Friday, November 07, 2014

Examine Dragons

I'm sweeping off the dirt and dust
I wield a trowel and I use a brush
I'm checking in the specimens

We're clocking out, packing up, then heading back in a microbus
This is it, archaeologists
Whoa

I'm in the lab, I drill into the bone
Enough to keep my error low
Wonder what's its true age, what's the true age
Gonna find the true age, find its true age
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, it's radiometric, radiometric
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, it's radiometric, radiometric

It's in your food, don't you know,
It's a different carbon isotope
It soon decays to nitrogen
Whoa

I'm cutting off, grinding up, reducing it to a graphite dust
Send it to the spectrometrist
Whoa

It makes you up, we find it in your bones
And leaves and shells and thatched-roof homes
Helps us find the true age, find the true age
Calculate the true age, learn the true age
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, it's radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, you're radioactive, radioactive

One way to know when something died:
The ratio of carbon nuclides

It's breaking up, it lets electrons go
Enough to turn a neutron pro
Helps us find the true age, find the true age
At least within a date range, specific date range
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, it's radioactive, radioactive
Whoa, oh, oh, oh, oh, whoa, oh, oh, oh, we're radioactive, radioactive

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Impetuousness of Youth

Dracula slipped silently into the bedroom where Van Helsing lay sleeping. The Count felt undignified, breathing through a gas mask he’d salvaged during the Great War, and hoped that his aged foe wouldn’t wake to see him in such a state. With haste, he stripped the hanging cloves of garlic from the walls and threw them out the window. Dracula removed the unsightly mask and set it gingerly on the floor, then approached the bed.

Van Helsing slept fitfully, his breathing ragged and raspy. He had grown frail with age, and time raced against cancer to claim his final breath. Hands that once were so strong, wielding swords and stakes and silver, were now gnarled by arthritis, and Dracula imagined they could scarcely hold a pencil. He stood over the bed for a long moment, then cleared his throat. 

“Van Helsing.”

The old man stirred slowly at first, but quickly returned to himself. Neither sickness nor age could dull the edge of those steely eyes, which glared at the undead Count in the moonlight. 

“Come to gloat?” hissed the doctor. “Or to finish me off?” 

“Neither,” said Dracula. “I’ve come to help.”

“I’ll not sell my soul for the Devil’s brand of help.”

“I am not—“ Dracula stopped, composed himself. “You’re dying, Van Helsing.”

“And not by your hand, no matter how you’ve tried!” 

“I know,” Dracula said. “We’ve chased each other for…what, thirty years now?”

“Thirty-eight.” 

“And this is how you wish to end it?”

Van Helsing gave Dracula a puzzled look, then stifled a hard cough. “My friends and family are here, Dracula. Soon I will see my wife, my daughter. I am surrounded by love, Dracula. I would not expect you to understand.”

Dracula looked for a long, silent moment out the window at the crescent moon. “Let me turn you.”

“What?”

“Let me give you back your health, your youth.”

“Go to blazes, creature.” 

“You can send me there yourself! I can cleanse your sickness, give you the strength to fight once more!”

Any angry curse Van Helsing might have uttered was swallowed in a coughing fit. Dracula waited until he finished.

“Van—Abraham—if you could have cured your wife’s illness, if you could have revived your daughter, would not you have done so? Would not you do anything in your power to save them?” 

Van Helsing thought for a long time, and were it not for his labored breathing, Dracula might have thought he slipped away there and then. “Any earthly thing, yes," he said finally. "But I would not save their bodies only to damn their souls.”

“I don’t need your permission, you know,” Dracula threatened. “I could turn you now, and you would spend every night for eternity chasing after me, avenging your own soul. You would never forgive me for robbing you of paradise."

“Then do it, demon.” Van Helsing tore at his shirt, exposing his neck with trembling hands. “Or have your words more teeth than your jaws?”

Dracula felt the rage rise up at the old man’s obstinate impudence. He lunged forward, before sentimentality could blunt his resolve, and had nearly reached his old enemy’s throat when he caught a glint of reflected moonlight at the corner of his eye. Van Helsing swung with all his diminished strength, but the sharpened silver cross found no target, only shapeless mist. 

Dracula solidified by the window, stooping down to retrieve his gas mask. He paused and looked back to his old adversary. Any words he might have said stuck, clotted and dry, in his throat. He dove out of the window in silence, and nothing more passed between them.

Dracula visited Van Helsing’s gravesite only once, and only briefly. A silver-tipped crossbow bolt broke his reverie, sailing past his head so closely that it nearly parted his hair. He spun around, hissing. Dracula was not surprised to see Quincey Harker, who had been expertly trained these last twenty years by old Van Helsing.

Dracula was surprised to see the young boy holding the crossbow.

“Good shot, Bram!” Quincey clapped his son on the shoulder. “But aim for the heart, not the head.”

“Yes, father,” said the child, loading another bolt. “I shan’t miss this time.”

Dracula leapt upward and soared into the air on leathery wings, feeling a weariness that no fresh-drawn blood would ease. 

The vampire withdrew to his estate, staying only long enough to arrange long-term travel to Geneva. More than a century of rumors whispered between Swiss schoolchildren or around campfires had transformed Castle Frankenstein into a thing of horrifying legend, untouched even by those who might seek to tear it down. Dracula was one of few old enough to remember the true story of that house, and one of even fewer estranged enough from humanity to know its sole occupant. That building, once a laboratory, now a hermitage, would offer Dracula the solitude he so craved.

Adam Frankenstein proved a gracious host, and welcomed even what little company Dracula provided. But weeks turned into months, and Dracula spent more and more time in his coffin. He refused to eat, even as Adam broke his exile to retrieve fresh goats and sheep to satiate his guest’s hunger. 

“Vlad, you have to eat something,” Adam pleaded through the thick wooden door. “Come on, it’s still bleating.” 

There was no response. 

“I know what you’re going through, believe me. Come out, and we can talk about it.”

After another moment of silence, Adam unlocked the door and led the goat in. “I’m going to leave this here for when you get hungry.” As he left, he turned back to face the coffin once more. “You can’t spend the rest of eternity locked up like this, Vlad. I’ll be here when you’re ready.”

The readiness was slow in coming. Dracula would eventually eat the meals Adam left for him, but never even left the basement chamber anymore. Adam knew what it was like to want solitude, to lose loved ones, even to watch the endless years pass steadily by. But he did not know how to help, so he turned as always to his library. He read for days.

The letters and telegraphs and messengers had all been sent weeks before, and with the night finally approaching, Adam felt an unfamiliar feeling of excitement. His plan was meticulous, and would surely bring an end to Dracula’s depression. The guests began arriving an hour after sunset, with the moon glowing full and yellow, low in the autumn sky. Adam greeted them at the door, each ghoul and ghost and creature, some familiar, some he’d only heard of through stories. Crackly phonograph music echoed through the castle, and Adam wondered what stories the villagers might tell of the strange night when monsters reveled at Castle Frankenstein. 

Adam stood once more outside the wooden door to the basement chamber. “Come on, Vlad. Everyone is here for you. They want to meet the great Count Dracula!” 

“Go away,” Dracula muttered, barely audible over the thumping music from upstairs. 

Adam's enormous shoulders dropped, but he was resolute. “I’m going to go back upstairs. If I don’t see you up there in ten minutes, I’ll drag you out of that coffin myself.” 

Dracula pulled the lid of his coffin closed even tighter, hoping it might seal out the noise, but the acoustics of the chamber only amplified the caterwauling, the unfamiliar rhythms and melodies, which in turn amplified his feelings of isolation. Ten minutes was all he could stand. 

Adam was undeterred by Dracula’s reticence. He had one last card to play, one which relied on Castle Frankenstein’s ancient harpsichord, lovingly restored over these last several weeks, and a piece of 15th century dance music popular in Wallachia during the adolescence of one Vlad Tepes. Adam had merely dabbled with the instrument before, but was sure his skills were up to the task. He turned off the phonograph and urged the guests to be quiet, then sat down at the bench, gingerly playing the instrument with fingers that seemed far too clumsy for such nimble motions.

Dracula threw open the coffin lid, raising a hand in rage. But before the cry could escape his parched lips, he heard a familiar tune, plucked out on metallic strings, and was transported back to his boyhood so many centuries ago. Memories flooded his mind of a time before blood and bats, a time when he could dance in the sunlight on a Carpathian mountainside, a time when he was truly young and not merely ageless, as Adam played a song that Dracula had long thought lost to the mists of history. 

The guests clapped as Adam finished. He backed gingerly away from the harpsichord and turned around to face the crowd, seeing a disheveled, emaciated Dracula standing at the top of the basement stairs, smiling wistfully, with tears in his dark eyes. Adam returned the smile.

“I always wondered,” Dracula said, embracing his hulking friend. “Whatever happened to my ‘Transylvania Twist.’”

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mind of Steel

I used to view Superman's super-intelligence as one power too many, a silly relic of the Silver Age, like super-ventriloquism. It's mostly a consequence of growing up with and idealizing the Byrne-era Superman.

The last time I really remember feeling that sentiment was when the power was reintroduced back in "Up, Up, and Away." Busiek & Johns did a great job of making the power make sense, and the more I've thought about it since, the more I think that Superman needs to be super-intelligent.

I think about superheroes a lot, and something I find particularly fascinating is the concept of auxiliary superpowers: abilities that don't show up in the Who's Who or OHOTMU lists, but are necessary for the character's other powers to work.

So, for instance, anyone with super-strength must have some degree of invulnerability, because otherwise their tendons would tear and their bones would break every time they flexed. The Flash must be able to selectively alter friction and relativistic effects, or he'd catch fire and approach infinite mass every time he got moving fast enough1.

Superman's super-intelligence is a similar ability. Consider super-speed: the Flash can shift into a sort of "speed mode," where he perceives everything moving at a crawl. Superman, presumably, doesn't tap into the Speed Force, and we have no indication that he has that ability. In order to accomplish feats at speeds similar to those traveled at by the Flash, his brain would have to have super-fast processing ability. This gives him super-fast reaction time, and explains why he can do things like read and type at superhuman speeds. Without this aspect of super-intelligence, his super-speed would be useless at best and dangerous at worst.

I dislike the tendency to treat Superman's super-senses as things he can turn on and off, though I understand why especially early writers would treat them as such. You can't consciously decide to stop seeing the color red, for instance, or to stop hearing certain frequencies of sound, and I don't know why we'd expect Superman to have that ability either. But what we can do is focus our eyes on certain things in our field of vision, depending on distance, and we can sometimes tune out noises and sounds, especially constant, repetitive ones. So the No-Prize explanation is that Superman has learned to mostly tune out the sounds of insect wing-fluttering and the continental plates shifting, focusing his hearing on the sounds that are less constant.

In order to do this, his brain must have super-executive functions, able not just to process that information quickly, but to make sense of it, assigning degrees of importance and drawing Superman's attention to where it's needed. Part of that process is done by comparing sensory input to prior inputs--to memories.

The process of memory formation is complicated, messy, and dependent on the kinds of memories being formed, but part of the process of changing something from short-term to long-term memory is repeated passes through certain structures of the brain. There is a certain logic to thinking that this process would happen faster for Superman, given his brain's faster processing speed and increased need to sort through sensory input, but I'm no neurologist, and I'm getting into the area where I feel like I might just be pulling stuff out of my red shorts.

The case for Superman having perfect recall is shakier than any other part of his super-intelligence, but that also allows for a little flexibility in storytelling. It's easy to imagine that Superman can hold more things in his short-term/working memory--even if he couldn't necessarily hold more items in said memory at once (and I think he probably could, given the usual attention issues he already has to deal with), his processing power means he could be switching between items in his attention fast enough that it would seem like he was holding more items in his working memory. But as with humans, not everything necessarily makes the transition from short-term to long-term memory. So maybe he doesn't remember in issue #647 how to do a surgery he performed back in #328, but it's the same way you might have to look up the phone number for the pizza place every time you call.

From a narrative and theme perspective, I do think the idea that Superman has perfect recall of everything that happened anywhere around him on Krypton is pretty eye-rollingly silly. Remembering the minutiae of Krypton since infancy robs some of the tragedy of Krypton's destruction, and distances Superman from his human roots2. As much as I've come to embrace the Bronze Age, I'm still a firm proponent of the idea that Superman's powers should grow as he does, rather than having full-powered Superbaby on day one. His memories of Krypton, of his parents, should be fragmentary and fleeting, like any person's memories of early childhood. Krypton, for Superman, should be a place that he's studied, but not one that he remembers thoroughly.

Back to the main point, I think the trickiest part of "super-intelligence" is actually figuring out what that means--and that goes for the other smartest guys in the DCU too, like Batman and Lex Luthor and Brainiac 5. "Intelligence" isn't just one thing, but a combination of traits, and I think understanding what aspects of intelligence each of these super-intellects excels at is important. Superman's good at problem solving, with strong lateral thinking skills and an ability to make connections, in addition to having a keen journalistic and scientific mind and enhanced processing power. Batman's the world's greatest detective, brilliant at deduction, reading people, and predicting what's likely to happen in any given situation--usually by gaming out every possibility well ahead of time. Lex Luthor is a cunning manipulator, able to identify and exploit weaknesses in anyone, in addition to being one of the most brilliantly inventive minds on the planet. MacGyver can make a nuclear weapon out of some paperclips and rubber bands; Lex Luthor could turn the same materials into a time machine with enough parts left over for a jetpack. Giving Superman super-intelligence doesn't have to diminish these other characters, so long as we actually understand what that entails. In Coluan terms, Superman is probably somewhere around a 7th-9th-level intellect.

The issue of super-intelligence is an interesting one, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a necessary power, and a natural consequence of other powers we take for granted.


1. I realize that canonically, the Flashes have a "frictionless aura," but that wouldn't explain how they're able to get traction or grab things, or do those tricks with rubbing sand at super-speed to make glass. Hence, there must be a degree of selective control over this ability.

2. I also think it removes some of Supergirl's uniqueness. One aspect of her character that has only really been explored in recent years is that she grew up on Krypton, spent her formative years there, was immersed in Kryptonian culture and society. She's a teenage superhero "A Little Princess," orphaned and left to fend for herself in a strange land, without the comforts of home. She should be the one who remembers Krypton, not Superman.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Outlander and Time Travel

I saw a preview for the new "Outlander" TV series ahead of "Guardians of the Galaxy" at my local theater, and my initial impression was that it was an interesting idea: having someone from the past travel back in time further into the past.

Upon thinking about it for another moment, though, I realized that's how most time-travel-to-the-past stories are, and how all of them become that in time. I love "Back to the Future," and even though I was scarcely two years old in 1985, I still think of it as a kid from "the present" going back to the past, when we're now nearly as far removed from 1985 as 1985 was from 1955. One of my favorite TV series of all time is "Quantum Leap," and while I still think of Sam's home time as the future, 1995 is twenty years behind us.

It's an interesting wrinkle to the time travel motif, that such stories require the reader to do so much time traveling of their own.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: "Superman" (vol. 3) #32

Let's get a few things out of the way to begin with. First, I'm coming into this issue cold; I've intentionally avoided reading any reviews of it longer than 140 characters, and I'm fairly far behind on the other Superman titles (the only DC book I'm caught up on is Batman, I think). I'm also coming into this issue without too much bias. I quite like John Romita Jr.'s art, but the last series he helped relaunch thirty issues into a major reboot didn't exactly go very well. I've been pretty sour on Geoff Johns since a bit before the New 52 began, despite really liking his earlier work on JSA, Flash, and Green Lantern. His Superman comics have been generally well-regarded, though I never cared for how he discarded character development to tell more nostalgic stories. I did, however, re-read "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" recently, and quite enjoyed it aside from that linked Perry White line and Johns's signature move of having someone lose an arm. At least it didn't feel gratuitous there.

So, "Superman" #32. To begin with, the cover is gorgeous. It's dynamic, and recalls other classic images by folks like José Luis García-López. The background color scheme is similarly evocative, specifically of Neal Adams' classic "Kryptonite Nevermore!" cover. Also, it's just kind of nice to see Superman running. It's not something he's shown doing very often.

Let's start with the good: This issue sets up a pretty intriguing story. Ulysses has a cool design, and the mirroring themes of loneliness and loss are played out well. Not surprisingly, the book looks great. A great deal of that is due to Romita and Janson managing to make even the talking-heads pages visually interesting, but Laura Martin's colors really knock this book out of the park. Romita's style can sometimes come off as a little flat, but Martin's subtle variations in shading and lighting make everything pop.

In terms of plot structure, a lot of it feels very old-school. The flashback-to-title sequence bit at the beginning is an artifact of more modern, cinematic comic storytelling, but the way this issue lays down subplot threads hearkens back to the serialized stories of the '80s and '90s. I'm currently working my way through Simonson's "Thor" run, which follows that same style: a few pages of the main story, broken up occasionally (and sometimes suddenly) by checking in on the b- and c-plots. Here, those checking-in moments are more panels than pages, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially in this age of shortened page counts. Much as I love Simonson's "Thor," it's still obviously a product of a pre-TPB age, and sometimes the recaps do get a little tedious when you're reading the run straight through.

Speaking of shortened page counts, one of the things I found infuriating about Johns's Green Lantern comics toward the end of his run was his over-reliance on splash pages in a way that felt like he was padding out a too-short script. We get two double-page spreads and a splash page in this issue, but they're all major action or emotional climaxes. Each one feels earned, which is helped by the way that the non-splash panels change in size, growing larger on average as we approach each crescendo in the story. It's a great example of how aspects of the art that we don't normally think about can impact the feel of the story in major ways.

And hey, J. Wilbur Wolfingham makes an appearance! Who could have predicted that?

In terms of criticism, it's what you might expect from Johns: there's no subtlety to be found here. The parents at the beginning, sending their child into another dimension to survive, could only be more obviously allegorical if their names were Jordan and Laura. This motif would probably work a little better if I hadn't just re-read "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes," which opened with the exact same bit.

Repetition is working against Johns on a larger level here as well. Mark Waid expressed his relief on Twitter that this wasn't the same story as in "Superman Unchained," where the Man of Steel has been battling with another Superman analogue. Meanwhile, "Batman/Superman" began with a plot where the World's Finest team met their Earth-2 counterparts; we just wrapped "Forever Evil," which featured an evil alternate-universe version of Superman taking over; "Future's End" has an alternate "masked" Superman; we're barreling toward a crossover that's supposed to have Earths at war (inevitably suggesting additional Supermen); and Grant Morrison introduced no fewer than three Superman analogues in his "Action Comics" run, with the Earth-23 Superman, the Superdoom "killer franchise," and Captain Comet. That's a lot of Superman analogues for a universe that's not even three years old yet.

It's nice to see a softer Perry White here, even if he's basically an exposition delivery machine. His discussion with Clark is sledgehammer-blunt telling-not-showing, and while it's nice that it allows us to name-drop some supporting cast members (that line about Jackee Winters is so obviously out of place, oy) it probably could have been cut in half and replaced with a little more of the scenes we get on the next couple of pages, where we actually see Clark's loneliness. It's "show, don't tell," Geoff, not "tell, then show." With a bit more attention to showing, and a little tighter editing, we could have been actually introduced to Jackee and Lois, instead of having that single panel at the bar.

Altogether, it's a positive start. I'm really looking forward to the next issue, especially seeing some development on these subplots. I hope there's some follow-through on the promise of a robust supporting cast; that's an aspect of Superman comics that's too often overlooked to the detriment of the story and the characters. I'd like to see Geoff Johns letting his top-notch artists handle a bit more of the storytelling, especially outside the big action set pieces, but it's just nice to read a Johns comic where no heroes act like jerks and no one has any limbs severed. Definitely the strongest writing I've seen from Johns since the start of the New 52, and Romita knocked this first DC work out of the park. With Pak and Kuder over on "Action," this is arguably the best that the Superman line has been since the last time Johns was writing Superman regularly.

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Speaking Geek

I mentioned a few weeks back that I recorded an interview with the Chippewa Valley Geek podcast, and it's up now! Listen to me pontificate, because reading my pontifications was one sense too few!

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Friday, June 27, 2014

5 Popular Movies & How They Should Have Ended

5. Man of Steel
The recent superhero blockbuster "Man of Steel" drew a lot of criticism for its unexpected ending. A lot of people offered their own ideas for how it could have ended instead, but they all got one thing wrong.

How it SHOULD have ended: "Man of Steel" should have ended with a closing credits roll acknowledging all the people whose hard work made the film possible, from the writers, actors, and director to the catering staff and stunt doubles. Despite the criticism, this is exactly how it did end!

4. Flicka
The 2006 feel-good film "Flicka" told a touching story about a girl and her horse, based on the 1941 novel My Friend Flicka. In it, main character Katy and her wild mustang Flicka both help save each other's lives. But is that the way it should have gone?

How it SHOULD have ended: A movie as animal-intensive as "Flicka" should have ended with the note "No animals were harmed in the making of this picture" in the credits. Unfortunately, two horses died in the process of filming "Flicka," forcing the statement to be left out.

3. She's All That
"She's All That" was a popular 1999 teen romantic comedy featuring Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Rachel Leigh Cook. Its classic plot about giving an unpopular girl a makeover was an update of stories like "Pygmalion" and "My Fair Lady." In the end, Cook and Prinze's characters get together, but is that the way it should have gone?

How it SHOULD have ended: "She's All That" should have ended with me and Becky Holt making out and dating for the rest of freshman year instead of her saying "no I don't want to go to the movies with you, loser."

 
2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
The third installment in the blockbuster Transformers film franchise by director Michael Bay continued the story of Optimus Prime and his Autobot warriors and their battle with Megatron and the evil Decepticons, with humanity--and Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf)--caught in the middle. In "Dark of the Moon," we learn that the Apollo missions discovered alien technology on the moon, which leads to an epic battle and ultimately the destruction of the Transformers' home planet, Cybertron. It's a tragic blow to the Transformers, but that ending could have been very different!

How it SHOULD have ended: With a fire on set, tragically killing the director and star.

1. Back to the Future
Everyone knows the classic movie about teenage time traveler Marty McFly and his exciting adventure trying to return to his own time without accidentally breaking up his parents' marriage and preventing his own birth! We all know Marty was successful in his quest, but what you don't know is how it should have ended!

How it SHOULD have ended: Wait, hold on, Michael J. Fox? Two sequels? No, no, this is all wrong. "Back to the Future" was supposed to be a singular cult classic, the movie that led to the Eric Stoltz geek TV renaissance! Something happened, something changed the timestream! I need to set this right, before... before...

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Blasting from the Past

I'm conducting a minor experiment, to see if anyone ever bothered to change the most annoying things about the Internet. I mean, animated gifs are experiencing a renaissance, far beyond what we might have imagined back in the days of:


and:

(and on my old homepage):

But I found myself wondering today: do blinking text tags still work? Those were always loads of fun.

(Answer: apparently not in my browser)

Of course the best kind of tag was the
SCROLLING MARQUEE

Oh! What about rainbow text effects?
THIS IS WHAT THE INTERNET IS FOR!

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