New Year, New Blog

2016

Happy New Year. 2015 was less than stellar, so I'm ready to turn the page on it. What better time, then, to revamp the old blog? It's been underutilized in recent months and years, so perhaps a little facelift will encourage more blogging. If nothing else, it's a good excuse to try out some new code and play with things under the hood.

It is, obviously, a work in progress, and will be fiddled with and added to when I have time for such things. I've been working on what you see here for a few weeks during off moments, though there are other things that should probably have greater priority.

Anyway, still to come are the importing of the old sketchbook feature (with, perhaps, different sketch contents), something to chronicle my reading list, and links to important things down the right-hand column. The feedbox has been pared down, but I welcome suggestions for more sites to include in that mini-portal.

For now, I am still sick with a nasty cold, so will stop here. Come back later to see if any new tweaks get implemented.

JJ Abrams Regurgitates Star Wars

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Wait, haven't I seen this before — in 1977?

When it was announced that J.J. Abrams would be taking the reins on the new Star Wars film, I thought, “well, he might do right by it.” He had already treated Star Trek as if it were Star Wars, was clearly more aligned with the latter’s sensibilities, so maybe he’d turn out something great. On the other hand, maybe it would be, you know, just another J.J. Abrams special — an action film that doesn’t slow down enough for the viewer to have a chance to realize how bad the writing is.

Devin Faraci sums up The Force Awakens in pretty much the way I would: fun, worth seeing, just so long as you don’t think about it very much, lest it start to annoy you.

The Force Awakens is completely and totally a JJ Abrams movie, with all that entails, good and bad. Abrams is, for me, a frustrating filmmaker because he has an eye that is strong, a knack for casting that might be unparalleled, and an ability to pace his movies at a rate that sweeps you along faster than you can notice the narrative chasms that he’s leaping. All of these elements are on display in The Force Awakens, a movie that shamelessly panders to nostalgia while also charting an extraordinary future for the franchise, a movie that is great fun but whose sequences are held together by outrageous coincidence or through a complete disregard for narrative connective tissue. The film it most resembles, in the largest sense, is 2009’s Star Trek, a film with a killer cast having a great time in the middle of a stumbling, sometimes moronic story. Like Star Trek 2009, The Force Awakens exists best in the moment when you’re watching it, and is not well served by any sort of deep thought or analysis or consideration.

Devin is on the money about the casting; as with Abrams’ Star Trek, the acting company is top-notch and delivers way above and beyond the material its given. Devin’s full review is here, on a site that has annoying ad scripts that freeze Firefox every now and then. He has more to say and it’s a worthwhile review.

But few reviews that I’ve run across share my biggest criticism of The Force Awakens, which is not the bad science (Star Wars has always been firmly entrenched in the realm of Fantasy, not Science-Fiction, so the idiotic sun-powered cannon that somehow fires bolts that traverse star systems at hyperlight speeds and then inexplicably is able to fire a second time even though it drains a sun to fire the first shot is more or less OK), but this: Apparently the rousing success of Episodes IV through VI, overthrowing the tyranny of the Galactic Empire and freeing the populace from oppression, was a mirage. The good guys are again a “resistance,” taking on the more powerful “First Order” that seems to go anywhere it wants with impunity, and our heroine is living as a scavenger on an impoverished planet even worse off than Luke Skywalker was on Tatooine. One imagines that maybe a couple of years following Episode VI, Force-ghost Obi-Wan and Force-ghost Yoda look at each other and shrug, saying, “Oh well, they tried. Shall we play a little gin rummy before all life is destroyed?”

There is no Sith, at least, and the baddest villain here is a petulant teenager(?) obsessed with being a more evil Darth Vader than Darth Vader was, but this First Order sure has a ton of resources. That they get, I presume, by plundering planets that the New Republic was supposed to be protecting but didn’t during all these years, because, well, poor planning, I guess. Kind of like “liberating” Iraq: the despot is gone, but what takes his place? “Oh, we didn’t plan that far ahead. Maybe the Ewoks can govern the universe.”

In its favor, The Force Awakens has fun characters that are well-cast, is a good thrill-ride, and does “feel” like a Star Wars film in a way that none of the prequels did. But it has little to nothing in the way of originality (the parallels to the first Star Wars are too numerous to mention), sets the larger story backward rather than moving it forward, and basically craps on the heroes we grew up with by showing them to be total failures in the grand scheme of things. Luke Skywalker in particular has apparently learned nothing, as for the entire picture he’s in hiding, having run away and sulked after his attempt to teach a new generation of Jedi Knights went sideways. He’s still pouting like when his aunt and uncle wouldn’t let him to go to Toshi Station.

Still, I enjoyed it. I’ll see it again, even.

Sailing the Atlantic

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The other night I was discussing the idea of goals with my friend LaVon. I wasn't prepared to actually set any goals, but did contemplate some; they are all related to creative expression in one way or another. One of the things I had been thinking of was doing more writing. At various points in my life I'd thought of writing prose fiction (haven't tried my hand at that much since college), op-ed type pieces, pop-culture criticism, and, of course, comics of various types.

Recently I've been reading essay collections, of the David Sedaris/Jenny Lawson/Michael Chabon sort (I heartily recommend Manhood for Amateurs). That seems like a good format to explore, and one for which a blog like this is well-suited (but I will need to do some serious housecleaning and repair around this site). Certainly with all that I've been contending with in the last couple of years, there's plenty of material to draw from (2015 is not a year that will make the highlight reels for me).

But I'm not ready to crank out an essay like that just yet, so tonight I will simply type out some stray thoughts about the November issue of The Atlantic.

The Atlantic is a tremendous publication that I quite enjoy when I actually make the time to read it. My subscription copies have a tendency to pile up, unread or partly-read as next month’s issue arrives in the mailbox, but whenever I do sit down to read one I chastise myself for letting them sit there. There's always something worthwhile in any given issue, and the current edition has more than the regular share of really interesting stuff. To wit:

  • Did you know Al Gore had founded an investment firm that focuses exclusively on sustainable businesses that are environmentally and socially conscious, and that it has been wildly successful? I know, right? Unfortunately, one can only invest with Generation if one has $3 million, but as I am learning more about finances and wealth management in may capacity as a Trustee, I find this curiously refreshing.
  • Bill Gates discusses the need for “an energy miracle,” correctly noting that even the most ambitious proposals made by major governments today come nowhere near what's necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. He also has some confidence that we will innovate and invent enough to keep from killing everyone on the planet.
  • A reporter pays a visit to the NSA's new Utah Data Center and realizes that you're not really paranoid if you are actually being watched at every moment. Scary.
  • My old Astronomy professor, Dr. Chris Impey, is quoted in the article on near-future speculations, including the idea of colonizing Mars. “Impy” was a highlight of my time at the University of Arizona. I only had him for one intro-level course, but he's one of those instructors that makes an impression and I'm surprised by how much I enjoyed seeing him cited as one of the tech experts in this piece.
  •  Peanuts comic strip puts me in mind of my own stalled cartooning efforts; in looking at the history of Charlie Brown and company (did you know Charlie Hebdo in France was named for Charlie Brown? Neither did I!) it's shown how the strip evolved and characters converged/developed over the years.
  • Finally, the back page asks what the most valuable science-fiction gadget would be in today's society. Three of the eleven respondents cited instant transport, in the form of the Enterprise's transporter, The Doctor's TARDIS, or simply “teleportation,” and medical devices from Star Trek (diagnostic scanner, dermal regenerator) are also given support. But given the language of the question — most valuable in today's society — I suggest either of these two Treknological inventions instead: The replicator (Star Trek invented 3D printers decades ago) would effectively do away with hunger and poverty, provided there was a way to power them for the masses; or the phaser, which would revolutionize policing and prevent all of the senseless police killings that seem to occur with astonishing regularity. If a police force's standard weapon was the defensive hand phaser locked to stun instead of a deadly Glock pistol, we'd all be better off.

There will be more writing to come. It's not quite a goal, but it's not nothing, either.

Orbital Mechanics

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Fight the power

So, blog, we meet again. Been a while (as evidenced by all the maintenance this site still needs). Not a lot to write about, I suppose, at least not much positive. It's been a shit year, really.

And I don't really want to go into the various whys it's been a shit year, at least not at the moment. No, this exercise is more for therapeutic purposes than informative ones. Though I guess you could say those overlap. Anyway.

A few years ago I did a series of comic strips about my depression. I like them, I consider that sequence to be among the best ones I've done. OK, small sample size. Still. One reason I'm pleased with them is that they go some distance in communicating what it feels like to people that, thankfully, have never experienced it. It's one of those things that requires a common frame of reference to really get, which makes it very difficult to talk about.

This morning, as I continued to fight my way through this latest depressive episode, I had an imaginary “seminar,” I guess, trying to explain what it's like to normals. (Normal in this respect, anyway.) I used visual aids. Trying to articulate the experience seems to help withstand it; I'm explaining it to myself as much as anyone else. Better understanding trough self-psychoanalysis. Or something.

My preferred metaphor for my particular depression is a black hole. Imagine you are in the gravitational pull of a black hole. It follows you around and, though you can pull away from it, you can never fully escape its gravity. Your relative health, depression-wise, can be gauged by the altitude of your orbit around the black hole. The deeper you are in the gravity well of the black hole, the more it robs you of not only your energy, not only your metaphorical life-light, but your coherence, judgment, your basic ability to perceive the world. The farther down in it you are, the more distorted your view.

The higher your altitude, the clearer your perceptions are and the less energy is required to keep you in a stable orbit. But some energy is always required to maintain it — apply too little and you start spiraling down closer to the center of the black hole. If you've got a little extra, maybe you can move to a higher apogee, but you've used up some of your reserve to do it. Your energy “budget,” if you will, depends on how much you need to maintain position at any given time.

If you're doing well, you might be at a high orbital distance and can afford to devote maybe 10% of your budget to fighting gravity. If you get tired, slip a little, you can climb back up with only a smallish extra effort. You appear relatively stable, with only minor fluctuations. But that stability depends on you not getting tired, and on the black hole not gaining any mass. You could spiral down into a lower orbit if you put in too little energy, and since the gravitational force is stronger the lower you go, it takes more to climb up again. Or something from outside can add to the black hole's mass and strengthen its gravitational pull; suddenly 10% doesn't cut it any more. You need a lot more energy, maybe 30 or 40%, to stay where you've been, and it's got to come from somewhere. Conservation of energy and all that. Physics.

Spiraling down can happen suddenly, sharply, steeply. Or, it can happen so slowly as you gradually tire that you don't notice it until you look up one day and realize that the black hole is larger in your field of view than you thought it was.

Climbing out is a lot harder than falling in. Falling takes no effort at all. Meds can help. They're very effective at certain altitudes. Like booster rockets. Useful for moving from a middle altitude to a higher one, or for maintaining stability once you reach a manageable distance. At lower orbits, they just help slow the descent. The real power has to come from internal reserves you build up through conservation or from outside assistance.

Asking for outside assistance is dangerous. It means placing part of your burden on someone else, and that someone else may not want it. Or may not know what to do with it. A successful request for aid can give you a burst of needed energy and an extra helping from someone else, but a failed one adds mass to the black hole. Knowing who to ask and under what circumstances is tough enough when your perceptions aren't compromised by low altitude; when you are so compromised it amplifies the risk considerably. You might pick up the phone, for example, and between starting to dial a number and engaging the call go through an hour or more of debating the risk-reward ratio involved. Usually, you don't finish making the call. Too dangerous. If you don't handle it well, you gain no altitude, and if it goes badly — and you know it can — the black hole gets more massive.

I've had a lot of outside events adding extra mass to the black hole of late. I've done OK rebalancing my energy budget to maintain a middle orbit, but I've been tired. There hasn't been anything left for anything else. The black hole is bigger than it used to be. The booster rockets have been doing their thing to keep the spiraling down from getting much faster, but I've been conserving what I can for another go at gaining altitude.

I'm almost ready to hit the thrusters and climb. The reserves seem a bit restored. I'm just not sure how high they'll take me before they're depleted again. (This post cries out for illustrations. Maybe I'll spend some time doing that soon.)

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