Six Little Words

Wired asked authors to write a story in six words. Some of the best:

Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.
– Joss Whedon

Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time
– Alan Moore

With bloody hands, I say good-bye.
– Frank Miller

1940: Young Hitler! Such a cantor!
– Michael Moorcock

I’m dead. I’ve missed you. Kiss … ?
– Neil Gaiman

Osama’s time machine: President Gore concerned.
– Charles Stross

I decided to join the fun, even though my novel hasn’t been published (yet):

Tragically, she died. Oh, what beauty!

Jesus returns–as comet! Robertson: “Shit…”

No, pa, not the axe, again!

Man eats mushroom, becomes Better Angel.

Satellite calls God. No one home.

Dawkins vs. God

There I was, hip deep in Richard Dawkins’ new book, The God Delusion, making a mental checklist of all the great points I wanted to put into a review and then I found this review, which condenses all other reviews down to the simple and honest truth.

Of course I’ll have a more elaborate review once I’m finished reading. But the short, short review: It’s the best book I’ve ever read on Atheism and arguments against God. If more people read this book, this country, and the world would be in much better shape.

Abracadabra

Elvira and I saw the Prestige this weekend and while it was good, we both liked the Illusionist better. Normally I try to avoid comparing movies against one another, as inevitably, you enter the land of apples and oranges.* But it’s almost unavoidable given that both films fall into the genre of 19th Century Magician Drama, which is a niche that no one knew existed until a few months ago and has left me wanting more.

The genre has everything you could ask for: period detail, tight plotting, colorful characters driven by inner demons and desires that are singular, dynamic and tragic in their power to consume lives. The pursuit of wonder in the face of advancing science and a public jaded by the beginnings of mass culture. Scarlet Johansson in a corset. OK, she’s just in the Prestige, but all movies in the Magician Drama should be required, henceforth to have Scarlet Johansson in a corset.

Both films have an amazing cast. Edward Norton, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti in the Illusionist and Christian Bail, Hugh Jackman, Scarlet Johanson, Michael Kane and David Bowie (as Frickin’ Tesla!) in the Prestige. The films are really quite different. One is a story about taking control of ones fate and escaping the constraints of your social class, while the other is a psychological drama about obsession and how far a person will go to get what they want. Brilliant in concept, though perhaps the Prestige was not as well executed as I had hoped. Nothing specific, mind you, just a vague uncertain feeling that, with maybe if Christopher Nolan had given one more pass through the screenplay, the story could have been made just that little bit better. I understand that the movie departs heavily from the book, which I’m now going to have to read, obviously.

I don’t want to ruin the ending of either film so I’ll just say that both are worth seeing, but if you have to pick one 19th Century Magician Drama, wait until the Illusionist comes out on DVD.

_________
*Obvious exceptions to this rule include remakes and reimaginings.

All The Stars in The Sky

The stars are not just our destiny, they are fucking ours. Not content to invade Middle Eastern countries that are no threat to the US, the Bush Administration has decided to expand it’s imperial goals to include All of Frickin’ Outer Space:

The document – signed by President Bush – also says “freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power”.

The document rejects any proposals to ban space weapons.

But the White House has said the policy does not call for the development or deployment of weapons in space.

Except, that for the last six years, when not dissembling about his role in the destruction of the cradle of civilization, Rumsfeld has been pitching a tent about a laser guided missile defense shield/ space station with lasers. You know that somewhere in the Pentagon, Rumsfeld has a team of engineers working on plans for his very own Death Star so, claiming that we have no designs on weaponizing space is silly.

Having a space based automated “defense” weapon is all part of the Neocon techno fetish. They’ve been flogging this wet dream of waging total global warfare with the minimal number of troops possible for decades and aren’t going to let a little thing like reality or the limitations of technology or utter, abject failure stop them. It’s the same old strategy that went horribly wrong in Iraq, the notion that we don’t need soldiers or Intelligence, we’ll just bomb the shit out of anyone who gets on our nerves. And if we can do that from space (with lasers!) well, that’s just cool as shit.

Wonder if this includes China and their plans of recreating the Lunar Landing by 2012? These idiots will start WW IV because China violates our claims to own the frickin’ universe.

Someone At The Heritage Foundation has His Head Up His Ass, Or: Business as Usual

A surprisingly wrong headed op-ed from the New York Times was the hot subject of the Comics scholars listserv today. I thought I’d share it and my commentary, with the class:

New York Times October 11, 2006
Op-Ed Contributor
No Undergrad Left Behind
By EUGENE HICKOK
Richmond, Va.
LIKE it or not, the No Child Left Behind Act passed under President Bush has transformed the conversation about American public education.

Already, we’re off to a roaring start. Suck it you liberal whiners! It’s the law!

The law has its flaws, but the nation has benefited from its focus on results and its willingness to confront gaps in educational achievement.

Not that he’s going to give us any statistics or hard evidence for this but hey it’s an op ed, so he’s free to just throw his opinions into the ether. It’s a sweet gig, paid for by the NYT, no less. Wonder how I could get my biased and completely obtuse opinions on the internet…

Now the administration has extended the discussion into what has long been considered sacred ground in Washington politics: higher education. Recent studies have highlighted higher education’s skyrocketing costs, uneven quality and poor graduation rates. Even more disturbing are reports that reading competency and comprehension are declining among college graduates — as if there should be any question about the reading skills of people with college degrees. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has addressed these and other concerns by embracing reforms that could strengthen higher education and improve access and opportunities for America’s students. Among her commission’s recommendations are heightening fiscal and academic accountability, improving access to financial aid and assembling accurate data on the performance of students and institutions. While no one seems to be saying that No Child Left Behind policies should be applied to the country’s colleges and universities…

Until now.

… it does make sense to consider how some of the program’s underlying principles might help to ensure that higher education in America remains higher education. A college degree provides Americans with a competitive edge on the job market. But what is coming under increasing scrutiny is whether a college degree is truly proof of a college education. It is time for colleges to develop accurate measures of student achievement, and of the value institutions of higher education provide. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute recently released a report from the National Civics Literacy Board, on which I serve, showing what sort of information the public needs and why it is so important that it be available. The study tracked student knowledge of American history and civics at select colleges and universities, with the goal of determining how much students learn in these subjects over four years of college. They measured the change in knowledge by evaluating freshmen and seniors. And the results were appalling: college seniors failed the civic literacy assessment with an average score of 53.2 percent.

How this is the fault of colleges is beyond me. Basic literacy (civic or otherwise) is taught in grade school, you know, where NCLB and its glorious effects are in full swing.

This sort of information is important for tuition payers, policy makers and institutional leaders to have when trying to determine the difference a college education can make. Institutions of higher education need to report an academic bottom line. While they’re at it, colleges and universities must make it a priority that their students graduate. While most tuition payers assume a baccalaureate degree takes four years to complete, the truth is it takes typically more than six years. In 2003, only 34 percent of graduating students had completed their degree in four years or less. There are reasons for this, some of them understandable. But in far too many institutions, the emphasis is on enrolling students, not on graduating them. And far too often, that includes enrolling students who are not adequately prepared for higher education, and who therefore drop out after one or two semesters of struggling, or else spend most of their time in remedial or developmental courses that are not really college-level. Behind the impressive numbers of low-income and minority students enrolled in higher education are grim statistics regarding completion for a degree.

Nice. You college kids these days can’t read and if you can’t read good, you won’t graduate! So let me attach that idea to, ” the impressive numbers of low-income and minority students enrolled in higher education” and see if I can’t subliminally point to what we here at the Heritage Foundation thinks is the real problem, all you minority kids dragging the poor white kids down. It takes years of higher education, fed through the GOP spin machine to be able to throw a nice conservative curve ball like that out there.

Americans should have more information about higher education curriculum and teaching. Higher education in this country differs substantially from elementary and high school education, most obviously in what is offered and how it is offered. The academy responds to the demands of disciplines and faculty. It is a culture that cherishes independence and freedom. And it is a culture seriously out of touch with much of America.

Faculty members decide what they want to teach and when they want to teach, if, indeed, they teach at all. This is particularly true regarding undergraduate instruction, which is something of an afterthought on many campuses. Faculty members typically spend fewer than 200 hours a year in the classroom. That amounts to just five 40-hour weeks.

Right there in the emphasized line is where Eugene leaves planet Earth entirely. He was in a low degraded orbit before, but now he’s headed for the Moon. Faculty members don’t just scribble ideas for a curriculum on the back of some strip club napkin as Eugene dreams they do. All courses have requirements based on accreditation and all courses have to be approved by the board of trustees, at least at colleges here on planet Earth. Maybe things work differently at Mars U, which is obviously where Mr. Hickok went to school.

Take a look at what passes for subjects of scholarly and instructional focus on campuses. Should taxpayer dollars really go to underwrite courses in such things as the history of comic book art? Policy makers and tuition payers need to be made aware of what sorts of courses institutions consider appropriate to fulfill core academic requirements, if anything resembling an academic core even exists. And there needs to be a greater emphasis on teaching students what they need to know, rather than what faculty want to talk about.

Ah, now he’s hitting me at home. I have a four year, accredited degree in Sequential Art. That’s right, my undergrad was in Comic Books, both the history of them and how to make them. And cultural studies apparently have no place in Mr. Hickok’s dream University. All the students at Mars U read Sophocles in the original Latin and they like it that way! Never mind that I went on to get a MLS and now catalog comics as a librarian for one of the largest art schools in the Southeast. Good to know my professors wasted their time and education and that my career is an aberration in the eyes of… the Heritage Foundation. Speaking of wasted educations…

One of No Child Left Behind’s hallmarks is transparency. Today parents know more about the performance of their children’s schools than ever before.

Transparency and performance, like a hamster wheel.

This same principle needs to be applied to higher education. Colleges and universities need to be able to explain why they charge the tuition they charge, what their graduation rates are, what they feel constitutes an educated person and how they propose to get first year students from here to there. The various college rating systems and publications are entertaining and interesting to read, but they don’t provide the sort of objective data tuition payers need to make informed decisions.

For generations, a college education has been a big part of the American dream. Much of the world has come to America to get a higher education. But nothing guarantees that this will be the case in the future. Indeed, for more and more American citizens, that dream is coming into question. It is time for serious reflection and reform in higher education — before it is too late.

Perhaps if the ever-present fear of having our jobs shipped overseas where some Indian or Chinese Grad student will do it for a quarter of the wages were taken out of the equation, that four year degree might mean a hell of a lot more.

Eugene Hickok, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, was a deputy secretary of education during President Bush’s first term.

Emphasis added, which explains everything.

We Would All Be King Ozymandias

New Scientist:

Imagine that all the people on Earth – all 6.5 billion of us and counting – could be spirited away tomorrow, transported to a re-education camp in a far-off galaxy. (Let’s not invoke the mother of all plagues to wipe us out, if only to avoid complications from all the corpses). Left once more to its own devices, Nature would begin to reclaim the planet, as fields and pastures reverted to prairies and forest, the air and water cleansed themselves of pollutants, and roads and cities crumbled back to dust.

“The sad truth is, once the humans get out of the picture, the outlook starts to get a lot better,” says John Orrock, a conservation biologist at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, California. But would the footprint of humanity ever fade away completely, or have we so altered the Earth that even a million years from now a visitor would know that an industrial society once ruled the planet?

[…] The best illustration of this is the city of Pripyat near Chernobyl in Ukraine, which was abandoned after the nuclear disaster 20 years ago and remains deserted. “From a distance, you would still believe that Pripyat is a living city, but the buildings are slowly decaying,” says Ronald Chesser, an environmental biologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock who has worked extensively in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. “The most pervasive thing you see are plants whose root systems get into the concrete and behind the bricks and into doorframes and so forth, and are rapidly breaking up the structure. You wouldn’t think, as you walk around your house every day, that we have a big impact on keeping that from happening, but clearly we do. It’s really sobering to see how the plant community invades every nook and cranny of a city.”

[…]

The area around Chernobyl has revealed just how fast nature can bounce back. “I really expected to see a nuclear desert there,” says Chesser. “I was quite surprised. When you enter into the exclusion zone, it’s a very thriving ecosystem.”

The first few years after people evacuated the zone, rats and house mice flourished, and packs of feral dogs roamed the area despite efforts to exterminate them. But the heyday of these vermin proved to be short-lived, and already the native fauna has begun to take over. Wild boar are 10 to 15 times as common within the Chernobyl exclusion zone as outside it, and big predators are making a spectacular comeback. “I’ve never seen a wolf in the Ukraine outside the exclusion zone. I’ve seen many of them inside,” says Chesser.

[…] But these will be flimsy souvenirs, almost pathetic reminders of a civilisation that once thought itself the pinnacle of achievement. Within a few million years, erosion and possibly another ice age or two will have obliterated most of even these faint traces. If another intelligent species ever evolves on the Earth – and that is by no means certain, given how long life flourished before we came along – it may well have no inkling that we were ever here save for a few peculiar fossils and ossified relics. The humbling – and perversely comforting – reality is that the Earth will forget us remarkably quickly.

Here’s a nifty timeline illustrating a lot fo what is discussed at length in the article. It’s humbling to think that, despite all the polution, art and Pyramids we’ve wraught over the last ten thousand years, most of it would disapear in just a few decades, the rest gone within a thousand years. Surely, we would all be King Ozymandias.

Hat tip to Warren Ellis

Something Comic Book Geeks and Historians Can All Agree On…

…is that the trailor for 300 looks frickin’ amazing.

For those who don’t know, the story is a retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, in which 300 Spartans faught to the death the entire army of the Persian Empire. OK, they had a little help from some other Greek city states but most historians agree that the battle was decidely uneaven, roughly 7000 Greeks up against anywhere between 800,000 and 4 million Persians (accounts differ wildly, and by wildly, I mean they range into numbers that are mythic in dimension, if not outright silly). By the final battle, it was just the Spartans vs Xerxes and his entire army. Thing is, the Spartans didn’t give in. They faught and kept fighting, even after a hail of arrows (remeber that scene in Hero when the sky is black with arrows? That’s how Herodotus described it). By the end of the battle, the Spartans were dead but so were 50,000 Persians.

Harry Potter, In the Amish School, With a Ludicrous Excuse

Pam over at Pandagon beat me to the story about the Gerogia Mom who wants to ban Harry Potter books in school here because they indoctinate kids into Wicca, cause school shottings, and acne:

A woman who maintains that the Harry Potter books are an attempt to teach children witchcraft is pushing for the second time to have them banned from school libraries.

Laura Mallory, a mother of four from the Atlanta suburb of Loganville, told a Georgia Board of Education officer that the books by British author J.K. Rowling, sought to indoctrinate children as Wiccans, or practitioners of religious witchcraft.

Referring to the recent rash of deadly assaults at schools, Mallory said books that promote evil – as she claims the Potter ones do – help foster the kind of culture where school shootings happen.

That would not happen if students instead read the Bible, Mallory said.

OK, I made up the bit about the books causing acne, but its just as plausible. This woman wouldn’t know a Wiccan if one walked up to her and said “Merry meet”. She probably head the word somewhere and learned that it was the modern religion of “witchcraft” and flipped out like all these ditzy Georgia soccer moms do. A couple years back the local paper advertised a Harry Potter book burning just across the border at a church in South Carolina. That’s the mentality we’re talking about here. Wicca, Satanism, school shootings, they’re all related in her twitterpated little mind. Harry Potter is just the most recent and convenient icon for religious nuts to attach their ire to. Before Harry Potter it was Marylyn Manson, and before that it was Ozzy, and Kiss and Led Zeppelin, preceded by Elvis Presley, then Swing Music, then Ice cream parlors and the evils of the zipper. And flappers. let’s not forget how flappers (and bobbed haircuts for girls) were supposed to drive us all to Hell in a merry little handbasket.

None of this nonsense addresses the real reason school shootings happen, though. Most of the kids who have gone into their schools and shot people did so because of the stringent enforcement of cultural and social conformity. These kids were outcasts, bullied and made fun of for years until they couldn’t take it anymore.

As for the guy who shot up the school last month and the one who shot up the Amish school last week, they were severely disturbed men with violence issues and a pedophilia streek a mile wide. if they hadn’t have shot up schools after raping girls, they would be running for Rep. Foley’s seat in Congress.

So yeah, there are weirdoes and disturbed individuals with easy access to guns and internet porn out there. They are a real problem. But so far, none of them have had dogeared copies of The Prisoner of Azkaban in their pockets. And they didn’t listen to Kiss records either.