accidents mean no one’s guilty; ignorance means someone’s killed

This media blow might get political, but that’s no fault of mine:

The Lives of Others: Oscar-winning German film from 2007. Set in East Berlin in 1984, it follows a Stasi captain ordered to surveill a popular playwright and his actor girlfriend. The passion in their lives draws him in, until he finds himself bending the rules to keep them safe. Like The Conversation, but heartwarming and taking place outside of Gene Hackman’s head. Phenomenal – moving, funny and rich in historic detail.

(Note: National Review called it the best conservative movie of the last twenty-five years – which, coming from a magazine that’s spent hundreds of pages defending warrantless wiretaps and detention without trial in the last decade, ranks as one of the sicker ironies I’ve read in some time)

Half-Life 2: Acquired it with the Orange Box; finished it last week. I see what all the fuss is about! The grossout horror aspects don’t do it for me (zombies! ceiling barnacles!), but the shooting felt more intuitive and intense than any other FPS I’ve played in recent memory. The house-to-house urban levels (Anticitizen One and “Follow Freeman”) justify the sticker price – which isn’t much in 2009, so go get a copy.

And the in-game dialogue does not disappoint (as it shouldn’t, coming from the makers of Portal). Dr. Breen’s tired lectures to the troops at Nova Prospekt beat the writing in any given Michael Bay movie, hands-down. “This brings me to the one note of disappointment I must echo from our Benefactors …”

I started in on HL2:Ep1 but logged off pretty early. Given the cataclysmic ending of HL2, I figured that Ep1 would put you in control of Alyx Vance as she fled City 17. Now that would have been cool. But no, once again it’s Gordon Freeman, forced to invade the same Citadel he just spent several hours blowing up. I’ll pick it up again once time has cooled its memory, I’m sure.

Slan: Typical ’40s pulp – lots of action, lots of breakneck pacing, lots of pseudo-scientific talk. In the distant future, the human race has united into a single global police state, fanatically devoted to one end: killing the super-mutants called slans. Slans look exactly like humans, except for the golden tendrils emerging from their skulls that give them telepathic capabilities. That, plus their superhuman speed and reaction time, make them a threat to the human race.

The story moves along at an engaging clip, pausing only on occasion for lengthy lectures on the history of the current situation. In these lectures we get a definite sense of the time in which van Vogt wrote this novel: 1940, when the world hadn’t quite lost its fascination with fascism yet. Because fascism isn’t just jackboots and insignia (though those are essential). It’s any political system which treats culture, genetics and politics as different facets of the same machine, a machine that, if it were only tempered just so, could launch the human species at a lightning pace.

Still, it’s pretty understated. Get past that and you have a classic piece of sci-fi history.

Buffy: I haven’t forgotten you. A couple more episodes, then I’ll have my next batch of 5.

Black Summer: Superhero comics stem from adolescent power fantasies, and the passing decades have not matured that appeal much. Sure, comic books sometimes touch on political issues of the day, but almost always within their own limited language – “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if a super-soldier punched Hitler in the face? and he had a sidekick who was my age?” At the end of the day, it’s still wish-fulfillment. And that’s fine. Indulging in wish-fulfillment gets the human race out of bed in the morning. But let’s call it what it is.

Black Summer is an independent comic series written by Warren “&%$#” Ellis and illustrated, sometimes too ornately, by Juan Jose Ryp. It tells the story that brings the Seven Guns, America’s only cybernetically enhanced vigilante team, out of retirement. Each of the Guns combines cutting-edge information processing nanotech with handguns of unequalled power – some can run faster than light, some can throw tanks at helicopters, some can see through every satellite or computer in the world. Four of them can hold off an Army battalion.

The series begins with the most trusted member of the Seven Guns, John Horus, killing the President and Vice-President with his bare hands moments before they’re scheduled for a press conference. He appears before the White House press corps and charges the (unnamed) President with a number of crimes, including but not limited to prosecuting an illegal war in Iraq and ordering the torture of enemy combatants. He demands a new election take place as soon as possible, and then flies off.

To Ellis’ credit, John Horus is insane. No one – not even his teammates – thinks that murdering the President will solve what’s wrong with America. As one of his allies puts it, John Kennedy was so unliked that he barely got elected, and now look what people think of him. So is Ellis saying violence won’t fix the system? That violence is an ugly but necessary first step? That the system can’t be fixed?

I don’t know that he’s saying any of those. I think Ellis took a dark idea that writers have been batting around since Watchmen (“what if someone truly invincible, and maybe a little bit crazy, were as mad at the President as I am?”) and ran with it. The result is an interesting, and brutally violent, little story. I don’t think it’ll change anyone’s mind on anything important. But, again, it’s a comic book.

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ooo, ee, ooo ah ah, ting tang, walla walla bing bang

Fireball Island: At Michelle B’s party on Friday, Noah brought Fireball Island, an exasperating hell-pit from Milton Bradley. You and three other explorers scramble your way up the slopes of Fireball Island, dodging fireballs until you can snatch a jewel from an altar. Then there’s a hilarious slapstick while the jewel changes hands until one explorer can get down the hill, into the boat, and off the island.

Part of what makes the game ridiculous:

  • Every time you roll a 1, a fireball appears. Whoever rolls the 1 can pick who gets the fireball, which has to roll from one of several points around the island. If you get hit with the fireball, you’re bumped back to a distant space and lose the jewel, if you’re holding it.
  • You can take the jewel from another explorer by passing them. And since you’re only moving 2 to 6 spaces at a time, this leads to the “end-game traffic jam”, where three to four players are clustered one or two spaces away from each other, and every consecutive move leads to the jewel changing hands.
  • As such, the wisest strategical moves, once the jewel reaches your hands, necessarily involve prolonging the game. Once I had the jewel, I ran to the other end of the island – as far from the exit as possible – forcing the other three players to sprawl out in tracking me.
I won, but largely through luck and attrition.

Luau: The annual Davis Square Luau (hosted by Colby, Dea and others) was again a success – perhaps not as ridiculous as last year’s, but still fun at all relevant points. True to the voodoo theme this year, Colby busted out barbecue ribs in a serving tray shaped like a coffin, and Dea decorated the inside of the house with loads of shrunken heads. A tiki band played for the first few hours, handing the reins over to a veritable stable of DJs until the morning. I drank, I circulated, I danced, I took some good photos. If you missed it, you suck.

no one wants to be defeated

Your correspondent’s adventures in consumerism in the Arsenal and Watertown Malls over the course of one hour on Thursday evening.

First, the Gamestop in the Arsenal Mall. I dropped two unopened XBox 360 games on the counter, hoping to get some store credit. The girl behind the counter looked them over. “We can’t take these,” she said. “They’re sealed.”

“And if I open the seals right now?” I asked, not at all getting it.

“No, it’s a loss prevention thing.”

I stood there for a moment, staring at her in confusion, before walking off. It’s one of those decisions that’s equally rational and ridiculous at the same time. It reduces the chances of Gamestop buying back a game that somebody stole from them, true. But it can easily be foiled by your hypothetical delinquent stepping outside, slitting the shrink-wrap off his games, and going to another Gamestop.

Next, I drove across the street to Autozone. Autozone will run a diagnostic on your car for free if you show up with the “Check Engine” light on. A stringy-haired tech followed me out to my car. I started my car, but he cautioned me to kill the engine but leave the battery on.

“Yeah, I just need the battery running to … whoop,” he said, feeling around underneath the dash. “What year’s this car again?”

“Ninety-six.”

“Sorry; can’t help you.” He indicated the interface on his diagnostic’s plug. “That was the year before they switched over to the standardized model.” He stood there, twiddling the cord on his diagnostic reader, shrugging with a wistful smile.

After that, I went to Best Buy to check out some computer headsets. Nothing leaped out and grabbed me. While I browsed, a cluster of blue-shirted blimps hovered around a computer in the cell phone section, spreading the news that Michael Jackson had just passed. “Should we make an announcement?” someone asked. “It’s channel 5 on the phone if you want to get the PA.” Thankfully, no one did. I mourn the King of Pop’s loss as deeply as anyone, but he’s not, y’know, the President.

Finally I ended up in Target, where I found some computer headsets for around $10. Since I could use one for the Overthinking It podcast, I scooped it up. I killed some more time browsing for backup hard drives and video cameras before going to check out.

“$16.85,” the checkout lady said.

“You have it posted for $10-something,” I said.

She punched up an itemized display. “No, $15 plus tax.”

“It was listed for $10 where I found it.”

She flailed around for a bit. “Where? Where is …? Shawna, have you seen …? He was just here.” She toddled off, looking for a manager or a stockboy to go check the aisle. I stood there, tapping my plastic on the checkout stand, rocking from heel to toe, and feeling sorry for the poor woman who’d just unloaded a cart of groceries onto the conveyor behind me. Sorry, miss. Just picking a fight over $5. Won’t be a minute.

The checkout woman returned, unable to find the employee she needed. “What’d you say it cost?”

“$10-fifty-something. I can take you back there to check.”

“I can’t go back there,” she insisted. “I have to stay up front.”

Again, we stood there for a moment. Finally, she punched a clear code in and entered “$10.59.” I swiped my card, thankfully not having to wait for a signature, and took off.

it’s like nothing else to make you feel sure you’re alive

I’m in so many other media this week.

First, I have a post up on OTI comparing Burn Notice to John le Carre novels. If you like either, you ought to check out the other. Or, at least, my article.

Second, don’t forget this week’s podcast if you haven’t listened to it already: our 2009 summer movie preview. We also come to the consensus that we need a woman on the podcast – not out of any sort of affirmative action principle, but because several listeners have requested it and, really, it makes sense.

Finally, OTI and Eco-comics – the weblog that mixes economics and comics – swapped guest writers this week. I gave them a post about the Justice League and comparative advantage: how Superman illustrates the Ricardian principles of trade. You should check it out.

rule britannia is out of bounds

WALL-E: Another touching and awesome Pixar spectacle. Pixar has mastered animation to the extent that a one-foot robot with only two words in its vocabulary can emote more effectively than most of the stars expected to carry a summer picture today. They’ve mastered comic timing on a level that puts 99% of comedies released today (Mike Myers films, the [Genre] Movie series) to shame. And I’m not the best barometer for tearjerkers, sensitive twit that I am, but very few human actors can move me like Pixar’s wooden toys, fuzzy monsters, colorful fish or rusting robots.

(No, I haven’t seen Up yet; planning on it)

Red Mars: I started this book when I was 14, maybe, got about 100 pages into it, and couldn’t sustain interest. Don’t know why I stuck to my initial judgment for so long – putting too high a premium on my adolescent judgments – but man, was I wrong. Red Mars works on all levels. As a compelling story of social orders in development, Red Mars tells the story of the first permanent colony on Mars – dedicated scientists at constant odds, each with their own vision of utopia that they seek to impose upon a lifeless planet. I also found myself able to follow the hard science aspects to a greater extent than in other sci-fi novels – I got the importance of aerobraking, and moholes, and the Phobos oscillation on the space elevator. So few engineers-turned-authors can make that work for an English major like me.

But above all else, Red Mars tells my favorite story: of how the war between institutions grinds humans in its wake. Red Mars lacks any overt villains. Though the United Nations and the megacorporations that run it draw no real sympathy, they do have a compelling case: they made a significant investment in Mars by getting the colony there, and they want to see that investment recouped. The environmentalists and the terraformers both make solid arguments for their points of view. Even the saboteurs draw the reader in, with their hokey Rousseauvian mysticism.

What else was I wrong about at age 14, I wonder?

Your Religion is False: Asked and answered, I suppose.

Atheists will never gain much traction in the public forum with the cranky attitude that people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers adopt in talking about faith. The ancient churches of the world have dealt with better (and better armed) vitriol for centuries. But gone are the years when joking about a holy man would get you exiled from your village, or burned at the stake, or eaten by bears. Laughter is a hard weapon to deflect.

Joel Grus puts humor to good use in Your Religion is False, by taking a John Hodgmann-esque look at all of the major world’s religions. He alternates between straight-faced looks at the absurdity of religious doctrine and exaggerations for comic effect:

Conservative Protestants strictly follow three universal principles, all of which revolve around the idea of “I’m sick of the Pope telling me what to do”:

  1. “If the Bible says it, I believe it. If the Bible doesn’t say it, I don’t believe it. If the Pope says it, for sure I don’t believe it, unless the Bible says it too, in which case I have to ask my pastor what I think.”
  2. “It doesn’t matter how good or evil you are – if you accept Jesus as your savior, you’re going to heaven, and if you don’t you’re going to hell.”
  3. “I’m sick of the Pope telling me what to do.”
The first causes all sorts of problems, as it forces Conservative Protestants to believe that the world is only 6000 years old, to disbelieve in all sorts of useful science, to insist that one man both built a boat capable of carrying and subsequently discovered two members of every species on Earth (including, apparently, all five million-plus species of beetles), and to assert that pi equals 3. The second causes all sorts of problems, as it has allowed a number of Nixon-era criminals to establish lucrative post-incarceration prison ministries. The third is actually an exceptionally sensible position.

And he devotes attention to just about every religion I’ve heard of, from the obscure (transcendental meditation, Jainism, giant stone head worship) to the institutional (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc). I think this is the book’s greatest strength and the key to its outreach. Every believer thinks that religions other than his own are silly, or false, or harmful, and wouldn’t mind a chance to poke fun at them. Maybe by seeing them juxtaposed with his own beliefs – equally silly in Grus’s eyes – he’ll have cause to rethink them.

Highly recommended. Buy a copy today.

(Disclosure: I advised Joel on certain portions of the book and provided some feedback on an early draft. However, I think you all know me well enough to know that, if I didn’t think this was a genuinely worthwhile book, I’d put off Joel’s persistent requests for a glowing review with a polite passive-aggression until he lost interest or took the hint. I’m that sort of asshole. But I haven’t; it’s legitimately funny)

ain’t no angel gonna greet me; it’s just you and I my friend

We moved hotels on Saturday, from one closer to the city (for the rehearsal dinner) to one closer to Swarthmore (for Matt and Lydia’s wedding). I rode with Kevin, tailing behind my parents’ SUV down a rain-slicked 95 South while Chuck Barry played “School Days.” “AC/DC does a decent cover of this song,” I remarked.

I borrowed some cufflinks from my dad and slipped into my dark pinstripe suit, with a patterned cornflower tie. Gluing my hair down onto my skull, I paced the room until Matt’s rented motor coach came to fetch us. The groom’s party and the bridesmaids would all ride to the wedding together, taking preliminary photos before the ceremony. The superstition about the bride and groom seeing each other before the ceremony didn’t bother these two, but the one about handling wedding rings during the rehearsal did. No judgment implied; every couple’s different.

We stopped at Lydia’s parents’ house to pick her and the bridal party up, where we proceeded to wait for half an hour. “Still not ready,” reported the groom’s father. “The important thing is: we got here on time,” Matt’s brother Griff, the best man, observed. “No one can pin this one on us.” We then pinned boutonnieres on each other, which proved trickier.

Lydia showed up, glowing like a June bride, and the coach rolled to Swarthmore. We snapped pictures on the front porch of the Quaker Meeting House while guests filed in the sides. The downpour slowed to a drizzle but did not let up. With a scant ten minutes to go the groom’s party slipped into the back for our entrance, while the bridesmaids waited to enter from the front. I caught up with Matt, his lips tight, and clapped him on the shoulder. “You know what rain on your wedding day means?” I asked him.

He shook his head.

“Not a god-damned thing.”

The remaining details are too personal to entertain a larger audience. If you’ve been to one wedding for close friends, you get the gist: touching ceremony, drinking with family, dancing with friends, arms on shoulders and heads in hands. I will say: Matt and Griff and their parents have been as close as family to me and mine for about twenty-five years. Having the honor of officiating Matt and Lydia’s wedding – bringing their two families together – felt touchingly appropriate. I did the best I could and had the most fun I think I could have.

a couple of guys who were up to no good started making trouble in my neighborhood

The cab ride from Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station to the Courtyard Marriott near City Hall took me past fewer adult theaters than I would have expected. They integrate well into Philadelphia’s downtown aesthetic of 1750s buildings with 1930s storefronts – art gallery, sandwich shop, adult theater, clothing store, adult theater, Western Union, Ben Franklin’s house, adult theater, and so forth. Philadelphia’s transients integrate really well, too. I saw crazy homeless people in every neighborhood in Philly – and I walked quite a few blocks – but never once got approached for change. It’s a gentler sort of homelessness. The indigent have won the battle for Philadelphia; they live as idle conquerors.

I walked from the hotel to the historical district, checking out the Liberty Bell and the outside of Independence Hall. Though I passed at least a dozen sandwich shops on the way out, not one spot on the way back (a mere two blocks south) advertised a cheese steak. And I didn’t feel like dropping $11 at some outdoor tavern – I wanted as close to the genuine street article as I could acquire. I finally found a street vendor two blocks from my hotel and picked up a cheese steak with the works – peppers, onions, ketchup, and of course the afterthought of cheese. It went down hearty.

Matt and his brother Griff, along with Matt’s fiancee Lydia and Griff’s wife Sarah, picked me up outside their hotel for the rehearsal. We braved Phillies traffic on 95 South to get to Swarthmore, arriving only a few minutes late. There I met the rest of Matt’s groomsmens’ party – three fine gentlemen I would have met a month ago had I made it to the bachelor party. “You’re Kevin’s older brother?” they asked, with a knowing nod that I would need at least four more beers to justify.

The Saturday forecast called for heavy rain, so we scoped out the backup location first: the Quaker Meeting House on Swarthmore’s north campus. Lydia and Matt eschewed a wedding planner for the ceremony, giving the rehearsal proceedings a refreshing informality. We lined everyone up, figured out who would stand where when delivering readings, and worked the timing of entrances and exits. Bam. In, out, thirty minutes.

“What are you going to be wearing for the ceremony tomorrow?” one of the bridesmaids asked.
“A Snuggie,” I said. “The sleeves are embroidered.”

Rehearsal dinner: back in the city at Estia (warning: Flash intro, plays music). Weddings that unite two big families lead to a lot of moving and entertaining stories over toasts, and this was no exception. Matt’s grandfather gave Lydia a warning about the men of his family “falling hard.” “My wife and I’ve been married fifty-eight years,” he explained. “Matt’s parents, thirty years.” We took that as the encouraging sign we think Ray meant, and clinked glasses.

My own dad had a story from the bachelor party. “So one of Matt’s friends goes to buy Matt a ‘femme’ drink as a gag. ‘Give me a Yuengling,’ he says, ‘and the girliest, weakest drink you have on the menu.’ ‘Two Yuenglings, coming up!'”*

Kevin showed up with an hour left in the evening, having driven straight from work in Baltimore without his cell phone or a solid knowledge of where we were. He caught me up on his extracurriculars. He’s playing in a rec lacrosse league, of whose players half used to play for Division I schools and the other half have not touched a stick in over a decade. “I’m playing defense,” Kevin said. “I don’t have to run so much.”

We closed out Estia’s function room early, harassing the waitstaff and doing a few final shots. Then Matt, Griff, Kevin and I took to the streets, doing what you’d expect four guys who’ve known each other for over twenty years to do when one of them’s getting married. Would you believe that Philadelphia’s the only city in America with a public library that’s open until 3:00 in the morning? They serve very good espresso.

* Dad later tells me that, though this is a true story, the bartender may have taken that line from Futurama. Regardless, any anecdote that helps dispel the New England myth that Yuengling’s a beer of some high quality gets printed as gospel on this weblog.