"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reviews in Brief: Joss Whedon's The Avengers

I saw The Avengers when it was in the theaters, and came right home and pre-ordered the DVD, which arrived Thursday. I have now watched the DVD three times, from you which you might infer that I love this movie. You'd be right.

If you have somehow avoided knowing anything about the film, the basic set-up is as follows: S.H.I.E.L.D. is working with the tesseract, a mysterious artifact retrieved from the depths of the ocean during the search for Captain America when he was being an icicle, trying to a) figure it out, and b) use it as a source of unlimited sustainable energy. However, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), still smarting from his exile from Asgard, has another use for it: he's going to conquer Earth, using the tesseract to create a portal to bring his army through from another dimension. So he manages to transport himself to the lab where the work is being done and steals the tesseract, magically coopting Dr. Selvig (Stellan SkarsgÄrd) and Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), director of S.H.I.E.L.D., needs a response team, and starts to put it together: Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). They capture Loki and are transporting him back to headquarters when Thor (Chris Hemsworth) inserts himself into the picture, intent on taking Loki back to Asgard to face judgment there.

Then the fun begins.

This is Whedon's show, and it's terrific: he co-wrote the story, wrote the screenplay, and directed. It's hard to explain the appeal. (Well, aside from Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth running around in tights, and Robert Downey, Jr., being cute as all get-out, and Jeremy Renner's shoulders, and Mark Ruffalo naked in an abandoned warehouse -- you get the idea.) It's tight, focused, starts moving even before the opening titles and doesn't slow down (not much, at least). Visually, it's a treat as well --- even aside from the aforementioned eyecandy.

The actors are all in top form -- there's a lot of spiky back-and-forth and outright confrontations between Captain America and Iron Man, between Bruce Banner and Nick Fury, between Thor and everyone. And yet they somehow make themselves into a team, and the final battle scene -- which lasts about an hour -- is absolutely no holds barred. (The effects are, as you might guess, spectacular.)

The prize, I think, goes to Johannson as Black Widow -- not only is she a superb physical actress, but her character is multi-faceted and very subtly drawn.

Oh, and it's funny. There's some great throw-away lines sprinkled throughout the movie.

So, yeah, this is my movie of the year.

Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures, 2012. Running time 143 minutes, rated PG. Full credits at IMDb, and a full review at Sleeping Hedgehog.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Period of Adjustment

It's been a weird couple of months, and I'm still adjusting to new routines. Plus, I got a cold, which puts my brain into sleep mode. There's been a lot to be outraged about, and I may try to catch up on some of it, but this one just hit me today. The story's around, but this report, via Balloon Juice, caught my attention. From the LA Times report:

Strategic Allied Consulting was hired to do voter registration drives in Florida, Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina and Nevada, and had been planning get-out-the-vote drives in Ohio and Wisconsin, according to Sproul.

Sproul owns another company, Lincoln Strategy Group, that was paid about $70,000 by the Mitt Romney campaign during the primaries to gather signatures. He said he created Strategic Allied Consulting at the request of the Republican National Committee because of the bad publicity stemming from the past allegations. In 2004, there were allegations in states such as Nevada and Oregon that employees of his firm -- which had a similar contract with the RNC -- registered Democratic voters and then destroyed their forms. (Sproul noted that no criminal charges were ever filed.)

Strategic Allied was set up at an address in Glen Allen, Va., and Sproul does not show up on the corporate paperwork.

“In order to be able to do the job that the state parties were hiring us to do, the [RNC] asked us to do it with a different company’s name, so as to not be a distraction from the false information put out in the Internet,” Sproul said.
(Emphasis mine.)

Two things about this: You'll note that the RNC and the state party organizations did not decline to do business with Sproul because of past allegations of fraud and other improprieties -- they just asked him to change his name, which is pretty revealing: they have no problem doing business with shady characters if it gets the results they want, and they haven't figured out that this is the Information Age -- you can't hide shit like this.

Also, too, the stress on the fact that no criminal charges were ever brought: It's a sad statement on the degree of cynicism in this country about our justice system that this carries no weight whatsoever. Perhaps I'm more cynical than most, but my first question was, "Were the state Attorneys General, or the DAs in charge of the investigations, Republicans?" If they were Democrats, then maybe there's no fire, in spite of the smoke. If they were, big whip.

And "distraction"? Yeah, I guess if you're going back to the same shady character and it's public information, it might be a distraction -- that is, it would distract from your own distractions about "voter fraud."

The mindset here is staggering.

Now that I'm feeling better, maybe I'll go after the Catholic bishops -- they've been in rare form lately.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Reviews in Brief: Brian Michael Bendis et al: Avengers vs. X-Men, #0-3

Well, my two favorite superhero teams have finally crossed swords, thanks to Brian Michael Bendis and the folks at Marvel.

Hope Summers is the only mutant born since M-Day. She's with the X-Men, where her life is just one long bout of training. She's a young woman now, and like young people in general, is feeling the restrictions imposed on her activities by her elders.

The Avengers have discovered that the Phoenix Force, a cosmic-scale energy pool that it capable of destroying whole worlds, is headed toward Earth and figure out that it's headed right at Hope. In the first of a series of remarkably stupid moves, Steve Rogers (Captain America) goes to Utopia, home of the mutants, to demand that Hope be handed over for safe-keeping. Unfortunately, Scott Summers (Cyclops) can be just as stupidly stubborn as Captain America, particularly when faced with not onlyl a confrontation, but a whole shipload of Avengers. The ensuing pitched battle is no real surprise, but Wolverine, compounding the stupidity in ready supply on both sides, takes off on his own to capture Hope. Apparently, no one told him that she's already very powerful. Spooked, she sets off on her own while Wolverine is busy regrowing his skin -- among her other attributes, Hope can generate fire out of pretty much nothing.

In spite of all the arrogance and idiocy demonstrated on both sides, particularly by two men who should know better, this is turning out a to be a lot of fun. Needless to say, there's lots of action, and both teams are seeing a chance to settle some old scores. This, happily, is not at the expense of some strongly drawn characterizations -- Cyclops, in particular, reveals himself to be a shrewd leader who always has a back-up. The main responsibility for the scripting has fallen on Brian Michael Bendis, and he's holding up his end quite well.

Frank Cho penciled #0, then John Romita, Jr., picked it up for the next three numbers, ably supported by Scott Hanna's clean, incisive inks and colors by the incomparable Laura Martin.

This one's a lot of fun -- I feel like a fan boy, running up to the comics store every two weeks to pick up the next number. I'm not sure yet whether I'm going to continue reviewing them in chunks. We'll see.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Compare and Contrast

Reactions to the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi and the embassy in Cairo:

From the citizens of Benghazi:

More pictures at the link.

And now, Mitt Romney, via AmericaBlog:
The gunfire at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, had barely ceased when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney seriously mischaracterized what had happened in a statement accusing President Barack Obama of "disgraceful" handling of violence there and at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.

"The Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks," Romney said in a statement first emailed to reporters at 10:09 p.m. Eastern time, under the condition it not be published until midnight.

In fact, neither a statement by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier in the day nor a later statement from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered sympathy for attackers. The statement from the Cairo Embassy had condemned anti-Muslim religious incitement before the embassy walls were breached. In her statement, issued minutes before Romney's, Clinton had offered the administration's first response to the violence in Libya, explicitly condemning the attack there and confirming the death of a State Department official.

This is from an AP fact check, which you can find complete here. And Romney can't even get his own party behind him on this.
Former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice ignores him entirely with a gracious statement, including thoughts of Ambassador Chris Stevens, "a wonderful officer and a terrific diplomat who was dedicated to the cause of freedom." Republican congressional leadership has also been muted and responsible in their responses, none of them—Paul Ryan included—even referencing Romney's action, or using the attacks as an opportunity to attack the administration. House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell expressed their sympathy for the families and their resolve for unity, with McConnell saying, “We honor the Americans we lost in Libya and we will stand united in our response.”

Former Republican presidential nominee John McCain was actually quite classy.

And it wouldn't do to miss the pictures:

That expression is henceforth to be known officially as "The Romney Smirk."

There are people who actually want this man to be president.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

This Could Be Big

Ir probably will be -- computers that operate on light:

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have made an important advance in this frontier of photonics, fashioning the first all-optical photonic switch out of cadmium sulfide nanowires. Moreover, they combined these photonic switches into a logic gate, a fundamental component of computer chips that process information.

The nano-wires can manipulate light to make switches, the basic component of computers. Did you get that? Nano-switches. As in really, really, really tiny.

Vernor Vinge wrote a novel a few years ago, Rainbow's End, that postulated people being able to access the Internet through their clothes. Sony, I think, has already debuted a prototype of a computer built into eyeglasses. With this, they could build computers into contact lenses.

It's an amazing world. It's sort of sobering to realize that we're living in a science-fiction novel.

Sunday, September 09, 2012


One hell of a speech from Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver II.

Reviews in Brief: Andrew Stanton's John Carter

So John Carter arrived from Amazon, and I watched it.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) is a Civil War veteran who has lost everything, and has gone West to seek his fortune. Somehow, he's gotten wind of a "cave of gold," and that's what he's after. He finds it, but after killing a man -- a Thern, a race who have a strange and fairly unwholesome involvement in the decline and fall of civilizations -- who's trying to kill him, he finds himself transported to a strange place where he is taken captive by a race of very tall, skinny, green four-armed people, the Tharks. He is given a drink of something by a woman named Sola (Samantha Morton) that enables him to understand the language. He soon falls in with Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess who is fleeing an unwanted marriage with Sab Than (Dominic West), the ruler of Zodanga, a rival city that has been engaged in a civil war with her home city of Helium for a thousand years and is about to win. The marriage is the price of peace. Turns out Carter is on Barsoom (Mars), and winds up inextricably involved in the civil war, in spite of starting out just trying to get home. Things are complicated by the interference of Matai Shang (Mark Strong), the leader of the Therns who has his own plans for the people of Barsoom.

And that is a really bare-bones summary. It's a complex milieu and a very intricate plot. After that, where to start?

OK -- the Martians, in their infinite variety. The Tharks, who are humanoid but certainly not human -- physically, at least -- are very well executed. The animatronics are of a very high order, very lifelike, and this carries through to the native animals. The voice actors, who in addition to Morton include Willem Dafoe as Tars Tarkas, Sola's father and the "emperor" of the Tharks, bring them to life.

The actors who portray the humans are equally good, but in some places they're fighting a script that veers into bombast and is sometimes incomprehensible. (Although I didn't find as many WTF? moments as some writers have claimed.)

Yeah, it's not the greatest heroic fantasy film out there, but it's worth watching. Of course, one reason I like is probably this:

For full credits, see IMDb.

Thirty-Five Years

Voyager 1 and 2 were launched roughly thirty-five years ago. They're still working.

Unlike some who are writing about the anniversary, by the time the Voyagers launched I was old enough that space exploration had become a norm for me -- I was an adult when Neil Armstrong made the first moon walk. It was still exciting, though. And the pictures they sent back! (The space program has been part of my life since childhood -- I remember my father taking me out into the back yard about 4 am one morning to see Sputnik. I was in sixth grade. Now it seems sometimes as though half the stars you see at night are actually satellites.)

Here's a close-up of Ganymede by Voyager 1:

And the clouds on Jupiter look like an artist's rendering, but this is actually a photograph:

We didn't know until Voyager got there that Jupiter had rings; they're very faint, and pretty unstable. Saturn, on the other hand:

And now Voyager 1 is getting ready to leave home, so to speak -- it's headed out of the solar system, into interstellar space.

That's exciting.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

You Have to See It to Believe It (Updated)

It all started out when a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, Brendan Ayanbadejo, expressed his support for same-sex marriage (which, as you'll remember, is on the ballot in Maryland this year).

Apparently, Maryland Delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr., thought this was going too far and wrote to the owner of the Ravens demanding that he shut Ayanbadejo up:

Rob Tisinai points out the problem with this:

This is a state legislator…writing on official Maryland House of Delegates letterhead to a man’s boss asking him to shut down his employee’s free speech.

It's not a matter of criticizing Ayanbadejo's stance on the issue. It's a matter of using one's public office to attempt to quash a private citizen's freedom of speech by demanding that his boss shut him up. That, to me, says "government interference in fundamental rights."

Well, Burns got a response from another football player, Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings:

I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland's state government. Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level. The views you espouse neglect to consider several fundamental key points, which I will outline in great detail (you may want to hire an intern to help you with the longer words)[.]

That's just the beginning. Read the whole thing -- it's perfect.

Here's an appearance by Kluwe on The Ed Show discussing the whole flap. Ayabadejo has been fairly quiet about it, but maybe that's the best strategy -- he's got a lot of supporters.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Oh, and as Tisinai points out, Burns really put his foot in it with his remark about no other NFL players having expressed an opinion on marriage equality. The list includes:
Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, Houston Texans linebacker Connor Barwin, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, New England Patriots safety Bret Lockett, New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie
And where, you might ask, are those stalwart defenders of "free speech" Tony Perkins, Brian Brown, Peter LaBarbera, and the whole crew? Yeah, exactly. Update: Kluwe published a "cleaned up" version of his letter that is, if anything, even funnier. Read it at his blog.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Finally, Something Exciting in the News

No, it's not about the DNC, or the RNC, or any of our favorite hate groups -- it's much more important. From NYT:

Among the many mysteries of human biology is why complex diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and psychiatric disorders are so difficult to predict and, often, to treat. An equally perplexing puzzle is why one individual gets a disease like cancer or depression, while an identical twin remains perfectly healthy.
Enlarge This Image

Now scientists have discovered a vital clue to unraveling these riddles. The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as “junk” but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave. The discovery, considered a major medical and scientific breakthrough, has enormous implications for human health because many complex diseases appear to be caused by tiny changes in hundreds of gene switches.

I remember reading about "junk" DNA years ago, back when I was reading Scientific American on a regular basis. Nobody knew what it did, and most people figured it was just leftovers -- stuff that was still hanging around after it had lost its original use. We should have known better -- evolution is notorious for finding new uses for things. (We can no longer use our big toes for grasping branches -- well, most of us can't -- but it's much harder to keep our balance without them.)

This also goes a long way, I think, toward explaining things like sexual orientation and all the other phenomena in human behavior that partake of that "stair-step" pattern: There are probably thousands, if not millions, of gene switches that influence how things like sexual orientation are established and how they manifest. Eventually someone will get around to researching the behavioral influences here, but i'm betting that's at least part of what they find.

(As a footnote to that, check out this article from The Age on how oxytocin is related to behavior.)

My mood is much better now -- I was really getting sick of the convention coverage.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Reviews in Brief: Gavin Hood's X-Men Origins: Wolverine

I've been watching movies. Many, many movies. It occurs to me that I could reinstitute "Reviews in Brief" with the movies I've been watching and comics I've been reading. So here goes:

X-Men Origins: Wolverine is basically the life story of Logan (Hugh Jackman), from his childhood in Canada to the time he falls in with William Stryker (Danny Huston), first as part of a special ops force composed almost entirely of mutants and then as one of Stryker's "experiments" at Weapon X: Wolverine is Weapon 10. When the final treatment is completed -- laminating his skeleton with adamantium -- he escapes and manages to find some sort of peace working as a lumberjack and living with Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins).

Then he gets news that the members of his old team are being killed off -- by none other, as it turns out, than his brother, Victor Creed (Liev Schreiber). Then Victor kills Kayla and the die is cast.

This one is more engaging than I had expected it to be. Although it's not a particularly fast-paced film, it's tight enough that it's easy to stay engaged. Performances are more than capable, especially Schreiber as Victor: he has the particularly thankless task of portraying a character who is mostly a homicidal maniac, except for the parts that still recognize some feeling for his brother, and he delivers.

Special effects, compared to the later (chronologically) X-Men films are somewhat restrained, but then, the whole story is less comic book than the later films. It's a much more human story. Fortunately, people will always take precedence over gimmicks, at least for me.

I've sort of avoided the Wolverine spin-offs, even though X-Men are one of my favorite superhero teams, mostly because of the fan noise. I may reconsider.

Small bonus: Taylor Kitsch has a small but pivotal role as Gambit, which prompted me to order John Carter. We'll see it was justified.

For complete credits, see the listing at IMDb.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

I Have to See "ParaNorman"

Not only because it looks like fun, but because it has the "Christian" right up in arms. From William Bigelow at Breitbart, Via Towleroad:

"ParaNorman" has a character named Mitch, who is, of course, a heavily-muscled jock who seems heterosexual until the end of the movie, at which time a girl named Courtney asks him if he wants to see a movie.

Sure, he says, you’ll just love my boyfriend, who’s into chick flicks.

It’s a time-honored technique of the gay community to hide the fact that a character is gay until the audience has developed a real affinity for him/her, then catch the audience off-guard by divulging that the character is gay.

It'a all a nefarious plot, you see, to pass off "hommosectionals" as -- gasp! -- human. Gods forbid anyone should have any "real affinity" for a gay person.

(By the way, according to some who have seen the film, Mitch is quite obviously not interested in Norman's sister, who keeps making advances.)

This article at National Review by Nancy French is illuminating.

However, parents who take children to the new movie ParaNorman might have to answer unwanted questions about sex and homosexuality on the way home from the movie theater.

If you read the post -- it's short -- one thing comes through loud and clear: it's not about her children, it's all about her.

One reason I haven't been posting this week is because, with the Republican convention in full swing, this sort of crap has been all over the place. It wears you down, after a while.