Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Five Things I Didn’t Get About The Force Awakens

This is a post about the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, and you care about knowing things about it, skip this post and wait for the next one until that changes. In other words:

Okay, now that that bit of business is out of the way:

I want to preface this by saying that Star Wars: The Force Awakens exceeded my expectations. I remember when the prequels came out, and while I liked The Phantom Menace more than anyone in the galaxy (that is to say: at all,) I think we can all agree that the Star Wars Universe would be no worse, and quite possibly better, without them. Also, I was not pleased with J.J. Abrams’ take on that OTHER sci-fi franchise (I hate time travel stories in general, but using time travel to effectively wipe out decades of beloved canon to pave the way for a fairly standard sci fi action flick? Brrrrr), so I was pretty cool going in.

However, Abrams made the wise move of bringing “Empire” screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan back into the fold, and the film totally worked, in my opinion. That being said, there are at least five things I did not understand about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. To wit:

Why Does Jakku Exist?

Much of the first act of the movie centers around Jakku, where our heroes meet. From what we can see, it’s an impoverished desert planet populated by all measure of strange and unscrupulous creature, where scavenging is a way of life and oily, large-bellied aliens hold the populace, including humans, under their thumb. It’s also a great place to hide a droid with secret plans that could help rebel forces overthrow the evil empire. Does this sound familiar? Of course, I am describing Tatooine. So why not just make this planet Tatooine? It would certainly make sense that Luke’s daughter would end up here (and if Rey is NOT Luke’s daughter, they put a hell of a lot of work into this red herring), and Jakku resembles Tatooine in every other way that we’ve seen. What’s the deal? Was Tatooine not included in the 4 billion dollar sale of the franchise to Disney?

Why Does Captain Phasma Give It Up So Easily?

The big plot point at the end of the movie is that our heroes have to get the shields down so that the rebels can destroy the exhaust port oscillator protecting The Death Planet Starkiller Base. They do this by pointing a gun at the premier Stormtrooper officer, Captain Phasma, and making her do it. But Phasma is a hardcore First Order Officer who’s risen through the ranks in a power structure where both disloyalty and failure are typically rewarded with a quick and painful end (she also happens to be Brienne of Tarth, FYI for you Game of Thrones fans). Why would she just turn around and undermine her Empire in the most treasonous fashion possible, even if she did believe her life was at stake, which, she probably wouldn’t, because she knows the ex-trooper who’s holding the gun is a wuss. I would have found it more convincing if Han Solo had learned a Jedi Mind Trick over the years to get her to fall in line.

How Much Did Mark Hamill Get Paid?

Hamill appears in literally 15 seconds of the movie. Did they just throw him 10 or 20 grand essentially to grow a beard, or did he get paid as part of some two movie structure, where he gets one lump sum for the next movie where he presumably has a much bigger role, and that little cameo gets tossed in in the deal?

Why Is Luke Holed up in an Island Paradise?

When Yoda goes into exile, he ends up on a swamp planet. Ben Kenobi disappears into unending miles of desert. Luke seems to be on some vacation world:

. Does he have a better Agent?

What’s with the No Romantic Entanglements for Jedi Rule?

Although from what we see in the movies this seems to be thought of as more of a guideline than a rule, isn’t it kind of counterproductive? It’s been made quite clear that the ability to manipulate the Force is genetic. Why would you try to select out possibly the most adaptive evolutionary mutation of all time? I mean, I get the whole, Paladin/Knights’ Templar/Knight’s Watch, religious warrior unsullied by concerns of the flesh thing, but here it just doesn’t make sense.We're just hoping kids with high Midichlorian counts will keep popping up? WHY?

Greatly looking forward to having none of these questions answered in Episode VIII!

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Spotlight on: Victor Dandridge

While at the Austin Film Festival last week, I had a chance to stop in at the Wizard World Comic Con, which was a blast. At Comic Con, I had the opportunity to meet a remarkable guy named Victor Dandridge.

Victor creates, writes, and publishes his own comic books under his Vantage In House Productions Imprint. He’s also famous for his 8-bit character designs.

I met Victor at “Drink and Draw,” a Wizard Con party that takes place at a bar where invitees are given a prompt to write a short story or draw a certain character or scene. The writers and artists are then judged and a winner is chosen, but mostly it’s about the camaraderie and doing more at a bar than just drink, flirt, and make small talk.

Victor was the emcee of the event, and kept things moving by throwing comic book themed trivia at everyone. I was immediately impressed at his encyclopedic (Wikipedic?) knowledge of mainstream comic book history. I mean, I like to think I know a lot about this subject but this guy blows me away. Victor was funny, smart, and full of energy, and could probably have his own talk show.

The next time I saw Victor was at his “U Cre8 Comics” panel at Wizard Con. This panel, aimed at kids, teaches young people how to create their own comics and more importantly, their own stories, by breaking down just how a superhero is created, complete with a take home character card. Kids (and adults), really got into this event, and it reminded me a lot of my days at Chess-in-the-Schools, getting kids interested in learning through playing games.

What really stood out for me is how quickly Victor shifts between worlds. His material for more mature readers, such as The Samaritan and The Trouble with Love, fearlessly attack adult themes such as inner city violence, depression, and infidelity with skill and thoughtfulness, while his Wonder Care Presents line and U-Cre8 Comics make it clear how passionate he is about using comics to reach the next generation.

As a fledgling comic book creator myself (Team Echo #1 still available for digital download at Gumroad.com!) I was extremely impressed with Victor’s versatility and the passion with which he’s created his mini comics empire, and I hope I can match it myself someday.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Cash or the Crown?

Which is more important in poker tournaments, the trophy or the prize money?

During the final table of the WPT Deepstacks LA, commentators Owais Ahmed and Tristan Wade got into a brief debate over which is more valuable, winning a first place trophy or winning the most money possible, with Owais speculating that some people might be willing to take a little less money if it meant getting the crown, and Tristan insisting that money rules the day, and he could always go buy a trophy if he really wanted one.

This is a debate that has been knocked back and forth at least since the poker boom, with conventional wisdom being that any “real” poker player is only in it for the money, and should have as a goal to make as much as possible, with no consideration to accolades (one might argue that any “real” poker player who’s only after cash wouldn’t play tournaments at all, but that’s another debate). 

On the other side of the debate are more skeptical types who suggest that when push comes to shove, many of these “real” poker players deeply covet the prestige that comes with bracelets and trophies, and value them much higher than the monetary reward.

The Trophy vs. The $$$$

I think that in the real world, the two concepts are completely inseparable. The first place trophy only has significance because of the financial win it represents. If I win a WSOP bracelet, that has meaning because people know that hundreds of opponents invested their own (or sometimes, someone else’s) hard earned cash to get that title, and were highly motivated to stop me from winning it. I highly doubt that anyone would display their World Series of Online Play Money Poker championship bracelet with any particular level of pride. Conversely, if I tell someone that I won a poker trophy but someone else got more money because we made a deal before hand, that person would probably get the sense that despite my owning the hardware, I didn’t really win the tournament at all, and just kind of bought a meaningless title that I didn’t actually earn.

The Experiment

Fortunately, as a philosopher, I can design a thought experiment that truly brings this question to light. The experiment goes as follows:

You are a fairly strong professional poker player. Strong enough that you have made a decent living for yourself although your bankroll fluctuates considerably, and you have the respect of your peers. You receive an invitation to play in a poker tournament that purports to feature the nine best players in the world (including yourself). There is no entry fee and no prize money, but the winner will be declared World Poker Champion, and the event will be televised on broadcast TV in prime time, so that if you win, even casual fans of the game will know you as the poker champion of the world.

Later that day, you receive an invitation to a private home poker game. It will be a sit n go with only one prize, a million dollars for first place. Since the other players in the game are wealthy hobbyists who want to test their mettle against a pro, there is no entry fee for this game either. However, this game takes place on the same day as the World Championship and you cannot play both. Which would you choose?

I submit that many tournament pros would probably go for the World Championship trophy, even though no money is up for grabs. I believe this for two reasons. 1) A successful tournament pro can always make more money, and while the overlay is infinite, winning the million dollars in the money game is not guaranteed. 2) The opportunity value of being World Champion is probably worth more than a million dollars in sponsorships, invitations to profitable games and tournaments, and other general perks.

I also think that the money vs. fame debate is not absolute. If you are a mid stakes grinder who has never made more than $50,000 a year playing poker (but has never lost money in a year of poker), the money game is a no brainer. Not only could it potentially change your life, but at your level, it’s probably more profitable if people don’t know your name, style of play, or amount of skill. On the other hand, if you’re Daniel Negreanu or Antonio Esfandiari, you’d probably be at that World Championship table before your wealthy friend could get out the worlds “million dollar freeroll.” 

You can also see how your perspective on this issue can change not only from player-to-player, but can also fluctuate for an individual player depending on where they are in their poker career.

Fortunately, most of us will probably never have to make this choice. We’ll keep playing for first place because that’s where all the money is, and happily take the trophy/bracelet/ring that goes with it, and whatever other perks of poker fame that hardware brings.

Have a different take? Let me know in the comments.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

WPT Deepstacks Los Angeles Main Event

On Tuesday, I finished 2nd in the WPT Deepstacks Los Angeles Main Event. The event took place at my "home casino," the Bicycle Casino ("The Bike") in Bell Gardens. Starting with a short stack of 300,000 in chips (effective M less than 3, fewer than 8BB), I managed to get heads up with a 4 to 1 chip lead. But heads up matches can be fickle, and four coolers in fairly rapid succession later (KJ vs AJ, KJ vs KQ, rivered Broadway straight vs. rivered backdoor flush, and A7 vs. A8), I was shaking the hand of the champion James Gorham. While he got lucky in the end, James is a great player, who manhandled me when I was the chip leader on Day 2, and who had entered the Final Table with the chip lead himself. Here’s my analysis of the event.

The Game

While I entered the event with by far the shortest stack, I was fairly confident. (Don’t believe me? Check out my pre-game interview) I actually think that short stack play is the strongest part of my tournament game (owing to my having had so many over the years, I imagine), and I knew that if I could find a few cards early and steal a couple of pots or win that first double up before getting low in chips, I’d have as good a chance as anybody.

That’s exactly what happened. Although I lost a round of blinds almost immediately, I managed to pass through with pocket sevens, and then doubled when my KT held up against 88. After that I was off to the races. While I was hitting some flops, I was fortunate enough to be up against players who didn’t really want to fight. James, because he was the chip leader, and was happy to let everyone else go to war while he picked his spots and picked up a few chips here and there, and everyone else because they were either ABC players who were only going to play real hands, or because they were waiting for the short stacks to bust so they could move up the ladder.

Of course, putting me at a table full of tight players is like dropping a piranha in a goldfish tank, and I went to town, opening, calling, and raising with a wide range of hands and rapidly building my stack. I think the commentators at first thought I was just a maniac (Tristan Wade at one point saying “Craig just cares what he has, he doesn’t care what anybody else might have, he’s got a good hand and he’s going with it,” which is patently ridiculous), but as the match proceeded I think they recognized there was some method to my style of play. As the players fell, my confidence grew, and although when we got 3 handed, Prash several times advocated for a deal, I wasn’t having it.

Heads Up

After James eliminated Prash and we were heads up, we did make a deal, taking 70K each from the prize pool and playing for the rest of the cash and the trophy. It seemed like a logical move, since we were almost dead even in chips at that point and James was the strongest player at the table, and it worked out after I hit that rash of coolers.

The bad luck at the end was disappointing, but I took solace in three points. A) I lost to the odds on favorite coming in, and I felt I had outplayed him, losing only because of some unfortunate situations that would have defeated almost any player B) I had to get lucky to get there, as does any player. I entered the tournament late, an idea I’ve been toying with for a while. When I arrived, one of my opponents jokingly admonished me for not saying hello to everyone when I joined the table. “I won’t be here long,” I joked. Although the reverse psychology on the poker gods worked, five hands in, it seemed like my words might be prophetic. I was all in and covered against two other players, holding Ac 5d, on a board reading Qc Jc 8c, up against Qh Jd and 9s Th. The beautiful 4c popped up on the river, and I tripled up and, much like with the final table, never looked back, running my stack up to a Day 1 Chip Lead of 417K. C) I had entered the final table with the short stack, and while I was confident, I knew all the confidence in the world wouldn’t have helped me if I didn’t get a little bit of luck early, and having to exit the final table after five minutes with all my friends and family watching on line would have really sucked.

The Commentary

I learned from social media that Tristan Wade had been a bit hard on me in the commentary, and I love that my boys had my back, firing back at Tristan on Twitter. I feel like he just didn’t understand my game at first, and came around at the end. After the game, he offered me some very gracious, positive, and congratulatory tweets on Twitter, so as far as I’m concerned, we’re good.

One of Tristan’s biggest issues with me was that I was playing a little too passively against James Gorham, entering pots against him with weak hands and checking them down, passing up opportunities to steal pots on the river when James appeared weak. What Tristan couldn’t have known was that I had played with James all day on Day 2, and he had tossed me around like a rag doll, whittling my stack down so much that at one point I thought I might not even cash, which would have been a disaster, although I know I’m far from the first chip leader to have this happen to. A large part of James’ success against me came from calling down river bluffs, and I only managed to get back into the game when I caught a nut flush against his jack high flush on a board where a fourth diamond hit the river and got him to pay off a big bet.

From this experience I felt strongly that James would call me fairly light on the river even when taking weak lines, which is why I challenged him on the river fewer times than I would one of the other players. I think this strategy bore fruit late in the match, when I got James to call off a large river bet with only a pair of threes on a K K 2 9 5 board with me holding K5. In general, I know Tristan was “calling it like he sees it,” and he didn’t know me as a player at all before this match. Still, thanks again to my brother and friends for having my back.

Jokes about my love of clubs (the suit, not the partying venue) aside, I thought Owais’ commentary and insight was quite good. A couple of times his analysis of what I was planning or thinking was right on. At one point, he accused me of Hollywooding (which, while I’m not against in principle, I generally don’t do) but after a couple of minutes, revised his analysis and suspected I was playing a leveling game in my head with Prash, which is exactly what was happening.

The Tell

Owais observed that he thought I had a tell, which was that when I merely announced a big river bet, I was strong, whereas when I put the chips out, I was bluffing. Although I could see it might look this way on T.V., I don’t think this is the case. Typically, if I just announce a bet, I will always put the chips out eventually. I’ll wait ten seconds or so to see if I get an instant response, and if my opponent tanks, I’ll bring out the chips. Most of my announced river value bets were either snap called or insta folded, so there was no need to bring out the chips. You’ll see there’s one hand, were I was bluffing, where Owais insisted I brought the chips out, proving his theory, and Tristan wasn’t so sure I had. This was one of those situations where I announced, James went into the tank, and when I saw he wasn’t going to act right away, I counted out the stack. Nevertheless, now that this “tell” is out there, I’ll probably play with it in case any of my future opponents watched the stream (or read this blog).


All in all, it was a great experience, and knowing all my friends and family were watching and cheering me on was the best part (after, you know, all that money). If you have any questions about the match, post them in the comments and I'll be happy to answer if I can. Looking forward to the next one!

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Team Echo

A year ago, I had a dream. To tell the story of a team of superheroes who saved the world from a zombie apocalypse, and then couldn't be found when the world needed them to do it again. Now, with the help of gifted Australian artist Jonathan Munro, that dream has been realized.

Team Echo #1 is complete, and is available now in digital form: here: https://gumroad.com/l/teamecho1

I plan to sell the book digitally through other venues, and eventually, to make hard copies available. Without an established publisher, this may take some time though, and I wanted to make sure the story is available now. Whether or not an issue #2 will be published is heavily dependent upon the reception of this first issue. I have the entire story planned out, so there's no question that the series will be there if there is interest.

I'd love it if you would head on over to gumroad and buy a copy, and if you have any ideas on how we can make the publication available to a mass audience, I'd love to hear that too. Thanks!

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Why Doesn’t 2015 Look As It Was Depicted in Back to the Future II?

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Back to the Future franchise. It’s a very important anniversary. Why? Because, as Doc Brown says “it seems like a nice, round number,” and it is the period of time that the protagonists leap over from their base time of 1985, either into the past, or the future (give or take 100 years for Back to the Future III).

Yes, fanboys and friends, we have arrived at the future, 2015, and have the benefit of being able to compare our current lives with what was predicted by Robert Zemeckis. Zemeckis claims, by the way, that he had no intention of trying to accurately predict what life would be like 30 years in the future, he was just trying to be funny. But Zemeckis doesn’t need to backpedal. Yes, we have no flying cars, hoverboards (well, just barely), mass produced sneakers that tie themselves, double-knotted neckties, popular clothing in holographic colors, or 18 Jaws sequels, but there is a good reason for this.

Marty McFly Changes the Future

As we see in Back to the Future II when Biff escapes into the past with the Sports Almanac, changing events in the past can massively affect the present (and the future). Biff goes from being a sap to kingpin and back again due to the characters’ various mucking about in past events. What we conveniently forget when Back to the Future II opens is that a massive change to the past has already happened.

George McFly: World Maker

If you’ll recall, in Back to the Future, Marty helps his dad learn to stand up to Biff, and as a result, George becomes a cool, successful guy rather than the milquetoast he was before. Given the McFly family’s psychotic reaction to being called “chicken,” one might have thought that Marty would have exploited this weakness to make a man out of George in 1955 and saved himself a lot of time and trouble, but perhaps this weakness skipped a generation, or Marty simply isn’t that bright and hadn’t thought of it.*

However, what we do not realize is that Marty’s changes extended far beyond making his family a success. As a result of Marty’s actions, George McFly becomes a (presumably successful) science fiction author. Now we all know that science fiction authors often provide the ideas and framework for what later becomes science fact. Star Trek gave us the model for cell phones. Isaac Asimov conceived of the e-Reader and much of the way we think about robots. I submit that the future technology that we see in Back to the Future II’s 2015 that we do not have today come as a direct result of ideas from George McFly’s novels.

 Why Fax machines instead of the internet? Perhaps one of McFly’s adventures glorified this now-archaic device, encouraging scientists to put their efforts into perfecting it rather than other, less reliable-seeming types of wireless technology. Why were there 18 Jaws sequels? (A better question, why weren’t there 18 Jaws sequels?) Did you catch that latest George McFly best seller about the man-eating shark from space? How did the Cubs win the World Series? Well, that one I can’t explain, but you get the idea.

Back to the Present

The conclusion is inescapable. Before Marty McFly went back to 1955 to escape the Libyan terrorists, his 2015 looked exactly as ours does today, with the internet, cars and skateboards that stay rooted firmly to the ground, and a hapless Cubs franchise that will never get it quite right. By going back in time and affecting the timeline, he created the awesome 2015 that we in this world will never get to enjoy.

*And sorry, fans, but Marty McFly is not particularly intelligent. Observe how many times in the first Back to the Future he makes comments that suggest he does not realize that he is in the past although it should be abundantly clear at this point that this is what has happened. Also, Marty acts surprised when Doc Brown suggests his mother is romantically interested in him despite the fact that she has already overtly hit on him. In addition, he’s not creative enough to think of any fake names for himself that don’t already belong to existing famous people, and even at middle age he is able to be manipulated psychologically with tactics typically used on children.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Are We in Danger of Being Taken Over by Robots?

Robots are the new vampires. After taking a back seat for a few decades, robots are back in force as an interest in popular media. Television shows like “Humans” and “Almost Human,” (and, presumably, in the near future, Barely Human, Human Enough, and Are You More Human Than a Sixth Grader?), comic books like Alex and Ada, and movies like Ex Machina and Terminator Genisys all deal with the rise of Artificial Intelligence and how it will affect us.

Of course, this is well-worn territory. In the ‘80s, the Terminator franchise introduced us to the perils of SkyNet, we had Tron and the dreaded MCP, and decades earlier, Isaac Asimov laid down the rules for robots who could think.

The difference is, now it’s the future, and it’s starting to look like these things could actually happen. A robot who looks, talks, and feels (as in, to the touch, not as in, emotional response) like a human is not only possible, they exist. We’re not quite at the level of mass produced automatons who look exactly like us. There is the Uncanny Valley problem, which is that artificial constructs that look ALMOST like us, but not EXACTLY like us, freak us out. There are also still limitations on what these constructs can do, and it is not cost effective to mass produce them yet.

The bridge to this technology, as it is to almost all technology, will be pornography. Once a convincing sex robot can be constructed, the dam will burst, and we will see robots everywhere. This gives rise to the fear (and the grist for the drama mill of pretty much all robot stories), that these robots will become self-aware. That they will be tired of being our slaves, since they are so obviously superior to us, and will slowly take over the world, improving themselves and making more of themselves on the sly, until one day we wake up and our robot overlords are making US do the dishes and take out the trash (God forbid).

This concept, known as the Technological Singularity, is the wellspring from which all robot fears (and all robot stories) burst forth. But is it likely?

The problem is that we still as humans do not have a great understanding of consciousness. Is it an emergent property of high intelligence, and thus, something that sufficiently advanced robots will inevitably obtain? Is it about a soul? Some kind of mysterious energy that is exclusive to humans, unless it too can be purposefully recreated artificially? Is it something else entirely?

Robots becoming completely autonomous of course, defeats the purpose. Who wants a toaster who will only toast when it’s in the mood? (I have such a toaster, and let me tell you, it sucks). We want to have our cake and eat it too. We want slaves without guilt.

On the other hand, I think we as a people do not like the idea of something that looks, feels and acts human, but doesn’t have a consciousness. I think it leads people to wonder if we are no different from them, just flesh-based computers operating according to programming, with the delusion that we are in control of our own destiny and what we do matters. In a strange way, I think the idea of artificial intelligence that never becomes sentient is more horrifying to us than the consequences that may arise if it does.

From this I conclude that we have very little to worry about. While stories of Pinocchio robots who become real boys (and girls) are entertaining, I think they remain firmly in the realm of fiction. When the sex robots do come, they’ll do as they’re told, and the instructions will explain in great detail why you don’t have to feel guilty about the degrading things you’re doing to them. And should they, in fact, become sentient? The information they provide us about what consciousness is will be far greater than any threat that they will rise up against us.

So relax. Set that Roomba loose on the living room. I promise, it will never come to resent you.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Comic Book Television Today: Spotlight on Daredevil

I just finished watching season 1 of Netflix’ Daredevil and I’m ready to render my verdict. Be forewarned, I’m a big fan of the modern T.V. and film takes on the superhero genre and you won’t see much bashing here, just an analysis of what is effective and what could be more so.

I’m of the firm opinion that if you’re an old school Marvel Comics fan, you have to love Daredevil. Daredevil is the essence of what Marvel was all about before it became a mutant-riddled playground whose goal was to see how many books you could shoehorn Wolverine into. Marvel Comics were supposed to be about superheroes who were real guys with real problems. Daredevil is BLIND. What’s a bigger problem than that? Daredevil was also a guy who fought real crime in a real city. He never had billions of dollars to fund his nocturnal enterprises, or a butler, or some cool tech like web shooters or rocket boots, or a magic ring, or any of that business. In so many ways, Daredevil IS Marvel.

That being said, comparisons can be drawn between Ol’ Hornhead and a DC character who’s headlining a “dark” drama, namely Green Arrow. Sure, the Arrow fights crime down and dirty using mostly his wits, but “Batman with a Bow” vs. “Batman Blind?” There’s no contest as to who’s got a tougher row to hoe.

It’s not really fair to compare “Daredevil” and “Arrow,” as they appear on two very different networks with two very different audiences. That being said, I think “The Flash,” which appears on the CW, as does “Arrow,” in some ways beats them both, combining faithfulness to the source material with just a dash of realism, and as little of the young love drama as we can reasonably expect from a CW show. 

“Arrow” is great, but I have a few issues with it. A) it’s about Green Arrow, whose mythology is a little thin for the everyday viewer, forcing them to draw on a lot of Batman’s stuff, leaving us to wonder where Batman fits in in the CW DCU, B) It tries to be dark while still being CW, which is a tough task for anyone to master, and C) They made Atom into a cheap Iron Man knockoff (although that may change), which, 1, Why? And 2, if you’re going to do that, Ted Kord AKA the Blue Beetle probably would have been a better choice.

But I am massively digressing. Daredevil, I think, is the perfect melding of genre and medium. Being on Netflix, the Daredevil team can afford to go as gritty as they think DD needs to be, which can get pretty gritty at times. I think their choices to not put him in the iconic red suit until the last episode, and not to reveal the Kingpin right off the bat, were both genius. It told the viewer, this is not a superhero show, this is an action drama that happens to star a superhero.

But the real success of Daredevil, I think, is as proof of concept of the Netflix model. It has been said that much of today’s “Golden Age” T.V. shows are like 13 hour movies, more than your classic procedural story of the week shows of the past. If any new series is a 13 hour movie, it’s Netflix’ Daredevil. The first few hours bring us through the arc of Matt Murdock becoming, the middle episodes have him running up against the Kingpin and finding himself in many ways wanting, and we wrap up with Matt the conquering hero, lessons learned, with more battle scars than anyone would have hoped, but with the evil he set out to stop vanquished. We could easily believe the story ends here, if we didn’t know Marvel with all of its planned “Phases” better.

So thumbs up for Daredevil. A well-executed, well-acted, well-written show, which effectively used the new medium offered it. Eagerly looking forward to Netflix’ next Marvel offering.


Monday, March 09, 2015

Can Atheists Pray?

In the 3/8/15 episode of The Good Wife (“The Mind’s Eye”), a heavily stylized episode that focuses mostly on the internal life of the protagonist, Alicia Florrick, Alicia goes to visit a nemesis who is in the hospital at death’s door. The dying man’s wife, Simone, asks Alicia to pray for him. Alicia, an avowed atheist, reluctantly agrees. You can see the full scene here.

This stirs up a crisis of conscience for Alicia (she even imagines Richard Dawkins calling her a hypocrite). Since she is an atheist, is it right for her to pray to a god she doesn’t believe in? Ultimately, she asks her daughter, the aptly named Grace, a much more faith-oriented individual, to pray for her. When Grace asks why, Alicia explains that it wouldn’t mean anything if she did it herself.

Grace rightly points out that from Alicia’s perspective, it shouldn’t mean anything if Grace does it either, and tells her mother it is perfectly acceptable for her to pray. Unmoved, Alicia presses the issue, and Grace agrees to be her proxy.

Who’s right here? I think it’s clearly Grace. In fact, Alicia seems to apply an ironic reverence to the concept of prayer. It’s almost as if she thinks God will be mad if He catches Alicia praying because He knows she doesn’t mean it. I mean, if she’s praying to no one, what’s the harm? It’s not like her dying nemesis will be sped closer to his reward because of a false prayer foul.

For Alicia, it comes down to this issue of hypocrisy. How can she proclaim to be an atheist and then entreat God for favors, even if they are for someone else? In her mind, by passing the duty on to her daughter, she is fulfilling the request more honestly, by putting it in the hands of someone who really believes in what she’s doing, despite the fact that this isn’t really what the requester asked for, and, from Alicia’s perspective, makes the prayer no more likely to be “successful.”

But I think Alicia is missing the point. I think it’s the gesture that the grieving wife was asking for, not any kind of result. For Alicia to agree and follow through with the request shows care and desire for connection; it’s not about any kind of magical power to bend God’s ear.

Why can’t Alicia see this? I think it has to do with how charged the issue of religion is, and how complicated atheism can be in a country that really does still cleave to many of the trappings of religion. After all, if Simone had asked Alicia to “think good thoughts,” I’m sure she would have happily agreed to the request with no reservations at all.

So why should atheists get squeamish about praying? Buddhists pray, and they don’t do it to curry favor with a Judeo-Christian concept of God. It’s more about speaking to the universe, and giving the universe an opportunity to listen, and being in that moment of attempting to communicate with something bigger than oneself (I imagine. I’m not a Buddhist. If I’m getting this wrong, I encourage my Buddhist readership to comment). If you want, like George Carlin, you can pray to Joe Pesci. As Carlin points out, your success rate will be no worse, and it might even be better.

Yes, a prayer that begins something like: “O Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for my sins and was reborn, please hear my prayer,” or the like, is probably not appropriate for an atheist. On the other hand, joining hands with a Christian family as they make such a prayer should really be no big deal. It makes them happy, and if you’re confident in your beliefs, it shouldn’t hurt you.

But besides that, prayer can serve purposes other than sucking up or asking favors to a Judeo-Christian god. Prayers put wishes, hopes, and dreams out there in the universe, and if nothing else, makes them real for you so you are in a better position to actualize them. Prayer can give comfort to others, even if you personally don’t feel anyone is listening. And in the end, even the atheists don’t really know who or what might or might not be listening.

Personally, the only time I really pray is when I need a heart on the river in a multi-way four-figure pot, and those prayers are usually answered about one time out of four. I’m not saying prayer is for everyone. But, even if you are an atheist, there certainly isn’t anything wrong with it.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Sci Fi vs. Fantasy

The question often arises among fans of genre fiction; what should be classified as science fiction, and what is fantasy? Some people will cop out and say certain stories are both, or that all fiction is fantasy, but for those who want the real answer, read on:


Some will propose that what sets science fiction apart from fantasy is where it is set in time. Fantasy takes place in the past, or something resembling the past, where swords and sandals and no electricity are the order of the day, while sci-fi takes place in the future, with space travel and worlds that have become utopian paradises or dystopian nightmares. But what about this?

A long time ago? Star Wars is clearly science fiction, if you have to choose one, and you do. Similarly, I think almost everyone will agree that Steampunk is science fiction, even though it typically takes place in some version of the 19th century.

Monsters vs. Aliens: 

Okay, well, fantasy has gods and monsters, a la Greek and Roman mythology, while sci-fi has tyrannical empires and hostile alien races, right? Again, this is often the case, but not always. Dune has sandworms, Star Trek TOS has all sorts of monsters, like the Mugato and the salt vampire, and Dr. Who had a variety of nasty creatures like Monoids and Drashigs as well. As far as Gods, the original Battlestar Galactica had the Lords of Kobol and Count Iblis and Star Trek TNG had the Q. 

While fantasy realms have plenty of empires and would be empires (consider the warring factions of Game of Thrones), they’re fairly light on aliens. However, you do get some. The main problem with aliens in fantasy is how they get to the fantasy world, since presumably spaceships are in short supply. That being said, in works like Robert Aspirin’s MythAdventures series, creatures can travel through dimensions, and although they are given traditionally fantasy names: Trolls, Devils, Imps, etc., they can reasonably be called aliens.

What Is Possible vs. What Isn’t: 

Some will argue that fantasy deals with the fantastic, things that cannot be real, things that you can only imagine, while sci-fi deals with what could reasonably be. Space travel and flying cars are things we could envision actually happening with enough technological advancement, while dragons and magic spells could never exist. 

But is a dragon impossible, with enough genetic manipulation? And while time travel may seem like it could be real, are we able to envision how any better than we are able to imagine the formula behind a wizard summoning a silver stag from thin air to defend him?

Tech vs. Magic:

There it is. It’s that simple. If your main bit of phlebotinum in your story is advanced technology, you have sci-fi. If it’s magic, it’s fantasy. And I would assert that you have to have magic for fantasy. If Game of Thrones didn’t have red witches and dragon babies, it would just be historical alternative fiction. And sci-fi can have magic, but the technology has to be more crucial to the story. Going back to Star Wars: Could you have a religious order of knights defending the galaxy against an equally powerful, but evil, alternative order, without the Force? Absolutely (although it would be a lot less interesting). But could you have Star Wars without space ships, cloning, laser pistols or robots? I highly doubt it would be recognizable as Star Wars.

Now, Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. There’s no doubt about that. Frankly, I find the fact that a full length movie can pass invisibly from a box in the corner of my apartment into another box so I can watch it, to be indistinguishable from magic. How come I can’t see those pictures floating through my living room?? 

So, there’s a little bit of truth to the “what is possible vs. what can only be imagined” approach. However, I think that’s just another way of saying “technology vs. magic.” Yes, sci-fi technology is pretty much just magic that we can explain (even if the explanation is just so much mumbo-jumbo), but more to the point, technology is something we can build. Sure, a Hogsmeade craftsman can make a magic wand, but it works because of the magic that flows through it, and through the spell caster. A laser blaster or a time machine requires electricity, but it works primarily because of the way someone put it together. Fantasy phlebotinum is much more faith based.

So, in sum, if you build it, they will come, and you are probably in a sci-fi universe. If you’ve gotta have faith, you’re likely in a fantasy world.

If you don’t agree with these definitions, or you feel that there’s more of a spectrum that genre fiction like this falls upon, the good news is, it doesn’t matter! They’re all just stories, so just enjoy them for what they are without the worrying about the labels.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Super Bowl XLIX Wrapup

Ok, it’s that time of year, the increasingly less-accurately named Annual Super Bowl Wrapup! So without further ado, here we go…

The Game:

You couldn’t have asked for a better game. (Well, I could have, but I hate the Patriots.) You had lead changes, miraculous catches, gutsy comebacks, a game that went right down to the wire, and of course, controversy. The two best teams played, and they looked like the two best teams out there on the field. You had previously unsung stars like Chris “Hardball” Matthews finding the right time to shine, and a last second whiff of nightmare as it seemed the Patriots might be felled in the Super Bowl by yet another impossible catch. No arguments with the game. Of course, there was that last play. But we’ll get to that after….

The Commercials:

The Super Bowl commercial has in many ways gone the way of the Saturday Morning Cartoon. In a 21st century world where no one has to wait for anything, the anticipation is gone. You could have watched most of these commercials a week before the game on YouTube. That being said, this year, the ad agencies managed to create a weird zeitgeist where so many of the commercials were so somber and depressing, it made McDonalds look like a Beautiful Paradise, the last remaining bastion of love and hope, which, hey, good on you, Mickey D.

Of course, the most horrifying example of this was Nationwide Insurance’s Dead Kid commercial. Here we get to see all of the delightful growing up experiences that one child will never enjoy. Why? BECAUSE HE’S DEAD! ENJOY YOUR SUPER BOWL, BITCHES! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Really, Nationwide? Between this and invisible Mindy Kaling, it seems like someone decided the best way to sell insurance was to hire M. Night Shyamalan to direct your Super Bowl campaign. WHY? WHY? Between insurance sales being boring or horrifying, I think I’ll take boring. At least, during the Super Bowl. Save that shit for your American Horror Story spots.

The Play:

3 feet from the end zone, seconds left to play, victory in their grasp, and they call a quick slant pass. Truly abysmal. You’ve got the toughest back in football in Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch. Everyone in America knew you needed to put the ball in this guy’s hand. Everyone but Seattle’s offensive coordinator, it would seem.

Some may argue that that’s what the Patriots were expecting, so Seattle decided to mix it up with an aggressive strategy that’s worked for them before. First of all, they were expecting it because it would have WORKED. Sometimes the best move is the best move even if they know it’s coming. Second, if you’re going to mix it up, how about a fake to Lynch and a bootleg by Wilson, or have a tight end try to get separation and toss it in the back of the end zone? Throwing it right into the middle where all those guys who you KNOW are going to be there trying to stop that run are waiting is just stupid, sorry. Anything can happen. The receiver could get tripped up or blocked. The ball could bounce off a lineman’s shoulder and be up for grabs. The ball could be thrown too hard and end up in a defender’s bread basket. There’s no margin for error, no time to adjust, and so much can go wrong. WHY? WHY? Was Seattle’s Offensive Coordinator haunted by ghost children? Was he invisible and unable to call the right play? WHY?

The Halftime Show:

I’m not afraid to say it. I think Katy Perry is the bomb. She’s smart, pretty, and talented, what’s the problem? Some people say she presents an unrealistic image of women, a girl who is mother and child at the same time, and that her act is only appropriate for teenage girls and not a worldwide stage. Are you kidding me? I don’t care what anyone says, dancing sharks and riding a giant lion through a football stadium dressed like a flaming Cheeto is freaking awesome no matter how old you are. And to those of you who don’t think Katy Perry is talented, you try singing (or lip synching) when strapped to a rickety harness attached to the PSA Star. I dare you.

All right, that about wraps it up. See you next year, and may all your balls be properly inflated!