The ten percent

>> Wednesday, March 04, 2015

But if we’re talking strictly about feature film franchises, it is curious at worst, fascinating at best, how many so-called iconic franchises rest their entire reputations, and thus the core of their fandom, on the initial one or two entries out of a handful of respective films in each respective franchise. Point being, and I ask this with no judgment and genuine curiosity, can you call yourself a fan of a given film franchise if you dislike the vast majority of the franchise’s entries?
Forbes, February 19th, 2015.

"Ninety percent of everything is crap."
- Theodore Sturgeon, supposedly.

An Onion A.V. Club piece handwringing over whether fans will embrace Neill Blomkamp's Alien sequel with as much fervor when it actually hits screens as they did when it was first tweeted about leads one to a Forbes piece full of similar concerns, wondering aloud how someone can say they're a fan of a franchise when they really only like a third of it, or a quarter of it, or even less.

Which further reflects a complaint that often comes up whenever fanboys fling feces at one another over Prometheus or The Phantom Menace or any other project that causes a vocal and loud partisan outcry.  (Mind, I write this as a seasoned shit-slinger.)  No true fanboy would castigate Prometheus as the worst film ever made, or only a true fanboy who has his head up a space jockey's arsehole with misplaced reverence for Alien would, or something.  You see both.  And why?  Why can't fans ever be satisfied, for pity's sake?

Theodore Sturgeon
Thing is, this is shallow water lapping at the ankles of people who have been genre fans long enough to remember when we all communicated much the same damn things in the letters pages of Starlog or in fanzines with much less gloss and much more reek from the mimeograph fluid causing lightheadedness, back when the Internet (such as it was) was still used for transmitting DARPA thermonuclear yield models and ASCII renderings of Playboy centerfolds.  We've been having this kind of thing about science fiction in general for decades, almost a century since at least the 1920s when SF fandom was probably invented.  We fans have hated the bulk of science fiction as long as we've been loving it, and that's how it came to pass (or probably didn't) that one Theodore Sturgeon was asked a question along the lines of, "How come so much science fiction is crap?" whereupon he looked up (maybe not), blinked, paused, and said (so the story goes), "Ninety percent of everything is crap."

One of those stories, as you may know, that's totally apocryphal and probably didn't happen, and yet it definitely should have.  Because Sturgeon (let's pretend the whole thing really happened) was completely right, the bulk of popular culture is frankly pure crap and most of it will be forgotten in ten years and nostalgically recalled as kitsch in twenty.

With SF in general, 90% of it is despised (although not always by the same people), even by fans, because it's despicable.  It's horrid.  Some of it, admittedly, is fun and horrid, or enjoyable in some kind of non-enjoying manner--ironically, for instance, or pruriently or lazily.  But, still: horrid.

And when you think of the Aliens franchise in those terms, let's say, and you take the number that Mr. Mendelson does and say that there are only two good Alien films in the entire bunch and the franchise therefore "has a batting average of 28%," well, you have to then conclude that 28% is better than 10% and therefore Alien is still nearly three times as good as most of what else is out there.

Which, I think, goes a very long way towards explaining why hope springs eternal for the Alienists.

But there's more to it than that, methinks.  Let's go back to SF in general (and you can replace SF with any genre you'd like and have the same discussion--Sturgeon's Law can be applied fractally to Romance, or Westerns, or Whodunnits): if 90% of science fiction sucks, why are there any science fiction fans at all?  Aren't they wasting a good bit of their time?  How can they be fans if they passionately hate the overwhelming mass of what they profess to love?

There's a very simple answer, really: because maybe 90% sucks, but omigod the other 10%!

And in fact, this solves the whole mystery when you get right down to it.  SF fans get worked up about crap SF because they love the good stuff so goddamn much.  Because the 10% that doesn't suck inspires a passion for the genre as a whole, because the 10% seems worth fighting for, because they care so greatly for what's good and wonderful they have to care about all of it.  Because to hate Battlefield Earth is, at some level, to defend Dune and Foundation.

And if you want to break it down to the franchise level, Star Wars fans ultimately hate The Phantom Menace because The Empire Strikes Back is worth love and devotion.  Alien fans hate Prometheus not because they have this unfulfillable yearning for the same exact experience all over again that makes them impossible to please (although there may be some faint whiff of that in the mix, granted), but because they believe Alien is worth a perfect sequel or none at all; and they hold out hope for Blomkamp's take on the material because they will always hope a particular project is part of the 10% (or 28%) and not another drop into the 90% cesspool.

We're fans for things because we believe that something, at its very best, is worth fighting for and fighting over.  Because we love.  And so the number could be much, much lower: it could be five percent, or one percent, and if we fell in love with it we'd continue to say that when this category was good, it was very good, and all the times it wasn't makes us sad and angry because we knew what it was capable of being.  We're bitterest about our disappointments, naturally.  But the ten percent?

Ten percent is enough to love on.




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RIP, Mr. Nimoy

>> Friday, February 27, 2015





I'm sad there will be no more blooms in his garden, honored that he invited us all into it, full of memories of those perfect moments he had in the public eye.  I'm not sure there's anything else I can say, except maybe to thank him, and to tell his family (should they ever come across this) what they surely already know: that Leonard Nimoy was beloved, honored and made an enormous difference to millions of people who will not forget him.
 
This was a much longer piece, originally.  But it wasn't the right piece.  The only part of it worth keeping besides the previous paragraph, which was originally the last paragraph, is simply to say that Nimoy made a powerful impression on me in later years for his thoughtfulness, gentleness, kindness, and the way he seemed at peace with his place in pop culture.  He appeared to be happy taking his photos and writing his poems, and popping up occasionally as Mr. Spock or to talk about Star Trek.  The sole word I could think of and can still think of, absurdly enough, is Douglas Adams' facetious neologism, frood: a really amazingly together guy.  That's how Leonard Nimoy came across, whether it was in interviews or cameos or car commercials--effortlessly charming in the way he simply seemed to have it all together.

I could write about what Star Trek meant to me, and about Nimoy's part in that franchise, but that was the mistake I made in the first draft.  He was more than that, obviously.  We'll miss him, and he gave us so many good reasons to miss him.  And that's all there is to it, really.









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Swallower

>> Tuesday, February 24, 2015

An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.

The question Monday from Republican state Rep. Vito Barbieri came as the House State Affairs Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.

Barbieri later said that the question was rhetorical and intended to make a point.

Dr. Julie Madsen, a physician who said she has provided various telemedicine services in Idaho, was testifying in opposition to the bill. She said some colonoscopy patients may swallow a small device to give doctors a closer look at parts of their colon.

"Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?" Barbieri asked.

Madsen replied that would be impossible because swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.

"Fascinating. That makes sense," Barbieri said, amid the crowd's laughter.

The thing was, was that it was fascinating.  They'd wondered about this so often when they were small children: his sister and he, sitting out in the summer heat, and she would eat things--at least she seemed to put them in her mouth, and she seemed to swallow them--and seeing if they would come out when she peed.  He would do it, too, would put bugs in his mouth and swallow them to see if they would come out his pee-hole, but they never did.

And then, of course, inevitably, he had a thought: what if she was cheating?  What if she put something up to her mouth, like so, and covering her mouth with her tiny fat hand she palmed the clover or the ant or the pebble or the bottlecap?  And then pretended to swallow, like so, and then smiled and said, "Well, that'll be a while coming out, now you try something."  And naive, innocent he, he picked up a bloated drowned earthworm from a drying puddle, and he put in his mouth--"Don't chew," she instructed--and he swallowed it whole.  And waited for it to come out.  But what if it was all a trick to get him to eat the worm?  Or the beetle?  Or even, that one time (and how did this not end in a hospital visit?) a rusty nail pulled from a rotten board out by the shed in back?

Years went by.  And sometimes he sat up, even now, even as an adult, and he thought about the betrayal with bitterness that swallowed him like a swallowed baby.  Then, other times, he imagined himself full of all these things, all these things still in his belly, wondering when he would pee them.

There was one time his pee turned dark and he felt the worst pain he'd ever felt, pain like his back was breaking.  And he was certain, just absolutely certain all the things he swallowed as a child were going to come out, having waited all these decades to finally work their way from his stomach to his penis.  He was doubled over and just screaming, and so frightened, and he couldn't explain it to his wife, couldn't tell her that he knew the rocks and the worm and the beetle and the ants and the old nail and the twigs and the grass and the little seashell from the beach that was white on one side and rainbow the other were all returning to him like eaten sin.  She drove him to the hospital telling him he would just be all right, just a little further now, just a little; and he wanted to tell her, no, no it wasn't alright, it would never be alright his pee-hole was about to rupture forth with his misspent childhood and his sister's bad joke.  But at the hospital, they told him it was a kidney stone, and they would give him something to dissolve it; confused him, because he'd eaten stones but never, to his recollection, a kidney.

But when he told Dr. Madsen he was fascinated, it wasn't the word he meant most; the word he most meant was relieved.  Because there was one thing worse than the guilt and shame he felt over the wicked game he played with his sister, the eating and swallowing.  There was this: that his sister and he were the oldest of six children.  Two of them twins.  And he'd asked her, his sister, the inevitable question when his younger brother was en route, momma's belly swelling over the summer of swallowing.

"Why does momma have a babbie in her belly?" he asked her, and his sister told him--well, she asked him a question, first, asked him how anything got in someone's belly, the question that had prompted so much chewless swallowing this summer and last and the next several.  And he said, "You eated it."  And she looked knowing and wise and smiled and nodded; and his eyes went wide and white with terror like a mad horse a-feared.  His mouth parted and a little sound came out of it, and she just smiled and nodded twice and said uh-huh.

And he couldn't see anything else when he looked at momma anymore.  Even at the funeral, when he looked at the big silver box they put her in before a mouth opened in the ground and swallowed her whole like a bug, a rock, or almost anything; he had the picture in his head, the picture of momma craning her neck back, back like she was watching the highest airplane in all of heaven fly over, and her jaw dislocating like the blacksnake in Miss Pearson's class (and why, he wondered now, didn't the Miss Pearson's blacksnake ever have a litter of white mice? that surely should have said something, he realized of a sudden), her neck muscles working, and with her throat all ready Momma lifted the next babbie, the new brother, the new sister, over her face and dropped the pale pink hairless thing down her gullet which swelled up with life in digestion.

Probably, she'd never eaten a baby ever at all.





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A very, very short open note to Navy Federal Credit Union

>> Saturday, January 31, 2015

Please Read Carefully‏

Navy Federal Credit Union (navy@cartoonnetwork.nl)


1/29/15
To: HELO
navy@cartoonnetwork.nl
From:     Navy Federal Credit Union (navy@cartoonnetwork.nl)
Sent:    Thu 1/29/15 3:09 PM
To:    HELO (navy@cartoonnetwork.nl)
  

Dear Customer

You have logged into your Navy Federal Credit Union online account
on Wednesday ,January 28, 2015 at 11:40 AM.
If this is not you, follow the reference below for security
measure

Click here to follow the security reference

Thank you for banking with Navy Federal Credit Union Bank
Signed,
Navy Federal Credit Union Bank


Dear "navy@cartoonnetwork.nl",

A Dutch Cartoon Network e-mail address?  Really?  It's like you guys aren't even trying anymore.  This is why my few remaining readers can't have nice things.

Sincerely,
R. Eric VanNewkirk


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Dogs (Two Different Ones)

>> Wednesday, January 21, 2015

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.

Bleating and babbling we fell on his neck with a scream
Wave upon wave of demented avengers
March cheerfully out of obscurity into the dream.

Have you heard the news?
The dogs are dead!
You better stay home
And do as you're told
Get out of the road if you want to grow old.
- Roger Waters, "Sheep"




I haven't seen American Sniper; somehow I can't say I'm likely to--I think Clint Eastwood is a very capable director and all, I just find I don't care overly much for biopics in general and it at least seems like there's a kind of reactionary subtext to this kind of project that might be... well, irritating.  I don't mean offensive, necessarily, or that I can't enjoy a reactionary film; indeed, I have an inordinate fondness for another movie Eastwood was involved in a long time ago, Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, an ultra-reactionary opus that goes out of its way to take a piss on much that I hold sacred and dear (this is a movie, after all, in which the real villain isn't a serial killer, but rather the villains are all the civil liberties softies who allow a monster like that to walk free just because a dedicated public servant like Harry might have gotten a little rough with him while trying to save a poor innocent girl's life).  But as I get old and weary,  I don't see a lot of movies anymore, and when I do it's usually nice to see something with superheroes or spaceships or something.  Technically, this makes me part of the dumbening of America or something like, but what can I say?

Still, it was hard to pass up a headline like this one in Slate, "The Surprising History of American Sniper’s “Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs” Speech" by Michael Cummings and Eric Cummings.  After all, American Sniper appears to be part of the cultural conversation, and who isn't interested in furry animals.  Wolves are cool, sheep are cute, and sheepdogs... well, I've always been fond of Chuck Jones' Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog, though (for the record) it's just impossible to deny that Ralph is more-or-less indistinguishable from Wile E. Coyote unless you're paying special attention to their noses (coyotes, in the Jonesiverse, have black noses; wolves, red).  So I was curious.

What I learned was both horrific and comedic: it seems there's a speech in the movie where someone divides the world up into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs, and that this speech is lifted from something someone named Dave Grossman wrote, linked to above, and that the whole point of the exercise is a justification of violence.  Grossman, you see, thinks the world can be divided into three groups:

If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath--a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.

At Slate, Michael Cummings and Eric Cummings do an excellent job of breaking down some of the moral problems with this notion--

...the analogy is simplistic, and in its simplicity, dangerous. It divides the world into black and white, into a good-versus-evil struggle that the real world doesn’t match. We aren’t divided into sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. We are all humans.

--rightly observing, 

...this simple analogy is undone by an even simpler (and older) one: the wolf in sheep’s clothing. After all, all humans basically look alike. Faced with this problem, how can you tell a wolf from a sheep?

The easiest way is race.

They are, I think, far too kind to Grossman's metaphor.  It isn't just simplistic, it's actually a bit dumb.  Grossman acknowledges that the limit of his metaphor is that the animals he compares humans to are just animals, but that humans have choices and may elect to be sheep, wolves or sheepdogs, and goes on to add:

If you want to be a sheep, then you can be a sheep and that is okay, but you must understand the price you pay. When the wolf comes, you and your loved ones are going to die if there is not a sheepdog there to protect you. If you want to be a wolf, you can be one, but the sheepdogs are going to hunt you down and you will never have rest, safety, trust or love. But if you want to be a sheepdog and walk the warrior’s path, then you must make a conscious and moral decision every day to dedicate, equip and prepare yourself to thrive in that toxic, corrosive moment when the wolf comes knocking at the door.

The implication in Grossman's tone, naturally, is "Who wants to be a sheep?"  He's addressing "warriors" and suggests that we live in a dangerous world and choosing to be a sheep means choosing to let the wolves eat you and your loved ones.  But the problem with this formulation, aside from the wolves in sheep's clothing, is that if a sheepdog can choose to be a sheep, why on Earth is Grossman assuming sheep can't choose to be sheepdogs?

Or to remain sheep but nevertheless master the art of karate, as Roger Waters cheekily suggested in the Pink Floyd song "Sheep" on their 1977 record Animals.  Waters also divided the human species into three classes of animals, but he wasn't glibly doing so in order to give audiences a pat on the back and a sense of self righteousness: indeed, the point of the division on Animals is to suggest that the correct answer to the question, "Would you rather be a dog, a pig, or a sheep?" is "None of the above," all of them being nasty pieces of work in the end and the better answer being that we ought to try caring for each other a little better and taking refuge in one another (finding "shelter from pigs on the wing").

Waters' sheep are mucking around waiting for the abattoir, but the fact they're taken for granted makes them dangerous; Waters posits that they're just waiting around until they feel danger so keenly they'll rise up and trample the dogs (and, presumably, the pigs) and perhaps in true Orwellian fashion recapitulate the order they've thrown down (a la Animal Farm).

Grossman explicitly acknowledges the fluidity between his categories but apparently misses the logical conclusion; Waters only acknowledges the fluidity implicitly, but the conclusion is obvious and explicit: the revolution will come, the dogs will be run over, it will be ugly.  Why would you ever want to be a dog, then?  You will be hated and die bloody, because eventually people--er, sheep, I mean--will get tired of your shit and then where will you be?

Waters finds all this toxic and undesirable.  Animals is a great record, but the whole concept is really a bit muddled and doesn't really work as a sustained metaphor if you try to read it as a cohesive worldview instead of as a quartet of songs (one of the songs is split in half and used to bookend the album) loosely connected through their imagery.  Still: if there is any kind of coherence to the project, it's observation and caution: you should not like the things we show you, whether it's a whipped dog dying slowly of cancer, a grubby pig rolling in filth, or sheep turning into a bloodthirsty mob.

Grossman isn't half so wise.  He's telling policemen and soldiers a story of how they stand outside the pack and save the weak from the ruthless, and letting them know that it's okay if they do some things that the weak don't care for if it's for their own good, and if they want to join the weak they can, but, you know.  It's a poisonous message, and a dumb message, because if the listener stopped to question it, he might realize that by putting himself outside of the flock as its superior and protector, he's really asking to be trampled by hooves when the flock gets ugly.  Or ripped to pieces when some or all of the flock decides to grow teeth and claws.  Either way, outside is not a good place to be, and mistakenly thinking it's a position of privilege instead of one of brief necessity--which is what Grossman seems to be about--is a tragic mistake.

It's not exactly surprising this message is making the rounds.  In many respects, it's not really even a new message: police officers have often had to deal with the isolating nature of their often dangerous and thankless jobs, and it seems like the military has become more insular in the years since the United States went to a volunteer military.  Those outside the loop need to be aware that this message is being passed around in this way, and those who are the intended recipients of the message ought perhaps consider whether they really want to think of themselves as dogs and those they serve as sheep.  All might consider the possibility none of us are sheep and dogs, that we're all humans muddling through as best we can.









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George Stinney, Jr., Number 260, an update

>> Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Quite a number of years ago (2009), I wrote an entry here about juvenile justice in which I mentioned the youngest American executed in modern times, George Stinney, Jr..  George was executed by the state of South Carolina in 1944.  They electrocuted him, and he was too small to fit in the electric chair when they killed him.  That's George, to the right, inmate 260.  All 95 pounds of him.  Ferocious-looking, isn't he?  (Newcomers to the blog are advised that that's grim sarcasm.  In fact, the child looks like he'd have trouble hurting an earthworm he was going to bait a hook with down at the local fishing hole.)

The update this week is that George's conviction has been thrown out by a South Carolina Circuit Court judge.  Judge Carmen T. Mullen, reviewing a depressingly-but-unsurprisingly incomplete record of the child's trial, which took a single day to hear and involved only ten minutes of jury deliberation, granted a request for a writ of coram nobis on the grounds that few of the young man's rights weren't violated: his confession was most likely coerced, his counsel was woefully inadequate, he could not possibly have received a fair and impartial trial in that venue, and it was cruel and unusual punishment  to execute a child.  The whole opinion can be read here--the format's a bit annoying, but many thanks to Mr. Robert Joseph Baker for posting it nevertheless.

While Judge Mullen's opinion is obviously the moral thing under the circumstances, it's hard not to feel depressed by the injustice that occurred long before our time, and the delay that truly has been a denial.  All of George Stinney's surviving brothers and sisters are elderly now, and have been robbed of growing up with a brother who liked art and airplanes.  There's no faulting Judge Mullen here: it's hardly her fault she was born seventy years too late to avert an injustice that occurred when the legal profession had barely more regard for an accomplished woman with a law degree and extensive legislative and litigation experience than it had for an African-American child.  But all she could do really does feel like too little and too late, at least to me.  (It may be consoling to the Stinney family--I hope it's something, anyway.)

In my pessimistic, jaded frame of burned-out listlessness, I can't help observing that this update is in some respects bad news: the youngest child executed in the United States in the modern era is now a legally innocent child.  One injustice has been addressed as well as it might be: it doesn't appear that George Stinney ever should have been convicted, if all they had was a probably coerced confession (one that was recanted, no less, according to a witness at the coram nobis hearing) and no physical evidence; a probably coerced confession that frankly seems hard to believe when one considers that one of the victims matched little George in size and combined they quite likely would have outmatched him.  Another injustice is irredeemable: a child is dead, one who shouldn't have been killed in the United States of America even in the unlikely event he did do something terrible.

I don't believe in an afterlife, but if I'm wrong, I hope George forgives us, however unworthy we may be.




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Everything old is old again

>> Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I think I've said this before, I guess I have to say it again: it seems to me that if you believe in the efficacy of torture as an intelligence-gathering tool, you must necessarily believe in magic.  Because we know from historical experience--in medieval Europe, in colonial New England--that people who are tortured will admit to practicing witchcraft, to being in league with the Devil, to being werewolves.  And if you want to update that data with more recent instances, we know, for instance, from all the horribly detailed records at Tuol Sleng that prisoners of the Khmer Rouge confessed in detail to being participants in seemingly-absurd joint conspiracies in which the United States was allied with the Soviets, Chinese and Vietnamese.

When I think about this, two hypotheses present themselves.  The first is that there are witches and werewolves, Satan is a real guy who lurks in the woods with a big black book that he gets recruits to sign their names in.  And nations that are mortal enemies on the brink of nuclear war can set aside their rivalries for the sake of persecuting a small, insignificant and bloody land.  The second hypothesis would be that most torture victims will, at some point, say absolutely anything they think their torturer wants to hear, no matter how absurd, incorrect, misleading, or contrary to basic laws of physics it is.

One of those hypotheses seems self-evidently ridiculous to me.

There's a usual rebuttal at this point, to the effect that this only matters if torture is the only tool, but that "properly" used, "enhanced interrogations" supplement other data.  This seemingly reasonable response disintegrates upon inspection: if you already know what your victim is telling you, all he's doing is confirming biases; at best, he's telling you nothing, but at worst he's reinforcing mistakes you're already making.

The witch-hunters of Europe already knew damn well Satan was afoot and making people and cattle sick, and causing all sorts of other mischief; torture wasn't their primary or sole source of intelligence, either, it was mostly being used to gather confessions with which to speed up trials and executions.  Without having read the Congressional report on torture issued this week, one assumes the CIA used torture--excuse me, "enhanced interrogation"-- to similar effect: a victim who disagreed with the prevailing wisdom and known knowns was subjected to further "interrogation" until he stopped "lying."  That's how it works, didn't you know?  Resistance is your excuse for torturing in the first place, it's a feedback loop: we already know x, so if the subject isn't telling us x, we add a few more pounds to his chest, we turn up the voltage, we put him back on the board.

Because Satan himself is abroad in the land.



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