonds and other investments that produce dividends and interest.

A few years ago, the tax code was amended to create two classes of dividends, taxed at different rates. Why this was done, I don't know, but I can hazard that it was a favor to some sort of special interests. Only the rules are so complicated that it takes the bank administering the fund months to figure out which dividends are which and send out 1099 forms.

Right now, there's a lot of controversy over tax cuts -- already enacted or just proposed by the Bush administration. It is said that these tax cuts benefit only the rich, which may be true. On the other hand, one can argue that the rich shouldn't have to pay a higher rate than anybody else -- the progressive income tax, from the very start, was widely seen as a means to redistribute wealth rather than so simply raise revenue.

But even with what's left of the progressive income tax -- it once had a maximum rate of 91% rather than the current cap of 35% -- it is doubtful that rich people pay at the same rate as the middle class. As everyone knows, there are tax shelters to be had for those who can afford creative accountants, and there are no doubt ways to get around the alternative minimum tax -- which was enacted to counteract that, but which is now said to be catching upper middle class taxpayers.

What with tax shelters and other complications, the tax code today is at least as long as the Manhattan telephone directory, and so arcane that even the IRS can't understand it -- that's why it won't stand behind advice given to taxpayers by its own tax examiners -- they might be (and doubtless frequently are) wrong. Many if not most ordinary taxpayers simply thrown up their hands and rely on H&R Block and the like to prepare their returns. Billions and billions of dollars go to these middlemen.

There have been proposals to simply things with either a flat income tax (one rate for everybody) or a national sales tax or value-added tax. There are ideological fault lines over whether an income tax or a sales tax is more "fair," but there seems to be more heat than light in that controversy. All taxes are paid out of income -- where else could the money come from? But one thing the income tax offers that sales taxes don't is the exemptions and deductions (standard or itemized) that give a break to the average taxpayer -- albeit maybe a bigger break to the more- than-average taxpayer.

Still, deductions are discriminatory -- homeowners can take off their property taxes and mortgage payments, for example, but apartment dwellers can't take off their rent. And the tax burden on some is so heavy that they have to skimp on necessities. At the other end of the scale, the alternative minimum tax is supposed to ensure that the rich don't get away with paying nothing, but because of bracket creep it is said to be increasingly impacting the middle class. And there are controversies over how to tax capital gains and even proposals to eliminate taxes on interest and dividends.

Enough, already. If taxes are as certain as death, let's at least make them simple. Here are my somewhat off-the-cuff proposals. Not perfect, but perhaps at least a basis for discussion.

• Tax all income, from whatever source, at the same rate. The only exception would be for income from government bonds; people could understand the need to exempt that, inasmuch as bonds do serve a public purpose. They could not understand why those living on dividends should pay nothing, whereas those working for a living should pay through the nose. If taxing dividends is double taxation, let corporations deduct dividend payments from their taxes. The only qualification would be that capital gains should be calculated in constant dollars.

• Eliminate all tax shelters. These are not only unfair, but serve to distort the economy by encouraging wasteful investments that don't serve any productive purpose. People with money to invest should put it into new technologies that will benefit the country as well as profiting themselves.

• To ease the burden on ordinary taxpayers, let there be a new standard deduction – much larger than now -- based on the cost of a basket of necessities as calculated by an impartial agency. This would include food, shelter, clothing and perhaps even basic medical insurance. But it would be would be the same amount for everybody; it would simply benefit ordinary people more than the rich. There might also be some sort of occasional deduction for catastrophic losses or medical expenses.

Will Congress ever pass anything like this? Not likely. Too many special interests would be against it. But we can dream. Got any better ideas? Write me.


Feb. 14, 2006

This is my first Valentine's Day as a married man, and only my second since I met the love of my life, Velvet.

I missed out on love in my younger years. It was mostly my own damned fault. I was a loner, a geek, pretending to be an "ordinary" guy -- meaning, an asshole. I was immature and insensitive. I hardly knew how to meet, let alone treat a woman. I did all the wrong things. It's a wonder that I had any relationships at all, rather than that none of them ever worked out.

My only saving grace was that I had no illusions about myself. I knew that the fault lay neither in women nor in the stars. Yet as hope dimmed in that area of life, I could cultivate the more positive parts of myself, in my career as a writer, my love for research and discovery in areas as varied as science fiction and family history, in my enthusiasms for literature and film and music and in conversation with friends who shared one or more of those enthusiasms. In all these things, I found some measure of happiness. My life had meaning; I could feel content. Except for….

I would see young lovers, hugging and kissing. I felt for them. I should have felt bitter, and yet I did not. It was a matter of principle that I had somehow internalized. I knew that the most despicable thing I could do would be to begrudge others their happiness, and a better thing took hold of my heart: to feel joy for all those who loved and were loved, even if I were not among them and never would be.

Only it came to pass that I did join their company, after all, and discovered that every cliché I'd ever read about love was true -- gloriously true. I hope that most of you already know that. For those who don't, I can only say: never give up hope. If it could happen to me, it can happen to anyone. Be of good heart, be true to your best self, and you may yet find that other self, that perfect other.


Jan. 29, 2006

"The Marching Morons."

That was the title of a classic 1951 sf story by Cyril M. Kornbluth about a future in which stupid people had outbred smart people until the world was overrun with morons.  Maybe it's already happening….

My wife and I spent our honeymoon at a Marriott in Orlando. The hotel was also the site of a family reunion on my mother's side. The family association had a special rate for the weekend, which had to be booked separately from the rest of the week.

For some reason, this Marriott was forbidden to take reservations; instead they had to be made through a regional office in Atlanta, which was then supposed to send them electronically to the hotel in Orlando. I made the reservations and received a confirmation message from Atlanta. When we arrived in Orlando on Friday, however, we found that the hotel had never received the reservations for the weekend -- only for the following week. Fortunately, they had space, or we'd have ended up sleeping in the car.

I later complained to the people in Atlanta, who blamed the people in Orlando, saying they were too stupid to be trusted with reservations. But the people in Orlando were not stupid, and they were courteous: when I accidentally left the car lights on one night, they brought in their own man to jump start me. But it turned out that the real problem was that the people in Atlanta were forbidden to communicate by phone or e-mail with the people in Orlando. If they hadn't been, I don't think there'd have been any problem with the reservation.

I made a similar discovery when I was having trouble with Verizon e-mail service. With great difficulty, because Customer Service  was of no use whatever, I was able to reach Technical support. But Technical Support couldn't help, either, and it turned out the reason for this was that Verizon's master programmers were tinkering with the system. They're always tinkering with the system, it seems. And guess what? Technical Support is forbidden to have any contact with the programmers, and is thus always in the dark.

You've all wanted to scream when you've called some company for help and can't get a human voice -- just a message center with a bunch of numbered options, none of which relate to your problem. I once tried calling the 800 number of Northfork Bank to complain about their ATM at the local A&P having been broken down for two weeks (The store manager hadn't been able to get any action.). You can guess how far that got me. So I tried getting a local number for Northfork's corporate headquarters on Long Island. There was no listing -- imagine a major bank with an unlisted number! Because I have some skill with Google, however, I was able to find a number for the rental agent of the building the bank leased, and the guy there was able to transfer me to somebody at the bank.

I know it sounds crazy, but I swear it's true. And I'll bet you all have stories about the Marching Morons. But as these examples show, they seem to be towards the top of the corporate ladder rather than towards the bottom. Why is that?


Jan. 23, 2006

Too true to be good?

Maybe you've seen those stories about infants being kept off air flights because their names matched those of supposed terrorists on a watch list. They make headlines for a day or two and then disappear.

It sounds like a big joke: Transportation Security Administration officers must be TSTL (Too stupid to live). But there was a story in the New York Post a few weeks ago that brought up another angle. The Post asked Yolanda Clark, a TSA administrator, well, what about this guy they say they're looking for? And she refused to say anything about him on security grounds. This does not compute, I thought, so I sent an e-mail to the ombudsman at Homeland Security (Clark doesn't have an e-mail link):

I'm sure you've seen the attached [Post story], and many other stories like it.


But this time, I'm especially perplexed that Yolanda Clark, who is quoted in the full print version of the New York Post story, said that the TSA can't reveal any information about the Edward Allen you're actually looking for because of security concerns.




If there's a terrorist named Edward Allen, don't you want to catch him? If he were an ordinary murderer or bank robber or rapist, you'd have his mug shot and fingerprints in post offices. I had wondered before why the TSA didn't at least distribute such information to its security people at airports (Where one agent told me recently that pilots and flight attendants are routinely caught in the name-only dragnet). Well, now I know -- sort of.


But it still doesn't make any sense.


I've never had this kind of problem myself, although I suppose I might if somebody stole my identity (which may be the case with "Edward Allen," for all I know.). But I'm sure a lot of people must be wondering why you're conducting your terrorist watch in this manner. It smacks of the program they have in Florida to remove felons from voter lists -- if one "Joe Smith" is a felon, every Joe or Joseph Smith in the state is purged from the rolls.


Many years ago, I recall, my mother got a bad credit rating because she was blamed for any bad debt run up by any Mrs. Pierce in a 25-mile radius. Credit agencies have learned to be more discriminating -- no doubt due to legal penalties.


It might help if you could give Congress a credible reason why you want to catch Edward Allen and his ilk at airports -- but nowhere else.


I sent a copy of the same letter to the Post. Never heard back from either of them. So what's the real story here? Who is Edward Allen? What does Homeland Security know about him?

If he exists, if they have anything on him, you'd think they'd be after him. But maybe he's just a name from one of those NSA intercepts that have been making the headlines, and they don't know squat about him. Only, since that name has made the news, chances are that if he's a terrorist he won't be using it if he tries to board a plane. And the thing is, a TSA agent at Newark Airport told me last month that airline pilots and flight attendants are routinely caught in the same net and required to proved over and over again that they're not the John Doe or Jane Doe on the watch list. You'd think those names would also have outlived their usefulness to terrorists.

There's a more sinister -- call it paranoid if you will -- explanation. Maybe the people on the watch list don’t exist, and Homeland Security knows it. But people caught at airports -- even that toddler Edward Allen -- are being required to get an elaborate new form of ID in order to travel in the future. Maybe this is a trial balloon for an Internal Passport -- the sort of thing the Soviet Union had and which the Nixon administration once advocated for the United States. Soviet citizens had to show their Internal Passports to get a job, move from one city to another, rent an apartment, get medical care, etc., etc.

You get the picture. It's not a pretty one. I hope it's wrong.


Jan. 1, 2006

Got any New Year’s resolutions? I’m fresh out.

I’ve already resolved to get back to work on Pegasus Gate. In fact, I just have, with a chapter about one of the settler couples going through the arduous task of clearing their land of trees and brush.

But that brings up something that is already a theme of this work-in-progress by myself and Velvet. New Hope, our colony planet, is no paradise. It is a world that can be claimed only by hard labor – the kind our forefathers knew, but which most of us never have. Most people today don’t have the faintest idea how hard they had it.

And yet, we enjoy the fruits of their labor. They paid with their lives, on farms and in mines and in factories, for the easier lives we have today. We owe them a debt that we can never pay. All we can do to honor them is to do our own work as best we can, and hope that it will be of value to the world, to those who come after us as well as ourselves.

We pay the future what we owe the past.


December 24, 2005

I’m posting this the day before Christmas; you don’t expect me to labor at my laptop on the holiday, do you?

Not that I fear the wrath of God for working on Christmas. I’m not religious, never have been. Yet I don’t mind celebrating Christmas, which to me has always been a secular holiday, a celebration of peace on Earth and good will among men. Yes, I know that’s from the Bible, but it’s still a good sentiment.

There’s a lot of fuss right now about the secularization of Christmas, with the Religious Right demanding that Christ be put back at the center of the holiday and the secular left manning the ramparts of church-state separation. As a secular humanist, I’m naturally opposed to public sponsorship of religious displays. On the other hand, I don’t want to see the rights of believers trampled on – as in the case of a homeowner who was forbidden by his neighborhood association to put a crŹche on his own front lawn (displays of Santa and his reindeer were allowed).

I can understand the feelings of Jews and other non-Christians who feel that even Christmas greetings are an imposition – especially if they are accompanied by some religious message. But how much religion is there in A Christmas Carol or Miracle on 34th Street or Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story? When Ebenezer Scrooge embraces the Christmas spirit, he doesn’t do so as a born-again Christian, he simply becomes a decent, benevolent human being. When the real Santa Claus appears at Macy’s, he doesn’t preach religion; he simply makes the point that the spirit of the holiday transcends the rivalry between Macy’s and Gimbel’s. Jean Shepherd’s story is about his childhood quest for a Red Ryder air rifle, not Jesus.

Of course, I share some people’s objection to the excessive commercialization of Christmas – this year, the Christmas shopping season (with religious and secular carols alike blaring in stores) began right after Halloween – Thanksgiving hardly got any notice. But my objection has to do with the idea of putting only money into Christmas gift giving instead of our thoughts and our love. Remember O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi?” That’s the real Christmas spirit.

So with that in mind, I wish one and all a very secular but very Merry Christmas.

Okay, Happy Hannukah, too, and even Happy Kwanzaa.


December 18, 2005

It was more than a week ago that I got to meet with the Steele Productions gang. I’m just getting around to writing about it because I’m just getting around to starting a blog.

The Steele people usually meet Thursday nights at the home of Kelly Johnston, a genial teddy bear of a man who serves as producer and chief photographer for the Mandi Steele and related sites. He was also producer of The Awakening, which premiered Nov. 4 in Las Vegas and will (hopefully) be available on DVD by the end of the year – I got to see it Dec. 9 at Mike Conway’s house. I loved it. You will too. Trust me.

Other members of the production team include Mandi Steele, who needs no introduction; Jake Ambos, lead writer for their upcoming video series (of which I can’t say anything yet, because they haven’t, but I think you can guess what kind of series it will be.); Heather Lee Guzzetta, who looks awesome but would rather be behind the camera than in front of it and serves as a sort of a Jill of All Trades; and C.J. Hyatt, who plays the hapless villain in photo shoots but is really a smart cookie – among other things, he’s fluent in Russian.

Actually, Mandi Steele does need an introduction – the true Mandi Steele, known to a few. She came out recently under her real name, Tamra Ericson Frame, because that was how she wants to be credited in the movie. But I don’t want to talk about Tamra; her personal life is her own – and don’t bother Googling for that; you won’t find anything. What I want to talk about is the Mandi behind the face and figure that have launched a thousand fantasies: the mind of the maker.

When Kelly told me recently that the photo stories at like “The Rescue” were her idea, that she had worked out most of the story lines, that she wanted the pictures alone to tell the stories so that viewers could bring their own imaginations to them, I was somewhat surprised. But I shouldn’t have been.  I’d learned before that she has a keen sense of story.

When I was writing While the Evil Days Come Not (which was originally going to be a Mandi Steele novel), I ran drafts of it by her. It was Mandi who told me that the heroine’s “coming out” scene at the mine disaster needed to be better developed. And it was she who suggested that “conversion” (enhancement) of humans shouldn’t be limited to the “best of the best,” but should be open to the handicapped and the aged who would be needed for their skills and experience. Out of that advice came Garrett Holcombe and Janine Sheldon – and a better book.

Kelly too knows a good idea when he sees one. That’s why the photo stories have become a collaborative effort. That’s why he is open to new ideas from other people on the team, and from Mike Conway – the man he chose to be director of The Awakening because he knew Mike was the right man for the job. He can always find the right man or woman for the job, and inspire them to do their best work.

I won’t make him out to be hyper-literary type like myself. He isn’t up on classic science fiction – his tastes  run pretty much to Dean Koontz and Stephen King. But one thing he has in common with me, and that is the most important thing: he believes in what he is doing, and finds joy in his work. The Awakening was a labor of love on his part, and he worked hard on special effects and other details of production. He’ll work just as hard on the upcoming video series – depend on it.

When Kelly put out a call for script submissions for the series, I was the only one who responded. Now, I don’t have any real experience at screenwriting, but I wanted to give it my best shot – and to create a story that was truly my own and yet fit within the framework of the series, Jake had to do a rewrite to make it mesh better with the overall story line, but he understood what I was doing – not just the idea, but the consequences and the dramatic impact. The emotional line of the story is exactly as I conceived it, perhaps even improved a bit. There are plenty of people in Hollywood who don’t show that kind of insight and understanding, and that Jake could do so has earned my respect and gratitude.

When I began writing superheroine fiction, it was a matter of creative release. But it was also a matter of joining a community. Steele Productions is a vital part of that community, and I am proud and happy to have met and to be working with the people there.