"Man Of Steel: Is Zod Superman's Khan?"

>> Tuesday, May 28, 2013

In the latest trailer for "Man Of Steel," mysterious evildoer General Zod demands that the people of Earth hand over Superman... "or else." But who exactly is Zod, and why should humanity be afraid? Well, because he's Superman's Khan, that's why.
MTV.com, May 22nd, 2013.

Well it's a great headline, but of course the article's fluff.  I knew it would be--but still, with that headline, I had to go and see if they answered a great question the right way... or the way they actually did.

I don't know if there's supposed to be a spoiler warning on this whole post.  Is it still any kind of secret that the big bad in Star Trek Into Darkness is Khan Noonian Singh, last seen in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan?  Nerds had this figured out a year, a year-and-a-half ago.  STID's writers let it slip that they were using a canonical villain, and everybody assumed it was Khan, and then the writers said it wasn't Khan, then the writers said it was somebody named John Harrison, then the nerds said there was nobody in the original series or movies named "John Harrison" and "John Harrison" must be a nom de guerre for Khan, then the writers said it wasn't, and the nerds speculated about whether "John Harrison" was Khan or Garth Of Izar or Khan or maybe Gary Mitchell or possibly Khan (you see how well the John Harrison ruse worked, right?) and finally the movie came out and John Harrison is Khan.  So it's not much of a surprise.  Sorry if I just ruined everything you would have found out if you happened to check IMDB to see who was in the movie before you went to the theatre.

But okay, so the question: is Zod, who is going to be the big bad in the upcoming Superman reboot, Man Of Steel, Superman's Khan?  Which I think, from the post at MTV.com, is a Millennial-Who's-Only-Been-Raised-On-TV-And-Movies' way of asking if Zod is Superman's Moriarty, or his Iago if you want to really get old school and show you didn't sleep through every high school English class you attended.

If you take the question at face value though, it's an excellent question that highlights one of the (many) problems with Star Trek Into Darkness and a reason to be maybe a little leery of Man Of Steel.  Because Zod probably is Superman's Khan, but not his Iago (maybe his Moriarty, though).

What Zod and Khan have in common is that they're both B-list villains who were promoted to the major leagues by popular and beloved film franchises released in the early 1980s, and therefore old enough to be "classic" but recent enough to be remembered (however murkily) and celebrated (however ironically) by the pop culture collective unconscious (repeated airings on television through the 1980s and early 1990s, and subsequent sporadic sightings on various cable channels to this day, don't hurt).

Zod, actually, was a little more of a B-lister and Khan more of a C-lister before Superman II and The Wrath Of Khan made them household icons.  General Zod made several dozen appearances in various DC comics from his introduction in 1938 to the release of Superman II in 1980, while Khan's sole appearance was in a single 1967 Star Trek episode, "Space Seed", in which he (like several rogues before him and many rogues since) tried to take over the starship Enterprise (with slightly less success than any of a dozen other antagonists you might think of).  But to put Zod's place in the mythology into perspective, you probably need to account for the fact that Zod made several dozen appearances over the course of almost half a century in about a dozen different titles, including reprints.  Superman alone starred in Action Comics, Adventure Comics, Superman, Superboy, The Superman Family and World's Finest Comics (along with possibly other titles I'm overlooking).  And Zod appeared slightly more often between his brief appearance in Superman and his star turn in Superman II; I don't know if that reflected a renewed interest by the writers or merely an attempt to cash-in, since DC was doubtlessly aware that Superman and Superman II were originally two halves of the same script.

Khan, again, was nobody.  Star Trek: The Motion Picture underperformed and Gene Roddenberry consequently was promotion-fired from the movies.  Paramount gave the sequel to a TV executive named Harve Bennett who knew nothing about Star Trek but said he could make the sequel much more cheaply than the over-budget and over-schedule ST:TMP; Bennett decided the problem with ST:TMP was the lack of a strong villain and sat down with all the original episodes looking for one, concluding that Khan was his guy.  History ensued.

The thing is, I watched "Space Seed" again, right after seeing Star Trek Into Darkness--you can watch it on Hulu or at StarTrek.com--and no, it isn't a terribly good episode.  It's not a bad episode.  More of a middle-of-the-pack episode, I'd say.  The ScatterKat has a remarkably high tolerance for cheese and we've been known to argue over movies where I pointed out how mediocre or even just plain awful it was and she said, "Well, I thought it was fun!" (which I guess is probably all that should matter, but I'm a dick), and she laughed at the fight scene between Shatner's and Montalban's body doubles near the end of the episode.  Aside from that kind of thing, it's sort of a fluffy, inconsequential episode: Enterprise finds guys in space, guys in space try to take over Enterprise, guys in space fail pretty miserably, Kirk kicks them off the ship, the end.  Star Trek was known for at least attempting to be smart or philosophical or scientific, but most of that in "Space Seed" is incidental: there's some dialogue about the future history of Earth that could be considered a finger-wagging at contemporary audiences ("Don't be eugenicists or we might have WWIII!"), but it's sort of wedged into the infodumps and doesn't have a lot of real heft.

So you kind of have to conclude that the main reason Harve Bennett decided Khan was the perfect villain is that he was a TV exec and recognized Khan's actor, Ricardo Montalban, as Mr. Roarke from ABC's long-running hit series Fantasy Island.  Not that there's anything especially wrong with that, just that Khan is basically just some jerk who tried to steal the Enterprise and failed and was never heard from again.

Let me put it this way: I recently went on a Trek kick and re-read a bunch of James Blish's short-story adaptations of Star Trek episodes, and Blish, working from the original teleplay, spells the name of the antagonist in "Space Seed" as "Kahn".  This is a villain so fearsome, notorious, and central to Star Trek mythology that prior to 1982 no one agreed how his name was spelled.  (Also, possibly, whether he was Sikh or Jewish.)

But this is how awesome The Wrath Of Khan is: they went and turned this C-list guy into the Big Bad of original Star Trek.  And this is basically what the producers of Superman II did... well, really, more-that-that, that's what Terrance Stamp did with General Zod.  These weren't guys everybody knew and remembered: Khan was no Gary Mitchell and Zod was no Braniac, Khan was no Squire Of Gothos and Zod wasn't Bizarro.  These guys were chumps, also-rans, "'ya-remember-who?" bush-league villains who were turned into the demons and monsters of their franchises by a couple of pretty good movies.

Which is where we get to part of the problem with Star Trek Into Darkness and maybe with Man Of Steel (though it's not out yet, who knows?).  These aren't movies that are creating new villains or scenarios or even exploiting their respective franchises' legitimate worst-of-the-worst: these are films that are trying to trade in on the credit and goodwill of their most beloved predecessors.  You liked Khan in Star Trek II, so surely you'll like him in this one.  You remember when "Kneel Before Zod" became an Internet meme, well here's Zod.  What's really unfortunate about this choice is that Khan is memorable because of a really strong script and Zod because of a really strong performance, and if you can't exceed those originals (it's not enough just to match them), there's not really any point in what you're doing aside from the whole bait-and-switch of using pop nostalgia to convince people they're about to see a better movie than the one you've made.

Yeah, I'm afraid Zod is Superman's Khan.  In the worst way possible.


This one's for you

>> Saturday, May 25, 2013

I have friends who I know are having a rough time of it in 2013.  This one's for you: The Mountain Goats, "This Year".



David Gilmour and Roger Waters, "Breathe" / "Brain Damage"

>> Friday, May 24, 2013

Don't get too excited.  The title of the video implies more promises than it keeps: I don't know when these clips were recorded and edited, but you have David Gilmour doing a gorgeous acoustic solo performance of the second track from The Dark Side Of The Moon and Roger Waters doing a gorgeous acoustic solo performance of the penultimate track from the same record.  In different studios, I think (though it may just be different parts of the control room caught at different angles).  I don't even know when the performances were captured or if they were filmed the same year; Waters looks a little younger than he usually appears these days, and cleaner shaven, but perhaps it's the aptly mellow way the tableau is lit.

There's no such thing as a Pink Floyd reunion anymore: it's almost five years since we lost Rick Wright to cancer, and somehow it wouldn't be the same.  I don't know how this works, exactly--King Crimson can have, like, eighty-nine different rotating members plus one Robert Fripp, every incarnation playing a completely different prog/art/fusion/psychedelia/wtf subgenre of rock, and it's always King Crimson, but R.E.M. staggers on without their original drummer and really does stagger until their breakup almost seems an inevitable and weirdly welcome release.  I don't know how magic works, it's very mysterious.  The Rolling Stones are The Rolling Stones sans Brian Jones (I am a poet, rhyme is written in my bones), but Fleetwood Mac without Peter Green is a hit.  Genesis gets to their third album without Steve Hackett and Phil Collins before their classic lineup gels, then Peter Gabriel leaves and later Hackett leaves and their other classic lineup gels, and then after two decades Collins leaves and the band releases an album that practically nobody knows they put out, and that's when the clicking stops clicking, after finally losing the guy who basically replaced two other guys, one of whom had a pretty exceptional solo career.  Magic, happens, stops happening, go figure--no, don't, I'm pretty sure you won't figure out how the trick's done because if anybody could the A&R people would bottle it.  Point, anyway, being that for some reason Richard Wright, Nick Mason and David Gilmour can be Pink Floyd (well, that's disputed, but most people rolled with it), but Roger Waters, Nick Mason and David Gilmour can't be even though technically they sort of were for about a year in '82-'83.  Wright is kind of a magic piece: he wasn't the lead vocalist or the main songwriter, he never was much use as a producer, he really wasn't the band's chief arranger or anything like that; and yet he was still somehow the soul of the band, and I think you could probably draw up a chart most Floydians would agree with demonstrating how the soul of a Pink Floyd album is inversely proportional to how involved Rick Wright was in the production of it.

I don't necessarily mean quality, though something intangible about Wrightiness is probably a factor there.  Animals is fairly high on my own personal ranking of Pink Floyd albums in spite of, or maybe even because of a certain kind of existential sterility (well past the point of mere bleakness), and it's a record that features quite a lot of Wright's playing but very little of his engagement (he seems more engaged on the tour, though, and I'll also admit '77 bootlegs have been a factor in keeping my estimations of that album so high: it may have been a train wreck that basically broke the band, but so many of those shows, with the band fighting to stay alive, feature playing that is just fierce, above and beyond the ferocity you might associate with something like "Sheep").  The Final Cut is a heartfelt record, though there's ultimately something empty about it that becomes clearer the farther it recedes in the rearview (like half a pair of sunsets), even aside from whatever dated quality its anti-Thatcherism ranting might have (the witch is finally dead, along with that hollow fakir Wizard Of Oz with his entreaties to ignore the men behind the curtain, joining so many incurable tyrants and kings, Latin American meat-packing glitterati, et al.), and of course it's the only Pink Floyd record missing Wright entirely).  On the other end, The Division Bell is an underrated swan song for the band, a beautiful but overlooked farewell letter, and here's Rick Wright holding everything down with his keys and harmonies.

But if Pink Floyd is gone from the world, I'd still love to see the guys who are left cover their scars and, I dunno, hang out and maybe even play for us.  Who wouldn't, I mean aside from, apparently, the gentlemen themselves?  There was a wonderful reunion-of-sorts in 2011 in London as part of Roger Waters' Wall tour, and this is something I'd love to see happen more often.  It might be too much to ever hope for, but some kind of non-Floyd hanging-out-recording thing with some combination of the survivors, the kind of thing Roger Plant and Jimmy Page sometimes got up to in the post-Zeppelin decades, would be pretty awesome.

Or even, you know, just knowing that the guys were cool, that they were friends again, that they could sit down together and talk about a record, or bang out a few bars on the acoustics now and again.  Heck, just a gossipy item that they were caught having dinner.  Periodically there are the depressing interviews with somebody where Gilmour or Waters (especially--Mason seems to be copacetic with everyone these days) claims they aren't close now but then they never really were; well, y'know, I've read Nick Mason's memoir and it's stuffed full of photos of people in Pink Floyd on vacation together, chilling out together, mugging for a camera held by another bandmate, striking a pose in their football uniforms (the Floyd and their entourage of crew, management and spouses/sig others would play matches against other British prog bands and everyone had official uniforms they'd done up and everything): so I'm not buying the "always estranged" line.  I think it's what old men say about family they fought vicious fights with after the bleeding's stopped.  I wish they'd stop and remember they were badasses together, brothers-in-arms.


The rainbow ammunition

>> Tuesday, May 21, 2013

(Image via Salon)
Here's what I most resent about this pro-gun ad campaign that's popped up in Washington state: the continuing conflation of supporting various forms of gun control (or even prohibition, if Constitutional concerns could be set aside) with "preference" or "dislike" or somesuch.

I don't blame pro gun folks for reaching out to different kinds of people.  It's even refreshing, however cynical, to see a propaganda campaign aimed at gays and lesbians that treats them with some respect, and refreshing to see a pro-gun campaign that isn't aimed squarely at paranoids and rednecks.

But, y'know, I'm not in favor of gun control because of an irrational prejudice against firearms.  I have a wholly rational prejudice against firearms, matter-of-fact.  They kill things, and some of the things they kill are people.  Some of those people are killed under circumstances that have to be described as unusually gratuitous: that is, we might expect someone to get killed in a warzone, but getting killed while watching a movie, meeting your congresswoman, or going to school seems somehow unnecessary and especially uncalled-for.  There are also people who get killed by firearms because they're mentally ill, and while they might have recourse to pills or razorblades or car exhaust if a gun was unavailable, those and other alternatives can be notably inefficient and unsuccessful, since these alternatives aren't necessarily designed for efficient killing.  Not to mention the people who are killed by firearms during the commission of actual crimes, and while people can also be killed or injured with things like knives and such, these alternatives also tend to require more effort.

This gets to another peeve of mine, which is this common attitude I keep running into that either denies or whitewashes the point and purpose of a firearm.  Whether you love guns or hate them, let's be honest about the fact that these are tools that are designed to deal violence at range.  That is their intent, purpose, their raison d'être.  The comparison of a gun to a car, for instance: a car is a tool for getting people and/or things from one place to another, whereas a gun is a tool for launching a relatively small projectile at relatively great velocity so that the projectile's momentum is transferred to a target.  Cars can kill and maul people, but that isn't their point, it isn't why somebody invented them.  And it's outright amazing that firearm advocates who believe self-defense is a valid purpose for gun ownership will nevertheless try to pretend that a gun isn't a weapon: it can defend you precisely because it can kill or cripple your assailant, and is designed to do so with maximum efficiency.

There is a question of context, and of using the right tool for a job buried in all of this.  If one's job is to kill or maim, a firearm is at least a candidate, if not the perfect candidate, for this job.  Soldiers ought to have guns, and hunters, and perhaps police.  (The virtue or necessity of having soldiers, hunters and/or police might be other, separate questions: perhaps in a post-violent, more-civilized utopia citizens could choose not to have war, hunger or crime, thereby rendering some jobs as obsolete as that of gong farmer.)  But the other side of this same coin is that a society might very reasonably decide there's no place for a firearm in the hands or home of someone who isn't filling these roles on whatever part-time, full-time, professional or amateur basis.  We can also broaden this out a bit: one might decide that having a tool to deter coyotes is an appropriate thing to have around in coyote country but wholly and entirely inappropriate for possession within urban areas, f'r'instance.

Anyway.  Upon expressing such opinions or concerns, I've been asked why I'm afraid of guns, which seems like a stupid question as the answer ought to be reasonably self-evident: because I am made of meat and evolution has not seen fit to grace me with a bulletproof hide, multiple-redundancy organs, or an interior assembly designed to disperse the p=mv of a small metal object burrowing into me at several hundred feet per second.  It's a failing, I know.  If I were better designed, I might have a more cavalier attitude.  It also happens that I'm not entirely selfish, and many people I know and love are also made of meat, and even many people whom I have never met and never will are made of soft, spongy, easily-shreddable meat and I would miss the ones I know and can imagine missing the ones I've never met and the pain felt by those who did actually know them.  I have similarly rational fears about rattlesnakes, great white sharks, extremely high places with rickety guardrails, and vehicles that run stoplights, with the presence or strength of the fear waxing or ebbing based on situation (e.g. at the time I am writing this, I am many, many, many miles from the nearest body of saltwater large enough to be inhabited by any kind of shark, and my fear of being eaten by a great white shark on a scale of one-to-ten is somewhere near negative infinity).

Or I've been asked have I ever fired a gun, which is also pointless.  I've never smoked crack, which I hear is very enjoyable, but the legality or availability of crack cocaine probably shouldn't depend on whether I happen to like doing it.  I've no doubt, from what many friends have told me, that firing a gun is quite a lot of fun, and I'll admit using pretend weapons in videogames is frequently enjoyable (which is not the same thing, but tends to corroborate friends' accounts).  There are many things that are fun that shouldn't be legal, or should at least be restricted.  And while I'm all for pleasure where it can be found, I can't believe I have to point out that fun is only a part of things, one element of measuring utility or virtue; by way of an obviously absurd example, if I were to find out it really was true that every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten, I would need to weigh the personal satisfaction and pleasures of self-abuse against the possible suffering of uncountable (yes, uncountable) tiny, adorable little creatures with their fuzzy little ears and furry little paws.  Making the world safer for kittens might be worth the personal sacrifice.

Along similar lines, I think, it has to be pointed out that what is increasingly absurd about homophobia is that after attributing all kinds of social and individual ills to homosexuality, there's absolutely no credible evidence whatsoever that homosexuality leads to social decline, child abuse, perversion, inability to defend one's country, insanity, or any of the other assorted ills attributed to it over the decades and centuries.  Indeed, when recently given forums to produce evidence of the supposed evils of homosexuality, homophobes have offered little when they've even offered anything at all (see, e.g., the district court opinion in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, a.k.a. Perry v. Hollingsworth (PDF link)).  The strongest argument any of them ever seem able to proffer is an appeal to Biblical authority, a case that doesn't carry any weight with Jews and Christians who interpret the selected Biblical passages differently, much less with anyone who isn't Jewish or Christian in the first place.

Supposing, just for argument's sake, the homophobe could offer something more compelling.  Say, for instance, there was in fact some kind of evidence that engaging in homosexual activity led to some horrible societal ill that could be prevented by outlawing homosexual acts.  Suppose further it were shown that having a homosexual orientation could even cause harm, and that if homosexuality couldn't be cured, predilections could at least be monitored, controlled and restrained.  There would be an argument, then, for anti-gay legislation and social norms, and we might feel compassion and pity for the targets but would nevertheless have to try to balance what was best for the "afflicted" against what was best for society-at-large.  This is all hypothetical, because, again, none of this is true and we're just playing a mental game here to make a point: but the point is that one might well justify banning "crimes against nature" if those activities caused demonstrable harm.  (How far one might go is another subject, both simpler and more complicated: the dignity of the individual is a sacred thing, which is part of the reason enlightened civilizations try to legislate actions and not persons.)

All of this being a roundabout way of saying that if one can create legislative restrictions for firearms, doing so isn't based on a dislike of the firearms but rather a dislike of the harm firearms cause.  (We should be clear, too, that the childish meme, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people", neglects the very obvious and essential point that guns make it a damn sight easier for people to kill people, and that if people were killing one another with other kinds of things, we'd reasonably look for ways to deal with the problem: e.g. if people were killing people with automobiles and alcohol, we might restrict access to both for certain classes of people (e.g. the young, people with a known history of abusing their access to autos and alcohol) and institute extremely punitive legal ramifications for people caught endangering others with automobiles and alcohol in an effort to deter such... oh, wait--)  I am skeptical that the Constitutional regime as it currently exists in the United States allows much or any kind of gun control, so it's sort of moot in spite of recent state-level efforts to limit access to guns (and failed--as expected--attempts in Congress).  The implication that the "dislike" is petty and indefensible is resented: disliking what guns do to the people shot with them, I dislike the things that do the shooting, and I think it's perfectly rational to stack that heavy cost of ready access to firearms against whatever benefits are supposedly gained from such access.


Wrong and wrong, or: the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun might be a good gun

>> Thursday, May 16, 2013

A new rifle goes on sale on Wednesday, and it's not like any other. It uses lasers and computers to make shooters very accurate. A startup gun company in Texas developed the rifle, which is so effective that some in the shooting community say it should not be sold to the public.


One hunter who doesn't want one is Chris Wilbratte. He says the TrackingPoint system undermines what he calls hunting's "fair chase."

"It's the traditional shooting fish in a barrel or the sitting duck. I mean, there's no skill in it, right? It's just you point, you let the weapon system do its thing and you pull the trigger and now you've killed a deer. There's no skill," Wilbratte says.

This new rifle is being released as the gun control debate continues to simmer in Washington.

Chris Frandsen, a West Point graduate who fought in Vietnam, doesn't believe the TrackingPoint technology should be allowed in the civilian world. The gun makes it too easy for a criminal or a terrorist to shoot people from a distance without being detected, he says.

"Where we have mental health issues, where we have children that are disassociated from society early on, when we have terrorists who have political cards to play, we have to restrict weapons that make them more efficient in terrorizing the population," Frandsen says.
NPR, May 15th, 2013.

And they're both wrong, Messrs. Wilbratte and Frandsen.  I mean, in the end: I can hardly disagree that a computerized aiming system takes the sport out of hunting or that there are people with mental problems who don't need to be using any kind of firearm at all (much less one that can autotarget).

It's just that, first of all and regarding Wilbratte, I could give a rat's ass about sport hunting, target shooting, or whatever other recreational use you want to give a tool that's designed specifically for killing and injuring things.  I'm not begrudging hunters their prey: I think one of the few legitimate uses for civilian firearms, maybe the sole civilian use for firearms, is bringing in meat (while controlling populations of  wild animals whose original predators have been displaced by human presence).  And a gun that makes it easier for hunters to bring in the meat seems to me like a better tool.  I don't much care that it's not as fun a tool to use.  I don't dispute that shooting a gun might be exhilarating; but then I hear the same thing about smoking crack, and while I'd agree that we probably ought to decriminalize cocaine abuse and treat it as a public health problem, that's a long way from endorsing free-and-easy recreational use.

Whereas re: Fransden, while I can see his concern, it doesn't seem to me that a situation in which the mentally unstable have easy access to dumb guns is any better than their having access to smart ones, whereas there's a self-evident benefit in making guns smarter than incompetent users.  I'm not going to proffer a link to every small child who's shot someone in the past month-or-so because there are just too damn many to chase them all down at the moment.  It sounds like the TrackingPoint rifle has enough steps involved in pointing and shooting to make accidents even a little less likely, even if it's as simple as having to press a button next to the trigger and wait a nanosecond for the weapon to process the shot; but what's more, it seems like it wouldn't take too many extra steps to teach a TrackingPoint weapon not to fire even in situations in which the extra button-by-the-trigger has been pressed, for example if the target is within a range boundary that suggests it probably isn't a game animal but is more likely the gun owner's foot or somebody else inside the room.

I'm not a fan of self-defense as a justification for firearms ownership, but it even seems to me you could perhaps teach a smartgun not to fire at people at all unless a safety protocol was disabled by a process brief enough not to inconvenience someone facing an attacker but challenging enough to thwart a child (however briefly) or to give a domestic abuser or aspiring suicide a few extra seconds to have second thoughts (which might be enough in some circumstances to avert a tragedy: I would think if having to think, "Wait, I'm disabling a safety protocol so I can shoot my wife" saved even one life, you could congratulate yourself; the plain fact that it wouldn't save every life is as pointless an argument as saying there's no point in having lifeboats on a ship if you can't get every single passenger off in time).

I would have to admit that there's an extent to which I probably trust technology more than people.  Probably because I'm a nerd.  It certainly isn't that technology is perfect or infallible.  Tech is only as good as the people producing it, for starters, and not even the best engineers designing for the best production lines in the world can necessarily foresee every abuse to which their finest devices might be put.  A perfectly good architectural marvel can be ruined by a couple of jetliners, for instance, or a masterpiece of applied engineering turned into an ecological disaster by an unforeseen double-whammy of earthquake and flood.  Things happen.  And then there's the fact that no plan ever survives contact with the enemy, and you can fairly call end-users the enemy in this context: people are notoriously inventive when it comes to finding ingenious new ways to break things.

On the other hand, machines don't get tired, or angry, or have notoriously poor hand-eye coordination and lack of judgement associated with biological immaturity.  Things I mention, obviously, because the point of all this is that making a tool smarter than its possible end-user is almost nearly always a good thing; I'm sure you can come up with an exception or several that tests the rule, but it's generally a good rule.

And I'm very sorry, all of you proverbial "responsible gun owners", but the fact is that there are a lot of end-users of firearms who are dumb, either generally or situationally, and this sentence may or may not be about you, whomever's reading this, but that doesn't make it any less true.  And I want to be clear that when I say there are dumb end-users of firearms, re-read that previous sentence (that may or may not apply to you) and n.b. I wrote "or situationally".  That is, you may be thoroughly clever in all sorts of respects, perhaps up to and including your appreciation of and obedience to gun safety protocols, but it doesn't mean you might be as smart as usual when you're tired, or old, or there's some other physical, psychological or environmental factor taking you down a few pegs to where you might appreciate having the lethal weapon in your hand second-guess you re: where your finger is, where your muzzle points, whether there's a round in the chamber, etc.

Now if this makes guns less exciting, somehow, that's entirely your problem.  Hammers aren't exciting; they're devices that are used to pound things.  Carpentry might be exciting for some people, but I don't think that has as much to do with how much fun it is to hit things as it does with getting into the shop, imagining what an end result ought to be, planning it, and seeing the results come together.  While I don't think much of hunting as sport, it does seem to me that a hunter with a TrackingPoint weapon still gets to go out in the woods, going through the process of tracking prey (or waiting for it in a blind--which I admit doesn't seem like sport either: "Hi, I'm just sitting here waiting for a thing to wander by randomly and I'll point a thing at it and try to kill it before it sees me, or I'll just sit here and wait some more."), cleaning game and/or taking it down to the butcher's to help you process it before bringing it home and eating well.  I.e. it seems to me you still get to engage in the general activity, you just get to do it with a safer, better hammer, or maybe a bandsaw would be a better metaphor because an old one without any failsafes can amputate fingers and limbs where a newer one is designed to make accidental amputation at least challenging if it can't be made altogether impossible.

The overall idea here being that you can't outdesign stupidity, but you can at least make it hard work.

Let's also point out one more thing about the TrackingPoint rifle that suggests an accidental but possibly nice sort-of-safety feature, which is that making a gun that doesn't want to miss the target it's locked on seems like it would make it a bit harder to shoot someone by accident while hunting.  Again, not impossible, but if a gun is refusing to fire until it's calculated a firing solution for the target the laser has fixed on, it won't be able to shoot your lawyer in the face while you're bringing the weapon up into position.  Not that something like that's ever happened before.  It's what you call a hypothetical example.

If we can't get rid of guns, or if we shouldn't, then bring on the smartweapons.  If you can build a gun that requires a shooter to sudo firing on bipedal targets, get it to market.  I realize that this isn't at all what TrackingPoint is focused on, but it's a step in the right direction.  It may take the sport out of aiming at a target--I don't care.  It may make it easier for an assassin to kill someone--but a truly dedicated assassin will, as gun advocates so often point out, surely use whatever tool's available anyway.  But it at least sounds like TrackingPoint rifles require... or at least beg for some level of intention that might make accidents and acts of passion even a little bit more challenging, and that would be a marginal improvement.  And if the software and hardware could be upgraded even more--and it's hard to see why they couldn't be--even shaving a few points from the statistics for firearms accidents, crimes of passion, and suicide could hardly be called a bad thing by anyone with an iota of sense.  Or common decency.


Quote(s) of the day: Star Trekkin' across the universe edition

>> Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I can't decide between:

The standard line among Trek apologists is that the franchise is not just a lot of sci-fi nonsense but a meaningful exploration of what it means to be human. And among Trek’s kaleidoscope of Vulcans and androids and holograms and shapeshifters, this is a core concern. But Trek has a very particular take on what it means to be human. Part of what it means, the franchise teaches us, is participating in an ongoing progressive project of building a utopian society. Even though the bulk of Trek comes from the ’90s, the franchise launched in the mid-’60s, and the now-anachronistic spirit of midcentury optimism has remained at the heart of the franchise throughout. It’s a big part of what makes Trek great.
To dismiss Kirk’s multiracial crew as blatant tokenism seems unfair, given that it piloted the Enterprise at a time when legally entrenched segregation was a subject of ongoing political controversy. Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura is a black woman whose name means “freedom” in Swahili and who served as an officer aboard a starship at a time—back on Earth,  I mean—when there were no female astronauts or military officers and black characters on television were more likely to be maids than professionals. Equally striking, given the political context of its era, is Ensign Pavel Chekov, navigator and proud Russian nationalist. The show asked audiences to imagine a seemingly amicable resolution of the Cold War.
 --both from a long piece Matthew Yglesias posted at Slate today, "I Boldly Went Where Every Star Trek Movie and TV Show Has Gone Before", which is worth a read if you care the least bit about Star Trek in any of its incarnations.

The first quote captures something I've been thinking about a lot, what with J.J. Abrams' second Star Trek movie (the ridiculously-titled Star Trek Into Darkness) being due in theatres tomorrow if you're in the U.S. (or out for weeks now if you live in the U.K. or months from now if you're in Japan, etc.).  The second quote is less punchy but serves as a pretty tough and concise defense against a common set of contemporary critiques of the Original Series.

Both--along with the rest of the Yglesias post--point to one of the biggest things I'm just not feeling about J.J. Abrams' version of Star Trek, though; yeah, I'm kind of bothered by the way the characters are being reinvented, but I'm also conflicted (after all, it's good that James Bond and Sherlock Holmes get reinvented by new actors every so often, just to pick two characters off the top of the head), and I have to disavow my 2009 review of the last Star Trek movie in retrospect because once the sugar rush from the movie wore off I was left with a nauseous empty feeling that what I'd watched lacked substance and didn't make much sense (Star Trek (2009) gave me the notion of a "cotton candy movie", something that looks bright and awesome and fluffy and huge and gives you this enormous high--followed by a sick crash when your body processes that all you've really consumed was sugar and air).  But I think the thing that hits me the most right now is how, as I get older, I find myself increasingly nostalgic for the future.

I'll cop to being snotty about it sometimes when I was a kid.  When I was in the single digits, the original Star Trek was off the air (except in reruns), but there were books and toys and View-Master discs, and any fledgling nerd knew who Captain Kirk was even if he was still pooping his pants and learning how to spell and add.  Then Star Wars came out and eclipsed Trek, perhaps mostly by not looking cheap the way Star Trek admittedly did; you didn't have to be the most sophisticated media critic in the world to notice that maybe the Tunisian desert George Lucas used as a location in the Tattooine scenes had a physicality, a presence the Styrofoam rocks Captain Kirk and the Gorn threw at each other specifically lacked, not to mention, you know, how fucking awesome lightsabers are and how cool was the Millennium Falcon or what?  The Trek movies matched the relatively big (and, later, actually big) budgets the Star Wars films had, but at that point if you were a certain age, you were almost definitely a Star Wars fan more than a Trek fan, and you might rub it in by suggesting the Trek universe was overly sterile looking or by pointing to some of the superficial clichés that Abrams Trek now seems set on enshrining as character traits (Kirk is a hotheaded playa, Scotty's a drunk, Chekov an English-mangling Russian bigot--nevermind that these were never really defining traits of the original character, just how we often remember them when we've forgotten the context of otherwise memorable scenes where they behaved this way for a few minutes or less in a particular episode).
And one confesses that one became more snide about it, not less, by the late 1980s when the early, nearly-unbearable first seasons of Star Trek The Next Generation went on the air (and the absence of new Star Wars material made the original trilogy glow more brightly in the receding distance with every year).
Of course, Next Generation got much better, and Star Wars got much worse.  Then again, phrasing it that way probably elides the fact that the Trek franchise slipped into a clutter of increasingly unwatchable series and returns on the Next Gen feature films that diminished into an utter abyss ending with a fairly terrible Wrath Of Khan remake in which things happened like an elaborate dune buggy chase written into the script primarily because in the real world, Patrick Stewart likes driving dune buggies (no, seriously).  The Star Wars prequels did offer up a chance to reevaluate the ethics of the Star Wars universe and contrast them negatively with Star Trek, though perhaps not to as withering a degree as the semi-infamous new-asshole-ripping David Brin gave to Star Wars back in 1999.

Actually, though, I think what happened more than anything was that I got old, and the real world got worse than anything approaching the Star Wars prequels or the execrable Star Trek: Enterprise.  And I find myself, as I enter middle age, feeling nostalgic: not so much for astronauts in miniskirts (though that's a notion with obvious appeal to me), but for Gene Roddenberry's postwar, New Frontier, techno-utopian future.  Which didn't happen and looks depressingly unlikely with every rolling-over of my personal odometer.

I mean, there's a certain irony to it insofar as Gene Roddenberry the writer had one script in him--the one where humans space explorers meet some kind of computer that has godlike powers and/or thinks it's God, which he recycled, I dunno, eighty-five times over the course of two Star Trek television series and the one feature film they let him work on before not-so-delicately handing the film franchise over to people who were more temperamentally suited to making summer films (which is not meant as a knock on summer films: The Wrath Of Khan and The Undiscovered Country aren't just the best entries in the Star Trek film franchise, they're solid entertainments that have held up pretty well over time and have just enough depth beneath the surface to be kind of smart summer films in their respective ways).  But Roddenberry the... I dunno, calling him "Roddenberry the visionary" seems like cheese or even cheese-food product; but however you want to describe him, the Gene Roddenberry who made Star Trek into a lifelong labor-of-love had this unshakeable sense that the ideals (though not the practices) of the Kennedy years weren't just something but were the template for the future of the human species.  We'd use science and technology and the endless hope held out by the infinite frontier of the universe to solve our problems and come together, ending poverty and racism and sexism and nationalism and the divisive parts of religion.

You might nitpick over how much of that shiny idealism survived the gantlet of NBC and, later, Paramount executives.  Go back and watch the original pilot for the show, and Roddenberry's original idea of a woman's place in the future was casting his girlfriend (and future wife) as a pants-wearing, tough-talking, no-nonsense-taking badass second-in-command deferentially referred to as "Number One" (a title restored for The Next Generation and bestowed upon that Enterprise's second-in-command).  NBC was responsible for the miniskirts and high boots, or at least they provided the fuel for it by rejecting the pilot while saying they'd reconsider a sexier re-shot alternative.  Nichelle Nichols on the Enterprise bridge was either a radical act encouraged by the greatest civil rights advocate of the era or a depressingly retro example of the only thing people thought a black lady in space could do was maybe answer phones, depending on how you want to frame it (meself, I'm deferring to Dr. King, thankyouverymuch).  But I think, really, at the most all the realities of making television for corporate America did was tarnish the silver, not take away it's preciousness.

That preciousness being what I think I most miss these days.  Odds are depressingly good I'll end up dragging myself by the hair to see the new J.J. Abrams movie because it's something Star Trek-ish, even if every preview, trailer, interview, leak, etc. all screams at me that this isn't really the Trek I want, that this is very likely another big-explodey action-adventure movie dressed in Star Trek drag (I would like to be wrong).  J.J. Abrams keeps telling people they wanted to make a Star Trek movie for everyone and not just for Trek fans as if that's a good thing; and I guess I should admit that it is a good thing insofar as fanservicing a bunch of increasingly elderly grognards is no way to make a good movie, much less a successful one (and besides, it's a mug's game, fans being notoriously impossible to please).  But where it isn't a good thing at all is that they apparently want to make one of these crowdpleasing adventure movies for everyone and no one out of stock that used to stand for something worth recovering: I don't know if you can really make a two-hour movie where people solve their problems by applying reason and their moral principles with a dash of sciencey-sounding gibberish ("We could use the deflector to invert the polarity of the tachyons!"), and I think Yglesias is probably right that Trek's natural home is on television, where you can posit a new moral quandary or science-fiction riddle every week and take your time brewing and aging your characters to a fine finish.  But just the idea that you can solve problems with science and ethics in the first place!  These days, when a major American political party seems to have declared war on science and caters to a small vocal minority obsessed with a weirdly superficial reading of a 17th Century translation/interpretation of Iron Age texts, when all of our time seems to be taken up by folklore and conspiracy theories and effective governance is thwarted by lobbying groups peddling urban legends, these days it seems absolutely marvelous to think there was ever a time when someone might be so naive as to think someday all that would be set aside and we'd spend all of our time zooming around to places simply because nobody had ever been to them before and figuring out ways to improve ourselves and/or whomever we happened to meet out there.  Learning shit just to learn it.  Going just to go.  And if a crisis arises, thinking our ways out instead of arguing ourselves into paralysis until the bad thing happens anyway and everybody stupidly asks why didn't anyone do anything before it happened as if no one had tried.

I miss, I really, really miss the future.



Dumb quote of the day: you need to go look up the word "nuance" edition

>> Monday, May 13, 2013

I am a much better writer than I am a speaker.  I probably would have written those things ["Decades of psychometric testing has indicated that at least in America, you have Jews with the highest average IQ, usually followed by East Asians, then you have non-Jewish whites, Hispanics, and then blacks. These are real differences, and they're not going to go away tomorrow, and for that reason we have to address them in our immigration discussions and our debates."] differently than I spoke them. What I emphasized was that ethnic group differences in IQ are scientifically uncontroversial. That being said, there is a nuance that goes along with that: the extent to which IQ scores actually reflect intelligence, the fact that it reflects averages and there is a lot of overlap in any population, and that IQ scores say absolutely nothing about the causes of the differences--environmental, genetic, or some combination of those things.
- Jason Richwine, as quoted by Byron York,
The Washington Examiner, May 13th, 2013.
You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.
- Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride, 1987.
Jason Richwine, late of the Heritage Foundation, is sad.  And misunderstood.  He would like you to know he absolutely isn't a racist, he just thinks that there are differences in group intelligence which correlate with race, and that this ought to be a factor in American immigration policy.  And this conviction may or may not have anything to do with his recent contribution to a Heritage Foundation report contending that allowing more immigrants into the country will cost the United States more than it benefits the country.  But to be perfectly clear about it, he doesn't hate anyone based on race; hasn't lynched anyone nor burned a cross in anyone's yard or attended any meetings wearing a hood, armband, or brownshirt--so he obviously isn't a racist.  He just thinks Hispanics and blacks are dumber than white people.  Oh, and East Asians and Jews, who we all know are very good at math and all, right?  (Whether Richwine subscribes to the view that East Asians and Jews have other undesirable congenital character traits in which the American WASP compensates for his relative lack of intellect through superior moral virtue is a question that apparently remains unasked and unanswered).

Also, please note that Mr. Richwine publishing an article about the lesser IQ scores of certain ethnic groups when compared to "the white native population" (I'm actually not sure what that is; I believe the Cherokee and Ogala Sioux et al. might like to have a word with Mr. Richwine about that terminology, tho' I can't speak for them) on a white nationalist website is something else that shouldn't lead anyone to infer anything negative about Mr. Richwine's views towards others.  True, someone once said something about being judged by the company you keep and I think there was something else muttered along the line about lying down with dogs and waking up with fleas or words to that effect--but Mr. Richwine would have you know that he only published something on a white nationalist website because it was the only outlet open to a Harvard PhD and his then-employers at the American Enterprise Institute wanted him to, quote, "publish widely" (it should also be observed that publishing on a white nationalist blog is preferable to setting up a blog of your own because some site like Blogger will require you to pick out a blog template and choose a password, things the racist crackers at a white nationalist website will have done for you).

But really, you know, we need to talk about "nuance".  Because what Mr. Richwine really wants you to know is that he's a better writer than speaker, and in getting ahead of himself in a public presentation, he really left out all the nuances that, you know, basically invalidate the entire premise that public policy should be governed by a supposed correlation that means absolutely nothing.

After all, even if we grant solely for the sake of argument that the rather controversial studies indicating correlations between IQ scores and membership in certain broad and rather controversial ethnic categories, the subtle distinctions that Mr. Richwine should have mentioned in his public comments are that the IQ score may not measure intelligence, that alleged differences in measured IQ scores may reflect an undetermined environmental component that may be alterable (or may even be altered by the simple fact that one has changed environments, i.e. that one has emigrated to a country where one can score better on IQ tests, or one's children can), that an average score may in fact represent a wide range of scores across a population, etc.  In short, that even if we grant a correlation for argument's sake, the nuance of the correlation is such that the correlation may be completely meaningless.
I mean, even Richwine is conceding that any correlation "reflects averages" and the whole primary thrust of his dissertation was apparently to the effect that IQ scores ought to be considered in immigration policy by admitting higher-IQ applicants to the country--which presumably means that he'd have no problem letting in hordes of high-IQ-testing Hispanic immigrants, unless there's some other issue he has with Hispanic immigrants.  In any case, even if we assume that "Hispanic" is a meaningful label, and even if we assume for argument's sake that Hispanics as a group have a lower average IQ, that tells you absolutely nothing about any specific Hispanic individual you might point out.  So what's the point, then, in considering population IQ in setting immigration policy?  At best, Richwine perhaps is making a case that we ought to give all prospective immigrants an IQ test.

But then even Richwine admits that IQ may not "actually reflect intelligence" (another nuance).  So what, then, is the point?

I think this is as good a time as any to be candid and say that I not only am skeptical of the assertion that IQ measures anything more than one's ability to take certain kinds of tests designed to measure IQ, but also that I'm skeptical of "race" as a scientific concept at all.  I'm not sure, for instance, when Richwine talks about "blacks", whether he's talking about "African Americans" living in the United States, many of whom are partly descended from Caucasian Europeans, or whether he's talking about people from South America, Central America, North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, South Africa, Southwest Asia, Australia, Micronesia, Polynesia or Melanesia.  Or somewhere else.  And all of whom represent ethnographically distinct populations who may or may not have any particular genetic overlap after our collective departure from Africa to scatter across the globe.  For that matter, when Richwine talks about "whites", who's he talking about?

This isn't to say that race and racism aren't vital, essential issues: they are, but they're social issues, not scientific ones.  In America, "race" is a matter of class and culture, how one is discriminated against or for on the basis of literally-skin-deep distinctions, how one speaks and moves, how one has been educated and what opportunities are denied or offered.  What's amazing when one contemplates how essential race is to American culture as a whole is how arbitrary the entire scheme is; for instance, we talk about Barack Obama as a "black" President because this is a noticeable quality of his complexion, when one could just as capriciously look to his mother and the maternal grandparents who raised him and call him yet another white President.  The point here isn't really how the President self-identifies himself, though--he's merely a convenient and well-known example; the point is that this could be said of almost any American whose family goes back several generations--we are nearly all carrying the blood of West Africans, Native Americans, Northern Europeans, et al.--but we nevertheless insist as a society that the expression of melanin upon our surface layers is somehow reflective of an essential or inner quality because it's such a long and wicked historical tradition to do so that this superficial quality has become determinative in how likely you are to have the same opportunities as someone with different superficial qualities, or how likely you are to be absurdly punished for possessing different qualities.  It's a sadly undeniable fact that in America you might well be pulled over by a police officer largely because your skin is darker than that of someone else; it's also undeniable that all our blood is the same color and our bones largely the same shapes in the same places, and that the color of one's skin (here's the truly ridiculous joke of it) isn't even necessarily a good indicator of one's ancestry.

If so, how on Earth is it much of an indicator of one's intelligence?  Or one's ability to contribute to a society one wants to come and join, or visit, or work in, or whatever.

It seems fitting to close by observing that we've been here before: the kinds of issues and concerns that Richwine raises were raised by eugenicists in the early part of the 20th Century.  Eugenicists, (ab)using data collected from Army IQ testing during WWI were instrumental in getting the Immigration Act Of 1924 passed, which created national quotas intended to lessen the number of "undesirables" admitted to the United States.  Of course, in those days the "intellectually inferior" immigrants weren't Hispanics, but were largely Southern and Eastern Europeans, including quite a lot of folks of Jewish descent we shipped back to Europe just in time for Hitler's rise to power.  There's some obvious irony here: Mr. (Not A Racist) Richwine is making much the same arguments as his intellectual predecessors based on the same kinds of data, but oddly enough he's reached rather different conclusions about who the problem people might be; where his forebears were in a twist over mentally handicapped Polish Jews, Mr. Richwine seems to believe that Jews rank somewhere over Asians (also largely blocked from entry by the Immigration Act Of 1924 for similar reasons) on the intellectual scale.  It leads one to wonder who Mr. Richwine's intellectual descendants will be calling stupid when their time comes around.


I am confused...

>> Friday, May 03, 2013

Via Digby:

Via Think Progress:

JEFFREY Roobin [sic]: “This country fought Adolf Hitler. And I don’t really believe that Osama bin Laden and his group are worse or more dangerous than Adolf Hitler...We managed to defeat Adolf Hitler by following the rule of law.”

ARI FLEISCHER: They [the Germans] followed the law of war. They wore uniforms and they fought us on battlefields. These people are fundamentally, totally by design different. And they need to be treated in a different extrajudicial system.

So... Ari Fleischer thinks the Nazis, who rearmed in direct contravention of their post-WWI treaties and staged an international incident in order to illegally invade Poland followed the laws of war because they wore uniforms (including, I guess, Polish ones), and Jeffrey Toobin thinks we managed to defeat Hitler because we followed the rule of law and not by resorting to any means necessary to thwart global evil, including terrorizing civilian populations and, subsequent to Hitler's demise, conducting a show trial in which defendants were explicitly denied a basic right central to American law, the right not to be tried for an offense ex post facto.

I'm not trying to draw a false equivalency here: I think Nazism justified pretty much anything necessary to permanently erase it from the face of the Earth, however unpretty and awful it might be.  I just don't think we need to sugarcoat it, either: the Allied bombing campaign was a coordinated campaign of vicious violence against (mostly) noncombatants (however necessary and justifiable I personally think it was), and the ironic main difference between the war crimes trials that would have been held for the planners and conductors of the Allied air war and the war crimes trials held at Nuremberg is that nobody officially recognized genocide as a crime at the time the Nazis were butchering innocents, but the bombing of civilian centers was a self-evident violation of the Hague Convention Of 1907.

The real point of all of this is that the main thing I learn from the above exchange is that I'm not missing a goddamn thing by not having cable.  These people simply have no idea what they're talking about.  And it demonstrates yet again that WWII--or really the World War altogether, if you consider (as some historians do) WWI and WWII to be one long military conflagration interrupted by a two-decade armistice--is an exceptional case that doesn't scale or compare well to anything else that's ever happened before or since.  The villains were unlike anything that's quite been seen in the history of mankind, and the heroes had to do a lot of things that nobody should be proud of (and more than a few things they really didn't have to do that nobody should be proud of).  We certainly didn't defeat fascism by following any rules but the ones we had to make up as we went along, anyway, but then Al-Qaeda and its ilk have absolutely nothing in common with marauding state fascism (if that isn't a redundant expression) or any other kind of fascism (if there is any other kind of fascism), no matter how often Ari Fleischer and his ilk use the moronic neologism "Islamofascism" to characterize criminal gangs of religious extremists.

I know what Fleischer and Toobin are up to with their fatuous analogies--hell, I even approve of what Toobin's up to, thinking that torture is illegal, immoral and fatally counterproductive and that the inmates at Gitmo ought to be tried or released because, you know, habeas corpus and rule of law and all that other happy horseshit we purportedly believe in that's supposed to raise us above assholes on the evolutionary scale.  Nevertheless, they should both shut up.  Not because they aren't entitled to express themselves... no, wait: they aren't entitled to express themselves; I mean, they are as a matter of general principles because free speech and all that other happy horseshit we purportedly believe in that further raises us above assholes on the evolutionary scale; but.  But there's no benefit to anyone in high-profile idiots with a public platform totally blowing out the signal-to-noise ratio because they don't know what the fuck they're talking about but get paid to keep talking so CNN has something to broadcast 24-7.  Facile, inaccurate and intellectually dishonest blather is evidence we're reverting to assholes on the evolutionary scale, or, worse yet, talking heads babbling is a selective pressure driving us back to the primordial latrines we emerged from.


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