Monthly ArchiveJuly 2010



Commentary 30 Jul 2010 10:41 am

Vermontasaurus may soon be extinct

This is my July 29 column from The Review:

It’s 630 miles to Post Mills, Vt., and the little town’s biggest resident, the Vermontasaurus.

The creature, composed of scrap wood by Brian Boland, came to life on the edge of Boland’s property last month when the former teacher decided to indulge his inner artist. I’m no dinosaur expert, but the result — a combination of odds and ends that most people would light on fire or have hauled away — looks like a full-sized brontosaurus.

But dinosaurs went extinct for a reason.

In the case of the Vermontasaurus, it likely won’t be a meteor strike or a tar pit that edges the beast out of the gene pool, but rather a larger predator: the government. Officials in nearby Thetford, Vt., say that Boland needs a $272 permit for his scrappy sculpture. The Vermont National Resources Board weighed in with similar concerns and a price tag of at least $150 for a second permit. Some neighbors, it seems, would prefer not to see a 25-foot bronto rearing its head their way when they put their dogs out in the morning or back their cars out of their drives.

Boland has roped off around the beast’s legs to keep people from walking beneath them, because the Vermont Division of Fire Safety forbids it. If Boland allows his sculpture to be scrutinized by a structural engineer, that ruling could change.

It’s the old American story: Boy loves dinosaurs. Boy builds wooden dinosaur. The man brings boy down.

The artist and his sculpture have become the poster boy du jour of the anti-government movement for some people, who see nothing wrong with a whimsical sculpture built by a God-fearing, taxpaying American on his own property. After all, Boland didn’t apply for a federal grant to subsidize the building of his bronto over the course of months or years, like some loft-living Soho effete.

Instead, he gathered a cadre of volunteers and raised his sculpture the way working-class Americans might raise a storage shed in the backyard. I can’t say for sure, but I imagine that copious amounts of beer were imbibed while the thing took shape.

Here’s the thing with the anti-government angle, however: If the sculpture had collapsed and hurt somebody, many of the same people who have decried the government’s intrusion would be crying foul: “Why didn’t somebody do something?, ” “Doesn’t anybody check for permits anymore?” and “The government should have made him take that monstrosity down.”

Because the real American stories these days are the blame game and Monday-morning quarterbacking. Every story needs a hero, and every story needs a villain, and depending on when we come in, one could just as easily be the other.

So while I feel certain kinship for Boland and his Great American Work of Art, I also understand the bureaucratic necessity for a little CYA as far as giant Vermontasaurus sculptures are concerned. If I were going to be vilified for doing something that could prevent an accident or for not doing something after an accident has occurred, I guess I would go for the former rather than the latter, just like officials in Vermont.

That doesn’t mean I have to like it, however. And part of me would like to indulge my inner artist, too, by hopping in a car and driving the 630 miles to the Vermontasaurus exhibit. Even if I can’t stand under its legs, I could take pictures and dream of a time when dinosaurs, not litigation, ruled the Earth.

Books & Comic books 29 Jul 2010 04:31 pm

Gotham Central Vol. 3: On the Freak Beat

 

gc-freak

Funny how the four-issue arc has become such an accepted story format that anything less feels slight or incomplete. I noticed that while reading the third hardback collection of Gotham Central, subtitled On the Freak Beat, because two of the stories there are two-parters, and both feel less than substantial when compared with longer arcs in earlier volumes, or with the lone four-part story in the same volume.

This time around, we get “Corrigan,” which pushes crime scene evidence examiner Jim Corrigan into the spotlight. I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be the same Jim Corrigan who was once secretly the Spectre, but I somewhat doubt it. This Corrigan is making cash on the side by selling crime-scene evidence online, an illegal practice that gets him beaten up by series star Renee Montoya in this book opener by writer Greg Rucka and artists Micahel Lark and Stefano Gaudiano.

The same creative team is responsible for the done-in-one “Lights Out” that follows, a piece that sets up a conflict between Commissioner Micahel Akins and the Batman. This story is less than satisfying because it feels too connected to whatever was going on in the regular Batman books at the time, maybe the “No Man’s Land” saga or something. At any rate, I wonder if later in the series we’ll say a payoff to the excellent scene where, shades of All the President’s Men, Batman and the commissioner meet in a parking garage. Hopefully.

The third story is what gives the volume its name, a fun little romp by Ed Brubaker that reveals Detective Josephine MacDonald’s secret super power, the ability to see visions inspired by inanimate objects. She’s afraid to let her partner, Det. Driver, know of her psychic flashes for fear she’ll be labeled a “freak,” which is GCU slang for the many super-powered or costumed persons of interest flitting about Gotham City. Catwoman guest-stars and learns of MacDonald’s secret, unfortunately in one of the cheesiest examples of forced exposition that I’ve ever seen Brubaker commit to paper. The arc also suffers from — for lack of a better description — really ugly artwork by Jason Alexander, who lays down such thick ink that it threatens to obliterate his characters.

The best story of the bunch is the last, “Keystone Kops,” which finds detectives Montoya and Allen traveling to the Flash’s home turf to interview the villainous Doctor Alchemy, a member of the Scarlet Speedster’s Rogues Gallery. The story by Greg Rucka features some incredibly strong moments — a tour de force opening scene involving a heroic uniformed cop and a resolution of sorts between Montoya and her estranged parents — and one very weak one, which is a slavish imitation of Silence of the Lambs during the Alchemy interview, complete with Alchemy’s lifting of Hannibal Lecter’s “quid pro quo” line. There’s homage and then there’s theft, and this scene crosses the line so blatantly that it pulls me right out of an otherwise strong story. Stefano Gaudiano’s artwork is strong throughout, especially when he inks himself in the first two chapters.

Overall, this is easily the weakest of the Gotham Central volumes released so far. Still, I’m onboard for the final hardback, which according to Amazon isn’t scheduled for release until March.

Movies 29 Jul 2010 09:48 am

Smarter than the average audience

Do we really need a live-action Yogi Bear? I’d rather watch a root canal. Hell, I’d almost rather have a root canal.

Books & technology 27 Jul 2010 03:04 pm

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

 shallows

Nicholas Carr’s New Book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, should be required reading for anybody who uses a computer. Citing copious research, Carr argues that society’s excessive use of the Internet has literally changed the way we think and process information.

The earlier chapters speculate on how the average brain has changed since the days of our ancestors. Their thinking was profoundly impacted by each new technology that gained mass acceptance: cartography, writing, printed books, and television, for example.

With the development of written language, mankind switched from a society that valued and emphasized oratory and memorization to one that valued reading (and eventually silent reading) and the recording of information on paper. This shift from a memorization culture to a recording culture brought with it profound changes to the human brain, a change that is reflected today by studies that indicate how brain function in children changes when they first learn to write.

The same phenomenon occured with the invention of mapmaking. Spatial information that once had to be stored in our ancestors’ brains — how to get home from a long journey, for example — could now be transferred to paper. The part of our brain that dealt with such spatial issues, then, could be allotted for other memory tasks through the wonders of neuroplasticity. We are today less likely to have innate directional skills because those areas of our brain that once specialized in such concerns now do something else.

The Internet has had the same effect as these earlier innovations, but in a much shorter time. It is, in Carr’s view, a technology of distraction, one that emphasizes breadth of knowledge over depth — hence the book’s title. Reading online is a profoundly different experience than reading on paper, largely because the distractions — hyperlinks, pop-ups, competing windows on the screen — keep us from focusing exclusively on the content. We are always looking forward to the “next thing,” which makes it hard for us to sustain the level of attention necessary to complete, for example, a very long book or to ponder deep philosophical questions. Eventually, our brains become accustomed to such skimming, and “rewire” themselves to become better at it, sometimes at the expense of our long-term concentration.

Carr, who expanded this book from an article he had written called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” first noticed that his concentration was wavering when he was unable to focus sufficiently to read War and Peace. Friends who were teachers told him of students who could not concentrate long enough to finish reading assignments, and of lit majors who felt that reading a precis or summary of a novel was more effective than reading the entire work because the summary allowed them to get to the meat of the piece faster and then move on to other things.

Perhaps the most disquieting part of the book is the chapter on Google, which explains how the company has positioned itself as the largest search engine in the world, and how the program’s logarithms determine what information we see when we conduct a Google search — and what information we don’t. It’s enough to make me want to swear off Google, except that’s a lot like swearing off seeing or hearing.

Ultimately, Carr’s book is not some Chicken Little, the-sky-is-falling tome warning us to stay away from technology. He acknowledges that the Internet is an incredibly helpful invention in any number of human endeavors. But his little tome is a caution, a reminder that as we are using our tools, our tools are using us. Sometimes, we need to step away from computers, smart phones and e-readers and remember  to reconnect more with one another — to live in the real world and not a digital simulacrum.

Comic books & Movies 27 Jul 2010 09:01 am

Comic-book movies vs. the critics

Rotten Tomatoes has released a ranking of comics- or graphic novel-inspired movies, based on critical reviews. I disagree with some of the rankings (and the film that tops the pile is a real surprise), but that’s the point of lists like this — to inspire debate. See what you think by clicking here.  

I had forgotten about many of these movies, including ones that I own but have never gotten around to watching, like Hellboy II, which is ranked at #11. Another favorite, American Splendor, clocks in at #5.

Books & Commentary & Media 23 Jul 2010 07:53 pm

Re-Kindle-ing a love of reading

This week’s column is a rewritten blog entry from earlier this summer, but here it is, anyway:

While the rest of the world was bemoaning the defection of King James, the lousy economy and Mel Gibson’s latest rant, Microsoft went and patented the page-turn.

The software giant has laid claim to the look and feel of turning a book’s page on a computer. For those Luddites who haven’t advanced a page digitally, the “virtual page turn curls a lifted portion of the page to progressively reveal a back side of the page while progressively revealing a front side of a subsequent page,” according to Microsoft’s cumbersome description in the New York Times.

Usually the virtual page turn is accompanied by the sound of paper rustling, meant to evoke thoughts of a sunny day, hammock, cold beverage and an engrossing novel.

I’ve been exploring the digital divide between print and electronics recently with a Kindle, the device by Amazon that promises a book-like reading experience.

Page turns are not part of the Kindle’s repertoire; instead, the current page fades away and is quickly replaced by a new one when the reader presses a button. The pause is slight but discernible, and I quickly learned to advance the page a split-second early to avoid any disruption in reading.

To put the device through its paces, my inaugural digital book was “The Passage” by Justin Cronin, the summer’s must-read thriller. (But don’t take my word for it. Google the reviews for yourself.) At over 800 pages, it’s a behemoth that includes manmade plagues, vampirism and “Road Warrior”-like action.

I wanted to see how reading a large book digitally compared with a hard copy, where readers can flip back to reacquaint themselves with characters and remind themselves of something that happened 200 pages ago (and maybe even peek forward to see how things come out).

That looking-back process isn’t as easy digitally, although I can type the name of a character or location and send the device to fetch earlier references. The Kindle includes a built-in dictionary; moving a cursor over a word is more convenient than trundling off to find a hard copy or promising to look it up later — a promise I seldom keep.

Because looking ahead requires a definitive action (you must toggle forward), digital reading discourages peeking, which makes the book more suspenseful.

The highest praise I can offer is that after about half an hour of fiddling with controls, I settled in and forgot about the medium used to deliver the story. I was simply reading.

Because the Kindle uses “digital ink,” the screen is not backlit, so it’s not like staring at a computer screen (something I do too much of already), but more like looking at an actual page. The size is about right, too: a six-inch display on a sleek unit that I keep inside a leather binder, not too big, bulky or ostentatious to carry around.

For situations where I don’t have access to the actual Kindle, I have Kindle software on my cell phone. The two devices sync, so I can read on the Kindle, move to the phone, and then return to the Kindle and pick up where I left off.

The technology isn’t perfect. Reading a book with charts and graphs on the Kindle can be frustrating; the illustrations in Daniel Pink’s “Drive,” for example, break across the text randomly, and full-page diagrams can’t be magnified to a legible size. The Kindle also uses a cryptic method of page numbering that doesn’t correspond to a physical book.

I also worry about continued access to books I’ve bought. A high-profile case a few months ago where Amazon removed already-purchased titles from users’ digital libraries while feuding with a publisher makes me wonder about the long-term stability of digital collections.

And what happens in the (unlikely) event that Amazon goes belly up? Will I be left with the 21st-century equivalent of 8-track tapes, useless on anything but outmoded devices?

Physical books have their drawbacks, too, of course. They are susceptible to fire, mold, and mildew. They are cumbersome to store. (As my wife points out, our house isn’t getting any bigger, but my book collection — which already fills one room, a corner of the bedroom, and a sizable portion of the attic — is.) When borrowed from the library, books are sometimes unavailable or must be returned before I’ve finished them. As Gilda Radner says, it’s always something.

The biggest complaint I have about the Kindle — and any digital reader — is that I can’t pass along a copy of a favorite book to others when I’m done. I was raving about “The Passage” to a friend recently, but couldn’t press a copy into his hands without giving him the Kindle, too.

I still fervently, passionately, love to share what I read, so I must fight the urge to buy physical editions of titles that I’ve enjoyed digitally, if only to have a loaner copy available. There ought to be a way for me to transfer a digital book off my Kindle and onto somebody else’s. This would make it temporarily unavailable to me, just as I couldn’t read a loaned physical copy until the borrower returned it.

Instead of worrying about who owns the page turn, Microsoft or some other software giant should get busy working on that.

Commentary 22 Jul 2010 03:10 pm

An elf walked through my wet cookies!

 securedownload1

I’ve been eating Keebler Soft Batch chocolate-chip cookies for years, and only today did I realize that the little markings on the back are supposed to be elf footprints. I always assumed they were some defect in the cookie machine, or  that it was where the cookie was attached to the cocoa tree, or something.

Elf tracks. Huh.

Books & Comic books 20 Jul 2010 10:48 am

Gotham Central Volume 2

 gothcent2

The second volume of DC’s four-edition hardback Gotham Central reprinting is notable for its scary depiction of the Joker. This clown prince of crime isn’t sending jack-in-the-boxes laced with arsenic or riding around in a clown car; in the story arc “Soft Targets,” he takes to the rooftops with a rifle and blows away the mayor, the Gotham City Schools superintendent, and various police officers. Those who believe this is out of character for the Joker should go back and read his earliest appearances, when he was much more murderous and scary. Heath Ledger’s performance in The Dark Knight wasn’t so much a re-imagining of the character as a return to form.

At any rate, the Joker has never been more frightening than he is here, and the men and women of the GCPD have their hands full dealing with the situation in what is, for me, the best story arc so far in the series. A close second is “Unresolved,” which sees the return of disgraced former Detective Harvey Bullock to help solve a case involving the Mad Hatter.

Sandwiched between these two great stories is “Life is Full of Disappointments,” which perfectly summarizes my reaction to this sub-par entry. Much of my disappointment comes from the use of an artist other than the great Michael Lark for these three issues. Compared to Lark, Greg Scott’s work is tepid stuff, and it’s hard to tell the characters apart. It doesn’t help that the Huntress, one of my least favorite characters in the Batman universe, plays a small role.

This second collection opens with the done-in-one “Daydreams and Believers,” about the young woman whose job in the police department is to light the Bat Signal. Drawn by the great Brian Hurtt (of the late, lamented Hard Time), this was a good collection opener.

All in all, then, writers Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka deliver two gems, one lighthearted piece and one fizzler in a volume that’s well worth the time for fans of Batman or police procedurals. On to volume three!

Movies 18 Jul 2010 01:13 pm

Inception

 inception

Inception is the Fantastic Voyage of the twenty-first century. In the first movie,  a team of scientists and doctors shrinks to microscopic size to travel through a sick man’s body. In this new film, a team of high-tech criminals uses a combination of drugs and high-tech machinery to jack into a business mogul’s dreams.

Director Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight, The Prestige, Memento) borrows a page from the Matrix playbook here; indeed, it’s hard not to think of the Wachowski brothers’ trilogy while watching Leonardo DiCaprio lead his team through successively deeper levels of dream to implant a subliminal message into the head of his victim. The difference is that DiCaprio’s character has a very human motivation for his chicanery: to see his kids again.

Filling in DiCaprio’s backstory gives Nolan a chance to reveal the movie’s rich mythology. In this near-future world, dream teams slip into people’s nighttime hours and extract important information, which they then sell. While pulling information out is relatively simple, planting an idea (an “inception”) is much more difficult, because the dreamer will recognize the foreign thought and root it out.

Nonetheless, the only way a well-connected billionaire will use his influence to get DiCaprio the government pardon he needs is if DiCaprio implants an inception into the head of a rival mogul. The job is complicated by DiCaprio’s lingering guilt over his wife’s death, which makes him incapable of serving as an Architect (dream designer). For this aspect of the job he needs Ariadne, a young woman who can design a maze-like world (break out your copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology) rich enough to fool the victim’s subconscious mind. Or something like that.

The set-up is very complex, so much so that the first fifteen minutes of the film almost capsizes the whole endeavor. Luckily, the dream scenario that Nolan creates is interesting enough to overcome what would be otherwise fatal flaws — a group of criminals who aren’t terribly interesting, an overlong running time, and a last act that relies too much on repetitive action. Some neat ideas get floated about, including a favorite of mine about how the human mind can’t accept a negative (”Try not thinking of an elephant,” challenges one character). Unfortunately, much of the subtlety vanishes later in exchange for lots of quick-cutting action where it’s too hard to tell one character from another.

Overall, Inception is a summer thriller with more substance than most, but it pales in comparison to Nolan’s Prestige (which had a better payoff) and can never quite shake the debt it owes to The Matrix films.

Commentary 15 Jul 2010 03:41 pm

UPS sux

The idiocy of corporate America sometimes stuns me. My recent phone conversation with a UPS representative was one of these times.

UPS has tried for the last two days to deliver a package to my house. On neither occasion have I been home, because like most people, I work. The shipper has requested a signature at the time of delivery, so I can’t simply sign for the package ahead of time and leave the label on the front door.

I called UPS today. The best the company can do for an estimated delivery time is an eight-hour window, which is ridiculous. Another option is to have a neighbor take delivery, which means tying up one of them for up to eight hours. This is asking a lot.

Another alternative is to pick the package up from the nearest UPS shipping center, which is on Navarre Road (the Filipino on the phone pronounced in Na-VAIR-ey) in Canton.  This is inconvenient, but workable.

Then the UPS agent informs me that the center is closed from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, during the very time when I could break away and pick up the package. OK, I’ll get it on Saturday, I tell the worker. No such luck, the worker says, because the center is closed on weekends.

At which point, I explode.

Next Page »