Saturday, June 27, 2009

Artist detained for writecrime

In another reminder of why individual suspicions can never be used to justify detention or arrest, artist Mark Sable was detained last week at LAX for a script to a comic found in his luggage. That's right - not a weapon, not pepper spray or an incendiary device, but a script.

Considering our First Amendment protections the content of the script is immaterial, but it involved terrorism and a burgeoning government police state. Regardless of whether the uncreative minds of the TSA agents thought this an appropriate subject for a script, or even subversive is also immaterial - printed words represent no threat to a plane or my nation, while using personal suspicions and biases as an excuse for oppression and harassment does incalculable damage to any civilized nation and to its values.

If you in opposition to the Fourth Amendment allow mere "suspicion" to be a suitable cause for a search or detention, it will be used inappropriately and it will result in further First Amendment violations as the subjective judgments of sometimes-corrupt, sometimes-stupid agents become law and trump any semblance of due process.

Comics artist Mark Sable detained for Unthinkable acts (SFScope)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The BBC Reviews "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"

I wish I had thought of this. The page makes it clear that this is actually a review of all of Michael Bay's work, a sort of appropriate retrospective. Had I not edited the inch-long footer out of existence you would have seen that without my telling you.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure

To continue reading this post, continue below.
To read something a great deal more interesting, turn to page 177.

I remember reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series (and its spinoffs) ravenously as a kid, to the extent that I'm convinced they were the first paperback fiction I ever read. As a child unable to see the flaws and cracks in a system, they seemed to offer me the illusion of choice without the obligation of seeing a particular plot thread through to the end.

To the uninitiated (and you can see a more complete explanation here), the books were standard schlocky kid's comic book types of stories, with titles like You Are Microscopic (the first I ever read) and Prisoner of the Ant People, with the twist that the plot was comparatively fluid - after a few introductory pages, the story would begin to branch off and allow you to have a sort of control over your character's actions.

For example, after learning that your aged uncle is a mad scientist who has discovered the key to immortality, you may have the option of taking a swig of the serum or offering it to him first, with page numbers for each decision. You'd follow the appropriate page and continue reading, having made a limited choice of the plot's progression. Anyone familiar with these types of stories should recognize the inevitable events that follow depending on your choices (for example, you might take the serum, becoming immortal. Your uncle dies of a heart attack before being able to make any more, and you become a sort of filthy rich eternal celebrity, starring in films and endorsing whatever products immortal people still need, until the book closes in the year 3000).

Usually these books followed the ". . . with a HORRIBLE twist!" style of writing, however, so it's likely that about 80% of the endings would involve your being crushed or shrunk to nothing or left floating forever in space. It was fairly difficult to find the ending where your character is surrounded by a pool full of jewels and bikini babes, so most of us learned to save our places with our fingers when making a decision. In fact, the finger contortions involved in making a decision three or four levels deep (while trying to avoid having your character eaten by a spider or run over by a car) probably gave the young generation much of their motor control, directly leading to the computer age. (Hey, a quarter billion of those books were sold, let's not underestimate their impact.)

Anyway, these books offered only the illusion of choice, as I said above. Most of the choices fizzled out quickly, ending in your character's death or a similar unhappy ending. And most of the choices were fairly simple to accommodate the fact that it was really only possible to cram a few dozen into a 130-page book. Character development was more or less out of the question, so the illusion was precarious enough that most of us moved onto other things in middle school (Goosebumps! Animorphs! Boy Wizards!). Still, I admire the series for pushing the boundaries of fiction as we knew it, touching the video game receptors in kids' minds as they read books, and teaching us that free will was an arbitrary, impossible notion. Hooray!

The End
(Flip back a couple of decisions and leave that ancient skull alone.)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Eh, I'll get another fifteen minutes of fame in a couple of months. . .

I posted a semi-sly bit of editorial imaging onto Reddit about five hours ago, and came back after some Father's Day stuff to find it the top link on Reddit and on the front page of Digg, submitted by another user. It took me about a day to think of asking Alan Schaaf, the creator of Imgur, to include a watermark with my blog address in the image. He was familiar with it and glad to help.

EDIT: It was, in fact, the #1 link on both Reddit and Digg for the day.

Direct link:

Or click the image to view in fullscreen below:

Funny how Photoshopped borders and twenty minutes can get this kind of response.

Oh, and the attentive among you may notice that I've edited the image here. Frankly that particular word, however hilarious, isn't in my normal vernacular. Imgur doesn't allow you to edit submitted images so I'm stuck with it. (Ignore my explanation here if you don't care in the slightest.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

More Jibjabbery (He's Barack Obama)

JibJab can be hit or miss, but it's hard to argue that the production values on their political shorts have ever been less than stellar. The Spiridellis brothers have a grasp of Flash animation that's practically second to none, and their videos have gotten increasingly more epic, at least the ones that mattered.

The timing on this video seems odd, coming as it does a few months after the election, but I prefer to see it as a slightly sarcastic, still respectful take on our president. His sense of humor being what it is, I think he'd get a kick out of this.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Artist/Jailer Quandary

Though I believe that opening up your work to a wider audience always results in higher profits, I'd like to pose the following decision for artists, struggling or otherwise:

If, by releasing your work with a copyright license that allowed copying, sharing and the adaptation of your work into other mediums, your profit levels remained the same but some form of your work reached twice as many people, would you make that choice?

For the purpose of this exercise, we'll assume that the choice is in your hands rather than the hands of a label or syndicate which controls distribution rights. Even in our modern artist-side, independent climate such groups have a role, though they control much of the debate regarding intellectual property and tend to neglect both artist and consumer rights. So we'll ignore them for now.

I guess the question is: Are you an artist or a jailer? The question isn't even "artist or businessman," as independent artists are rapidly proving that it's possible to make a profit without controlling access to your work. The model is changing and many of us are changing with it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Drag Me To Hell, Please (for about an hour and a half)

I've often thought that films should be able to get away with parenthetical afterthoughts much like our popular songs do. For example, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" by The Rolling Stones. How about "(We're Going) Up?" Or "Land of the Lost (Plot)?" At any rate, if "Drag Me To Hell" were to follow this pattern it wouldn't need much more than a simple "(Don't)" before the title. Certainly the phrase doesn't appear anywhere in the movie, the event described not being particularly desirable.

So I'm forced to conclude that the title must refer to a desire by the film's audience for a little hellraising. And in this respect "Drag Me To Hell" does not disappoint. It's more or less pure horror in a schlocky, outrageous sort of way - the type you might see in an old "Tales From the Crypt" comic or a Stephen King short story. The film isn't a comedy in the sense that some other reviews may lead you to believe - the humor comes mainly from how audacious the film is, how thrillingly tasteless and outrageous it manages to be without treading into sadistic terroritory.

The film is appropriately tense, essentially one scare moment after another, each topping the last in grotesque, often groan-inducing fun. There isn't a moment in this movie that's meant to be taken seriously, which is probably a good thing - the film's peripheral characters are about as goofy and one-dimensional as the ones we've seen in Spider-Man. Unlike the Spider-Man flicks, however, this is actually an asset to the film, because the simple archetypes (the assertive jerk co-worker, harsh old-worlder Gypsy woman, or knowledgeable Indian fortuneteller) fit the B-movie "Drag Me To Hell" labors to be. Sure, elements of characterization are there: the main character's slide into madness and desperation, a spiritual medium's desire to prove herself against the demons that defeated her years before, and a proud old woman who becomes demonic, spiteful and vicious when shamed. But these character-driven moments are usually (successfully) played for comedy and camp, chills, or all three.

I say "chills," but this doesn't seem appropriate. Because most of the running gags (an old woman and later a corpse tearing out chunks of our heroine's hair, or various questionable substances of every variety going out of their way to drench her) are more likely to elicit squirm-inducing laughs than the type of unsettling psychological moments that linger after a movie's credits. Even the abrupt "twist" ending is meant to be seen from a mile away, making it funny rather than unsettling, much like the end of a "Seinfeld" episode. The audience I was with kept laughing to and through the credits.

My advice: If you're any fan of old-fashioned horror without any dismemberment but chock-full of stuff that's arguably worse, go see "(Don't) Drag Me To Hell" with some like-minded friends. This is one for the theater. Oh, and "Sam Raimi's Return To Horror" might be a good name for a rock band or album (there go the last vestiges of my Dave Barry fixation).

Clumpy gives this movie: Three turkeys and half a douchebag

It's not their fault, but they're pretty annoying

I found this image online (I forget where), and though it almost seems like parody it was written by somebody espousing the "red" personality. This chart basically explains every immature power struggle in business, government and other spheres of human interaction.

Let me get this straight: reds like to get work done, but they don't pay enough attention to know what on Earth they're doing and they have trouble seeing the big picture. They're quite preoccupied with looking and being busy, but don't always know what they're doing. Every unpleasant, self-assured supervisor that you've ever had needs to see this list, though they might get a different message from it.

Innocent Uighur Gitmo detainees released to Bermuda, plan to open restaurant

Four former Gitmo detainees were released after seven years to one of the few countries willing to take them - Bermuda, where they plan to open the first Bermudan Uighur restaurant. America (meaning of course the Bush administration) had determined that these prisoners constituted no threat to the United States, clearing them of all wrongdoing, and in fact asserted that they shouldn't even be called "enemy combatants."

Cue the reams of bulletheaded, ignorant conservatives who will claim that these prisoners must have been guilty or they wouldn't have been arrested, and that Obama is releasing terrorists to tropical vacations. These individuals fled oppression from their governments only to be captured by the U.S. in Muslim nations as terror suspects. The least we can do after holding them illegally for nearly a decade is put them somewhere where they can't undergo the same treatment.

Oh, and those people I mentioned attacking the president for releasing innocents - the ones with a disrespect for the rule of law, an inability to interpret reality, irresistible racist, fascist compulsions and partisan Tourette's syndrome? Get Parkinson's, stick your arms in a wood chipper, move underground - anything to keep you from typing. I have this thing against ignorant, hateful creeps. I hope you understand.

"Gitmo Four" released to Bermuda (DailyMail)

Ziggy Liberated reborn as "Ziggy's Journey"

About a month ago I wrapped up my year-long project Ziggy Liberated, a sort of guided tour of the world of Ziggy. Ostensibly it was also fueled by philosophy, though it should be obvious to anybody who read the feature that I used it more as a way of getting more mileage out of a comic strip I've grown to appreciate. Ziggy (both the feature and the titular character) has an odd resonance, as well as some very peculiar events and writing. I've grown to quite like the feature, to the point where I'm proud to tout it as one of the finest features on the comics page (acknowledging, of course, that competition in that area has been pretty scarce since the mid-90s).

This is a sort of formal announcement that I've rebooted Ziggy Liberated as Ziggy's Journey, a stranger, more plot-driven feature that will give me a chance to explore some more metaphysical concepts. It seems unlikely that I'll be changing the URL for the feature, though I'll be updating the visual style of the site over the next few weeks. The archived year of Ziggy Liberated will remain online, naturally. I hope you enjoy - I know I will.

Ziggy's Journey (Ziggy Liberated)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Carlson: Let Kim Jong-Il Visit America

In a highly compelling opinion piece in the Washington Post, Peter Carlson suggests a highly unusual (and likely controversial) way to ingratiate America to the egotistical North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il: let him visit. Much of the piece is taken up by a recounting of the bizarre visit of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to the West.

In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev, the eccentric and unpredictable Soviet dictator, was misbehaving, rattling his nukes and threatening West Berlin, which he described as a "malignant tumor." Negotiations over the city's fate proved fruitless, so Ike tried a different strategy: He invited Khrushchev to visit the United States. Khrushchev, who loved to travel, immediately accepted, replying that he'd like to ramble around the country for "ten to fifteen days."

The fat-bellied, thin-skinned, cranky communist dictator's resulting road trip through the wonderland of '50s America turned out to be one of the most bizarre diplomatic journeys in history.

Why not? Jong Il is a well-known western pop culture enthusiast - let him see a show, hobnob it with celebrities and ride a roller coaster with an appropriate height limit. We've already proven that we catch more flies with honey than with vinegar in our interrogation techniques, and what good can come from isolating Jong Il from the nations he's threatening, thereby dehumanizing them in his eyes? Who gives a patootie what conservative pundits will say - this is the fate of the world we're talking about, Jong Il's the leader of one of the last few really dangerous countries threatening the world and there's no possible downside.

Peter Carlson - Give Kim Jong Il the Khrushchev Treatment

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"Ketchup" equals "American," unless it's Heinz

Somehow I missed this last month - Conservative "pundits" (including the desperate liar Sean Hannity) attacking Barack Obama for ordering a hamburger with "fancy" dijon mustard and no ketchup. We expect this from Sean, who has of late become more and more of a puppet for the ramblings of the syphilitic dementia that will eventually take his life, but what's Laura Ingraham's excuse?


Sigh. . . unless he does something newsworthy (like offer to be waterboarded), I promise that I will ignore Sean Hannity from now on. Watching the guy isn't so much like watching a car crash as experiencing an unusually painful bowel movement, and about as relevant.

But I offer the following unscientific Google-ing:

Results for "Sean Hannity is a tool": 660
Results for "A screwdriver is a tool": 186

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

But If We Started Dating It Would Ruin Our Friendship Where I Ask You To Do Things And You Do Them

This is one of the sharpest, most bitterly satirical articles from The Onion that I've seen in years. I've thankfully mostly avoided the situation of the guy in the article, though this should be required reading:
It's just…you're like my best friend, and I would hate for something you desperately want to change that. I mean, sure, we could go on some dates, maybe mess around a little and finally validate the six years you've spent languishing in this platonic nightmare, but then what? How could we ever go back to the way we were, where I take advantage of your clear attraction to me so I can have someone at my beck and call? That part of our friendship means so much to me.
But If We Started Dating It Would Ruin Our Friendship Where I Ask You To Do Things And You Do Them (The Onion)

Dear Pixar, From All The Girls With Band-Aids On Their Knees

As somebody who enjoyed Up, I highly recommend this open letter from Linda Holmes of NPR to Pixar asking for female protagonists in their fantastic films:

I have nothing against princesses. I have nothing against movies with princesses. But don't the Disney princesses pretty much have us covered? If we had to wait for your thirteenth movie for you to make one with a girl at the center, couldn't you have chosen something -- something -- for her to be that could compete with plucky robots and adventurous space toys?

Or more to the point, why couldn't your first female central character be as specifically drawn as the women and girls (and girl robots, etc.) you're already writing as secondary characters? Ratatouille has a chef! WALL-E has Eve! The Incredibles has superheroes!

And Up...oh, Up has Ellie, who I could have watched forever. Seen only in flashbacks to the main story, Ellie is warm and hilarious, ambitious and fearless, and then gone for most of the movie. She provides the engine for the story, in many ways, but it's an old man and a little boy who actually get to hit the gas.

I don't like to make movies political, especially kids' movies, if I can help it. Sometimes a princess is just a princess and should be taken as such.

At the same time, little Russell, in Up, is Asian-American, right? And that's not a big plot point; presumably, he just is because there's no particular reason he shouldn't be. You don't need him to be, but you don't need him not to be, either. It's not politics; it's just seeing the whole big world.

Well, the whole big world has a lot of little girls in it, too. And not all of them are princesses -- and the ones who are princesses have plenty of movies to watch.

The Full Letter

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Just a little frightening. . .Obama to allow Gitmo executions without trials

From the New York Times:
The Obama administration is considering a change in the law for the military commissions at the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, that would clear the way for detainees facing the death penalty to plead guilty without a full trial.

The provision could permit military prosecutors to avoid airing the details of brutal interrogation techniques. It could also allow the five detainees who have been charged with the Sept. 11 attacks to achieve their stated goal of pleading guilty to gain what they have called martyrdom.

The proposal, in a draft of legislation that would be submitted to Congress, has not been publicly disclosed. It was circulated to officials under restrictions requiring secrecy. People who have read or been briefed on it said it had been presented to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates by an administration task force on detention.

Obama's already outlined his procedure of "indefinite preventative detention," a fascinating, scary way of saying "illegal imprisonment without trial or sufficient evidence." It's already too late for Obama to become the human rights President, and I suspect that our country is already on a path where a respect for the rule of law and the Bill of Rights is no longer considered an asset in political circles. Naturally, the terrorists won when we began to compromise our own ideals and values on a massive scale in the name of keeping America "safe." No good American should want this kind of "safety." It's largely imaginary in the first place and requires the destruction of nearly everything that makes our country great and unique.

The proposal would ease what has come to be recognized as the government’s difficult task of prosecuting men who have confessed to terrorism but whose cases present challenges. Much of the evidence against the men accused in the Sept. 11 case, as well as against other detainees, is believed to have come from confessions they gave during intense interrogations at secret C.I.A. prisons. In any proceeding, the reliability of those statements would be challenged, making trials difficult and drawing new political pressure over detainee treatment.
In a nutshell, President Obama wants to allow "evidence" obtained under illegal and unreliable torture methods to be considered statements of guilt worthy of execution (read note below), without any semblance of a lawful trial. Obama, having taken steps to begin closing Gitmo purely as a formality, has decided to turn it into an illegal execution factory.

NOTE: It seems that executions will not occur based solely on evidence obtained under torture, but a guilty plea on the part of the "defendant." This is still frightening as an inmate incarcerated for several months, often subject to inhumane or illegal torture and techniques for breaking them down, cannot be considered a reliable source for information. Allowing the government to execute based on a mere confession obtained through whatever methods they decide are legal is questionable at best, a prelude to totalitarianism at worst (and that's no exaggeration).

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Finding Terrorists and The Problem of the False Positive

If you'd ever like a nice little Orwellian book to make you good and angry (I mean, provided that you read the news as well), I highly recommend Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (which he's put up for free download here). The book describes the misguided nature of attempting to find terrorists and criminals by tracking patterns:

If you ever decide to do something as stupid as build an automatic terrorism detector, here's a math lesson you need to learn first. It's called "the paradox of the false positive," and it's a doozy.

Say you have a new disease, called Super-AIDS. Only one in a million people gets Super-AIDS. You develop a test for Super-AIDS that's 99 percent accurate. I mean, 99 percent of the time, it gives the correct result ­ -- true if the subject is infected, and false if the subject is healthy. You give the test to a million people.

One in a million people have Super-AIDS. One in a hundred people that you test will generate a "false positive" ­ -- the test will say he has Super-AIDS even though he doesn't. That's what "99 percent accurate" means: one percent wrong.

What's one percent of one million?

1,000,000/100 = 10,000

One in a million people has Super-AIDS. If you test a million random people, you'll probably only find one case of real Super-AIDS. But your test won't identify one person as having Super-AIDS. It will identify 10,000 people as having it.

Your 99 percent accurate test will perform with 99.99 percent inaccuracy.

That's the paradox of the false positive. When you try to find something really rare, your test's accuracy has to match the rarity of the thing you're looking for. If you're trying to point at a single pixel on your screen, a sharp pencil is a good pointer: the penciltip is a lot smaller (more accurate) than the pixels. But a penciltip is no good at pointing at a single atom in your screen. For that, you need a pointer ­ a test ­ that's one atom wide or less at the tip.

This is the paradox of the false positive, and here's how it applies to terrorism:

Terrorists are really rare. In a city of twenty million like New York, there might be one or two terrorists. Maybe ten of them at the outside. 10/20,000,000 = 0.00005 percent. One twenty-thousandth of a percent.

That's pretty rare all right. Now, say you've got some software that can sift through all the bank-records, or toll-pass records, or public transit records, or phone-call records in the city and catch terrorists 99 percent of the time.

In a pool of twenty million people, a 99 percent accurate test will identify two hundred thousand people as being terrorists. But only ten of them are terrorists. To catch ten bad guys, you have to haul in and investigate two hundred thousand innocent people.

Guess what? Terrorism tests aren't anywhere close to 99 percent accurate. More like 60 percent accurate. Even 40 percent accurate, sometimes.

What this all meant was that the Department of Homeland Security had set itself up to fail badly. They were trying to spot incredibly rare events ­ -- a person is a terrorist ­ -- with inaccurate systems.

Is it any wonder we were able to make such a mess?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

"Up" and "3D" - Two things that go well together

Just got out of Pixar's Up, a film of balloons, poignancy and surreal adventure. Disliking this film seems impossible, and I found myself earnestly interested if not necessarily enthralled throughout the film's 96-minute running time. Like some of my favorite films, Up is pure storytelling, unafraid to indulge in a little magical ambience or intersperse subtle, touching moments with some seriously weird sight gags and nutty action.

It's best to go into this film blind to everything but the basic premise, which I'd bet you're already familiar with: A slightly cranky, slightly senile but mostly independent and warmhearted septuagenarian flies his house away to Venezuela with a bunch of balloons. Hijinks ensue. This is both a straightforward adventure story and a somber coming-of-(old) age tale, a dynamic I quite enjoyed. The action and humor onscreen is uniformly compelling, to be sure, but the reason for the trip is more important and earns exactly its share of screen time. And the film's finale - a plethora of goofy slapstick, characters dangling from precarious heights (uh, spoiler) and good old-fashioned adventure - is something to behold. Really, you can literally behold it. It's right there in front of you.

Mainly due to the various rocks I've been hiding under, this whole 3D element took me somewhat by surprise. We finally opted to spring for a 3D showing, something I highly recommend. You get a pair of goofy glasses and there's no eyestrain, so why not? Due to the technology involved the screen's a little darker, but the film's 3D is such a subtle effect and adds to the scale of the film to such a degree that I would urge the moviegoing public to take that route. My roommate insists that 3D is wasted on anything but a film full of snakes jumping at the camera and similar gimmickry, but he can cram it. Go see Up!

Further Reading:

I review Star Trek The Dark Knight Hellboy II Wall-E Alvin and the Chipmunks Iron Man