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Archive: April 2004

Channel 9 From Outer Space

Hey, look at this:

Channel 9 started as a personal story from one of us about fear of flying. Lenn realized after years of dealing with it, that it was actually a fear of the unknown. The fear was conquered through learning. The more transparency into what it took to fly a plane, the more the fear went away. Lenn got to know pilots who flew planes everyday, and every time he flew he turned on Channel 9 on the in-flight audio system to listen in to the cockpit.

We think developers need their own Channel 9, a way to listen in to the cockpit at Microsoft, an opportunity to learn how we fly, a chance to get to know our pilots. Five of us in Redmond are crazy enough to think we just might learn something from getting to know each other. Were we wrong? Time will tell.

Join in, and have a look inside our cockpit and help us fly the plane.

Welcome to Channel 9.

Ooh, now look at this:

This page is not Valid HTML 4.0 Transitional!

Errors: 359

It’s OK though, they know their HTML sucks!

At some point, I’ll go over the whole site and try to make it more palatable for the masses. Xhtml will be the goal, except that I’m not sure how friendly Asp.Net is going to be for that. Anyway, I know it sucks, I wish it didn’t, that’s what i get for pushing our functionality so quickly into both ASP.Net Forums 2.0 and FlexWiki. For now, leave your issues here and i’ll try to address them once this becomes a priority.

I’m having trouble here. I can’t decide what’s funnier… Is it

  1. Microsoft’s technical evangelism blog uses 8-year-old obsolete HTML and still can’t get it right
  2. ASP.NET isn’t “friendly” with XHTML


We ♥ Jews

According to Trisha Lynn on Tartsville, the search term “jew” has been googlebombed by an anti-Semitic group, so the number one search result is their web site (which I’m obviously not going to link to). I submitted a spam report to Google, just in case nobody else thought to do so. Trisha reports that some bloggers are doing grassroots counter-googlebombing to get the Wikipedia entry on “Jew” into the number one spot. Boy oh boy, the Web sure has introduced the world to some exciting new forms of political activism!

Back to Blithedale

Yesterday I teased that I’d compare The Blithedale Romance to Joan of Arcadia, but what it really reminded me of was I Capture the Castle. It’s perhaps not immediately obvious why I’d think about the story about becoming a woman amid a family of eccentrics in the English countryside while reading about a poet becoming an older, crankier poet among utopians in Massachusetts, and if it is obvious you can probably safely stop reading now. Actually the commonalities that jumped out at me don’t lie in idealistic eccentrics trying to make ends meet in a bucolic setting. It was that both feature brashly uncensored narrators. I started to say “unselfconscious,” but both Cassandara Mortmain and Miles Coverdale are intensely selfconscious and self-aware, though both have a tendency to miss or mistake crucial issues. And they’re about trying to distinguish love as it happens from the Platonic ideal of love that you can think about, which is perhaps impossible if you want to maintain that ideal.

Really, these are narrators and narratives obsessed with the overlap between ideals and dreams and realities, with the questions that arise from observation and a search for certainty. And how much murder guilt should you feel if the death is not at your hands? How long do love and promises hold? Or are promises only wishes and dreams? Can you really be a martyr if you revel in your doom? And should you have noticed those clear, inauspicious signs, or were they only visible when you looked back? Is it worth not being rich to be honorably poor? And why don’t people behave like the people in books? or do they?

I’m getting too tired to think more about this, but I’m going to go ahead and publish this in hopes it will urge me to clarify my thoughts further, which hasn’t worked yet. I’m not sure whether this means I believe in hope or the redemptive possibilities of publicly stated goals or just that doing a lousy job is better than nothing at all.

Messages From Beyond

Yes, it’s part four of a four part series of posts on the grand old comic book From Beyond the Unknown #23! Previous installments:

  1. “Secret of the Man-Ape!”
  2. “Language-Master of Space!”
  3. “World of Doomed Spacemen”

Now we come to the letters column, “Messages From Beyond!”

Dear Editor:
Having been writing letters for quite awhile now, it does not surprise me to see my name pop up in a lettercol every time I turn around. What does surprise me is to find out I’ve gotten a mention, not because of a letter I’ve written, but for one I didn’t write! To remedy the lack of my letters to From Beyond the Unknown, here I am.

The trio of Gardner Fox stories in #21 shows the variety of tales the man can review. “Raid of the Rogue Star” is typical of his tales in the old Strange Adventures wherein some alien menace attacks Earth in one way or another and is defeated by a scientist who notices the flaw in the plan just before it is too late. Bill Travis, like all his predecessors and successors is really the same character with a different name; a man who ends up with his girl friend (or wife) on a picnic or at the beach after he saves the world. No publicity, no parades, no nothing. Just a fadeout back into oblivion.

“The Ghost Planet” is the Fox version of a “Twilight Zone” story. This is the quickie type which relies solely on the surprise-twist ending. As twist stories go, this one was pretty good.

“Will the Star Rovers Abandon Earth?” is the third type of sci-fi story Mr. Fox turns out: the series story. While the Star Rovers stories are the most limiting in terms of basic pattern (i.e. each of the three solving the same problem in a different way), each of them is refreshingly different enough to make them enjoyable. This issue’s tale was par for the course.


So he wrote so many letters that people actually worried when he failed to write in to From Beyond the Unknown—that’s dedication! The neat thing about letter columns is the way they make the readers’ role as interpreters of the text actually part of the text itself, so that the text becomes self-reflexive. Which isn’t to say authors should necessarily listen to their readers (Hollywood studios actually act on the suggestions of test audiences, and look at all the awful movies that result), but giving readers a voice without requiring that they get published in a lit crit journal or something is a great idea. There are probably better ways to do it than a letter column in the book—like the Web, which is sort of a super-letters column for the entire world, to strain an analogy. Anybody who can get hold of an Internet connection can say anything about anything. People are always coming up with new ways of democratizing critcism—like this wiki for annotating and commenting on Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture, which contains the entire text of the book (Lessig helpfully published it under a Creative Commons license).

But back to the letters!

Dear Editor:
Finally. I have discovered not one, but two errors in FBTU #21, both occurring in the explanations of the stories. The first, in “Raid of the Rogue Star”, erroneously led people to believe that an unknown element destroyed anything colored green. This may be all right for the alien planet, but to suggest that anything from Earth would likewise be destroyed, is a little far-fetched. If you were to say that just the pigment was destroyed, then the emerald would have turned to clear transparency.

A better explanation is to propose that a peculiar quality of the alien planet required that it must receive the green part of the visible spectrum or cease to exist. This impurity would account for the disappearance of the rogue star, as anything colored green has a green pigment which reflects green light, making it look green in appearance. As far as the planet goes, you could say that the green light must exist at least when other light is present, thereby saving the planet in times of darkness. In this case there could be no red or blue colored light without some green light mixed in, or anything subjected to it would cease to exist. Follow?

Editorial interlude: Follow? An element which destroys anything colored green is too far-fetched. It would be less far-fetched if the material making up this alien planet had such a quality that exposure to non-green light causes it to cease to exist. Apparently the material would need to absorb green light to continue existing, so the “rogue star” would cease to exist because it reflects green light! Got it? Wait, it’s a rogue star—doesn’t that mean it would radiate green light, not reflect green light?

Now, over to the Star Rovers. Obviously, for Karel’s skin to turn blue, something must have entered her bloodstream, taking away her normal pinkish color. To suggest that her hair is modified skin which also should have turned blue is ridiculous, since hair is nothing more than a protective covering, comparable to nails, claws, quills, scales, or feathers, which are all related and which all function and grow in the same manner. These have nothing to do with skin, and therefore are not related in any way.

Anyway, here’s your answer for this one: In between the second and last panels of the last page was a doctor saying the same things I did but trying to save her anyway, which he obviously did. He gave her a blood transfusion every day for two weeks, which enabled the blue poison to drain from her system. However, what they didn’t know was that the condition was hereditary and all of her future offspring were “blue babies”! Ouch!

Greg Coben, New Brunswick, N.J.

So Karel’s skin turns blue because of some poison, and characters in the story wonder why her hair doesn’t turn blue as well. Luckily Greg Coben is here to explain why. How’s this guy so smart? Editor Julian Schwartz notes in his reply to the letter, “A wise guy—eh, this Gren Coben? Could be—the portion of his address that we omitted reads: Rutgers University!” Clearly Greg Coben was a professor of colors.

Skating on Happy Valley Pond

Well, I’m wrapping up a comics-free weekend, and it’s been a good one. I’ve just returned from a ceili in which I actually danced and didn’t play music at all. (Aside to those not in the know, a ceili is an Irish set dancing party, basically extreme square dancing. And I’m awful.) I always manage to forget how good it feels to exercise, but I remember right now and it does feel good. This perhaps goes hand-in-hand with my other major adventure this weekend, naps!

In between all that exciting activity - not to mention laundry! - I managed to finish Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, obviously inspired by David Fiore, who has managed to build a life around it. This is one weird little novel! I think it would benefit greatly from being read aloud, but that might make it funny when it’s supposed to be serious. The trouble is that it’s hard to take it seriously when it’s about a bunch of self-absorbed artists and mystics and dreamers and philanthropists trying to make a go of a Utopian farming community. Dave, if you push me, I could explain how it’s like Joan of Arcadia, like any narrative of adolescent enthusiasm. But I think what really matters is that it’s about a poet who scorns mystics and mesmerists yet finds himself wishing he’d noticed portents at the time. It’s about a feminist who has all the womanly flaws imaginable, in addition to rare beauty. And there’s enough discourse on poverty and revelations of shocking family histories to put Dickens to shame. Miles Coverdale, the narrator, gives the book a clear, consistent voice, though a quirky one. It’s a story about the disjunction between who people want to be and who they are and the longings that arise because of this. Perhaps the unexamined life is the only livable option.

I’m most intrigued by what sort of needlework Priscilla used to make her cunning little silk purses (and any pig-related insights are unwelcome) but I’m assuming that Hawthorne may have been ignorant of needlecraft and didn’t elaborate for that reason. I was rooting for more knitting scenes! Of more general interest is the problem with philanthropy. I was a bit surprised to find that a group of idealistic artists would be opposed to systems for rehabilitating criminals. I was never able to figure out exactly what it was about this idea that made it so abhorrent to Coverdale, who admired (and idealized) honest poverty. I thought at first it was a sort of moralistic position that people needed to pay for their mistakes rather than get help, but by the end I wasn’t sure if it was more that the people with the power/wealth/influence to be philanthropists can’t even save themselves and shouldn’t be attempting to save others.

There were striking insights and lovely quotes on almost every page, but more will have to wait for another day when I’ve adjusted to the time change and gotten some rest.

“World of Doomed Spacemen”

Part three in a four-part series on From Beyond the Unknown #23! Previous installments include “Language-Master of Space!” and “Secret of the Man-Ape!” Today, “World of Doomed Spacemen!” Story by Gardner Fox, art by Mike Sekowsky and Bernard Sachs. (Part four will be the letters column, which is pretty interesting in itself.)

A deserted Earth spaceship with no sign of its crew—a fantastic giant who was the only living thing on a far distant planet—! Had the giant destroyed the Earthmen? Or was there a stranger menace waiting to doom the rescue ships from Earth?

[Rescue ship crewman:] “The giant snapped us up like a pair of toy spaceships! What’s he going to do to us?”

This is an episode in an ongoing Space Museum series, the premise of which is that a son and his father go to the Space Museum and discover some odd and intriguing artifact on display. “Behind every object in the Space Museum there’s a story of heroism, daring, self-sacrifice…” a story which little Tommy Parker’s father tells him. This episode, Tommy and his dad find a pair of contact lenses. And let me tell you, these are some huge contacts. They’re like the size of an entire eyeball! Why are people in the 25th century still wearing contacts, anyway? They also drive flying cars that have wheels. Why do they have wheels if they fly? I guess for landing, but come on, how about vertical landing/take-off? The people of the future are slackers if this is the best technological advancement they can come up with.

But back to contact lenses. What is the story of heroism, daring, and self-sacrifice behind a pair of contact lenses? Glad you asked! The contacts belonged to Tom Miller of the Star-Gazer, the first manned spaceship to travel to the stars! During its maiden voyage, the Star-Gazer is lost somewhere between the Sirius and Procyon systems… Earth sends out two rescue ships! As the commander of one ship explains, “If the lead ship runs into the same disaster, the follow-up one will try to save it—or at least determine the menace!” Astute readers will do doubt catch the logical problem here—it’s sort of a “Who watches the watchmen?” for spaceships… who rescues the rescue ship? Who rescues the rescue-rescue ship? And so on. Sending two rescue ships is only a partial solution, but the problem is that a partial solution is the best you can manage. Sending a backup rescue ship to rescue the rescue ship wouldn’t really significantly increase the probability of a successful rescue mission. You just have to hope the rescue crew are smart and don’t get into trouble themselves. As the story continues, the futility of a backup rescue ship is effectively demonstrated. The rescuers track the Star-Gazer to the planet Procyon, but as soon as they arrive on Procyon a giant shows up and grabs both rescue ships. The backup ship was totally useless!

Luckily for the rescuers, the giant is a friendly giant. In fact, when the giant uses a machine to reduce himself, it turns out it’s Commander Tom Miller! How did Commander Miller find himself giant-sized? Well, after the Star-Gazer landed on Procyon, its crew began disappearing one by one, until none but Commander Miller was left. As Commander Miller searched the barren landscape for his crewmates, a voice spoke to him inside his head! “Follow my thoughts, man of Earth! Your friends are with me, waiting for you…”

[Commander Miller:] “The voice in my mind explained that it belonged to a mighty robot of inestructible metal! It had been created on a far-distant planet called Strykor… Not content with life on Strykor, Extar the Robot decided to journey to other worlds…”

[Extar the Robot:] “All I need to teleport myself across space is mind-energy—which I’ll absorb from the people on this planet…”

There’s an important lesson here. If you build a robot, do not give it the ability to eat minds. If you insist on giving it the ability to eat minds, do not give it the ability to decide to eat your mind. People always get this wrong—they make a killer robot and the robot goes crazy and kills them. Obviously the people of Strykor were not Isaac Asimov fans.

Extar absorbed the mind energy of the Strykorians, teleported to Procyon, and got stuck there because Procyonian civilization is long dead—no mind-energy to absorb! Luckily, Commander Miller and Co. arrived. But wait—Extar was able to mind-control the Star-Gazer crew, but when he tried to mind-control Commander Miller he failed miserably! (Can you guess why?) The Commander narrowly escaped, discovered the enlarging/shrinking machine, and enlarged himself in preparation for battle with Extar the Robot.

Now, did you guess why Extar was unable to mind-control Commander Miller? If you guessed that the mind-control rays were distorted due to the refractive index of the glass, and thus failed to strike the control centers of the commander’s brain… you are correct!

Commander Miller and the rescue crew form a battle plan:

  1. Bust into the robot’s lair
  2. Throw the enlarging/shrinking machine at the robot (distraction, see?)
  3. Put glass space helmets on the mind-controlled Star-Gazer crew

Brilliant plan, right? But there’s one problem: the mind-controlled crewmembers are still even after they get space helments! Commander Miller, Space Sleuth, deduces that “The robot must have changed the frequency of its mental rays to allow for the distortion of the glass, figuring to capture me this way!” Commander Miller leaps into action and operates the englarging/shrinking machine to shrink Extar to subatomic size! Another crew member, now free of the robotic mind control, marvels, “The robot’s so small now that it is on one of the uncounted trillions of sub-atomic worlds! It’ll never find its way back! Our universe is now safe!” Wow, uncounted trillions of sub-atomic worlds… Commander Miller replies, “The machine used up all its power in shrinking Extar! It’s useless to us now because we don’t know on what fuel it operates!” Alas!

If you’re wondering how Commander Miller avoided being mind-controlled after the robot altered the frequency of its mind-control ray, you’re not alone:

[Tommy:] “But, Dad, how did Commander Miller prevent the robot from overcoming him as it did the others?”

[Dad:] “When he realized that the robot had altered its mental waves to compensate for glass, Miller removed his contact lenses—an thus Extar’s mental waves couldn’t overcome him!”

Luckily, Commander Miller’s eyesight wasn’t too bad without his contacts in. It’d be pretty embarrassing to be fighting an evil robot and trip on a chair or something because you’re too blind to see it.

Captain America, apathetic voter?

I know the burning question in your heart: What is new Captain America writer Robert Kirkman going to do with the book? Prepare to find out: [via Fanboy Rampage]

“Focus on him beating up people? I’m not touching on the higher themes of Cap and patriotism. It’s been done before and been done better than I could ever do it. My story is about a guy that dresses up in an American flag and does his part in defending this country from crazy people that dress up in Halloween costumes. I’m trying to keep it simple. In light of where the books been for the last couple years, I’m hoping that will seem like a fresh take.”

Awesome! Who wants patriotism in a book about a guy dressed up in an American flag anyway… Wait. Wait.

Remember a few months ago, Bill Jemas’s proposal for a Thor series with Thor as a political allegory of American foreign policy? The problem with that sort of political allegory is, it doesn’t strengthen the political arguments at all—in fact, it obfuscates them. If you disguise a political argument as a Thor comic, you’re just adding an unnecessary extra comprehension step as readers will have to decode your allegory before they can even consider your argument. If you want to convince people the war in Iraq is a bad idea, just tell them and don’t screw around with allegory! Now does that mean fiction can’t address political topics? Not at all! See David Fiore:

This doesn’t mean that you can’t feature political issues as story elements—Morrison’s Animal Man demonstrates pretty clearly that you can; as do the works of Charles Dickens and Frank Capra (anyone know who Frank Capra voted for back in the thirties? anyone care? I hope not, because his films, even the ones that take place in Washington, don’t really have anything to do with politics)—you just can’t make them the point of the story, otherwise your work will suck.

As anyone who has read this blog at all knows, I’m a psycho when it comes to defending liberal values and the question of animal rights—but even I know enough never to write a novel about these things… If I have something to say about a specific issue, I’ll just say it… When I write fiction, I deal with the kind of stuff that nobody conducts polls on—like epistemological conundrums and the magic of inter-subjectivity.

So let’s just be clear up front: a Captain America story whose sole purpose is to explore what Captain America would think of President Bush or a Captain America story which is a straightforward political allegory of the war in Iraq is bound to suck a lot. Nobody cares what Captain America thinks of American foreign foreign policy. (Or anybody who does care is a weirdo—come on, he’s a fictional character! His political beliefs have no bearing on real-world politics.) A story that uses Cap’s political experiences metaphorically to deal with more interesting things, well, that has more promise.

Back to Kirkman. Kirkman, according to his Newsarama interview, is wisely not going to use Captain America as a platform for expressing his political beliefs. But he is also not going to address “higher themes” like “patriotism.” Nuh uh, hold on there, Kirkman! Cap dresses in an American flag. He’s a walking, talking, fighting symbol of the USA! The USA is a political entity—you can’t take a character who’s a symbol of a political entity and make him apolitical!

But Steven, we’ll just say he’s beyond politics, that he’s a symbol of the American Ideal. No problem.

But the notion that there’s such a thing as an “American Ideal” or an “American Dream” is a matter of nationalistic politics. “American” has no inherent moral value separate from its sociopolitical meaning.

Well, look, he’s just a symbol of a moral ideal. It’s not especially nationalistic. We’re just ignoring patriotism, all right?

No no no, Hypothetical Debater! He’s dressed in a flag, anything he represents is necessarily associated with America.

Look, damn it, we’ll just have him beat up the Serpent Society or something, no political stuff there!

Nope. The political stuff is there. The American flag, as a symbol of America, carries with it tons of political baggage. Kirkman can tell people to ignore it, and some readers will play along (just look at the comments below the Newsarama article), but critical readers will not play along. Kirkman can refuse to address the political themes inherent in a superhero who wears an American flag costume, but that doesn’t mean the political themes go away. It means Kirkman is willfully ignorant of the political themes in his text, which means he can’t control them. Allowing a large chunk of unconscious thematic material to lurk around in your text is generally a dangerous idea. A critical reading will unearth those lurking themes. If the story is something like, “Captain America beats up the Serpent Society,” the most obvious reading would be that Captain America is a simplistic metaphor for the American tradition of heroic violence, or something like that. And because Captain America is the Good Guy and the association of Captain America’s violent heroism with America goes unquestioned, we’re pretty much back at the level of banal political allegory where the Serpent Society represents America’s enemies by implication. It’s even worse than the Thor thing because the allegory isn’t even intentional. And wait, before you reply, remember that we’re talking about unintentional and unconscious elements in the text, so “But Kirkman didn’t intend it to be a political allegory, the Serpent Society isn’t supposed to represent anything” is not much of a counterargument.

And wait, one more thing! The fact that Captain America may not be fit to address political issues is irrelevent. Sure, maybe a superhero dressed as a flag who beats up mental patients in weird drag isn’t much good for commenting on patriotism and nationalism, but that doesn’t make it possible not to address patriotism and nationalism with such a character!