Baby Steps

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As I’ve mentioned before, just when it looked like my life was returning to some semblance of normal and I would have time and inclination to once again devote to my business, my comic strip, my nascent eBay empire, and so on, a whole new kind of shitstorm came a blasting away, and I’ve thus been overwhelmed with that. But, in an effort to both be productive with something and to distract myself from the stress and drama of that particular fiasco, I have today finished (as much as anything is ever finished on line) the latest renovation of my business site, constellationdesign.net and taken it live. I started working on it many many many many months ago, only to get distracted by various things, then was reaching the launch point last summer, when my mom passed and threw my life into chaos.

But now it’s up. It still needs a few tweaks, a few more testimonial quotes and so on, but it’s a relief to have it up and running and in place of the old site, which had become an embarrassment of outdated clunk.

Endorsement Comedy Jackpot

Stephen Colbert recounts the brilliance of a Sarah Palin endorsement on any candidate...

 

New Lows

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Ever since my mom died last September, my life has been pretty much consumed by unpleasant things. Sure, with occasional bits of light among the dark here and there, but overall, the general state of things has been ... un-fun. It has been, I think, the most sustained period of negativity and anti-good-mood mojo from outside sources I’ve ever endured, and the sheer variety of emotions involved is quite remarkable. I have not been particularly good at managing these so-called negative emotions—my inner Vulcan has gone AWOL—and this past week I have found myself in a place I have never been before, not with all my mental health and depressive issues that go back at least 30+ years if not my whole life.

I have never been suicidal, and I am not now; I have always held onto enough optimism to keep on keeping on no matter how low my orbit around The Black Hole. But I had a stray thought as I pulled into my garage the other night: if I just left the car running, I wouldn’t have to deal with this shit anymore.

It was just a stray thought, not at all something to be actually considered, but I did find it interesting to note the thought. This experience has driven me somewhere having my heart wrenched out, shredded, chewed up, spat out, and thrown back at me never did; that being unjustly fired from a job by incompetents who failed upward never did; that grief over losses of people and pets never did; that fear of poverty and destitution never did; that betrayal from dearly-important-ex-friends never did.

One way or another, the situation will change. Whether it will change soon or down the line, in my favor or against, I’ve no way of knowing. But the status quo is untenable and will eat me alive. Enough is enough.

"Dog Whistles"

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I’ve been preoccupied of late, to say the least, so I’m a little bit behind on things like, oh, the news, and events out in the world. I was vaguely aware there was a Seahawks football game today because all of the traffic noise outside my building totally went away for a few hours, but things like political debates completely passed me by. But I learned a little about what happened with such things this week during my attempts to distract myself today, including hearing the exchange between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in which Cruz denigrated Trump for having “New York values.” This is what is known in political circles as a “dog whistle,” a coded term to say something to the base that would be too inflammatory to say overtly, and it was one I found extra-familiar for some reason: because Aaron Sorkin dramatized this very code in the pilot for The West Wing (first clip below; scene continues in second clip).

 

Reality Bites, But There is Fanfiction

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Belly up to the bar

The first four months of being motherless has been trying, to say the least. In addition to the normal emotional turmoil that one might expect when losing a parent, there has been the extra fun of being the person named to handle all the financial fallout. Right around the first of the year, though, all the headaches, obstructions, and general pains-in-the-ass that have come with taking over all the finances eased, it was starting to look like going forward things would be, if not easy, then manageable in a non-overwhelming sort of way. So, naturally, it was time for Murphy’s Law to kick in and make some hay, and what hay it is. Not going to get into the nitty-gritty on the Internet, but suffice to say it’s gotten ugly and has once more taken over my whole state of mind. One trait of my mom’s that I did not inherit is the ability to compartmentalize; no, I am the Processing King of North Seattle and I can’t let anything go, even temporarily while there’s nothing I can do about it but wait for the holiday weekend to pass. The whole issue just churns over and over in my head, conversations replayed, root causes contemplated, scenarios played out, imaginary future arguments had. All the while knotting my stomach into a tangle worthy of the most disorganized box of Christmas lights you can think of. It’s an emotional smorgasbord the sawblade from “Day of the Dove” would get fat on.

For my general health’s sake, despite the frustration of paralysis on the above, I need distractions. And here’s one I’d been looking forward to for a bit: the release of the latest episode in the fan-film production Star Trek New Voyages/Phase II. The series has been a bit hit-and-miss, but I always enjoy them and just marvel at the work that goes into them. Fanzines made for the screen! And made pretty well, too. But I didn’t like this one very much; the story kind of bugged me as a Trekspert. (For the nerds, here’s why: the story shows the first meeting and fling between Captain Kirk and Carol Marcus, setting up the situation we all know from Wrath of Khan. The math doesn't work; this encounter would have to have been about ten years prior to the time of this story, plus the attitude Kirk exhibits at the end falls flat given when this is in his evolution. Would have worked ten years prior, though. Also, the Ferengi are in it, and though I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, they should not have revealed their name, that ruins the fact that they’re supposed to be a total mystery when 1701-D first encounters them. The interaction between Kirk and the Ferengi is actually a neat scene, with Kirk startled to realize that they’re not threatening at all, just out for a buck. OK, the non-nerds can come back in now.) Understanding these are not professional performers (for the most part) helps forgive the rest; it’s not an easy thing, I tried my hand at playing Captain Kirk at a convention once, it’s not all authority and dramatic pauses.

Anyway, more distraction is needed. I have a few comics here and might boot up OOTP for a few seasons’ worth of GM-ing.

Blerg.

For the nerds who care, here’s the New Voyages effort.

 

More Star Wars

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I took some time away from the maelstrom of frustration that has been much of the past few days in my head (doubtful any of that will ever see time here on the blog, at least not in any detail) and went to see Star Wars: TFA again tonight. Some podcasters I’d heard swore up and down that upon second viewing it seemed like a much better movie, and I found they were right. I’m not sure why. Is it just because, in the wake of the prequels, the first time around we were all wrapped in anxiety, hoping like hell that the film wouldn’t suck? Is it because we’ve come to expect disappointment from J.J. Abrams, so that’s what we were primed for initially? Or, more likely (at least for me), after the first time around we could let go of any anticipation of seeing the old Star Wars gang again and allow the new characters to sweep us away?

Whatever the reasons, I enjoyed it more this time. My gripes remain—it still paints our old heroes as failures and incompetents, especially Luke Skywalker; the script loses its focus about two-thirds of the way in so we can have a big action sequence and blow up Death Star Mark III; the R2Deus ex Machina2 problem—but they’re more easily forgiven.

Here’s a Colbert bit I came across to fill out this Star Warsy post.

 

A Public Service Announcement

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As most, if not all, people who’ll see this know, 2015 was a lousy year in large part because of my mom’s rapid decline and ultimate demise. Lots of upset there, and to one degree or another, that is commonly understood. What I was not expecting, though, was the trauma that goes with being the executor of the estate. So, as a heads-up to anyone who may find themselves, at some future date, in the capacity of an executor, Trustee, attorney-in-fact, whathaveyou, here are a few things that would be helpful to know at the outset that I learned over the course of four months (and that have been backed up by others who have been in this situation):

  • Know your documentation, know the lawyer that prepared it. You don’t want to be surprised later on to discover that important legal papers were done poorly or incorrectly or lost or destroyed before they ever became your problem. Find out straightaway if everything has been properly filed with proper agencies and if there are any prior documents that were superseded by what you have, and if there are, get your hands on those as well. You may find them necessary if the lawyer in question failed to dot any “I”s or cross any “T”s. And don’t let that lawyer keep the originals out of your hands without an agreement for access if necessary. Remember that these are legally-binding documents when you have to show them to banks and other institutions and rely on that.
  • Expect trouble. If you expect every interaction you have with a bank, brokerage, creditor, or other institution to be perilous, you will be pleasantly surprised if/when it goes smoothly, which is far preferable to expecting them to do what you need them to and blowing your stack when they refuse. (Possible exception to the trouble expectation: retirement fund outfits. There’s still red tape to navigate, but they deal with this sort of thing as a primary part of their business and seem to be more sensitive and accommodating).
  • The size of a financial institution is inversely proportional to the amount of cooperation they’ll give you. The big kahunas do not want to assist you, they want to avoid being sued, and the staff you’ll have to go through do not want to report any problems above their station. If you find yourself having to deal with a large bank or investment firm or anything like that, be prepared for lengthy hassles. The people you first deal with will prefer that you go away mad than actually help you with a problem because they are conditioned not to make waves with higher-ups. Also, I’m rather convinced now that at least some of these institutions will refuse to help you as a matter of policy. Whether it’s to protect themselves from “the threat of fraud” or that they don’t want to give up any capital they’re earning interest on or that it’s just perversely fun for them, it appears to be by design that they refuse these kinds of requests in hopes that you will just go away; they seem to believe that they are invincible because they are “too big to fail.” On the other hand, small banks, credit unions, etc., rely on service and are far less likely to give you a problem if there’s no legitimate reason for them to do so.
  • If someone is not helping you, go over his or her head. The trouble with this is that you may not immediately know if someone is jerking you around or not. But once it’s clear, demand to speak to their boss, or even a peer. Someone else, at any rate, and keep moving up the chain, if necessary. If you know what you’re asking for is appropriate and legal, eventually you will get to someone who will help, even if it takes months and even if they only do it to avoid the involvement of lawyers. I went to eight branches of Wells Fargo bank before finding one that was run by a manager that put a value on service and whose staff was willing to work out the corporation’s problems with/for me while I waited. Even they were stymied by Wells Fargo corporate at times, but they made a large portion of what I needed from WF happen, even though it took a great deal of time for them as well as me. Meanwhile, I was dealing with a large well-known brokerage outfit that uses a bull in its logo (I now know they show the wrong end of the bull) that it took three-plus months to get anywhere with; the person they had assigned to my case was simply unwilling to do anything but regurgitate a script and demand things that she had no business demanding of me, or she would ignore me altogether. It took a great deal of persistence and getting different people on the phone to finally find one that was sympathetic and understanding of my situation and who took action. Once I did, the matter was resolved within 48 hours.
  • Don’t be afraid to threaten legal action if you are certain you’re in the right. Getting a lawyer involved may be the only way to get an obstructive, assholish too-big-to-fail financial entity to cooperate. There were several occasions where I verified with a lawyer that a bank or firm had no basis for refusing my authority on accounts, and then on one occasion felt it necessary to play the “I can take you to court” card. It probably made a difference with the Bull outfit. (Of course, don’t play that card without knowing you’d have a real case to make. Check with your lawyer even if it seems bloody obvious, just in case.)
  • Figure on a year or so before everything is settled. If your situation is like mine, you will be dealing with other family members or interested parties who are impatient for resolution to things. Too bad. If your situation has a competent lawyer, no ambiguity, no legal hiccups, few arguments with banks, then maybe it’ll only be a couple of months, but if so count yourself lucky. As for my own case, my current estimate is for things to settle out after a start-to-finish period of nine or ten months, but I won’t be surprised if more delays happen between now (the four-month mark) and then.

Anyway, the more you know, and all that. I went into this mess cold, expecting some delay in getting from A to B, but not expecting the kind of obstructions and runaround I’ve come to know is more or less standard. So, there you go. Your mileage may vary, but probably not by a lot.

Star Wars: Bad Lip Reading

Now that Episode VII has been out a while, let's revisit the first trilogy, with a twist. I find Indian C-3PO inordinately amusing.

 

 

 

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.)