Raised comiconsciousness

I didn’t think Comicon could get any better, but then I didn’t count on Joss Whedon. Joss is, in some sense, the reigning god of this subculture – the person whose presence validates the entire tone that comic culture sets. As I listened to him speak today about his work, brilliantly and articulately – with that same respect for the audience that all practitioners in this genre share – I found myself thinking about the nature of this comic culture.

And I realize that what is unique about it is the sense that creators in comic culture are not merely creating art – they are also explicitly creating community. When you watch all seven seasons of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Whedon’s masterpiece) you realize that it’s not merely a work of fiction, but rather a work that explicitly aims to help a community define itself.

And what is so interesting about this community is that it is explicitly a community of outsider culture – people who redefine “cool” in terms not of being the big bad, but rather by their ability to maintain an unwaveringly clear point of view about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt. A generation that looks not toward traditional American macho heroes like Rambo (the later one) or John Wayne, but rather to somebody like Barack Obama, who holds out the promise that he – and we – can look at a problem with a cool head and an ability to reason through problems.

And it occurred to me that the rise of more thoughtful and reflective popular literature, as written by Joss Whedon and Aaron Sorkine, has prefigured the current ascendency of a consensus of reason, as opposed to a consensus of “shock and awe”.

And that’s a good thing.


Today I went to Comicon – the comics industry related festival that comes to New York but once a year. It was, as expected, overwhelming. I found my mind working overtime to understand the meaning of everything I was taking in. There is something lovely about this subculture and its inherent friendliness. The stars do not act superior to their fans – they respect the erudition and seriousness of their audience. The names of obscure and underappreciated titles and characters from days gone by are a shared obsession. You can clearly see the nested layers of passion that separate the true believers from the merely interested.

One highlight for me was seeing, in a sneak public preview, the first 18 minutes of “Watchmen” – the 1986 masterpiece of a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Gibbons that is soon to be released as a major Hollywood film, after more than two decades of false starts. To put it mildly, I was impressed. The best way to describe what I saw is to think back on your experience watching “Batman – the Dark Knight”. If you are like most people, you divide the experience into two parts: (i) Heath Ledger as the Joker and (ii) everything else.

Heath Ledger’s performance was one of the great masterpieces of cinematic acting – something that will be rewatched and studied for many decades to come. The rest of the film, for all its sturm und drung, was a very high budget but ultimately disposable costumed superhero flick. The difference, of course, is that Ledger’s Joker really meant it. As I suggested in an earlier post, this guy was not a prancing actor in a silly costume flick, carefully winking at the audience as if to say “Don’t worry, it’s just a stupid superhero movie – something I do for money between real performances. Let’s just have a good time and get through this silliness.” The other principals – Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal – were clearly taking this stance. Sure, each turned in a perfectly professional performance, but you didn’t really believe any of it for a moment.

Ledger, of course, was a whole different story. His Joker was a man on fire, a howling storm of nihilism and despair, a human soul distorted by some unimaginable pain into a force of pure, inexplicable chaos. Audiences recognized that – and couldn’t get enough of it. Audiences always respond to truth – on those rare occasions when it is offered.

The first 18 minutes of “Watchmen” possesses that same deadly serious subtext that we saw in Ledger’s Joker. Sure, there is humor and wit – lots of it – but underneath the stakes are real, the losses are deeply felt, and the questions are searching and grown-up and cuttingly deep.

We might be turning a corner here. Just as film itself, in its early days, was dismissed as something lower than art, so has the superhero genre been disvalued. Enjoyable yes, wildly popular and lucrative to be sure, but something lower than art – something not be taken quite seriously. One by one, film genres have pulled themselves out of this dismissive ghetto. The western, the crime story, the urban drama, the historical drama, at some point each has produced a bona fide masterpiece that assures its place in the pantheon of literature. But not the superhero film.

At least, not until now. If the rest of “Watchmen” fulfills the promise of its first 18 minutes, everything might change. Based on what I saw today, I am hopeful.

Other than that, the highlight by far was Seth Green and friends holding forth about their delightful stop-motion parody show “Robot Chicken”. Every moment with these guys was a delirium of fun: Their rapid-fire banter, improvised jokes, spot-on impersonations. On the panel I attended today, any random thought or idea would send them off on another riff of wild improvisation. I felt happy just to be in the room – it was a little like watching Michael Jordan shooting hoops.

The best part was their description of the various bits that never got on the air, because they knew the television censors wouldn’t approve. My favorite? “G.I. Jew”.

Maybe you had to be there.

Dream logic

Recently on JetBlue Airlines – providers of non-stop TV viewing at 30,000 feet – I caught an old episode of the “X-Files”. FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder was trapped in the Bermuda Triangle, on a British WWII battleship that had mysteriously travelled forward in time 60 years, just as the vessel was being boarded by Nazis.

I was going with the outlandish premise – just another typical work day for everyone’s favorite special FBI agent – when something happened that yanked me out of my state of suspended disbelief faster than you can say “paranormal phenomena”.

At the end of a tense but entertaining scene where Mulder has been patiently explaining to the British captain and crew that he is really from the future, and that the war has long been over (for some reason they find these assertions implausible), the Captain happens to mention that his name is Yip Harburg.

Chris Carter probably thought he was being clever when he slipped that into the script. But what was the point, really? If you don’t recognize the name, then the joke is lost on you. And if you do recognize the name, it’s about as subtle as a sledgehammer at an bris. Yip Harburg, for those of you who don’t know, was the lyricist of the MGM movie musical “The Wizard of Oz”.

What I want to know is this: Why do otherwise intelligent writers feel the need to insert “insider” spoilers that will either be completely lost on the viewer or else will give away everything?

In this case Fox Mulder, while experiencing some exceedingly implausible events, has suddenly been identified with Dorothy on her journey to Oz. Which can mean only one thing – that Special Agent Mulder’s fantastical adventure is really just a …

Sorry – the rest of this blog post was swallowed up in the Bermuda Triangle. You’ll just have to see the episode for yourself – the truth is out there.

Frogs and ducks and jellybeans

I was reading a review today of a new book about the mathematical career of Charles Dodgson – also known as Lewis Carroll for his “Alice in Wonderland” stories. I hadn’t known until today that the wonderful brandy/water math puzzle was invented by Mr. Dodgson. It goes something like this:

There are two glasses, one containing brandy, and the other containing an equal amount of water. Take a teaspoon of the brandy from the first glass and pour it into the second glass. Mix thoroughly. Now take a teaspoon of the mixture and pour it back into the first glass.

Question: Is there more water in the first glass than brandy in the second glass, or less, or the same?

What struck me upon reading this was that I found myself less interested in just solving the puzzle than in coming up with a way of looking at it that would make the solution obvious to anybody. Maybe it’s the teacher in me.

The first thing I tried was to replace the liquid with objects – it’s much easier for people to think about counting things than to think about measuring stuff. So here is a slightly different version of the problem. Suppose there are two bags – one containing toy frogs and the other containing rubber ducks:


Take a frog out of the first bag and put it in the second bag. Now there’s one less frog in the first bag, and there’s one frog in the second bag, hanging out with the ducks:


But here is where things get problematic. If you want to put an equal amount of duck and frog from the right-side bag back into the left-side bag, you need to remove one quarter of each of the ducks, as well as one quarter of that travelling frog (in order to make one whole toy to put back into the first bag). Unfortunately that means carving up your toys. I happen to be against wanton cruelty to plastic toy animals – especially if they have big eyes and smile a lot.

The problem is that we don’t have small enough pieces to work with. Instead of cutting each toy into four parts, maybe we should use something that already is in four parts.

The solution to this problem, as to so many problems, is jellybeans. Let’s replace each toy animal with four jellybeans – each frog becomes four blueberry jellybeans, and each duck becomes four bubblegum jellybeans.

Place all the blueberry jellybeans in the left bag, and all the bubblegum jellybeans in the right bag:

Notice that we have asserted the following scientific equivalence:

Four jellybeans = one toy animal = 1 teaspoon of brandy

One group of four jellybeans is removed from the first bag and placed in the second bag:

Now the rest is easy. From the right bag we remove one jellybean from each of the four groups, and place it in the left bag:

Lo and behold, there are exactly as many bubblegum jellybeans in the first bag as there are blueberry jellybeans in the second bag.

And so we have found it – the answer to Mr. Dodgson’s little puzzle: There is exactly as much water in the first glass as there is brandy in the second glass.

“When I find a thing,” said the Duck: “it’s generally a frog, or a worm.” – From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll


Wondrous are the ways of on-line branding. Today is the fifth anniversary of the founding of Facebook. But if you go to your Facebook page, there is virtually no indication of this red letter day in the company’s history. Oh, you can find it if you look really hard, but you have to really look.

Contrast this with Google. Everybody’s favorite search engine would be all over something like this. One of the things we are used to seeing on Google is the headline-level acknowledgement of milestones, from Martin Luther King’s birthday to the anniversary of the first Moon landing. Being a kind of historical recordkeeper is part of the way Google inserts itself into our collective lives and consciousness – which is consistent with its role of being the place you go to find out about stuff. It’s all branding of course, but still it’s rather nice.

Facebook is nothing like that. It’s more of a place where people socialize, share personal interests, talk about something of note that happened in their day. The “branding” of Facebook is now all about trying to disappear itself – to create the illusion that it isn’t even there – just us Facebook friends hanging out together, all snug in our virtual dormroom.

And so Facebook cannot even tell us: “Hey guys, we made it. Isn’t that cool? Five years and we’re still here.” Because we don’t want them to be here. They learned that lesson the hard way – after various attempts to insert themselves into the conversation backfired quite badly. We only want us to be here, in our cozy illusion of shared personal space.

It’s the ultimate Antibranding. By refusing to celebrate its own existence, Facebook has made a perfect statement of self-identity.


The last few days our news outlets have been filled with the shocking revelation that Michael Phelps, American sports hero, winner of an unprecedented 14 Olympic gold medals, has used marijuana. What I find fascinating is the sense of outrage, uproar, collective gasp of public horror, at the revelation that this young man was found to like smoking a bong from time to time.

If I were a Martian tuning in on our Earth broadcasts, trying to understand our culture only from its news sources, I would have to conclude that Michael Phelps is almost unique in his use of the dread weed. My Martian mind would logically assume that normal humans have no knowledge at all of this substance, have likely never seen it first-hand, have never been in a social situation where it was used, and almost certainly don’t know anyone who has ever used it.

But of course this is not the case. Just about everyone you know has used it, many people you know have used it far more times than they could ever count, and good friends and relatives of yours are using it right now. Our president has not only publicly acknowledged using it, but in fact has made a point of shrugging it off. When asked whether he had ever inhaled, his delightfully witty response was: “I inhaled frequently. That was the point.”

When called upon to take a position, the official reply of the International Olympics Committee was a collective shrug. The IOC pointed out that marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug, merely a recreational drug. They couldn’t care less what Michael Phelps does on his own time.

But here it is being held up as an example of contemptible moral terpitude, a source of national shame and disgrace. A young man has been found to enjoy a little pot! How can we all continue to live in the face of such horror?

I wonder whether we are really all that far from the Islamic fundamentalists in other parts of the world whose narrow minded control of their own citizens’ lives we hold up for self-riteous condemnation. Is the vilification of Michael Phelps, a well-adjusted twenty three year old man, for doing something at a party that is being done by almost everybody, all that different from laws in other parts of the world that require the wearing of a burqa in public?

I don’t even smoke pot. And yet when I see something like this embarrassing news circus, the predominant thought that runs through my mind is: “What the hell is wrong with us?”

Green bicycles

I had an odd thought today. We all know that riding a bicycle is a relatively “green” form of transportation. Getting your body from point A to point B by bike clearly takes far less energy than, say, transporting yourself the same distance together with a 1.5 ton automobile.

But has anybody actually calculated how much it costs in energy to feed a bike rider? Humans are notoriously inefficient converters of solar energy into useful work, given how high we are on the food chain. If you are a vegetarian it might not be so bad. But once you start talking about eating a meal that contains, say, farm raised beef, the actual energy cost of bicycling those ten miles might not be so small after all.

Does anybody happen to know how to calculate this cost?

Why vampires?

Both comments on yesterdays’ post were in support of some current pop-cultural phenomenon centered around vampire/human romance. What is it about love between humans and vampires that excites so much interest? I suspect there is something deep going on here.

It can’t be just the whole Byronic-hero sublimated-passion thing. That might explain “Twilight” but not the new HBO series. There is nothing either Byronic or thwarted about the latter.

Any ideas?