Monday, September 30, 2013

One of the very few upsides to being sick...

I might have watched the first episodes of Silver Spoon, Eccentric Family, and Breaking Bad last night.

I may have then watched the next nine episodes of Breaking Bad.

All three are good, but that's definitely the one that's mastered the "one more episode" effect. It also occasionally does these really weird cold openings, which are simultaneously surreal, funny, and creepy, a combination I've not seen pulled off well outside of David Lynch's movies before.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Really, really sorry all...

I'm sick and despite having what I think are really good ideas for the "Read It and Weep" article, I just can't push them out through my light-fever-and-medication-addled brain.

The greatest of apologies, and I will try to get the article up tomorrow. =(

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Article to be late today

Apologies all, but the new My Little Po-Mo article will be late. Expect it some time tomorrow afternoon.

I may be completely imagining this....

But listen to the music when the book first appears here as compared to when Rainbow Dash first reads the book here.

Am I just looking for excuses, or does the latter have multiple references to the former?

Friday, September 27, 2013

What should I be watching?

So, I'm currently stuck in a bit of a media rut, rewatching old things but not really watching anything currently airing except The Legend of Korra. Which is... okay but not great so far?

So, I'm turning to all of you. This is your chance! Recommend something! Sell me on it! What are you watching at the moment, and why do you like it? Could be Western animation, anime, live action, anything from any country as long as it's new and it's available in English in some form (whether because it originated in English or has subtitles).

What am I not watching that you think I should be?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Wall in the North

Sorry about lateness, I just straight up forgot that I hadn't already made and queued this post.

This is a post about one of the most awesome characters in all of animation, Major General Olivier Mira Armstrong from Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood.


If Major General Armstrong commanded the North Wall of Westeros instead of Briggs, Game of Thrones would be a standalone book. Of about 200 pages.

Just saying.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reading Too Much Into Adventure Time! with Finn and Jake, Part One

Once again, lacking anything else to post for a Wednesday Whatever I go to the well of hastily adapted panel notes. This time, have my panel on Adventure Time! from Connecticon 2013. As always, this is built around discrete chunks tied to slides, so please forgive the lack of flow. This is the first half of the panel; I will hold the second half, dealing with character relationships and postmodern elements, for another Wednesday.

Adventure Time! as nonsense literature: Literary nonsense is a genre with roots in two sources: First, traditional nursery rhymes, which employed made-up rhymes, little games (such as paddycake and ring-around-the-rosie) and lots of animal and food themes to entertain children. Second, in the middle ages scholars, intellectuals, and poets employed intellectual absurdities and paradoxes for humor in political satire, parodies, and comedies. Edward Lear popularized combining the two with his limericks, stories, and songs (most famously “The Owl and the Pussycat,” which combines animal themes and made-up words like “runcible spoon” familiar from nursery rhymes with a parody of courtly love). Lewis Carroll then codified the genre with the Alice books, the Sylvie and Bruno books, and poems like "The Hunting of the Snark."

Nonsense literature is generally rigorously logical, but with skewed premises—characters have very simple, straightforward emotions, and their behavior is instead logically driven from a weird basis. For example, Bubblegum Princess is uninterested in romance, and instead all her actions follow as a logical consequence of the absurd premise of being a ruler who is also a mad scientist who is also living candy. Nonsense literature tends to play with things that have a lot of arbitrary rules in real life, such as games, food (which is always surrounded by complex etiquette and rules about what you can eat at different times of day or what foods go together (ice cream and asparagus for breakfast, for example, is arbitrarily not acceptable even though either food on its own is acceptable at other times of day)), and laws, stripped of their normal context and emotional content. That’s all over the place in Adventure Time—early elements have things like the bizarre trials for breaking a Royal Promise, people made of candy, hot dogs, berries, and so on, and lots of references to video games and D&D. There are also entire episodes devoted to games being taken bizarrely seriously, such as the game of Let’s Pretend during the knife storm or the complex holographic Magic-the-Gathering-type game Finn and Jake play that Jake takes far too seriously.

The Nostalgia Factor: There’s a moderately well-known video about this from the PBS Idea Channel on YouTube. As it points out, a lot of the cartoons popular among adults evoke a sense of nostalgia—a fuzzy notion that childhood is nicer and simpler and happier, a wish to return to it. MLP, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and Gumball are all examples. Adventure Time evokes this nostalgia in a lot of ways: the heroic adventures, post-apocalyptic setting, and sword-wielding blend of fantasy and science fiction were common in products of the 1980s and early 1990s such as Thundercats, He-Man, and Krull. Nonsense literature is often usually children’s literature, so that element evokes memories of childhood, too. And the music frequently employs chiptunes, which are based on the sounds of video game consoles of the 1980s and 1990s. Many individual episodes work for this—for example, in Season One’s “Dungeon” they split up to explore a dungeon, and encounter challenges which would be perfect for the other one, parodying shows like Superfriends where the characters would always face challenges perfectly suited for their particular skills (for example, there was always a water-based problem for Aquaman). However, this video misses the mark by suggesting that its appeal is because the characters are nostalgic themselves, with things like the wreckage of human civilization everywhere and the hints at past relationships and “better days” between Marcelline and other characters like Ice King and Bubblegum Princess. That’s unlikely as a source of the show's popularity because it was already hugely popular long before those elements became clear in late first/early second season. The bigger factor is that unlike most shows nostalgic for childhood, it doesn’t shy away from showing how much being a kid can suck. Finn frequently is ordered to do things without knowing why, has information hidden from him by adults, gets confused over relationships and life questions and his identity—his life is not all happiness and silliness! It is thus far more accurate to childhood than most such shows, and thereby evokes nostalgia all the more strongly.

Meme depot into cult show: As long-time readers of this blog know, I have argued before that there are basically two kinds of shows popular among geeks right now. Meme depots are shows that have a lot of absurd gags that are easily repeatable out of context, so we can easily spread them as memes on Facebook and Tumblr. Most of these are cartoons—Family Guy was probably the original cartoon to actively do this, but it’s been done better by shows like Regular Show. A cult show, on the other hand, has a plan (or pretends to have a plan) and much of the fun comes from the audience learning about the world and gathering clues to try to figure out the plan. This is old hat in anime and limited-run British series like The Prisoner, but in American television didn’t catch on until shows like X-Files and Babylon 5 in the 1990s, before it took off massively with Lost. As mentioned, it’s always been everywhere in anime, but entered Western animation in the 2000s with shows like Justice League and Avatar the Last Airbender. What’s interesting about Adventure Time is that it started as a meme depot—it was all about silly gags and gif-able memes—but has been steadily becoming more of a cult show, slowly revealing that there is a backstory worth caring about with things like Marceline and Ice King’s relationship, dropping recurring hints at future developments with things like the snail that became the snail-lich, and so on.

Worldbuilding: This brings us to worldbuilding. The Simon and Marcy episodes are a good source for this. We know there was a Great Mushroom War, referring to the mushroom cloud from nukes, and that the current planet has a huge chunk taken out of it. We don’t know what caused the Mushroom War, but it’s not that relevant to the present of the show--whatever cultures' differences created the conflict are long gone. The “Finn the Human/Jake the Dog” two-parter shows us an alternate history that implies that these weapons weren’t all straightforward nukes, since the one bomb is implied to have necromantic elements that probably created the Lich in the normal continuity.

How did humans get a necromantic bomb? The fact that both Marceline and the Ice King’s crown predate the Mushroom War means that magic has always been around in this world, although maybe it wasn’t as out in the open prior to the war. Things like Hell, vampires, and magical artifacts existed, so why not necromantic nukes? “Simon and Marcy” even gives hints to the origins of the candy people: The zombie-like mutated humans in the abandoned city resemble the candy people faintly, and the friendly blob creature is pretty obviously Princess Bubblegum or an ancestor. The episode as a whole is actually something of a reference to the novel “I Am Legend,” with Simon as the main character and Marcy as the dog. As in that book, the apparent monsters are actually humanity’s successors that will be founding a new civilization in the future, and the apparent hero is going to be their legendary monster.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Does this mean I'm legit now?

I was watching Nostalgia Critic's latest Korra review, and as it fairly often is, the sidebar was a Barnes and Noble ad consisting of a rotating cycle of My Little Pony-related books and videos with a few other things thrown in...

Monday, September 23, 2013

Predictions: Korra and Fire Emblem

Just want to call a couple of predictions, so there's a record of it.

First, Legend of Korra: Tarloq's ability to control spirits isn't limited to calming them; he's causing the spirit attacks in order to create the panic he needs to seize power. Unlike Amon, however, he genuinely believes in his cause--he really does think the people of the world need his spiritual guidance or they will come to ruin. This is why he thinks he can become a world conqueror despite the relatively small population of the Water Tribe--he is using Korra to give him access to a spirit army. The creation of what amounts to a teleport link between the Northern and Southern tribes also gives him a huge military advantage.

Second, Fire Emblem: Awakening: I know some of you have doubtless already beaten it, so DO NOT TELL ME IF I'M RIGHT, but I'm pretty sure Marth's a time traveler from the future, and the reason other people keep telling me how important it is to build relationships between my characters is because eventually I'm going to either team up with, or have to play as, my current party's children.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Even if you simply have to fudge it/Make sure it stays within our budget (The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000)

Who knew so many ponies were angry drunks?
When I was a kid, the one cartoon that stood out above all others was Ducktales. If you know the history of American TV cartoons, or you've read my book, then you know there's a reason for this; to make a long story short, Ducktales was a strong contender for best (English-language) cartoon of the 1980s, the beginning of the end of the "Wasteland" period of children's television, and the proof that syndication (soon to be succeeded by cable) made it possible for a cartoon to make a profit without sacrificing production values, paving the way for the Silver Age of Animation that runs from the 1990s through today.

But Ducktales itself was very much a creature of the 1980s. Scrooge McDuck is, in many ways, the ultimate capitalist, conservative hero. He is "self-made," rising from poverty-stricken immigrant to richest duck in the world entirely through his own efforts (or so, thanks to the utter invisibility of all but a few of his employees, we are led to believe). In the present, we see him already colossally wealthy, his business empire functioning apparently with little input from him while he gallivants about the globe having adventures and hunting for treasure, creating the impression that his wealth still comes from his own efforts; in flashbacks he is depicted young and poor, working hard and alone to earn his original fortune. Glossed over in between are the long years (almost a century!) between the Klondike Gold Rush and the present of the series, during which he must have grown his business empire in the usual way--hiring workers to produce products or provide services, charging customers more for those products and services than it costs to provide them, paying the workers less than the customers are paying, and using the resulting profits to expand into new areas, promote the business, and so forth. This is undoubtedly what Scrooge means when he (repeatedly) insists that he made his money "square": He kept his promises, abided by his contracts, and did not overtly lie to his customers and employees, which is to say he followed the ethical standards of business.

McDuck is depicted as strict, judgmental, quick to anger, slow to pity, convinced he has attained his fortune by being "smarter than the smarties and tougher than the toughies." In other words, he sees his wealth as proof of innate superiority, and Ducktales is by and large happy to support this view of himself; Scrooge McDuck is simply stronger and harder, a duck above and apart from the rest of the world's people, and his lack of compassion and charitable impulse is depicted as a quirk, a comedic flaw that doesn't actually impede him or make him less likeable.

Ducktales' success caused Warner Bros. to create its own syndicated cartoons in co-production with Amblin, which in turn caused Ted Turner's fledgling Cartoon Network (founded basically to give him something to do with the large libraries of classic cartoons he'd just bought) to start pursuing original programming, which in turn begat the career of Lauren Faust and, ultimately, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic.

And now it's January 28, 2012. The top movie is Liam Neeson vehicle The Grey, and the top song is still "We Found Love" by Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris. In the news, the Syrian civil war continues to rage, the national state of emergency in Egypt is dropped just shy of a year after the revolution began, and the city of Oakland arrests 200 Occupy protestors.

On TV, we have yet another Applejack episode, M.A. Larson's "The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000," directed by James Wootton. The episode quickly became very popular, primarily because of its very fun, catchy, complex song (also called "The Super-Speedy cider Squeezy 6000,"), modeled heavily on The Music Man, though commenting fans more often recognized it as reminiscent of "Monorail" from The Simpsons. Both of those possible homages are songs that start as a con man giving his pitch, and evolve into crowd songs as the assembled townsfolk fall for it, and the song in this episode is no different, though it adds the twist of having two con men, brothers, whose different vocal ranges and tendency to finish each other's lines make the song more complex and possibly even catchier.

The Flim-Flam Brothers are most definitely liars, cheats, and frauds, that much is clear from their facial expressions during the songs, their names (flim-flam is a term meaning "deception, trickery, nonsense,") and the fact that they switch identities: at about the 5:30 mark of the episode, the brother with the lower voice and mustache says "He's Flim," and the higher-pitched, clean-shaven brother says "He's Flam"; after they've got the town mostly convinced, at about the 8:30 mark, the clean-shaven pony says "He's Flim" and the other says "He's Flam." But what's deeply odd about this episode is that their actual plan involves them telling the truth and keeping their promises--at no point do they engage in anything Scrooge wouldn't consider "square."

Their initial offer seems to be completely legitimate: they have a machine that can produce cider much more quickly and efficiently than the Apples can, and offer to make the cider for the Apples in exchange for three-quarters of the takings. Applejack rejects this offer, because she's afraid the Apples will no longer be able to make enough money from cider sales to keep their farm going. The next day, Flim and Flam show up with the cider they made in their demonstration the previous day and start selling it to the ponies who didn't get any Apple family cider. An argument ensues over whether the Flim-Flam Brothers should be allowed to sell it, since it's made from Apple family apples, and ultimately they hold a competition for sole rights to sell apple cider in Ponyville.

To this point, from a modern, Western, capitalist perspective, Applejack appears to be entirely in the wrong and a terrible businesswoman to boot. She has failed to provide enough cider, and rather than try to make more by hiring temporary workers, or reduce demand by raising prices, she is artificially attempting to suppress competition and block the introduction of new, more efficient techology for cider-making. The story shifts from The Music Man to John Henry, and we know how that ends, with technology triumphant and our hero crushed by the grinding gears that drive the inevitable march of progress.

But Applejack brings in her friends. She begins making cider faster and faster, and the Flim-Flam Brothers abandon their quality controls to win the contest. This is the key moment of the episode, when Rainbow Dash (as always our voice of modernity and cynicism) suggests that the Apples do likewise, and Applejack refuses. The Flim-Flam Brothers win the contest, but after the townsfolk taste their cider, they're driven out of town, and thanks to the contest there's enough Apple family cider for everyone.

At no point do the Flim-Flam Brothers lie. At no point do they cheat or steal or break a promise. Under the rules of business ethics they have done nothing wrong. And yet as I said their introductory musical number depicts them as con men, and the episode as a whole is clearly structured with them as villains. This moment is the reason why: Because unlike Applejack, they are good at business, and as such they are completely willing to sacrifice quality (or anything else) at a moment's notice. They are rational in the economic sense, willing to do what it takes to get what they want, and what they want is to make money and to win.

Put another way: Applejack is a farmer who uses money as a means to maintain her farm, to the end of producing products such as cider. The Flim-Flam Brothers are businessmen who use cider as a means to make money. They are alienated from the product of their work (and yes, I am aware of the irony that this is not only despite but because they own the means of production), caring neither about its quality nor the happiness of their customers so long as they can get money out of it. Remember again Scrooge's invisible army of employees, the fact that he never seems to engage with the actual work his businesses do, but rather goes off to microscopically increase his wealth with treasure hunts that take weeks and probably do not involve more than a couple of million in profit per trip, a fraction of a percent of what a single large-scale contract could earn him, and contrast to this Applejack, who gets her hands dirty, who values her creation not for what it can get her, not so that she can swim in a big bin of money, but because it is, in itself, a thing of value and worth.

The villainy of the Flim-Flam Brothers is that they value nothing for itself, only for what it can get them. They are the essence of capitalism, the price of setting a price for everything--a core assumption of capitalism is that everything has a monetary value and can be substituted for something else of equal monetary value, so there exists some quantity of potatoes worth giving up all your dreams for. So of course, in the end, we cannot have the moral spelled out for us. We must have Applejack simply declare that she learned nothing, because she really did know it all along, as we all do: business ethics aren't ethical. Honesty alone is not enough to be good; it must bring in its friends, such as kindness and generosity and loyalty and laughter--it must involve compassion, caring about what you're doing--to balance itself.

The fundamental difference between Equestria and our world is not magic, it's not the talking animals, it's not even the filter of self-censorship necessary in making a show for children. It is simply that in our world, the Flim-Flam Brothers are in charge.

Next Week: A less depressing episode, as Rainbow Dash is temporarily crippled in an accident and utterly cut off from everything she loves.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Applejack is McDuck's Inverse

My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, season 2, episode 15, "The Super-Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000," is the anti-Ducktales.

If you don't get it, come back to this blog in precisely 12 hours.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Legend of Korra Season 2

Calling it now: Northern Water Tribe is going to start trying to conquer the world in order to bring their spiritual enlightenment to the less-advanced. Because we've already had Earth Kingdom (in the backstory) and Fire Nation conquerors, so it's their turn.

This of course means that when they make a cyberpunk sequel series to Korra in a few years, it'll be the Air Nomads as the villains.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Can you guess what I stayed up too late watching?

The Babylon Project was our last, best hope for peace...

It failed...

...but everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers"

Consider for a moment the lower platform at Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro Station. It’s one of the busier stations in DC; upstairs is the platform for the Red Line, which runs from eastern Montgomery County, Maryland, south through the not-so-nice parts of Northeast DC until you get to Union Station, where the Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses go, before turning west and running to Chinatown. At Chinatown it starts curving back north, through the downtown business-y parts of the city, then Dupont Circle (closest thing the city has to a gay district, plus a Krispy Kreme and some good bookstores and a Mormon temple), Adams Morgan (where the college kids go to get drunk), and then the middle- and upper-class residential areas of Upper Northwest, before crossing over into western Montgomery County by way of Bethesda, the entitled asshole capital of America.

But this is the lower platform, where the Yellow and Green Lines go. The Yellow Line is schizoid, with little identity of its own; except for a couple of stops in Alexandria, Virginia at its far south end, every stop on it is shared with either the Blue or Green Line. Mostly it’s useful for being the line that crosses directly from Southwest DC to the Pentagon on the other side of the Potomac, where the Blue Line meanders west awhile before curving back down. Or if you live in Alexandria, I suppose.

And then there’s the Green Line. It starts in Maryland, just a bit east of the Red Line, and I’ve honestly never been up that far. Once it crosses into DC, it rapidly establishes itself as the line for people who actually live here—not the college kids or the professionals who come here for five years and then move on, but the people for whom this is their home. This is the one that goes to Columbia Heights, the closest thing DC has to a suburban mall, what with its big-box stores stacked on top of each other and generic chain restaurants. One stop south from there you come to U St, where Ben’s Chili Bowl is, a dive hangout where you can get excellent chili and halfsmokes (a sort of spicy hotdog that exists only here and in one town in Texas) at 3 a.m. During the race riots in the 70s, Ben’s was the only place on U St left untouched by rioters. Bill Cosby proposed to his wife there, and he and the Obamas are officially the only people who eat free, although briefly President Obama was barred from the restaurant because he tried to insist on paying. I recommend the halfsmoke with mustard, onions, and chili, any of the milkshakes, and find someone to split the chili cheese fries with. Avoid the cakes and pies, they’re lousy. The place is always full, always loud, and if you stay there long enough, eventually everyone in the city will pass through.

Further down the line we pass Howard University, one of the best historically black colleges in the country (and it is difficult to deny that there is some segregation to these Metro lines—the Green line and western half of the Blue line are mostly ridden by black people, the other lines mostly by white people), and then Mt. Vernon Sq, which is close enough to Chinatown to be a bit silly, and home to the big convention center which, despite going to 10-12 conventions a year, I have never been inside.

Chinatown is more or less the midpoint of the Green Line. Everyone calls it Chinatown because it’s easy and that’s what it was built for, but honestly there’s not much left of Chinatown. A big gate, a couple of restaurants, and bilingual signage are the only relics of it that remain; nowadays it’s dominated by the Verizon Center, where the hockey games and big concerts happen, and the assorted galleries that cluster around the National Portrait Gallery like puppies suckling (hence the new name, Gallery Place). Continue south from Chinatown and there’s Archives, which is how you go the National Mall if you want to avoid the tourists, and L’Enfant Plaza, which exists mostly to switch to the Orange and Blue lines, and if you got on Yellow by mistake it’s your last chance to switch back to Green. Then there’s Waterfront, where I live. There’s a Safeway and CVS directly on top of the station, which is convenient, and a Z-Burger (good fries, mediocre burger, very long list of excellent milkshake options), and Arena Stage, which shows plays too small and interesting for the Kennedy Center and is one of the most gorgeous buildings in the city. The next stop south of there is where the Nationals play baseball when they’re home, and sometimes they shoot off fireworks I can see from my balcony. On July 4, when all the tourists and transients gather at the National Mall, the locals come here to the ballpark and set off illegal fireworks in the vast parking lot. The police turn a blind eye, because it’s safer than having people set them off in the flammable parts of the city.

Past that… well, the thing is, when I was a kid DC was the murder capital of the country. Then they cleaned up, and the rule became that Northwest was safe, the other three quadrants dangerous. Then they cleaned up Southwest, so the rule because “don’t go east of the Capitol.” Now much of Northeast and even parts of Southeast (which was always the worst part) are safe, and the new rule is “don’t cross the Anacostia.” The next thing the Green Line does after it leaves the ballpark is to cross the Anacostia, so I don’t know much about those stops.

The Green Line, in other words, makes a strong case for being the real DC, the city experienced by the people who actually live here and plan to keep living here. That's important to remember, because the world experienced by people living in it is never quite the same as the world experienced by people who consume media about it. The places you take the Green Line were never on The West Wing, and you’re unlikely to see them in news or documentaries (although I assume Nationals Stadium has been on ESPN at some point, and Ben’s was on “Man vs. Food” once). CNN goes to the Capitol and the White House, maybe the Senate offices, all strictly Orange Line.

Except on Monday. Because I didn’t tell you the name of the stop where the ballpark is, the next one south of my stop, the last stop before you get to the bad part of town. It’s called Navy Yard, and on Monday a man went there with a shotgun and killed twelve people and injured eight before being killed himself. And that’s scary and surreal, and the media will do everything in their power to make it more scary and more surreal, because scared, disoriented people buy newspapers and insurance and conservative politics and all the other things the powers that be want you to buy.

What they won’t tell you? First, they won’t tell you that violent crime is down, and I mean way down. In the U.S., violent crime in 2011 was only a little over half as common as it was in 1991, both overall and in every individual category tracked. People are getting less violent—even with the economy in the tank, we’re not hurting each other as much. You'd never know that from the news, though; like I said, the world experienced by people living in it is not the world you see depicted in media about it.

More importantly, they won’t tell you that today, like every day, on my way home I will stand on the lower platform at Chinatown station, near enough to the edge that any one of the hundreds of strangers standing on the platform with me could push me off if they wanted to. No one would notice them doing it, and if they timed it right there wouldn’t be a chance for anyone to react before the train hit me. If you want to kill someone anonymously and randomly, it is hard to pick a better place than the lower platform at Chinatown station.

And yet we don’t stand there warily and watchfully, paranoically scanning the crowd for any hint of menace. We stand with our phones and our MP3 players, newspapers and books, and trust that no one around us has any reason to kill us, and therefore no one will. Tens of thousands of people a day do this on that platform, because their lived experience tells them it is safe to do so, and not once has any one of them been murdered as a result.

So if you want to use this news to try to make an argument that people aren’t fundamentally good, that we should be afraid, that we need to arm ourselves and treat everyone who tries to walk into a building as a potential mass killer? That’s what you’re up against. Millions of people who have the chance to murder each other and don’t. Steadily dropping violent crime. Lived experience that suggests safety. Trust.

I love my city, which is why the long description of Metro lines at the start of this. I will not allow it to become an armed camp. I will not allow those who prefer the idea of living on a savage frontier to the reality of living in civilization to try to exploit this kind of tragic blip to undermine the trust of which civilization is built, to let thirteen tragic deaths to outweigh millions of peaceful strangers passing by on their way home.

I implore you, in the aftermath of this and every similar tragedy: instead of focusing on the loud, noticeable stranger who killed, focus on the millions of strangers who quietly don’t, who you without even realizing it trust to build the vehicles in which you ride and the buildings in which you stand, to grown and prepare the food you eat, to treat and test the water you drink. Remember the millions you trust, that you must trust for civilization to endure; don’t let isolated incidents splattered across the evening news make you fear them.

ETA: Fixed a typo and cut a factual error that proves just how much I don't know about the Green Line south of Navy Yard.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

On the Modern Action Movie

The biggest problem with modern action movies is that instead of heroes, they have humanoid kaiju. This is most obvious in Man of Steel, but it's increasingly an industry-wide issue.

As with most problems with modern movies, much of the blame lies with Michael Bay's Transformers movies.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Anime USA in Summary

Utena pulled out Gary Oak's soul sword, and it turned out to be the Dragonslayer from Berserk. As a result, the duel with Tatewaki Kuno for possession of the Rose Bride (humanized Rarity) was very short.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Guest Posts: Tell me what's doing; anything brewing? (Escape from Catrina)

 Once again, I'm happy to give you a guest post on the Generation 1 My Little Pony cartoon by the always-excellent Spoilers Below.

"Bushwoolies, unite!"
"Yeah, unite!"

The Letter: Dear Princess Celestia,

Everypony is is born free; and everywhere they find themselves in chains. One thinks herself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they. How did this change come about? I do not know. What can make it legitimate? That question I think I can answer. If I took into account only force, and the effects derived from it, I should say: "As long as a pony is compelled to obey, and obeys, it does well; as soon as it can shake off the yoke, and shakes it off, it does still better; for, regaining its liberty by the same right as took it away, either it is justified in resuming it, or there was no justification for those who took it away." But the social order is a sacred right which is the basis of all other rights. The acceptance that you have no more or less rights than any other creature, and certainly shouldn’t be placing any yokes of your own, can be difficult for some ponies to understand, but once learned it frees you up from the addiction to power and control. You can learn to love yourself and others for who they are, rather than what they can do for you.

Your faithful student, 

Twilight Sparkle

What is it? Following the failure of Escape from Midnight Castle the year previous, Hasbro produced another 22 minute pilot/special for the MLP franchise. We have the year 3 ponies to sell, after all.

What’s it about? Megan is returning to Ponyland amidst great fanfare and celebration, and will preside this evening over a grand parade of costumes held in her honor for saving the ponies in our last adventure. Meanwhile, an enslaved group of cute, fuzzy little blobs throw off their chains and leave the evil dictator Catrina without workers for her Witchweed factory, which produces the magical fluid she needs to fuel her powers. What will happen when she sets her sights on the ponies?

Is there singing? Yep. One song about going to sleep, and one wistful memory of life the way it used to be. Guess which one is sung by Paul Williams.

It is worth it? Eh. This is a clear step down from the first special, despite music legend Paul Williams guest starring. Almost any randomly chosen Friendship is Magic episode would be better. Depending on how fast you read, you could enjoy a section or three of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We. Plenty of time to cook a pizza or listen to one side of the Electric Light Orchestra’s Discovery. But if you like seeing the proletariat throw off their chains to live in an anarchistic commune and the horrors of cartoon drug addiction, then I’ve got something for you...

What else was happening? 23 March, 1985 - Dutch anarchist, journalist, and philosopher Anton Constandse dies this morning at age 85, as does Zoot Sims, the jazz saxophonist who lent his name to the eponymous Muppet. Movies this week include Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (See? I wasn’t lying last time!), He-Man & She-Ra: The Secret of the Sword (best summed up by Janet Maslin: “Complicated but entirely predictable”), Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (in which Ralph Hinkley and Rachael Tyrell try to keep Number 6 from stealing an apatosaurus) and The Last Dragon (which is easily one of the best films ever made, and one you ought to see right now). Musically we find REO Speedwagon at the top with “Can’t Fight This Feeling,” followed closely by Madonna’s “Material Girl” and Phil Collins’ “One More Night”. Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley get married today. The US performs another nuclear test in Nevada to intimidate the communists, as from the public US perspective the Cold War’s end is nowhere in sight. Whether this is actual blindness or willful ignorance depends on your politics.


Speaking of actual blindness versus willful ignorance, one of the big panics in the 1980s was over all the Satanic imagery present in Saturday morning cartoons, how they were desensitising children to violence, and how they promised to destroy American civilization as we know it. While most “Think of the Children!” books from the era focused on the supernatural elements that were turning our children into Satan worshippers and authority destroying Nazi-fascist-communists (the distinction between these three political systems being rather fuzzy to all the panicked authors sampled), or the excessive violence that was turning them into psychopaths the likes of which hadn’t been seen since Johnny Quest and Combat were on TV, in this case they missed the mark completely. This episode was summarized by Saturday Morning Mind Control author and professional panic wave rider Phil Phillips: “A character drank a potion, her eyes shot forth like lightning, she grew to an enormous size, and she received power. What a drug trip!”  He’s under the impression that the moral of the story is “Taking drugs is awesome, they give you magic powers!” which is just the kind of thing he does. In the same book, he couldn’t tell the difference between the My Little Pony Movie and the 10 part story, The End of Flutter Valley that came after it, which will tell you just how closely he was paying attention. Yet there is a political aspect of this episode he missed completely. Revolution? Destroying the means of production to return to nature? Following a strong leader to fight for freedom? Just imagine all the horrible things it’s programming your children to do!

And it’s partially because of statements like the latter that the nature of freedom is such a strange thing. Though it is easy to say at first that one is free, simply because of one’s personal philosophies or the nation one lives in, for the most part this subject is kept an a priori assumption. One may have duties, certainly, and may need to do the calculus of a given action to determine whether it is desirable, but we are free to choose, free to believe, free to do as we chose, though we are not free from the consequences. But simultaneously, there are clearly outside forces that act upon us, making it difficult to chose otherwise, or even in some cases completely obfuscating the alternatives. Coercion and deceit, mental illnesses and addictions, social situations and self images all impinge on freedom. It can be difficult to say no when someone bigger and stronger will throw you into a pit to die if you disobey.

Really? Philosophy? I thought this was a pony essay? Hold your horses, we’re getting there.

The Transcendentalist movement was an American philosophical and religious movement that began with the publication of Emerson’s Nature, and had the final bullet put into its head about a hundred years later with the publication of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. It was an optimistic and idealistic philosophy which believed in the innate goodness of all people and of the world itself, and that life required self-reliance and individuality for life to flourish. Political organizations and organized religion corrupted this individuality, made man a slave to expectations and cultural demands, and ground him down to a mere puppet or slave. They believed that each individual was part of a holy unity of nature and God, and that without the corrupting influence of artificial institutions which seemed to take on lives of their own and control humanity from above, peace and goodness would reign over the land naturally. There was no such thing as evil, there was merely a lack of goodness that could be added to any situation, and given free choice everyone would do what they believed was right. The flipside of this is the sociopathic individualism of Howard Roark, who is Frank Lloyd Wright with the serial numbers filed off, who simultaneously wants to work the way he wants to work, and wants people to pay him to do what he wants, rather than what they want, as if buildings were the product of one man and one man alone. The Fountainhead may contain some of the most beautiful and impassioned calls for artistic integrity ever written, but it is simultaneously the selfish and corrupted endpoint of the beautiful ideal that came before it: “Fuck you, got mine.”

Rather than an angry man sitting in prison for refusing to cut his beard, we have an angry young man blowing up a building he had designed and been paid for, simply because the actual creation was not built to his specifications, and raping the female lead “by engraved invitation". The obsession with being “king in their own castle and master of all who fall into their dominion” is about as far from the “community of individuals who live in harmony with nature and far enough away from one another that they can have time to themselves” as one can get. The objectivist cares not for those who cannot help themselves; the transcendentalist seeks to empower them so they can coexist. (Aside: ironically enough, while Wright’s buildings are indeed very beautiful, a good number are also in constant need of repair due to shoddy ceiling, cantilevering, and structural planning. What this says about artistic integrity vs. practicality will be left to the reader.)

Isn’t this a gross simplification? Of course. The transcendentalists had their antecedents in the various gnostic movements of Europe and encompass a huge number of authors and political situations that we simply don’t have the time to cover, and objectivism doesn’t necessarily go as far as forgetting other people exist, merely seeking an acknowledgement that one is not obligated to help or sacrifice for others and that it is okay to do things that benefit no one but yourself. The history of the American individualism movement has a great deal more complexity, enough to fill all the present volumes already written on the subject and more, but it’s also a bit outside our present fractal snowflake. But for the purposes of this essay, one can accept that personal freedom can (not necessarily, but possibility) come at the cost of another’s freedom, and that said freedom has both positive and negative aspects both for the individual and those around them, ne?

Fine, for now. What does this have to do with the candy coloured friendship horses? Right, right, the ponies. Our little ponies themselves live a life that Thoreau would have killed for. Rather than having to squat in a shack in the woods as part of a labor exchange with Emerson, they have the run of all of Ponyland, living together in harmony with nature, beloved by all the creatures of the land, regularly interacting with the mystical gnomes Emerson dedicated his early journals to. Their non-conformity is magically imprinted into their very natures: no pony’s talent the same as another. They appear to have no rulers, no hierarchy or class system beyond a rather sensible one based on age (baby ponies are sent to bed, because children need naps), and everyone is invited to join them in their life style of play and comfort. In Ponyland, a queen is simply a fun costume to be assumed when you’ve no other ideas, and discarded when the parade is over, rather than someone who’ll toss you down a pit for spilling her drugs.

Sounds nice. Like an idyllic utopia. Unfortunately, as with all utopian communes, infighting is common. The treatment of Sundance is harsh, and such small mistakes, while frustrating, don’t necessarily deserve such rough words. So no, not a utopia for everyone. Mean people exist everywhere, even paradise. One could argue that it is only after Megan’s introduction of society and the idea of one who is superior to them that the pony’s simple and harmonious lives begin to break down. When Applejack’s bucket is overturned and the contents ruined in the previous adventure, it is laughed off and used as an excuse for a kiss. This time, an athletic/food related accident results in a pony running off crying into the forest, convinced she will never be good at anything. The queen costume is Megan’s idea, and it is Megan who ends up on the throne, presiding over the parade of costumes at this story’s end. Is it any surprise that their world is destroyed by the Smooze in the very next adventure, and that they never again achieve this level of harmony and safety? She has already effectively destroyed their way of life by her very presence. And yet, without Megan, they would be yoked to a chariot and transformed into dragons, enslaved to process witchweed under threat of being tossed down a pit or frozen to death, or depressed about their clumsiness. Utopias never last.

And what does this have to do with...? We’re getting there, don’t worry. Now, slavery is, of course, the antithesis of freedom. One is forced, be it through threat of violence or social conditioning, to obey the will of another. This isn’t the simple voluntary exchange of labor, nor the power imbalance present in the “do the job or you’ll starve” wage slavery, where at least the person has a chance to go home and perhaps through some windfall escape their situation, nor even the “voluntary slavery” of a Dominant/submissive relationship. No, the style of enslavement offered the bushwoolies by Catrina is one of hard labor and ceaseless toil in an underground factory, with no chance to escape and no hope of ever altering their circumstances. They aren’t even offered the transformation into mindless dragons that Tirek offered the ponies in our last installment. They are forced to toil in full knowledge of their place in life and their circumstances. As cruel a fate as can be devised for a sentient creature.

And why, one may ask?

Vanity, of course, that most vile of sins, the devil’s favorite. The dark mirror of self-confidence and positive egoism. The undeserved celebration of self for self’s sake, rather than for one’s accomplishments or abilities. Catrina loves power and being powerful, loves being superior to others, said power and superiority being dependant on the witchweed the bushwoolies are forced to harvest and process. The acquisition of power for its own sake continues to be the focus of our pony villains. She doesn’t need the magic to do anything, per se, she just wants it because she wants it. It, quite literally, makes her feel big. It lets her shoot lasers out of her eyes and control the weather. A slave to its addiction, one shudders to think about the DTs happening off screen at the end. Thankfully she’s utterly incompetent in magic’s use, or the world might have actually been in trouble. 

Where? Where did it all go so wrong? How so? 

Well, imagine a more competent villain like King Sombra or The Changeling Queen getting ahold of it. An entire Crystal Empire devoted to witchweed cultivation, the surrounding area kept frozen and permanently impassable, or the passing of the seasons completely in the hands of someone who exists only to drain love and devotion from her innocent victims. Catrina seems to have no desires other than getting her way and lounging around in her huge bed.

Having a professional sycophant doesn’t help either, as Rep is far too impotent in his attempts to stop Catrina’s self-destructive behavior and facilitates her horrible desires. It is fitting that he provide a mirror of the reptilian Spike and his helpful reassurance and advice. The ultimate enabler, he literally changes at a moment’s notice to acquiesce to her desires, and makes excuses for her behavior. It isn’t necessarily bad to encourage others and help them to do better, but when what they are trying to do is enslave an entire race to continue a drug addiction? When he assaults a child to steal her necklace, any doubts about the lengths he will go are put to rest.

Why does he do it, one may ask? The answer is found in the song “Good (Before You Turned Bad) Old Days”. He loves her and wants her to change, but feels powerless to do any of the things that might actually make such a change happen. A tragic yet familiar situation to anyone who’s encountered an abusive relationship, especially when one of the partners is a drug addict.

But she’s still awful. Enslaving others is wrong, full stop. No question there. If she were processing the witchweed herself, no one would have any problem with her. She could lay in bed, get high, and harm no one. Still a sad situation and hardly a full life, but not one that is actively destructive. But the lust for power and the jealous desire to see herself as better than others turns her into the villain. She used to be nice; but not anymore.

It is little surprise that the bushwoolies revolted and escaped when they had the chance. The purple bushwoolie’s call to action is, of course, far superior to Rep’s attempts at capitulation. All revolutions at their heart involve a strong leader who can sway the masses to hir side, and lead them to rise up against their oppressor. They shut down the machinery and return to nature, despite all the concessions the petit bourgeois Rep offers (“Better hours! A week off every Summer! A window so you can see outside!”). Designed to be completely toyetic and cute (the ponies even comment on this, after the Bushwoolies ask how they look), the bushwoolies’ anonymous horde of voices mirrors the minor ponies’ to a T. Whether they will continue their crusade into a state of permanent revolution, band themselves together with a strong national identity against the outsiders, or simply co-exist peacefully in the forest remains to be seen.

But why didn’t they escape earlier? Isn’t it the case that a slave asks for freedom, while a free person simply declares themselves so? Not exactly. A better definition would be “A slave is someone who will be harmed or killed for declaring that they are free.” Their ruler has shown no compunctions about murdering them for failure. They escape only when Catrina is at her weakest, asleep and waiting for more of the potion that was “accidentally” spilled earlier.

So, then they kill Catrina or she gets killed by her own evil scheme backfiring or something, right? No, she gets some actual character development. After the rainbow of light soundly defeats her magic, and even Rep turns on her, after seeing how far she’s gotten him to, she’s given one last chance and reforms, destroying the machine and returning to the simple life of leisure that she and Rep shared before the addiction became all consuming, happily bedecked into their Victorian garb and taking part in the parade of costumes celebrating Megan at the end. If only all recovery narratives went so cleanly.

The moral seems an awful lot like One Bad Seed’s though. Forgive the person who subjugated and enslaved you, who arranged for the theft of your civilization’s most precious artefact, and was moments away from insuring that you never saw the light of day again? A simple death via falling is almost too good. Why forgive? What possible reason could there be to give such a person a second chance? Because the revolution must have enemies if it is to remain in power, and the need for successful converts to the cause is paramount when it comes to further recruitment. Which is the better image: “We’ve joined up with the bushwoolies, who are already of the same philosophy as us,” or “We’ve convinced the arch bourgeois to abandon her old ways and join us! We’ve gotten her to kick that nasty drug habit, destroy the machine, and live freely as an individual alongside the rest of us, her dress a return to the old style she and Rep shared back in the old days.” What better symbol is there than a reformed enemy? Megan can trick baby ponies into going to sleep, trick Sundance into having self-confidence, and even find a place for their mortal enemy. Everyone should join and come live in a pony paradise!

But what does that have to do with...? Can an idea be a form of enslavement? Can the introduction of a meme destroy a previous held social paradigm? Seven years later the ponies live in a completely humanized society, with rock music, television sets, cassette players, roller derbys, hair salons, ice cream parlors, and garbage dumps. The city and the society exists as a concrete thing now, and though both the G3 and FiM societies roll back the urbanization of Tales, never again do they achieve the single dwelling naturalism of the early days. Megan, by her very presence, makes the old ways impossible. She can lie and use reverse psychology, something the honest to a fault ponies would never before do. She exists as a constant reminder of their perceived helpless. Why wouldn’t they try to emulate someone “stronger” than them?

And in the future...? With hindsight, it is obvious that the natural revolution failed. The bushwoolies were (somehow) a failure, relegated to the “add on” spot to a line of pony princess. The Luddite machine smashing lasts a single episode, and the Smooze is on the horizon in our very next adventure, destroying everything and forcing the ponies to retreat further into themselves.  As with the purple bushwoolie, the emergence of a strong leader who centralizes a disparate group usually happens in response to a perceived threat, and Megan takes an even more controlling role with the ponies. Their home is replaced by the next best thing, the plastic commercialism of capital and the greedy desire for the new winning out over the safe forest where they lived together in harmony. The Smooze tries to force them to grow up, to deal with their anger, resentment, and disappointment, to realize how unsustainable their way of life is. The petty abuse of Sundance for her mistakes will be writ large in Lickity Split’s attempt to be herself. The sea ponies will see themselves replaced by the newer and more exciting Flutter ponies. Even the cast find themselves replaced yet again. Only Megan remains, presiding over her little ponies by holding their salvation around her neck.

But no one knows that yet. The movie is still a year off (though we covered it first, for reasons which will become apparent in time, I assure you). The tone of the ending is much like Edmund Wilson’s hagiographic To the Finland Station, which couldn’t imagine in 1940 that Vladimir Lenin would turn out to be one of the worst monsters history has ever seen, and that the USSR was not on “the right side of history” -- that indeed even that line of Hegelian thinking was completely misguided. Wilson admits such in the various introductions and appendices he wrote to the book over the subsequent years, and thought it best to treat the work as a record of what the feelings were at the time, of what the revolutionaries believed they would bring about, of where people thought they were going.

And just so with this episode. It seems like it wants to try something different: if the show can’t be the pure adventure of Firefly fighting dragons, it will be the gentle pressure of Posey and Megan putting baby ponies to bed and the conversion of villains into friends. But it simply wasn’t good enough. It would take the heavy brutality of the film to get the show into regular rotation on Saturday mornings, which would open with a direct sequel to the film, the 10-part End of Flutter Valley.

Next Time: Hope you like Spike, and aren’t afraid of bees...

Other bits: 
  • Though this was the 2nd special created, it also ran at the tail end of season two, hacked into two parts to suit the format of the program, and with the song “Good (Before You Turned Bad) Old Days” cut for either time or rights issues. Needless to say, the removal of the song removes a lot of what makes the story work. 
  • Apparently ponies breathe helium. How else could they get their balloons to stay aloft? That also might explain some of the tonality of their voices... 
  • Baby Moondancer’s costume is that of a princess, and her coloration certainly looks familiar, doesn’t it? What color do all the fan artists use for young Celestia’s hair? 
  •  Paul Williams is at a point in his career here where one wonders if he’s slumming it or not. His singing is rather limp and uninspired, a far cry from the Phantom of the Paradise or the Muppet Show. It’s certainly a quick buck for relatively little effort.  
  • The Bushwoolies ended up not being a success. Only six toys were released, each packaged with a different princess pony. You’d think a line of plush toys similar to the Popples would have sold like gangbusters, but what do I know? 
  • There is an old Persian legend about the origin of the pearl. It is said that the pearl was created when a rainbow met the ground during a storm, the flaws and imperfections said to be the result of the thunder and lightning. Megan is a diminutive of Margaret, itself derived from the Greek margarites, meaning “pearl”. Couple her stewardship of the Rainbow of Light with her emergence from an oyster in the previous adventure, as well as the special attention she pays to Moondancer over all the other baby ponies (Pearls are also said to be hardened moonlight) and I cannot think of a more appropriate name.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

No Thought of the Day, Tonight's Post May Be Late

My apologies all, but I'm very busy with Anime USA stuff and the multiple all-nighters I pulled this week are catching up with me and making me sick. No thought of the day today, and while the Sunday post is *written,* I need to copy-and-paste it into blogger and do some font/formatting fix. If I can find an Internet connection during the day, it'll go up no problem, but if not I won't be able to do it until I get home tonight, which will probably be some time after midnight. Sorry!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Good Intercontinuity Crossovers

As a general rule, crossovers are actually pretty bad. Perhaps a better way to put it is that they are easy to do badly--a crossover that sounds good in concept may founder because the characters or settings turn out to be incompatible, for example. But the crossover nature of the campaign I'm running for Anime USA this weekend makes me think about actually good crossovers. Here's a sampling of some of my favorites:

Jason and the Argonauts: Not any of the film versions, I mean the original legend. Think about it, Odysseus, Perseus, Hercules, Nestor, Ajax, Atalanta, and so on, all on the same ship going questing together? It's the ancient Greco-Roman equivalent to The Avengers!

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The comic, not the movie. It's a brilliant conceit, mashing together a team of the pop-culture heroes of the 19th century, and an excellent bit of comic-book storytelling to boot.

The Subspace Emissary: AKA Smash Bros. Brawl's story mode. I think the moment at which I knew I was in love was when it has Red from Pokemon become Lucas from Mother 3's mentor--but it's full of all these golden little paired-off character interactions that are sheer joy to watch. Frankly, I'm torn on whether the best moment is Pikachu shocking Ridley, then standing tiny but fierce and protective over the temporarily indisposed Samus, or Link and Samus Zelda extending a hand of friendship (or at least temporary-truce-to-fight-a-bigger-threat-ship) to Ganon. If you've never played it or seen the story, and you have any fond memories of classic game characters at all, I strongly recommend trying to find the cutscenes on YouTube and giving them a watch.

ETA 9/16: Fixed a sense-breaking typo in the last paragraph.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Anime USA BESM Campaign!

This weekend (Friday through Sunday) I'll be at Anime USA in Washington, D.C.! Rather than my usual panels, at this particular convention I will be in the Traditional Games room, running a BESM campaign. It is a single 4-hour session, and I will be running it several times over the weekend. Stop by if you're interested or want to say hi!

Campaign Synopsis:

Someone or something is messing with history in 1850 Karuisawa-shuku, Japan, and it's up to the Interdimensional Action Squad to put a stop to it! Choose your squad member (Utena Tenjou (Revolutionary Girl Utena), Gary Oak (Pokemon), Kanata Shimonome (AKB0048), Zelgadis Greywords (The Slayers), Michael Carpenter (The Dresden Files), Toph Bei Fong (Avatar: The Last Airbender), or Doctor Whooves (Doctor Who/My Little Pony)) and help save history... before there's no history left to save!

As with last year's campaign, I've set it up so that the plot of the campaign and identity of the villains changes depending on which characters the players pick. (So, for example, there are certain events that occur if both Utena and Gary are in the campaign, while other events only occur if Zelgadis is in the campaign but Michael is not, etc.) That way it stays fresh for me even though I'm running the same campaign a dozen times in one weekend.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

In the Heart and Mind of the Universe, There Is a Reason

Doctor Who Series 3, episode 2, “The Shakespeare Code,” poses serious issues for a long-time, committed and discerning fan such as myself. On the one hand, as a fan I very much want it to be good, or at least to find something to enjoy in it. On the other, as a person whose taste has been shaped by past experience of works of this type, it would dishonor the memory of my favorites to not recognize when something fails to live up to them.

And look, I’m no purist. I understand that art requires trying new things, that it is necessary to experiment. At the same time, it is the nature of experimentation that most attempts fail to accomplish their goals--indeed, that is the point, to try out things that might or might not succeed and discard the ones that do not. If we pretend that a failed experiment is not a failure, then we have missed the point of experimentation. True, it is just as bad to fail to recognize something good just because it’s unfamiliar, but I don’t think that’s the issue here. I’ve had and enjoyed mint ice cream with peanut-butter sauce and raspberries; it takes some getting used to, but once you understand what it’s doing, it’s actually quite delicious.

But I’m sorry, try as I might I cannot figure out how I’m supposed to enjoy or even appreciate this. This goes beyond experimentation or even challenging our expectations; I have to seriously question the judgment of the people responsible for making it. Have they ever even eaten ice cream? Do they know what it is?

Consider: Even the simplest hot fudge sundae is a study in delicious contrasts. Thick, sticky sauce, so dark a brown it’s nearly black, dribbling down the sides of a creamy mound of bright white ice cream. Hot, bittersweet, rich chocolate shares mouthspace with cold, sweet, refreshing vanilla. But here we have no such contrasts--quite the opposite, as the episode takes pains to make the 16th century as familiar an experience for modern-day Martha as possible, from the Doctor’s speech early in the episode comparing people on the street to their 21st-century equivalents, to the depiction of William Shakespeare as a pop-cultural icon.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with challenging definitions in art, at least in principle. Can you make a sundae without ice cream? Well, frozen yogurt seems like a reasonable substitute. Maybe sherbet, perhaps even a sorbet, as long as they have toppings. But would a bowl of chocolate sauce and sprinkles be a sundae? Is it still a sundae after the ice cream has melted? Those seem like reasonable avenues for exploration.

But “The Shakespeare Code” isn’t even edible! You might be able to make the case that 44 minutes of sitting, spoon in hand, as frustration mounts is an artistic experience of some sort, but it certainly isn’t an ice cream sundae by any stretch of the definition I can imagine!

Like I said, it makes me seriously question the judgment of the BBC. I get that Doctor Who is one of their longest-running properties, and maybe they’re concerned about getting stale, but it got to be so long-running because of fan loyalty. Now, I don’t want to be one of those "entitled" fans here; I get that the BBC owes me nothing, but at the same time I don’t owe them anything, either. It’s not a matter of owing something, but of cause and effect: if you want to retain your fans, you have to give them something to like. And people love ice cream! It’s been one of the most popular desserts for decades, and for good reason. So you can’t just go around, presenting something that is blatantly not at all an ice cream sundae, and expect to retain viewers!

This is typical Davies, and sadly, I can say with some authority (having seen the entirety of the new series to date) that Moffat does no better. They both seem utterly determined to provide viewers with no ice cream whatsoever--indeed, ice cream is barely even mentioned anywhere in their runs! It makes me seriously question why I continue to bother watching—I don’t know who they think they’re making this series for, but it’s obviously not ice cream aficionados any more.

If it ever even was.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Warning: The Story Linked in This Post May Rip Out Your Heart and Stomp On It

Unrelated to this article: The book is now available in both e-book and dead-tree formats. I have set up a page for links to where you can buy the book, and I will add more as they become available--I should have Amazon and Kindle Store in the next week or so, and hopefully B&N, Nook Store, and Apple Store by the end of the month.

Discovered this story by way of Mark Reads. It's a Nebula award-winning short story by a professional writer published by one of the biggest names in the business, Tor. It is also quite recognizably a My Little Pony darkfic, and possibly among the first, seeing as it was written somewhere between "Applebuck Season" and "Dragonshy."

A really, really dark fic. As in "I didn't sleep last night because of the sad" dark.

Trigger Warnings: Animal cruelty, bullying of an individual by a large group, bullying among young girls


Monday, September 9, 2013

Thought of the Day: I Fully Endorse This

Oh sure, take my favorite Western cartoon of the 2000s and pair it with my favorite Western cartoon of the 2010s. That's just unfair!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sure I could tell you I learned something about how my friends are always there to help me... (The Last Roundup)

"And remember," said Fluttershy softly, "if you ever
try to leave again, we'll break your legs."
It's January 21st, 2012. The top song is once again Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris with "We Found Love," and the top movie is Underworld Awakening, another installment in the vampires-vs.-werewolves action series. For the record, we won't be getting an episode that coincides with a No. 1 movie I've actually seen until "Hurricane Fluttershy" two months hence.

In the news, the Syrian government is killing its own people, provoking international outcry. (Yes, I'm still talking about January 2012.) Protests against draconian anti-piracy legislation being considered by the U.S. Congress include a day-long shutdown of the English-language Wikipedia and successful efforts by the hacker group Anonymous to shut down the U.S. Department of Justice website; by the end of the week, the legislation has been postponed indefinitely. And News International, the British branch of the same Murdoch empire as Fox News, pays out settlements to 37 people whose phones it illegally hacked.

With ponies, we have Amy Keating Rogers writing and Jayson Thiessen directing "The Last Roundup," our four hundred billionth Applejack-centric episode in a row, or at least that's how it feels. Oddly, though, it's actually the first Applejack-centric episode all season, and arguably (depending on whether one considers "Over a Barrel" to be an Applejack episode) the first since "Fall Weather Friends" 27 episodes ago.

So why was my immediate reaction to this episode--both when I watched it on its initial airing, and on realizing it was next in line for this project--to groan in dismay at "yet another Applejack episode?" It's not just my natural apathy (not antipathy--I find her boring, not objectionable) toward Applejack. Although she has not been in the central position of an episode for quite some time, she has been prominent in rather more than her share of episodes: she is of course a significant presence in the ensemble episodes "The Return of Harmony" and "Hearth's Warming Eve," has large roles in both "Sisterhooves Social" and "The Cutie Pox," and while she is not on-screen for much of "Family Appreciation Day," given that it gives the history of her family it is difficult not to feel her presence looming just off-screen.

And while a very good episode might be able to overcome that overload and do something interesting with Applejack and the Apple family, this is not that episode. (Next episode, on the other hand...) Which isn't to say it's a bad episode by any means; simply not particularly interesting or engaging. There is a reason that a single scene that has next to nothing to do with the story (but does feature a fan-favorite character with some controversial voicing) is pretty much all the fanbase talked about in this episode's aftermath--there is honestly very little else worth talking about here. Nonetheless, because the only options are to spend an entire article talking about the controversy that scene engendered or to spend an article talking about the actual episode, I am going to have to attempt the latter.

The episode is, to be honest, quite appropriate to Applejack, which is to say that it appears to have its heart in the right place but provides zero character development, and thus is rather boring. Even the lesson Applejack learns at the end, to trust her friends and not try to take everything on by herself, is a repeat of development she ostensibly had way back in episode 4, "Applebuck Season."

The problem with a boring episode is that, unengaged, the mind seeks ways to make things more interesting. One tries to look at the episode in other lights, and what one finds, quite often, is unintended and unfortunate implications. This episode is no different.

Consider the perspective of the other members of the Mane Six. They know Applejack has not returned, and provided very little explanation as to why. Now naturally, it is reasonable for them to worry that she's in some kind of trouble and come looking for her--they have all been in more than their share of trouble since meeting, after all! However, once she makes clear to them that she is not in trouble and is staying in Dodge Junction of her own free choice, their attitude takes a curious and unsettling turn.

The response of the other Mane Six basically amounts to a claim of ownership over Applejack. They make quite clear: she is not allowed to start a new life elsewhere. It doesn't matter that she actually is making bad choices for fairly silly reasons, because until the end of the episode the other ponies don't know that; all they know is that their friend is choosing to move away and break off ties with them, which she has every right in the world to do. But their response shows that they believe otherwise; they believe that because they like Applejack and consider her their friend, she must continue to live in their town, associate with them, and share her thoughts and feelings with them.

They are way, way past any recognizable concept of friendship. If someone is actively running away from you when you try to talk to them, you are no longer their friend, you are a stalker. In her excellent book Odd Girl Out (which also provides some disturbing insight into darker readings of "The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well," but should probably have some trigger warnings for victims of bullying and especially passive-aggressive bullying), Rachel Simmons investigates the culture of adolescent girls (most middle-class white adolescent girls) and finds that a prevailing attitude that one must always be (or appear to be) selfless and "nice" creates a host of what she terms "alternative aggressions" in the form of vicious-yet-subtle bullying through social manipulation.

What the other five ponies do to Applejack in this episode is not quite the same as in Simmons' book, but it is still most definitely a form of aggression. Despite appearing like an attempt to preserve an endangered friendship--despite most likely being, in the minds of both the ponies involved and the writer, intended as an attempt to preserve an endangered friendship--it is an attempt to control another, to prevent them from being able to make their own decisions and pursue their own path in life.

Young girls, Simmons argues, get told in many ways and in many places that nothing is more important than friendship and niceness. Like Applejack, they are told that they cannot leave their friends behind to pursue other opportunities. Applejack's reasons for doing so in this episode are, admittedly, frivolous and rooted in misunderstanding and misplaced pride, but they are still her reasons. What if Rainbow Dash gets a chance to become a Wonderbolt, but has to leave for extended training? What if Twilight's continuing education requires her to return to Canterlot to take up new duties? What if Rarity is invited to spend a year designing a clothing line for important clients in Manehatten? Will they be allowed to go?  Or will their friends pursue them, stalk them, pull them back?

Girls already get told enough that they have to put friendship above all else--that friendship is so fragile that it cannot survive the existence of other priorities or the pursuit of any kind of self-interest. Where is the lesson for the other ponies that they have to let go?

Next Week: Yes. That's right. Another one.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Alchemical Decomposition of Mark Oshiro

Sorry about lack of a post yesterday, I was drowning in work AND not feeling well. But still, I should have tried to have SOMETHING. Even something really easy, like, say, the thing I have for you today.

Anyway, for today, I found this amusing. For those unfamiliar with it, Mark Watches is a website where Mark Oshiro watches TV shows (suggested by readers) that he's never seen before, one episode at a time, knowing nothing about them in advance, and posts a review of each episode before moving to the next. It is highly amusing, sort of a communal version of showing a friend something they've never seen before and watching their reaction.

He provides a one-line synopsis of each episode at the top of the review, and I thought the way his synopses of Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (of which he has now watched the first season) changed over time (episodes not listed have actual synopses that briefly summarize the events of the episode):

Episode 1: "I understand very little of what I’ve just seen."

Episode 5: "I will not forget what y’all have made me watch."

Episode 10: "I am not going to forgive y’all for this."

Episode 14: "I am done with all of you. Just put that on my gravestone: MARK IS DONE WITH THE FMA:B FANDOM."
Episode 17: "I can’t even explain to y’all what happened because absolutely nothing about this makes any sense."

Episode 19: "It should be illegal to put this many plot twists in a single episode."


Episode 25: "The most discomforting part about all this is that there are so many episodes left, which only means that this somehow gets worse."

Episode 26: "No."

I fully expect that by episode 45 or so he'll just be mashing the keyboard or spewing strings of curse words. Needless to say, he is enjoying the show quite a bit, and all of us are taking sadistic glee in his suffering.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Character Identification

So, there's this concept that tends to get batted around a lot by readers and casual critics, but which tends to get looked down on by more serious/academic critics: "identifying with a character." The main issue with it is that it's tremendously vague; you obviously don't think you are the character (unless you're otherkin, I suppose), so what does "identifying with" someone mean? Is it that you empathize with the character's situation or motivations? Is it that you recognize the character as being convincingly a person--that they are well-rounded? Is it that you like the character? It's a difficult concept to pin down, and therefore not particularly helpful in most analysis.

But I've been watching Babylon 5 with a friend who's never seen it before (we just finished the second season), and she became utterly engrossed in the character of Talia. She was utterly crushed by Talia's tragic final episode, even moreso than the previous episode (the space AIDS one). We talked a little about why it affected her so much, and she explained that Talia's arc--slowly realizing that the organization to which she's dedicated her life is deeply corrupt, and as a result beginning to question the fundamental beliefs that define her world, which in turn results in her losing what she thought of as her family--mirrors my friend's experiences growing up in what amounts to a cult, recognizing how controlling and evil it was, becoming an atheist, and ultimately having to break all ties with her family for her own health and safety.

It made me consider something I've written about here before, namely that Fluttershy appears to me to be the most pitch-perfect depiction of someone struggling with Avoidant Personality Disorder I've ever seen, and that this is the main reason she's my favorite pony. For lack of a better term, I identify with her, and very strongly.

So, tentatively, I think I can define "identifying with" a character as something more fundamental than empathizing with them or recognizing them as people. Rather, it's identifying something in the character that signifies a corresponding element in yourself, which in turn makes it possible to recognize them as human or empathize with them. Thus defined... well, it's still a bit too personal for most analysis, but it's still something that can go in the toolbox for occasional use.