Monthly ArchiveFebruary 2011
Commentary 26 Feb 2011 01:34 pm
A rare Saturday column:
As the debate over Senate Bill 5 rages on — in the streets and in the Statehouse — I must confess to being conflicted.
I have dutifully argued against the measure in conversations with friends, colleagues and relatives; followed all the “Stop S.B. 5″ Twitter pages; and changed my Facebook status to support my fellow public-sector employees. I haven’t held up a sign anywhere because that’s not my style, but I have spoken up in approval of those who have.
Of course, rank self-preservation says that I should support the bill. I am one of the public sector employees whose livelihoods could be impacted if the bill passes. As a schoolteacher, I benefit from my union’s negotiations on my behalf and value the protection that membership affords.
I also believe that firefighters and police officers put their lives on the line every day in ways that I do not, and that, as city governments look to trim budgets, it would be very easy, with unions that are crippled if not outright broken by the measure or its 2.0 version (which really is just the original, strident S.B. 5 tarted out in sexier clothing), to adopt a take-it-or-leave-it mentality with regard to salary offers to these professions.
And I wonder what public school districts would look like under merit pay models, where many teachers would compete to teach high-performing students more likely to pass high-stakes tests and exit exams (thereby ensuring fat merit pay), leaving at-risk students in the hands of newer, less experienced teachers who leave the profession in droves in the first five years already. This wouldn’t be good for public education in general and student success in particular.
However, I don’t buy the opposition’s argument that the state Legislature is attacking the middle class with Senate Bill 5. As a Columbus Dispatch editorial last week pointed out, the 359,500 employees who would be affected by the bill are a mere 6.5 percent — a drop in the bucket, really — of the state’s total work force of 5.5 million, many of whom are just scraping to get by, wishing they had even a fraction of the job security that I enjoy thanks to taxes that they pay.
And I understand the public’s disgust with levies to pay for promises that districts make at the negotiating table, even as I understand the argument that competitive salaries are the only way to attract and retain the kind of teachers that Ohio kids and teens deserve.
In a state where unemployment hovers at 10 percent, where the recovery that President Obama swears is taking place seems to exist in some other dimension, where many workers are sadly under-employed and scrape by at minimum wage, and where 500,000 people would like to have any job at all, I have a lot of nerve to expect an automatic raise every year thanks to taxpayer largesse, don’t I?
Is it not acceptable that my employer has the right to select an insurance plan without the approval of my union? Is it at all fair that unions often throw their weight behind the same elected officials who will sit across the table from them in collective bargaining situations?
I’m not sure what the final fate of the bill will be, although the GOP claims it has enough votes to ram it through, but I know that it does address some of the more egregious inequalities between public and private sectors. I have grave doubts that all — or even most — of its changes will make Ohio competitive in attracting new jobs, but if the current system is untenable — how can state government remain solvent when it has so little control over basic financial issues? — then some concessions nevertheless must be made.
I don’t know if I will be selfishly pleased if the measure is defeated or selflessly pleased if it passes, but union members like me need to be talking about and debating something more substantive than “kill the bill,” the kind of rhyming rhetoric that only increases the gap between us and the majority of Ohioans.
Commentary 24 Feb 2011 11:28 pm
This week’s column:
My fall from grace happened at exactly 6 a.m. on Feb. 16.
I can peg the moment so precisely because, like so much of our lives these days, it was captured by technology. Like video cameras that send speeding motorists a snapshot of their vehicles along with a ticket, my moral lapse is recorded indelibly for all to see — or at least for all I choose to show.
No photo or ticket accompanied my downfall, but I have evidence every time I open my phone. There it is, a quick text message to an ailing wife, sent shortly after I unpacked my briefcase but before I settled in for a day of teaching: “How r u feeling?”
My lapse was not in expressing interest in a sick spouse, which under other circumstances would be laudable. The problem lies in the use of “r-u” for “are you,” a horrendous cyber-shortcut that for years I have avoided using, along with others cut from the same illiterate cloth.
Sure, it might be acceptable for others to write pithy messages like c u later, y r u here?, and got 2 go, not to mention hideous acronyms like idk, jk and imho (if you don’t know what these mean, ask somebody under 30), but I’m an English teacher, for heaven’s sake. If somebody in my profession can’t hold the line, who can?
I’m the guy who subjects himself to family scorn because I insist on proper capitalization, formal spelling, and even semicolons when they are warranted in my instant messages. The result is that they aren’t so instant, but they are perfectly punctuated.
I’m the guy who retracts Facebook messages when I mistakenly type “your” for “you’re,” who reads messages from others that say “I almost watched the entire episode of American Idol” and wants to write — in red ink, no less — “No, you watched almost the entire episode,” and who will pore over and edit a Twitter message until it fits cleanly within the 140-character limit.
I’m the guy who sometimes calls businesses to tell them that they’ve misspelled a word on a sign — “congradulations” is the worst — even when I know that some minimum-wage employee had to freeze his tush off while using an aluminum extension pole to install those letters, one at a time, onto the sign, the same way I did when I was a callow teenager.
Yet I’m the same guy who knowingly sent “How r u feeling?” to my wife on Feb. 16, allowing my concern for her health to momentarily take precedence over formal spelling. At least I capitalized the question and put the proper punctuation at the end.
I don’t have a good excuse. I’m tempted to blame Cormac McCarthy, the lauded author of “No Country for Old Men,” “All the Pretty Horses” and “The Road,” because I’ve been reading a lot of his work lately, and he seldom follows rules of conventional usage.
McCarthy doesn’t believe in using quotations marks in dialogue, doesn’t use the apostrophe in the contraction “don’t,” and often writes in fragments. Like this. And this.
When my students threaten to emulate his style, I quote William Strunk Jr., co-author of “The Elements of Style,” who wrote, “It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules.”
Strunk lived long before the advent of instant messaging, of course, and I wonder what he would have made of our proclivity to condense, abbreviate and mangle the language in attempts to communicate faster, at the expense of clarity.
I also wonder, now that I’ve committed one crime against English with my “r u,” how long before I knowingly commit my second, and third? And how long before that instant messaging-speak infiltrates my other writing, like a virus that blooms and spreads?
LOL. It’ll never happen.
I missed Ultimate Origins when it was first released, but caught up to it — like so many things lately — thanks to an inexpensive, scratch-and-dent price at Things from Another World. The series is an attempt to stitch together the origins of the Ultimate Marvel heroes (who are, for the most part, only mildly updated version of their regular Marvel U counterparts) and create a seamless whole.
It doesn’t really work, but I credit writer Brian Michael Bendis for trying. He presents a plausible scenario to link Captain America, Nick Fury, Wolverine, the Hulk, Giant Man, and Spider-Man, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts, and it ends up making the Ultimate Marvel heroes appear less unique than they otherwise might. And this is coming from a reader who likes this kind of X-Files-inspired, paranoid connecting of dots.
Butch Guice turns in wonderful artwork throughout, a cross between Kirby’s bigger-than-life dynamism and Alex Ross’s realism-inspired school of super-hero styling, so no complaints there.
One aspect I really enjoyed is the team’s take on the Watchers, the extraterrestrial race of voyeurs who show up to gawk at significant historical happenings here on Earth. Bendis recreates them as advanced Internet cameras on poles, engaged in an interstellar Skype conversation, which only makes sense. Advanced beings wouldn’t waste their time watching one event in person when they could monitor many events from the comfort of their living rooms, or wherever advanced beings hang out.
One big negative to the series is that it turns out to be little more than a prelude to Ultimate Annihilation, another big-ticket Ultimate U event that I missed out on. Unless and until Things from Another World puts that one in the cyber quarter bin, I won’t know how things turn out, but since the Ultimate universe is still around here in 2011, it’s safe to assume that nothing too dire took place.
Dark Horse Comics does a service to Star Wars fans with these massive collections of comics material from the Marvel archives. I finished reading Volume 2 of A Long Time Ago … recently (I’m always one book behind, as the third trade paperback was released earlier this month), and I had a blast.
It helps that this installment reprints the Archie Goodwin, Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back, arguably the best film-to-comics adaptation of all time. It also helps that I was blinded by a healthy dose of nostalgia throughout, as many of these stories I read originally in the monthly installments, trading them back and forth with other SW fans in my elementary- and middle-school days.
Still, thanks mostly to Goodwin’s skill as a writer, most of these tales don’t feel like place holders until the next movie (although they undoubtedly are), but are enjoyable in their own right. Despite a fair number of constraints (the once-monthly obligation to reference an established line or scene from Episode IV — usually regarding Chewbacca’s anger issues or a quip from Solo — and the caveat that nothing could really change for the main cast and characters), Goodwin is able to milk a fair amount of intrigue from Lucas’s creations, often by putting them in opposition with characters of his own. The best of these are a bounty hunter named Valance, who is half-man, half-cyborg, and three siblings from the Tagge family, passed over by the Emperor in favor of Darth Vader and still determined to make their mark politically and homicidally.
Carmine Infantino is the penciller for most of these issues, aided and abetted by various inkers. This isn’t Infantino’s best work by a long shot, and much of it looks like he may have been phoning it in until retirement, yet there is still an unmistakably charm in his versions of Luke, Leia and company.
Of course, some stories are just flat-out clinkers. Chris Claremont delivers a tale from the first annual that is godawful, and Larry Hama is responsible for a miserable piece called “The Third Law” from SW #48 that may be the worst single Star Wars story ever, trumping even the infamous Star Wars Christmas Special.
But there are a lot more hits than misses in the collection. Now I’m on to the third collection, where the reality of the stories will have to hold up to my rose-colored remembrances of how good they were “a long time ago.”
Commentary 17 Feb 2011 05:05 pm
This week’s offering:
“Singularity,” in the Feb. 21 issue of Time Magazine, is the most frightening, exhilarating thing I’ve read in a long while.
Frightening because it showcases a belief — the Singularity movement — that predicts a day when computers will be capable of higher-than-human-level thought. Exhilarating because the ramifications of that day (one adherent pegs it as happening in 2045) will cause almost every other incident in the history of humankind to dwindle in importance.
Or maybe the first reason is exhilarating, and the second frightening. Or both are both.
Singularitarians, as proponents of the movement are called, contend that the time is coming when we will become essentially immortal, either because we will have solved the challenges of physical deterioration that today seem an inevitable part of our fleshy, sagging bodies, or because we will have uploaded our consciousnesses into new cybernetic vessels.
Immortality? Robotic bodies? It sounds like the crazy stuff of science-fiction. But Jules Verne once wrote what was considered crazy science-fiction, too, predicting submarines and super-fast motor cars that were too fantastic to be believed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries but were the prosaic stuff of everyday life a few decades later.
In 1904, Robur, the super-criminal in Verne’s “Master of the World,” terrorized the entire eastern United States in a vehicle that could travel 150 mph. Today, kids drag race on city streets at nearly that speed and are slapped with 50 hours of community service.
And Singularitarians have one thing that Verne did not to support their seemingly wild claims: incontrovertible evidence of an exponential growth in computing power over the last 110 years.
As a chart in the Time article indicates — and if you haven’t read it yet, you really should put this down and go do it now — computer technology is now progressing more rapidly each hour than it did in the first 90 years of its existence, using as a point of origin Charles Babbage’s analytical engine in 1900, just a few years before Verne sicced “Master of the World” on unsuspecting readers.
Based on the phenomenal growth of computing power so far, computer calculations should exceed the brainpower of a mouse in four more years (a more significant feat than it sounds), the brainpower of a human by 2023, and the brainpower of all today’s human brains combined by 2045 — hence, the Singularity.
Of course, the trick will be if computers can be programmed to capture the capacity for critical thought and creative problem solving that are at the heart of what “intelligence” truly is, not to mention humankind’s qualities of empathy, kindness and love. Imitating those in the cold world of integrated circuits seems impossible to most people writing software today, but maybe they won’t be so impossible to supercomputers writing software for other supercomputers tomorrow, or the day after that.
When I think of how far we’ve grown technologically in my lifetime — or even in just the last 10 or 15 years — and imagine that level of change multiplied by powers of 10 going forward — a future where our consciousnesses are floating around the cyber-ether seems less crazy than it might on first blush.
Could it ever really happen? The cynic in me says no way, but if you’d told me 15 years ago when I was still buying five hours a month of dial-up time through AOL that I would one day be carrying a phone in my pocket with many times more computing power than my 1996-era personal computer, I would have balked at that, too.
And I keep thinking of John Henry, who dies beating a steam hammer in a railroad spike-driving competition, and comparing his folk tale to Watson, the IBM super computer that so far is mopping the floor with the best Jeopardy contestants (at the time of this writing, the computer is winning handily), and wondering if we don’t need to rethink our American mythology.
Which is not to say I’d ever want my memories and consciousness injected into a stainless-steel body. For one thing, I bite my fingernails, and losing that quirk could be enough to turn the cyber-me as neurotic as HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
That one joke aside, the future is coming, and faster than most anybody except the Singularitarians — and maybe Jules Verne — thought possible.
Comic books 12 Feb 2011 02:06 pm
A night of intermittent insomnia meant I played catch-up with my comic-book reading, including the books below. (And boy, did DC’s iconic covers for the month of January underscore how many of its titles I buy as compared to Marvel.)
Detective Comics #873 provided a satisfying wrap-up to the first storyline by Scott Snyder and Jock, while still leaving the door wide open for the return of the Dealer, the newest addition to the Darknight Detective’s rogues gallery. Great story, great art; maybe not as creepy as last issue’s installment, but still a solid entry by a team that bears watching.
This will likely be my last time singing the praises of this series, but only because it’s the last issue of the book. Roger Langridge, Chris Samnee and Matt Wilson bring down the curtain on one of the great truncated titles in recent memory with a fun teaming of Thor and Iron Man that manages to answer a few questions lingering from the opening issue. Here’s hoping that Marvel does two things: 1) Gives this team a series of specials to continue telling stories with “their” Thor and 2) considers a hardback collection of these eight issues. I’d buy both.
Writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and artist Jordi Bernet turn in a done-in-one issue of Jonah Hex that is superb in every way, from the splash-page opening of the bounty hunter riding slowly across the desert to the stomach-turning, inevitable final panel showing Hex’s revenge against a perverse killer. This is my book of the month so far. (Technically, it’s my book of last month, but you know what I mean.)
Phil Winslade serves as fill-in artist for Doc Savage #10, and blows away all the competition with a spot-on rendition of the Man of Bronze. Writer Ivan Brandon steps up his game, too, with a flashback issue that sheds light on the current Middle Eastern multi-issue story running in the title. That longer story may have already overstayed its welcome, but this flashback is wonderfully paced and executed, making this the best issue of the series so far. The J.G. Jones cover is icing on the cake. (And news that long-time Savage fan Jones will take over the scripting reigns of the book starting with #13 is good news, indeed.)
This must be the month for single issue stories from DC, because The Spirit #10 offers another. (And how nice that both it and Doc Savage have dropped, for one month at least, the ugly “First Wave” banner on their covers.) The story by David Hine and Moritat is a nice change from the cliffhanger efforts the team has been turning in, focusing on a killer’s obsession with the Spirit and his attempts to elude capture. Unfortunately, the plot is spread a little thin over an entire issue, and probably would have played much better as one of the six-page back-up stories that this book has been running. Those back-up features may be a thing of the past, however, if this issue is any indication.
Month after month, American Vampire is one of the best titles available from any company, and #11 is more of the same. Guest-artist Mateus Santolouco joins writer/creator Scott Snyder in wrapping up a two-part tale that comes complete with a narrative door-knocking trick inspired (I assume) from a similar scene in The Silence of the Lambs (both book and movie). Snyder puts his own spin on it here, and it’s just as effective. The ultimate smack-down between Pearl and Hattie will have to wait for a later story, but that doesn’t detract in the least from the current installment.
Commentary 10 Feb 2011 11:38 pm
If you’re allergic to red and pink, better hide under the covers for the next few days or risk a rash from the rash of cards and candies with those colors.
Mass-produced expressions of love will abound again this Valentine’s Day, all gaudily arrayed in these two hues. Even people who like their steaks well done may be tempted to order them with a little red or pink in the center, so maniacal have we become to celebrate the day named for the ancient Roman clergyman put to death for secretly marrying young lovers. (How’s that for a gruesome origin?)
We Americans are crazy about love. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it takes $18 million in domestically produced cut roses to sate our appetites for that flower. I’ll bet most of them are sent by penitent men who said something they shouldn’t have, or forgot an anniversary despite dozens of little notes taped on the TV remote, the dashboard or the toilet-paper dispenser.
My anniversary is Feb. 16, a date I have programmed into my phone, written on my desk calendar, and am tempted to sear into the flesh above my heart, in the same location where the Rev. Dimmesdale, that wayward preacher from “The Scarlet Letter,” saw a crimson letter A rise in reaction to his sin.
In one of my common nightmares, guaranteed to wake me in a cold sweat, I have forgotten an anniversary and stand exposed before the unblinking gaze of my spouse. Those dour-faced, Puritan prudes from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel have nothing on her when it comes to stern judgment and punishment. It’s like being lost in a maze inside a dog house from which I can’t escape. Rod Serling never concocted a scenario half so diabolical for “The Twilight Zone.”
Since our anniversary is so close to Valentine’s Day, February is a double-whammy because I have two holidays to remember. So far, I’m batting a thousand. If I weren’t, I wouldn’t be here to write these words, but this could be the year I crack under the pressure of perfection.
It makes me long for grade school days when anniversary was just a word written on our fathers’ dashboards and remote controls — not that we had remote controls back then, so maybe the reminders were taped to the convex screen of their big screen 25-inch, black-and-white TV sets, instead — and when Valentine’s Day meant giving tiny expressions of love to the kids in our class who tripped, poked, prodded, and pulled our hair the other 364 days of the year (and to whom we did the same).
The only angst in prepubescent Valentine’s Day came from picking the most masculine of the Star Wars or Batman Valentine’s to give to guys in the class, so as not to appear weak or flighty in any way. Usually, the manufacturers of these cards, in spiritual communion with 9-year-old boys across America, included enough “good friend” and “what a pal” options in the set of 35 that we were covered, but every once in a while, after I had stuffed all but one into envelopes, licked them shut with an excess of saliva, and scrawled my classmates’ names diagonally across the front, I would find that the only card left for the classroom bully — the kid who sat in the back of the room, bathed monthly whether he needed to or not, and spent math class knocking ominously on an athletic supporter that he slipped into his pants at recess — was some gooey, pink-and-red expression of adoration.
Of course, because a second set of 35 cards cost a whopping $1.99, my mom didn’t much care if I faced public humiliation or a swing-set beating on that most romantic day of the year.
Now that the memories are flooding back, I realize anxiety has always surrounded my Februarys. Who cares if the groundhog saw his shadow and forecast six more weeks of winter? I’d rather have old Punxsutawney Phil — or even Buckeye Chuck, the red-headed stepchild of the rodent prognosticating set — tell me a way to get out of the year’s second month a little faster.
Red and pink just aren’t my colors.
Commentary 03 Feb 2011 11:57 pm
This week’s column:
My wife has a lot of diseases I can’t even pronounce.
Oh, she doesn’t have them personally. She has them written on index cards for a class she recently completed, and she hasn’t been shy about using me as a sounding board for whatever interesting (read: gross and disturbing) information she runs across in her studies.
Before microbiology came anatomy. The feelings of inferiority after looking at cutaways of the male reproductive system were bad enough, but being a hypochondriac, the disease-of-the-week stuff was even worse. She’s rattled off conditions that I’ve never heard of but am now sure I suffer from, accompanied by symptoms that sound less appealing than an airport security check from an overzealous TSA agent.
Her favorite malady with which to regale me is necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-eating disease that’s like a microscopic zombie movie. Usually, her enthusiastic ravings are accompanied by photos I’d rather not look at, as I don’t share her clinical detachment but instead must suppress both my gag reflex and the urge to blubber for a security blanket, which is likely covered in bacteria just waiting to sink its pseudo-pods (or whatever bacteria slither around on) into my dainty flesh.
The spring semester has been better, as she’s enrolled in an art appreciation class that includes weekend trips to area museums. This is less traumatic than looking at pulpy remnants of somebody’s elbow, even though it involves travel, potentially bringing me into contact with microorganisms that could make me the bad-luck poster boy for some obscure ailment in a future textbook or medical-school lecture.
What art appreciation has revealed are my biases. When it comes to art, I’m strictly a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. I like to know what I’m looking at, which means representational art only, and I like to see something that looks like somebody with more skill than I possess has created it.
This means that I’m not too keen on most “modern” art — circles and squares and spatters of paint that are supposed to tell me something profound about man’s inhumanity to man but that really look like somebody is taking advantage of federal grant money to squish watercolors between his toes in a Soho loft.
I know this will cause artists to sound their barbaric yawps over the roofs of the world, but I think real art is the kind of work you see on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or in venerable European museums. You know, muscular guys playing “pull my finger,” and fleshy women who look as likely to have stepped out of an “I Can’t Believe It’s a Girdle” commercial as out of a seashell on the seashore. Flowing hair, realistically delineated landscapes, and maybe an angel or two thrown in for good measure, like the cherubic cherry on the summit of an ice cream sundae.
When I think of modern art, I can’t help but recall Richard Dreyfuss in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” sculpting Devil’s Tower out of his mashed potatoes and ultimately destroying his house as he imports dirt and bushes to erect a huge model of the Wyoming landmark in his family room.
That’s the image that rises, unbidden, when I imagine self-professed artists toiling away on exaggerated sculptures or covering their bodies in paint and throwing themselves onto canvases to express the Futility of Life in the 21st Century, when what they are really documenting is Saturday Night with Too Much José Cuervo.
Our first trip was to the Canton Museum of Art. If this fine institution houses such modern artistic oddities, it had the good sense to keep them under wraps for the duration of my visit. Instead, we saw excellent watercolors by Dean Mitchell documenting distressed buildings, historic political cartoons by C.R. Macauley, and photography by Stephen McNulty.
McNulty even had a photo or two of Devil’s Tower on display, as if to punctuate my point about Dreyfuss, “Close Encounters,” and the ascendancy of representational art.
Combining everything I’ve learned about disease and art in one fell swoop, I’m planning to douse my armpits in plaster of paris to express my angst over modern epidemiology. I think I’ll call the result “Necrotizing Fasciitis” and apply for a grant.
People will be sure to hail me as a genius because they won’t be able to pronounce it.
Movies 01 Feb 2011 04:06 pm
I spent part of my school snow day watching The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a 1947 classic starring one of my favorite actors, Humphrey Bogart, along with Walter Huston (father of the film’s director, John Huston) and Tim Holt as three would-be prospectors searching for gold in Mexico.
Not too surprisingly, the film bombed when it was originally released, not because it’s poor quality, but because the ending is so atypical of Hollywood fare of the day. Although I quibble with viewers who say the conclusion is uniformly downbeat. Sure, it ends badly for Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs, but for Huston’s and Holt’s characters, things aren’t nearly so glum. One could even imagine that Holt, who dreams of an idyllic life harvesting fruit, has learned his lesson and is ready to appreciate the riches of life that can’t be mined from the ground or bought in a store.
Bogart is outstanding in a role that stretches his reputation as an anti-hero nearly to the breaking point. As the story progresses, we see how greed can affect a person for the worse, making a mockery of his moral code — not that Dobbs, who spends the first part of the film begging money from fellow Americans in Mexico without compunction, has much of a moral streak.
Anyway, it’s a great film that turns on the same theme as Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale.” The two-DVD set I watched has lots of extras. Like the Adventures of Robin Hood that I enjoyed a few weeks back, this features a “Warner Night at the Movies” selection with cartoon, newsreel, and short subject, introduced by Leonard Maltin. The second disk has a documentary on John Huston from 1989 that I skipped through, and a newer documentary on the making of the film that I watched from beginning to end. Disk two also has the classic “8 Ball Bunny” cartoon with Bugs (but then again, aren’t almost all Bugs Bunny cartoons classics in one way or another?) and a Lux Radio Theater dramatization with Bogart and Huston that I’m listening to while I type this.
It’s a good package, but the highlight is the movie, which made me forget the icy weather outside and imagine instead the sultry work of mining gold down south and the dangers of allowing one’s lust for riches to get out of hand.