Monday, December 31, 2012

Give Us This Day, Our Daily Blog

Looking back on 2012, I cranked out over 200 posts, including posting every day since the middle of June or so.

Yikes!  I've got to get outside more!

Dear reader, I do have a few surprises for you in 2013, but don't be surprised if you find a less frequent blog.  I have some other projects that I need to turn my attention to now.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Reading Review: Batman Incorporated Volume 2 Number 5

I've been fairly disappointed with the New 52, the DC Comics reboot.  The one exception is Batman Incorporated, perhaps because it is a title that essentially was left alone storywise.  Publicationwise, it was abruptly ended and then in hiatus for almost a year, so the New 52 was a pain where this comic was concerned, but it could have been worse.  Writer Grant Morrison has been creating a massive Batman story since 2006 across such titles as Batman, Batman And Robin, Batman:  The Return Of Bruce Wayne, and Batman Incorporated, and I have found it very enjoyable.  Sure, it's embarrassing to be a fortysomething reading Batman comics, but if they write them like this, then I'll read them when I'm an eightysomething.  Basically, the overarching storyline is that Batman has formed an organization called Batman Incorporated that internationalizes Batman and creates a Batman army so he can confront a terrorist organization called Leviathan that's run by Talia Al Ghul, his ex-girlfriend from Hell and mother of his child, Damian.  From what I can gather, Talia is mad Batman broke up with her so she is getting his attention by sending Man-Bat ninjas to attack him and Gotham City.  Also, she's decided that her son has spent enough time with his father, and she wants him back as well.

Yes, it's a superhero custody battle.  This comic is totally ridiculous, but it's also totally fun.  In this issue, Batman has a vision of the future wherein the current Robin, Damian, is Batman and Gotham City falls under the assault of a virus that seems to turn people into Joker zombies.  As a result, Batman decides to send Damian back to live with his mother, but Damian is having none of it.  Some of the pages could use a few more panels on them, but overall it's a satisfying comic.  Even when Morrison's panel per page count is light, enough daffy but thoughtprovoking ideas are floating around in his stories that the comic must be read carefully to get the full impact.

I noticed in this issue that the future Commissioner Gordon is Barbara Gordon, and Morrison has her back in her wheelchair, which disappeared controversially in the New 52 reboot of the character.  Some of the story parallels The Dark Knight Rises movie's plot with Gotham under threat by a nuclear bomb from the federal government.  This time, Batman doesn't save Gotham, and that isn't even the cliffhanger ending.

Morrison's reportedly leaving this title and Batman in general with the 12th issue.  If so, I will miss him.  This comic isn't high art, but it's a good time!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reading Review: Ghosts #1

Since I have enjoyed the past adventures of The Dead Boy Detectives, characters created by Neil Gaiman, I picked up this Vertigo comics anthology containing a new adventure of theirs.

What a disappointment!

The new Dead Boy Detectives tale is all of 8 none too great pages before one hits the phrase "to be continued in the next Vertigo anthology", which apparently will be Time Warp #1, coming in March 2013.

Time Warp is a science fiction anthology, so I'm not quite sure why the Dead Boy Detectives, who fit perfectly in a horror anthology called Ghosts since they're, um, dead, will be in a sci-fi comic.  Maybe they're blasting off into space or something.  I could see them appearing in a mystery anthology since they're, um, detectives, but why a sci-fi anthology?  It just looks like the story is something that's been in the files for some time, and Vertigo is dumping it out in drips across various anthologies just to get rid of it.

Since the rest of Ghosts was underwhelming as well (Hey, wasn't that creepy, vaguely misogynistic cover great?  Let's run it twice more on the inside to waste pages!), I won't be there to do the Time Warp.  When Vertigo debuted in 1993, I read most of its titles, which were very good.  Over the years, the quality seemed to drop and I read less and less of their output.  I continued to read Hellblazer, but few of the newer titles seemed interesting.  With Hellblazer ending, I suppose I won't read any Vertigo titles, but, if Ghosts is any indication, it doesn't look like I'll be missing much.  

Friday, December 28, 2012

Presidents Vs. Veterans

In the latest issue of the city newsletter that came in the garbage (see yesterday's post), a list of federal holidays is printed.  I found it interesting that "Presidents' Day" was listed with an apostrophe and "Veterans Day" was not.

Yes, I like language.  Those of you who don't should probably stop reading now.  It's just going to be more of the type of stuff that people who find apostrophes interesting will find, um, interesting.

Indeed, the line between an adjective modifying a noun making up a proper name and a noun containing a possessive making up a proper noun is pretty thin, and I'm not sure there is a good guide to distinguishing between the two.  It doesn't help that in spoken language, both "Presidents Day" and "Presidents' Day" would sound exactly the same.

Before we get into a discussion based on social hierarchy with "Presidents'" being possessive because presidents are considered more important than veterans, it's probably helpful to point out that the actual name of "Presidents' Day" or "Presidents Day" or "President Day" or "We Don't Have A Bloody King But We'll Act Like The President Is One And Have A Day Named After The President Day" or whatever you call it isn't actually any of those.

It's "Washington's Birthday."

That's probably where the apostrophe comes from.      

Thursday, December 27, 2012

This Newsletter Is Garbage!

My city likes to send out a monthly newsletter, but they don't use the mail.

They use the garbage.

When the garbage collectors pick up the garbage, they leave the newsletter behind wedged between the can and the lid.

I don't think the garbage collectors mean this to be an editorial comment on the quality of the newsletter, as in "Dear resident, this newsletter is garbage, so don't bother reading it and just let it fall in the can" (though I suspect that probably is what happens to the majority of the copies of the newsletters); they just want to make sure it doesn't blow away in the wind.

Although it's a bit icky to read a newsletter that came in the garbage, I do applaud the city's innovative way to avoid using tax dollars on postage.

Perhaps in the future the city can find other ways to use the garbage collectors as a distribution method.  Maybe someday I will be able to just throw my tax money in the garbage.

And cut out the middleman.

Nyuck, nyuck!

And if that joke isn't funny now, just wait until April 15 or so and you'll find it hilarious, I'm sure.

Anyway, back to the newsletter that comes in the garbage.  Actually, I rather like it.

And, when I do dispose of it, I make sure to recycle it.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Presidential Elections As Fertility Myths

I've been reading some mythology lately, and, whenever I do, I find it interesting how similar our society is to those of the societies that created the mythologies.  Even though we like to think that we are much more sophisticated than those primitive societies, one can find many parallels between the societies.  For example, they often have endtime myths such as Ragnorok in the Norse mythos.  Well, we have Revelations in Christianity and we just had the silly 2012 thing in secular culture.  Less easy to parody are worries over nuclear apocalypse or global warming catastrophes.  Endtime myths usually serve as guidelines for us to modify or control our behavior so as not to bring about the end, though in some cultures the end comes no matter what the people do--see our own ideas in science of entropy or the heat death of the universe.

Looking back on the year, despite the 2012 Mayan nonsense, I think the myth that struck us Americans the most was that of the fertility ritual.  Even though we don't dance for rain or sacrifice virgins or have to perform a quest to heal the fisher king, we do elect a president.  And what do we believe the president can do?

Stimulate the economy.

We might not be harvesting corn, but the basic concept is the same.  Of course, the president can have some effect on the economy, but probably not as much as we believe he will have (if he could fix everything, then do you think the current economic malaise would have hung around since 2008?).  Nevertheless, I bet people often vote in a mythological sense.  We certainly know that people don't vote rationally much of the time.  If people did vote rationally, then one wouldn't find so many working class people voting Republican.  Instead, most people seem to vote more for emotional reasons such as which candidate can tell the most compelling narrative.

Which brings us back to mythology.  Both of the major political party candidates had sexual stereotypes working for them in a fertility sense.  Obama had the stereotype of African sexual prowess whereas Romney had the Mormon polygamy thing going for him.  In reality, both men were family types, but mythology and reality don't always cohere.  Mythologically, perhaps voters wanted to see which one was most virile, and they decided on Obama.

Of course, mythology is one of those attractive lens similar to economics and psychology through which one is tempted to explain all of human society, when the truth is likely a bit more complex.  Still, it's hard not to look at a clip such as the one below and not think that voters in 1992 might have thought Clinton was probably a bit better than the other two in bed and voted for him accordingly (in contrast to handsome Willie, Grandpa Bush is looking at his watch, wondering when he can just get this over with and go to sleep):
Which brings us to 2016.  It will be interesting to see how a female candidate fares if the presidential election is basically a fertility ritual.  With two females, would a premenopausal candidate fare better than a postmenopausal candidate?  How would a female candidate face off against a male candidate? 

Stuff like this does sound crazy, but it's amazing how much a mythological approach can explain about our culture.

Monday, December 24, 2012

She-Hulk Returns In FF!

Marvel has given us She-Hulk fans a nice Christmas present with the return of Shulkie to The Fantastic Four.  Well, sort of.  She's joined a substitute Fantastic Four, whose other members are Ant-Man, Medusa, and Ms. Thing.  The real FF are off on a trip to another dimension or some darn thing, so the substitute FF have to man and woman the fort for all of four minutes.  Of course, things don't seem to go as planned.  I enjoyed this comic much more than the last She-Hulk comic I picked up, which was The Fearsome Four, a Fear Itself tie-in that had She-Hulk team up with Howard The Duck and some others.  Though promising, that concept didn't exactly come together well in the actual comic, so I only read one issue.  However, I'll be sticking around for the second issue of FF.  Matt Fraction's writing is clever, and the Allreds' art pops off the page as usual.  This lighthearted series might not last long, so let's enjoy it while we can!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Yip!: Convergence-Continuum

I saw the Sam Shepard play True West recently at The Liminis theater in Cleveland.  It's the second production this year I've seen by the theater group Convergence-Continuum, and they seem to always do a nice job (the other was Devil Boys From Beyond).  I read the Shepard play years ago, but nothing was like seeing it brought to life complete with eight or nine toasters popping toast!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Turnpike Tax Tango

After having some fun goofing on my state's governor, I started thinking some more about the Ohio turnpike and the proposed plans for it.

Yes, I must be bored.  Now, let's continue.

It always amazes me what lengths politicians will go to in order to avoid raising taxes, even though most of those lengths involve raising taxes--they're just not called that.  Politicians must think the average citizen is too dumb to figure that out.

Alas, I think the politicians are right.

Take Governor Kasich's plan for the Ohio turnpike.  Many commentators think it's a great idea, especially when compared to his previous idea of privatizing the turnpike, but the new idea is probably also a bad idea.  Here's why.

Bonds are just taxes that one has to pay in the future.  Indeed, they're usually more costly than regular taxes since one has to pay interest on top of the original bond price.

Now, fees on users such as turnpike tolls might be all right since the people using the service are the ones who should have to pay for it, but fees are basically taxes anyway.  In fact, they may be more expensive overall than just plain old taxes since with fees one has to employ people especially just to collect the fees instead of having the usual tax collector gather it up.  For example, on the turnpike, one has to pay for the tollbooths and the tollbooth collectors and whatnot.

Now, this could still bring in extra money for the state if most of the people using the turnpike aren't from Ohio and are just passing through, but I suspect quite a few Buckeyes go from Cleveland to Toledo or use the turnpike to go to Cedar Point and so on and so forth.  According to the new report on the turnpike, it's about half-local and half-out-of-state traffic and $43 million or so is spent collecting tolls.  Well, I haven't read the entire 142 page report yet (I'm not that bored), that's still $43 million in expenses that likely could be eliminated just by making the turnpike another free highway.

Of course, the state would lose a lot of money since the turnpike seems to bring in $231 million in revenues through the tolls (remember, about Buckeyes are paying about half that amount, so the net gain for the citizens of the state is really about $73 million and we haven't gotten to how much it costs to maintain the turnpike yet).  Thus, we get Kasich's plan for bonds to be paid back by future tolls.  One problem, of course, even if the out of staters end up footing most of the bill for Ohio's sake, they'll be sure to get us back by just raising the prices of all those goods the trucks on the turnpike bring to Ohio and in other ways.

It still might be cheaper in the long run to just pay more on the gasoline tax or whatnot to fix up Ohio's roads and make the turnpike free.  But, with Kasich's plan, more people get to have a slice of the pie, from Republicans collecting the fees for issuing bonds to Democrats collecting salaries for collecting tolls, and, in the end, that's probably what all this turnpike tax tango is all about.

Beware of politicians not raising taxes.

They'll still raise them, but call them bonds and fees and it'll usually end up costing us more.    

Friday, December 21, 2012

Will The World End In 2012?

This article originally ran a couple of years ago in .zap!!, an a.p.a. I belong to (or belonged to; I haven't seen an issue in a couple of years now).

Beats me. But I'm taking bets. Name your amount. We'll define the world ending as the collapse of civilization and the extinction of most human beings. I bet the world doesn't end. You bet it does. If the world ends, you collect. The only stipulation is that you can't do anything likely to cause the world to end. OK, you can still vote Republican, but no germ warfare or the deal's off. That's a sucker's bet, of course. If I lose, it's unlikely you will be around to collect, even if I still am around to collect from. And if I win, you owe me money and look like a dunderhead for thinking the sky was falling. Whatever gave you that silly idea in the first place? Well, you aren't the only one to think that.

In the past few years, the notion that the year 2012 will be a landmark, perhaps apocalyptic, time has spread, evidenced by a spate of cultural products about the year including books and movies. On Amazon.Com, hundreds of books and other products dealing with this notion are offered for sale such as 2012: The Return Of Quetzalcoatl by Daniel Pinchbeck, which I personally wasted some money on. Indeed, the 2012 doomsday notion has become a piece of folk wisdom. I've heard people chatting about it casually, even indicating they were or were not making plans based on that notion. Sometimes the 2012 phenomenon is interpreted in a more mild manner, that it merely signals the date when humanity makes a evolution in consciousness and we all treat one another and the rest of the Earth more kindly as a result.

Whatever its interpretation, where did the notion that 2012 is an important date come from in the first place? Did someone place an "Apocalypse Wanted" ad on Craigslist and 2012 applied? Or does the 2012 phenomenon have roots in popular culture? Proposed expiration dates for the human race appear frequently--remember Y2K?--but some catch the imagination more than others. 2012 appears to have quite caught our imagination. Most discussions of 2012 reference the Mayan calendar, and claim that the calendar--one of many the Maya kept--ends on December 21, 2012, the date when supposedly everything comes down, an ancient prophecy gets fulfilled, our solar system is aligned with the galactic center of the Milky Way, it's the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, it's the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere, and I eat a Milky Way candy bar and wonder what all the fuss was about as nothing much happens. It's odd that when my calendar ends every year, I don't end time; I just start a new calendar. The Maya, we're led to believe, apparently do things differently. Actually, I don't think the Maya have much to do with this notion, but they've been tied into it in order to add some ancient gravitas to what otherwise would be just an intriguing but ultimately silly idea. Nevertheless, the ancient Maya have become the core of the notion. However, the real source is a man named Terence McKenna, and his brother Dennis.

Terence McKenna was an interesting chap (he died in 2000), with a strong interest in psychedelic drugs. Such interest took him and his brother to South America in pursuit of new ways of getting high. However, the McKennas weren't just hedonists. They seriously thought such drugs would open up their minds to a higher reality than what we normally can perceive. The result of the brother McKennas' trip, both figuratively and literally, is a book called The Invisible Landscape: Mind, Hallucinogens, and the I Ching. Originally published in 1975, it was republished and given greater distribution in 1993 when Harper republished an updated edition (in response to Terence's growing reputation as a sort of computer guru). The Invisible Landscape makes for a fascinating read, though it can be boiled down to what you'd expect of a couple hippies: an argument for taking drugs. However, the McKennas didn't want to take drugs just to get high. They wanted to take drugs to expand their minds and become modern day shamans. In fact, the first part of the book discusses shamanism quite a bit. The shaman is a member of a tribe of humans who interacts between the material and spiritual worlds for the benefit of the entire tribe. Often a marginalized person before the experience that leads to becoming a shaman, usually a near-death experience, the shaman becomes a prestigious if mysterious figure in the tribe afterwards. To the shaman, the material world is just one way of seeing the universe. In fact, normal reality can be regarded as a mask for the greater riches of space and time where everything is alive and ultimately part of the same organism, whom we might call God.

Not content with giving us a plausible explanation to our parents for why we might want to drop acid, the McKennas go further and begin to critique the scientific method as too limiting in its approach to understanding the universe. They go further still and blame science for the spiritual crisis of modernism. As the scientific method revealed more about the material nature of the universe from the Enlightenment on, the older belief systems such as Christianity became displaced. This explains why even today some fundamentalist Christians refuse to accept the theory of evolution. Despite the many attempts to reconcile faith and reason, religion and science really are competing worldviews. If mythology explained how the world came to be in various creation myths, science now provides the same function for us, whether it's physics exploring the big bang or biology exploring evolution. Based on evidence and logic, science has provided a better creation myth. However, the human soul yearns for more, which is why the old stories such as the one (or two) in Genesis still hold considerable power. As the McKennas write on page 17 of the 1993 edition: "Modern science has given us a picture of human beings as accidental products of random evolutionary processes in a universe that is itself without purpose or meaning". The McKennas were among the many who still desired meaning. Many of their hippie brethren, who felt similarly, would become Jesus freaks or reject the Western tradition of Christianity as well and embrace an Eastern religious tradition instead. Some would cobble together their own system, resulting in the spread of so many cults in the 1970s. Others would explore the occult or older pagan religions. A lot of these ideas would mix together creating what we would now term the New Age spiritual movement. After the tumultuous middle decades of the 20th century encompassing such experiences as the Holocaust, a nuclear arms race, and the conflicts of the 1960s, it's fairly understandable that many people in the USA, especially the young like the McKennas, might want to reject traditional explanations of the universe. Most, aside from the Unabomber and a few other hardcore back to nature types, however, only rejected science theoretically, not practically. In other words, they still plugged in toasters, put in bread, pressed down, and expected toast to come out and not a genie or something.

However, the McKennas wouldn't abandon science, even theoretically. They wanted to reconcile it with the experiences they had on psychedelic drugs, which seemed to defy scientific understanding. Noting that science too has a faith in that its practitioners believe that the universe is measurable by material methods, a huge but seldom noted assumption underlying the entire scientific enterprise, the McKennas sought to develop an understanding of the structure of the universe by combining science with the mysticism of shamanism. So they applied scientific methods such as observation and data collection to taking ayahuasca and other drugs from "tryptamine-bearing psychoactive plants" (page 98) in order to achieve a shamanic state. Their discoveries, that an alien insect was trying to guide them to deeper understanding and "come to give humanity the keys to galactarian citizenship" (page 110), that singing machine elves greet humans in such a trance state (page 114), and that "twentieth-century history was experienced as a frantic effort to build an object . . . to allow life to escape to Jupiter on the heels of an impending global catastrophe" (page 110), sound laughable, as the McKennas knew, which is why they are presented in the book as merely the observations of someone in a trance state. Nevertheless, the McKennas were profoundly shaken by their experience and it inspired them to develop a theory that spacetime was "a flux of novelty whose variables are predictable" (page 156), a theory that, like the software that helped to map it out, would be called "timewave zero", though it is also referred to as "novelty theory" or "this crazy shit someone came up with while high and staring at a clock that other people will believe when they are high and staring at a clock". OK, maybe only I call it that last term. In any case, timewave zero represents an attempt by the McKennas, particularly Terence, to argue that existence is essentially one entity that develops into many entities, or, as the McKennas, might call them, novelties, and that a structure underlies existence as it is experienced through time. In fact, I'm sure my presentation of the Mckennas' theory is quite reductive because a) timewave zero doesn't make any fucking sense if you really take a close look at it, or b) the McKennas question our conventional conceptualizations of space, time, and even consciousness itself and thus the language used to usually refer to those concepts is inadequate to explain the theory. You can guess which side I lean to.

But I digress. Back to the structure of existence, which can be traced by examining "the ebb and flow of connectedness or novelty in any span of time from a few days to tens of millenia" (page 170). To do this, the McKennas used the I Ching as a model, assuming, based on intuition and some commentary on it, that its structure mirrored that of the universe, and, with the later assistance of a computer program, Terence mapped out the flow of novelty in history. Starting with the bombing of Hiroshima as an example of increased novelty, the McKennas used a mathematical pattern developed from the I Ching, and extended the discovered pattern into the future and discovered that "The end point is the point of maximized novelty in the wave and is the only point in the entire wave that has a quantified value of zero" (page 171). The original estimate for this date was November 2012, but upon learning that the Mayan long count calendar ended on December 21, 2012, an idea being popularized by art historian Jose Arguelles in books such as The Mayan Factor, Terence adjusted the date accordingly (though it was December 22 for a time as well). Thus, an idea was born that would become a meme in our culture. The McKennas' timewave zero and Jose Arguelles’s interpretation of the Mayan calendar would merge in 1990s popular culture, establishing 2012 as a new expiration date for the human race, popularized by such works as the comic book series The Invisibles by Grant Morrison, the cyperpunk magazine Mondo 2000, and the book Maya Cosmogenesis 2012 by John Major Jenkins. In fact, The Invisibles is where I first came across the idea, as Morrison worked it into his story about a band of terrorist/freedom fighters battling the new world order. It wasn't until after 2000 though that the notion of the world ending--or experiencing a psychic leap in human consciousness or evolution or whatever--in 2012 took hold. Once popular dread over Y2K—which saw a similar spate of cultural products--subsided with the advent of the 21st century, a new expiration date was needed and 2012, already somewhat established in popular culture, captured the public’s imagination and became more widespread. This is a credit to Terence mostly. As a scientist he might be a bit dodgy, but as a storyteller and a salesman, he had few equals. Even I want to believe in his bullshit, and I should know better. Just the milder, peace, love, and kindness version of 2012, of course. I'll pass on the magnetic pole shift, nuclear war, sunstorm, asteroid collision, and other nastier, more apocalyptic versions of 2012 please.

However, the reason for the success of the 2012 phenomenon isn't only Terence. He was clever--as are all the little gurus now selling us ancient Mayan wisdom-- in tying into an archetypal need we have for finality. All human cultures seem to need an expiration date, an apocalyptic myth if you will. See the Indian idea about the Yugas and the Greek notion of the ages of man for older examples. The usual function of such endtime myths is to scare us straight into behaving appropriately, or at least how the perpetrators of such stories and beliefs would want us to behave anyway. The example most familiar to us would be The Book of Revelations in The Bible. Now, some people still believe in Revelations, and take it for a prophecy more than an admonition, but for those of us for whom Christianity seems quaint need something new so 2012 fills the bill (though I'm sure some Christians have folded 2012 into their elaborate Revelations mythology by now). The best endtime myths, like Revelations, are careful not to be specific with dates and thus are evergreen in their approach to the end of days. The ones with dates like 2012 can scare the hell out of us a bit more for a short time, but when the date passes without incident, as they usually do (so far, anyway), it gets discarded. However, it's only a matter of time until a new date and new myth will emerge to circulate. Some, like 2012, before Y2K, are already waiting in the wings ready to take the stage. We seem to have a need for an expiration date for the human race.

And why not? The expiration date seems strangely logical. If civilization and humanity began at some point, just as we as individuals began at some point, it seems possible that civilization might end and we might die. Who knows? No one. But there are plenty of bullshit artists willing to pretend they do in order to make some cash off the fear and ignorance of others. Some of them may have even bullshitted themselves into believing their own bunkum. Unfortunately, people can be harmed by these ideas more than losing some money to a confidence artist. For example, the Heaven's Gate cult committed mass suicide in 1997 thinking the end was nigh. They thought Earth was about to be wiped out and thought ending their bodily existence would be the way to have their souls picked up by a UFO shadowing the Hale-Bopp comet. Something like that anyway. Of course, their theory made little sense. And though we'd like to think most of us would never be so foolish, we can never be too sure. So even though the 2012 phenomenon can be an interesting topic for a dinner conversation, some danger exists that some people will take it too seriously and cause problems. And, I don't know if you've looked lately, but we have a lot of problems on planet Earth as is.

And, one problem the 2012 phenomenon has is its source. A recent film produced by The Disinformation Company, 2012: Science Or Superstition provides a good overview of the 2012 phenomenon. Most of the film focuses on the idea of the Mayan calendar though, and only a DVD extra features the McKennas and timewave zero. This is likely because, despite their earnestness in creating it, the timewave zero theory is nonsense, a classic example of the garbage in, garbage out maxim of computer science taken to an extreme. Why is assuming the I Ching has a structure mirroring the universe any more sensible than assuming that the universe is measurable by material means? How can it be matched up to history without being susceptible to considerable subjective judgment as to which events constitute an uptick in novelty as opposed to habit? Terence was an especially interesting thinker, but timewave zero is a daft thought. Could that be why the McKennas as the source of the idea that 2012 is a watershed for humanity one way or another are mostly forgotten today? After all, saying an ancient Mayan prophecy points at the year 2012 as significant sounds better than explaining the 2012 idea came from a hallucination on mushrooms by a couple of hippies in the early 1970s. However, maybe I'm wrong and the McKennas are right. Place your bets.

For more fun with the end of the world in 2012, please read my novel Blog Love Omega Glee.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Let's Not Get Too Carried Away With This Native Thing

Yesterday, I wrote about learning that my city actually paid people to police the plants that grow around people's houses and being shocked that people think that's actually a good use of tax money.

I researched the issue further and found some great articles such as "Turf War" by Elizabeth Kolbert, and "Why Mow?:  The Case Against Lawns" by Michael Pollan and great quotes such as "There's nothing wrong with dandelions; there's something wrong with people" by William Niering.

I also found Wild Ones, a group of native plants enthusiasts.  They seemed pretty cool, so I became a member.

So far, I've learned a lot about native plants and their benefits for our ecosystem.  Some members of the group work very hard to restore their land to the traditional native habitat of plants and animals.

However, I'm not totally sold on the native thing.

If it goes too far, then everyone who's not Native American is going to have leave as well.

I mean I just don't want to have to cut the damn lawn.

I guess leaving the country would be one way of doing it.

But that's not what I had in mind. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

I Pay Taxes So Men Can Measure Grass With Rulers And Remind Me To Cut My Lawn

One day this spring, I came home to find a little piece of paper curled up in the handle of my front door.  It was a notice that if I didn't mow my lawn in three days then I would be fined by my city.

That was a tad irritating since I had planned on mowing the lawn that night anyway.  I didn't need a reminder from the city.

Naturally, I complained.  I had a nice chat with the mayor and the city inspector who left the warning.  The conversations were interesting.  Apparently, some neighbors get so obsessed with their lawns that they get infuriated when the lawns of neighbors don't match their specifications.  The city officials seem to be just responding to what we the citizens want.

And apparently what most people want is a tiny golf course outside the houses of everyone.

I found this hard to relate to.  You could have a jungle next door to me, and I wouldn't care.

Some people disagree.

Unfortunately, they got their way, and the city has a law that grass must be no more than eight inches tall or the resident will be fined.

The law's a bit odd.  It doesn't specify if it's just one blade of grass eight inches tall or on average.

But it turns out that was just the beginning of problems with these laws, as they are often poorly designed and written.  They're called "weed laws" and seem to be as common across the country as, well, weeds.

The implementation is even worse.  My city actually pays people to go around and measure grass with rulers and then leave warnings if the grass is over eight inches tall.

"You should hear the calls I get," the inspector moaned.

"People get a little fussy around Mother's Day," the mayor told me.

I could sympathize with their plights, but worrying about the length of grass seemed daft to me.

I searched for some sanity and found Wild Ones.

More tomorrow.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Book Review: Zygote In My Fez

Zygote In My Fez Toledo August 6th, 2011 is a book that emerged from the Zygote In My Fez poetry reading and makes for a nice companion to the event, particularly the reminiscences by Leopold McGinnis, Pat Simonelli, and Paul Corman-Roberts.  The book also works as a nice sample of the American small press scene, particularly poetry. Having just read the latest issue of Poetry, the longrunning magazine about--what else?--poetry, the poetry in Zygote made for an interesting contrast. Poetry has some good poems in it, but it also has a number of awful, obtuse poems in it. While the highs may not be as elevated in Zygote, the quality of the poetry remains a bit more even throughout. There are some clunkers where the poets write poems about poetry, and some material is probably too injokey for outsiders to the scene to enjoy (the loyal audience for small press poetry is other poets, which is great in that a passionate audience exists, but if a poet writes for them too directly that pretty much guarantees that they will always be the only audience for that poet), but a number of poems were quite good, particularly work by JD Nelson, Michael Grover, John Dorsey, Dan Smith, Tim Murray, Erin Reardon, TJ Jude, Alex Nielsen, Bill Gainer, Leah Angstman, Josh Olsen, and Michele McDannold. And, yes, that's a lot of names, nearly everyone, but it's a good book. Honestly, this is the type of stuff The New Yorker should be publishing instead of whatever verse John Ashbery vomits up, but I suppose the neoBeat vibe (read, relevant to everyday life in America) might scare off their advertisers.

Of course, the book also features my short story "Thank Heavens For Fuckups" which I also enjoyed reading (after I write something long enough ago, I can enjoy it as a reader). Alas, two damn typos snuck in, and they're mainly my fault, I'm afraid. "Month's" should be "months" (ironic, considering my bellyaching about misused apostrophes lately) and "bumber" should be "bumper". How those things slipped in there is beyond me. At least there are only two which isn't bad for a long story, and it's a story about screwing up so they fit in thematically.  I'd also like to thank Shawn Misener and Pat Simonelli for the shoutouts to me in their selections; it helped ease my irritation over the typos.

All in all, Zygote is a good read. Unfortunately, I have no idea how you can get a copy, so I apologize for torturing you with this review. This is true samizdat underground press publishing. I haven't seen that in a long time. Jump on it if it ever pops up online, I suppose. It's short but it should give you a good literary buzz.  I don't make any money from the book (probably nobody does--welcome to the small press), nor am I sucking up to anyone (I like to work with publishers who actually want to sell books) so this review is fairly unbiased, aside from the writers in it being kindred spirits.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Property Tax Shuffle

Every few years, the county government reappraises the values of property in the county to determine tax values.  The latest reappraisal was fairly important since the last county auditor was convicted for taking bribes.

Though the old auditor is now in the slammer, there's still reason to be concerned though.  The county's formula for estimating property values appears to stem from a broken Mickey Mouse calculator, or whatever algorithm came up first in a Google search.  Though the latest appraisal did reflect the general drop in property values since the Great Recession hit, it still is quite inflated.  I'll use my street as an example.  During the past year, 8 homes sold, all more or less similar, for an average price of $88,396.  Yet, according to the county's appraisal method, which apparently consisted of driving down each street and making some numbers up, the house worth the least on the street is worth $105,700.  The county should clue in the folks trying to sell their houses now, all of which are priced less than $100,000 and still not selling.  Why are the buyers not recognizing such bargains and jumping on them, huh, Cuyahoga County appraisers?

Of course, the county has little incentive to provide accurate property values, since they would get less tax money.  The kneejerk tendency is to inflate values.  In Ohio, the situation gets complicated a bit by a law that keeps tax revenue at a certain level regardless of property value, but still to some extent lower values equal lower taxes.

People can challenge their inflated house values, but it doesn't appear many people do so, which explains how the county can get away with it.  Why people want to just give away more money to the notoriously corrupt county government is beyond me (though much of the money will go to schools, libraries, and local municipalities).  I suppose one can't complain about property taxes too much (at least one is fortunate enough to own property), but the property should be accurately valued.

Homes are oddities anyway.  Nearly everything else one owns gets sold for less when it's used, but people always think homes should sell for more (the old "God isn't making any more land" argument only goes so far to explain it).  Unfortunately, making housing more expensive means people have to work harder just to live.

The same goes for property taxes.    

Friday, December 14, 2012

Kasich Says The Hell With It And Decides To Sell Ohio

WINESBURG:  While visiting a factory that manufactures adult disposable underwear, Ohio Governor John Kasich announced today that he has come up with an even better plan to balance the budget in Ohio without raising taxes or cutting spending.  As a result, he has decided to table his recent decision not to lease the Ohio turnpike, "That plan is dead.  Dead, dead, dead.  It was alive yesterday, but today, now that I'm away from all those Democrats in Cleveland, that plan is dead."

Kasich said he came up with a better plan when he was at lunch at Wendy's.  "I looked at the dollar menu, and it hit me.  We've been thinking too small; that's why it didn't work with the turnpike.  We need to supersize things.  Wait, is that McDonalds?  I think they're the ones with the dollar menu too.  Wendy's has the everyday value menu or something.  Anyway, you know what I'm talking about.  Bonds?  Screw bonds.  I had enough bonds for a lifetime when I was at Lehman Brothers.  They were big into bonds and look what happened to them.  Anyway, getting back to my idea.  It was the thought, 'Why not lease the entire state?'  I bit into a burger, and it hit me again.  Why not sell the whole state?"

Kasich then claims he finished his fries, which "were delicious, by the way" and got right back to work for the state of Ohio, instructing Jobs Ohio to put the entire state up on eBay.  "I'm so certain we'll get a great price that I told them to put the minimum bid at 99 cents," Kasich trumpeted.

So far, the current bid is $21.50.

Kasich doesn't seem worried.  "We've got a great state.  I've been on eBay.  I know the price usually shoots up right at the end.  I did tell them to put a reserve price on it.  I mean it's a no-brainer.  If this doesn't work, at the end of the day, then we can always go back to the damn bonds."

He added he also has some other backup plans.  "Naming rights.  It works for sports stadiums, why not for states?  I think Wendy's Presents The State Of Ohio sounds pretty good, or we could just change the name of the state to Sherwin Williams or something.  To be honest, I don't know why they didn't do some of this stuff fifty years ago.  It's not like I'm some genius.  Good grief, folks, get on the bus before it runs us over."

After the factory tour and being presented with an honorary pair of undergarments marked "The Buck Stops Here", the Governor enjoyed dinner at Bob Evans, which he said would be another good new name for the state.  

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Air Conditioning Is The Enemy

In yet another attempt to rid his city of fat people, Mayor Bloomberg of New York City announced today at a press conference that he was banning air conditioning from the city next summer.  "It's been a few months now since we banned Big Gulps, and I still saw a fat person on the subway this morning.  Clearly, we need to supersize our efforts in the war on the obese, I mean, obesity," the mayor said at a hastily arranged press conference.

Interrupted by an aide who pointed out that the new ban on large soft drinks doesn't take effect until March and even then won't affect Big Gulps, the mayor dismissed the aide, saying, "My term's ending next year; I need to speed things up."

When a reporter asked why the mayor decided to ban air conditioning, the mayor said that his decision was based on extensive research, which under aggressive questioning was revealed to have been a Google search earlier that afternoon.  "It just makes sense," the mayor says, "Think about it.  Without air conditioning, people sweat.  They'll lose a lot of water weight."

When asked if this would be his final battle in the war on obesity, the mayor replied that if he saw a fat person on the subway the following week he might ban heat and elevators as well.  Then, he joked about a fourth term, stripped down to his underwear, and said, "Look at that BMI!  Not bad for 70, huh, tubbies?"

At that point, the mayor was led away by aides, and the press conference ended.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

"Experiment first by kicking" by Mark Sonnenfeld

an empty dog cage by an assembly line
w/ curtains where dirty water has splashed.
We have a tin pot apolitical  dictator.
There are ad posters of stock-image car bumpers.
It is important to shake out the gun cotton.
Watch for the hands and for guns
looking like cell phones and peculiar helicopter
flying.  Assassinations are first penciled out.
Mass media says it's 56° and partly cloudy.
A wise old sergeant thought of mind parasites.
What it's like to be down in the weeds.
The host government has failed and spy novels
end up tossed by hazardous waste injection wells.
Some are put in old film canisters.
There has to be more to life.

Mark Sonnenfeld is a prolific poet and publisher of Marymark Press.  "Experiment first by kicking" was originally published as part of the 2012 Give-Out Sheet Series.  Contact him at 45-08 Old Millstone Drive, East Windsor, NJ 08520 USA.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

An Interview With Comics Writer Michael San Giacomo

I've read Michael San Giacomo's comics articles in The Plain Dealer for a long time.  He even helped me out with some publicity when I was doing some research on comic books on cd-roms.  But in addition to writing about comics, Mike also writes comics such as Phantom Jack and Tales From The Starlight Drive-In.  I ran into Mike at the Akron Comicon recently and bought the latest Phantom Jack trade paperback, The Nowhere Man Agenda.  As is typical of his work, I enjoyed it and decided to find out more about it with the following interview.  Thanks to Mike for agreeing to it!

1) What led you to create Phantom Jack?

I had a long history in comics and journalism before Phantom Jack.  I've been a reporter for major daily newspapers forever and, like many reporters, came to think of myself as invisible.  The best reporter is not the jerk who shouts out "HOW DO YOU FEEL?" to a man who just lost his family.  Real reporters hate those loud-mouthed jerks.  A real reporter stands quietly off to the side and observes.  He listens.  He pays attention. He becomes part of the scenery.  Invisible.  Then, when the wolf pack is off to find its next meal, he sits with the news source and asks the questions the others forgot to ask, or never knew enough to ask.

That's how I've done it for more than 30 years.

So, when Marvel President Bill Jemas contacted me and said Marvel was starting a new imprint called EPIC and asked if I would like a shot, I said no.  After all, I had been writing a comic book review column for the Plain Dealer and a slew of other newspapers for 10 years and felt it would be a conflict.

On the ride home, I thought about it and realized what an idiot I was.  This was an opportunity that would never come again.  I'm the guy who covered the murder trial of his cousin.  I wrote the book on objectivity.  And if my comic took off, I wouldn't need to write a column about comics. 

So, in my hubris, I resolved to pitch a character with the weakest superpower I could imagine and do it with flair and creativity.

Earlier that year, I was covering a sniper in in the suburbs who had pinned down police.  Thinking I was invisible and not part of reality, I stood around watching.  Then a bullet zinged past my head and hit a tree behind me.  At that moment, I realized I was NOT invisible or intangible.  That inspired me to create Phantom Jack, the Nowhere Man, a reporter who was gifted with limited invisibility and who would use that power.

Jack is not a superhero, he's just a guy.  He tries to do the right thing, but is not beyond using his powers for his own good.  Living in Cleveland, the home of Superman, it was also a tribute to my favorite reporter, the guy with the glasses and spit curl.

Jemas loved it.  I chose the amazing Mitch Breitweiser as my artist and we produced five amazing comics under Marvel's watch.  But the EPIC project never really got very far.  Bill Jemas left Marvel and his replacement was not very keen on the project.  Marvel, who wanted Phantom Jack to go at least 5 issues and more if it sold, offered to publish the first issue.  Mitch and the rest of the crew finished five issues and I felt obligated to put all five out.  For the second time, I said no and took the whole five finished issues to Image.  The books were collected into a "Director's Edition"  graphic novel with almost 100 NEW pages including six new stories and an origin.  It was published by Speakeasy Comics, 15 minutes before they went out of business, and repackaged (with even more new material) by Atomic Pop Art Entertainment.

2) Yes, poor Phantom Jack seems to have had a convoluted publishing history, which is a shame because it's a better superhero comic than most of its contemporaries.  But you've managed to keep the series going.  What led you to return to the character with The Nowhere Man Agenda?

I had a specific storyline done for Jack.  I wanted to show how a character with superpowers is not always a superhero.  I also wanted to show realistically what a normal person would do if suddenly granted superpowers.  That's why I have a short story where Jack invisibly sneaks into the dressing room of the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders.  C'mon, what guy wouldn't?

You know that scene in every action movie where the bad guy grabs a hostage and threatens to kill the woman or child unless the hero surrenders?  And what does the hero do?  He surrenders.  In the movies something always happens before the hero gets shot.  In real life, the hero would be shot dead in 2 seconds.

This scenario always bothered me.  In real life, a normal person would at least be troubled before laying down his own life for a stranger.  In the second issue, Jack faces that Sophie's Choice and does what a human would do, nothing.  He agonizes and while he's considering giving up to be tortured and murdered, time runs out and a little boy is killed.

Tough scene, but real.  And it adds to the body count.

Jack is not Deadpool or Wolverine, who casually gut people and laugh as they lay dying.  It bothers me that these characters, and many others in comics, seem to not give a whit about people they kill or wound.

Jack cares, a lot.

That's why I had to write THE NOWHERE MAN AGENDA, the follow-up book from IDW.  I had to follow through on how Jack redeems himself and finally becomes the hero he was always destined to be.  At great cost.

In addition, I had a whole lot more to say than could be contained in the medium.  So, the Director's Edition and the follow-up PHANTOM JACK: THE NOWHERE MAN AGENDA include more than a dozen text and/script stories that expand the adventures of Jack and his cast.

So, I HAD to keep going to tell the whole story.  There are clues to what's really going on in the series all over the place that are not resolved until the IDW book.  Ideally, these were all supposed to come out within a year's time, but then we ran into publishing issues and bounced around a bit.

I would love to hear from someone who read both trades cover to cover, and got the whole story.  I hope a few people out there managed to do that.

SPOILER ALERT; For Thor's sake, don't read the next few graphs if you haven't read Nowhere Man Agenda.

And then Jack had to die.  It bummed me out, but I needed to show that he was willing to make the supreme sacrifice to kill the super-evil Nowhere Man and save the girl.  I damn near cried when I wrote the graveyard scene that involves Jack's dog.  I won't say anything more about it.

Someday, I would like to continue the series with THE BLOOD OF PHANTOM JACK, in which unscrupulous folks steal Jack's body and create a new invisibility serum from his blood, a serum that grants a person 10 minutes of invisibility.  Jack's friends, including the last remaining invisible agent in the world, Madison Blue, would team up with the insufferable genius Peter St. John, Jack's reporter buddy Wolf Bigelow, and others to retrieve the blood and save the day.

We'll see.

3) Yes, I was wondering about the script stories.  It's too bad more issues of the comic didn't come out, as some of those text stories would have been nice to have seen fleshed out with art.  I hope you do get to do that third volume.  Why do you think such a good series had trouble in the marketplace?  Although there are problems with comic sales in general these days (though some would dispute that), why do some people buy really crappy corporate comics (and sometimes they don't even buy the good corporate comics) but won't try something better such as Phantom Jack?  Is it all marketing and gravitating to the already familiar characters such as Batman?  What are your thoughts on superheroes and the comics industry these days?  Sometimes I think that once creators' rights became more of a popular idea, the smart creators wouldn't give away their best stuff to the large companies so those companies have been just recycling their old properties with diminishing returns ever since.  Yet that stuff still seems more popular than most of the much more creative and interesting creator-owned work (with some exceptions such as The Walking Dead and Hellboy).  What's going on?
If you ever figure out the answer to that question, let me know.

It's not just comics, it's everything.  How does some Hollywood dreck film make millions while a wonderful film dies on the vine?  Why do more people know the music of (name a crappy artist here) than geniuses like Ralph McTell or the late Bill Morrissey?

Phantom Jack did quite well at Image, but the collected edition with its 100 new pages did not because the publishers had no idea what they were doing.  There was NO promotion, nothing, not a lick.  Anything that was done, I did myself and I tried a lot.  But my efforts were thwarted when the books failed to come out when expected.  So the people I reached assumed the book was dead when it didn't come out when promised.  I'm a pretty good hustler, but that hurt.

Bottom line is, no matter how good a book is, it doesn't matter if no one knows about it.

Only the big boys like Marvel and DC can afford advertising and publicity.  The rest of us just do the best we can to get the word out.

So, let me tell you about TALES OF THE STARLIGHT DRIVE-IN and my NEXT project: CHALK ...

4) Ha!  My next question was going to be about Tales.  Though the comic book industry may have seen better days, the medium seems to be doing wonderfully judging from events such as the Akron Comicon that I saw you at and the new respect that graphic novels, particularly the nonsuperhero ones, get.  While many comic writers seem to stay on either the superhero or alternative side of the comic book medium, you work in both.  What attracts you to the medium, whether it's Phantom Jack, Tales Of The Starlight Drive-In, or Chalk?

If I am going to do a superhero book, I would like it to be one of the established characters from DC, Marvel, Image or Valiant.  I have created a slew of superhero characters including AGONY AND ECSTASY (a husband and wife science-hero duo.  She has the power to basically make men and women swoon in delight and he makes them feel intense pain.  Catch is, there is a feedback and the heroes enjoy/suffer when they use their powers) and a bunch of others.

But the superhero field is just so crowded, I'd like to use what's already out there and give it a new spin.

I also believe the best writers are well-rounded, and not just physically.  I want to show that I can do everything.  Or maybe I'm just going to keep pitching things and see what sticks.  I have another series written and partially drawn called THE BASTARD SON OF JESSE JAMES, which I put together just to prove I could write a western.  Hopefully, that will be out sometime after CHALK (Horror [Original graphic novel] where the chalk outline drawn around a murdered priest comes to life and kills his killers.)

TALES OF THE STARLIGHT DRIVE-IN was a labor of love.  I was looking for a follow-up to Phantom Jack and was asked by a French publisher at the San Diego Comic-Con to "come up with something uniquely American that has never been done in a comic book before."  And like Monty Python's John Cleese once quipped, "Certainly. And would you like me to move the building a bit to the left?"

I never did get to make my pitch to him before he left, but it inspired me to do what he suggested.  I drove around the hills outside San Diego for hours and the STARLIGHT concept and the stories just kept on coming.  On the flight home, I jotted down my favorite movies:  THE BIG CHILL, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and on and on.

The concept was to set a series of stories in a drive-in theater.  By focusing on certain characters, I could show the rise and fall and ultimate fate of the drive in through 31 stories that could be read independently, yet would come together like a quilt to form one, complete novel.  Also, to further torture myself, I would use my favorite movies, presenting every genre from horror, romance, disaster, comedy, political and even a western.  The movies would play some role in the story, even if only a spiritual one.  The amazing artist Francesco Francavilla drew "THOSE DARN HATFIELD KIDS" and the only connection to the Zero Mostel movie, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, was the chase scenes, a vital part of the movie and the story.

There are things that can be done in comics and graphic novels that can't be done in regular books.  There are many scenes in STARLIGHT which need to be seen, not read.  That being said, I have already turned STARLIGHT into a stage play and gave it to a group in London to market, though no one has actually put it on yet.

I would love to see STARLIGHT picked up as a 13-episode television show, come on AMC, talk to me!

And I also plan to turn it into a novel, a book book.

I do think superhero comics have hit a sour patch.  It's all gimmicks and "events" which seem to stretch on forever.  I also dislike the way so many comics open with an action scene and then go to "TWO HOURS EARLIER ..."  Sorry, but that's cheap.

At the finest, comics can show more than text can tell. I teach a course in comic studies at CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY in Cleveland and I get great pleasure showing the students a wonderful Alan Moore Swamp Thing (No. 34) story where Swampy and Abby make love.  It's not so much physical, but a chemically inducted joining of minds and souls.  The art by Steve Bissette and John Totleben is so incredible, words would never do the art justice.  It's a story that has to be illustrated.

I know book lovers will freak on that statement but hey, true is true.

5) Anything else that you want to tell the world?


Bottom line is, read what you like.  Don't be bullied into buying stuff you don't like.  When Spider-Man underwent that terrible  "One More Day" fiasco, I actually stopped buying the Spidey books.  Considering I bought EVERY Spider-Man book since Amazing Fantasy 15, it took a lot to totally piss me off and lose me as a reader.  I eventually started reading it again after the writing and art improved about a year later.

Do this, assume every comic you buy will never be worth what you paid for it.  So, the only reason to buy a book is because you like it, not because of the "No. 1" plastered on the cover.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmas Trees Are Weird

Lately, whenever I head out, I see somebody driving with a dying tree strapped to the top of their car.  Though we're conditioned in American culture to think this is an entirely normal behavior, in truth, it's really weird if you think about it.  We go out and kill a tree, strap it to an automobile, put it up in our residence, and then a couple of weeks later throw it out.

Millions of people do this every year.  I got my Arbor Day Foundation newsletter and they had an article praising people using real trees instead of fake trees because it helped nursery owners.  And here I thought they liked trees.

Supposedly, Christmas trees became a tradition when people noticed that the other trees lost their leaves yet the evergreens stayed green year round, which in the long cold winter is reminiscent for us of the hope of spring and Christ's triumph over death.

So, of course, nothing says celebration of life like killing something.

I guess I can see having a living tree in the house for a Christmas tree and then planting it in the yard after, and I get that people enjoy killing plants for decorations (see the floral industry), but I don't comprehend where this tree below
would be improved by me capping its growth to the size of my living room ceiling, killing it, dragging it inside, and putting a bunch of plastic crap on it.

I kind of like it the way it is.

Have a cool Yule!  Next year give a tree the gift of life.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Election's Over; Pick Up Your Signs

Someone on Route 87 in Geagua County, Ohio really doesn't like Obama.  Whoever it is has had about ten custommade signs up for months now.  The one pictured above is my favorite.  If you thought redbaiting went out with the end of the Cold War, well, the person who made this sign still thinks calling a political opponent "a communist" (or, even further, "a stooge for the Soviet Union", which hasn't existed for twenty years--Obama must be a deep sleeper cell operative, I guess, like those Japanese soldiers still fighting World War II on Pacific islands twenty years after it ended) is effective argumentation.

Other signs proclaim that the "Obama Agenda" is "destroying freedom and liberties" (that one's a bit redundant) and "destroying America and flag" (I'd worry about the country, dude; the flag's just a symbol of it).  The signs are near a Catholic church so the only sign that's likely politically effective is the one that has "Democrats choose Barabbas (Obama). Denied God '3' times", which really doesn't make any sense (I get the Barabbas part which puns on Obama's first name, Barack, and argues that the Dems chose the wrong candidate, but it was Peter who denied Christ 3 times--and why is the 3 in quotation marks?--so the two Biblical references don't really go together very well), but might have swayed someone on the fence into not voting for Obama.  It apparently didn't work very well as Obama still won the majority of the Catholic vote.

The election's been over for over a month now; it's time to pick up the remaining election signs.  Most are gone, but these ones are still up.  Unless the person behind the signs intends to leave them up as a sort of visual primal scream protest against Obama for the next four years, it's probably time to take them down and complain about something else now.

Almost regardless of the message, I do enjoy goofy free speech gestures such as this.  Someone really has to have some passion to do something like this, and, compared to many other political activities, signmaking is relatively harmless.  One of my favorite neighbors as a child was the guy who got so mad at Nixon and so drunk one night that he just painted "Watergate" across the wooden guardrail in front of his house.

Nothing else.  Just "Watergate".  He might have wanted to add more, but perhaps passed out after the first word.  The Watergate guardrail was up, I think, until the 1990s, where it made little sense to the kids, I suppose, (maybe like the "Soviet Union" reference on the anti-Obama sign does for today's kids).  I doubt these signs will last that long, so drivers on 87 should enjoy this spectacle of free speech while they can.  Even if the signmaker doesn't take them down, a couple have fallen down from the weather or whatnot already, and more will, no doubt, follow.

Maybe Mitt Romney would enjoy them as souvenirs.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Are You A Bad Driver?

Based on my experiences driving lately, I have come to the conclusion that the license bureau now apparently gives people driver's licenses with all the discrimination that someone in a parade throws candy into a crowd.  Since I've heard that many studies have found that most people consider themselves above average drivers, a logical impossibility since only half of all drivers could be above average, I've composed a little quiz to help my fellow motorists measure their driving ability and suitability for sharing the public thoroughfares.  The quiz is based on data diligently gathered from driving around Cuyahoga County in Ohio, especially the East Side of Cleveland.

1) Do you drive a sport utility vehicle?

If yes, skip the rest of the quiz and scroll to the end.  If no, continue on.

2) Do you drive a pickup?

If yes, skip the rest of the quiz and scroll to the end.  If no, continue on.

3) Do you drive a car manufactured by a European car company (say, a BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volvo, Volkswagen, and so forth)?

If yes, skip the rest of the quiz and scroll to the end.  If no, continue on.

4) Do you find driving an excellent time to catch up on your phone conversations?

If yes, skip the rest of the quiz and scroll to the end.  If no, continue on.

5) Do you have temporary license plates?

If yes, skip the rest of the quiz and scroll to the end.  If no, continue on.

6) Are you missing a hubcap or two?

If yes, skip the rest of the quiz and scroll to the end.  If no, continue on.

7) Do you think speed limit signs display the minimum speed you should be doing?

If yes, skip the rest of the quiz and scroll to the end.  If no, continue on.

8) Do you consider turn signals an optional accessory for your automobile?

If yes, skip the rest of the quiz and scroll to the end.  If no, continue on.

9)  Do you think that the proper space between autos when following another car should only be able to be measured in millimeters?

 If yes, skip the rest of the quiz and scroll to the end.  If no, continue on.

10) If you see a deer, do you slam on the brakes and point at it?

If yes, scroll to the end.  If no, you might be an above-average driver (though, given what I've seen lately, I have my doubts).  Please keep on driving carefully and courteously.  You don't need to scroll to the end of the quiz.  For the rest of you,  keep scrolling.

Keep scrolling.

 Keep scrolling (you're almost there!).

 Keep scrolling (really, you're almost at the end of the quiz!).

The End Of The Quiz:
Yes, you are a bad driver.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Apostrophe Blues

Lately, I've been seeing more misused apostrophes than I can ever remember seeing before.  Yesterday, I drove past a store called "Two Cousin's Beauty Supply" (yes, a typo is on the awning, which has all of four words on it).  Today, in my little Kent State alumni magazine, an article has a reference to a married couple as "The Mayfield's".

Yikes!  I'm seeing this all the time.  Can't people afford proofreaders anymore?

I can sympathize.  I can't afford a proofreader either.  Fortunately, I'm pretty good at proofreading, but when one proofs one's own work, blind spots are hard to avoid since one has seen the material too many times already.

The issue isn't actually a big deal either.  It's unlikely someone will really get confused with a needless apostrophe in a plural.  People already do it all the time with numerals such as "1980's" (though, for the record, "1980s" looks so much better).  In spoken language, no apostrophe exists so "cousins" and "cousin's" sounds exactly the same.

Still, it's a bit worrisome when people mix up plurals and possessives and just sprinkle apostrophes randomly across their prose like shredded cheese across pasta.  Perhaps people don't read much any more and don't pick this written convention up.  According to David Crystal, in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, the apostrophe was once used for plurals like "cousin's" at one point (the example he cites is "comma's") and has been a source of confusion since being introduced into English in the 16th century.

For the record though, standard usage in English today would drop the apostrophe in most plurals (There are some exceptions such as the "1980's" example mentioned above, but actually it can almost always be avoided in a plural without much confusion), so "cousin's" should be "cousins'" (assuming the beauty supplies store's name is meant to be a plural possessive; if the "two cousins" is meant as an adjective modifying "beauty supplies" then no apostrophe is needed at all) and "Mayfield's" should be "Mayfields".  Instead, the apostrophe should be used for possessives such as "my cousin's shampoo" or "The Mayfields' store".

Ah!  The apostrophe's plight makes me weep for so many lost apostrophes! 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Did Voter ID Laws Backfire On The G.O.P.?

In the past few years, more states in the USA have been enacting voter identification laws wherein voters have to show identification at the polls before they can vote.  This was usually done in states where Republicans had the majority in the legislature, and many observers, the American Civil Liberties Union among them, noted that such measures were in response to basically a nonexistent problem in that actual voter fraud was a very rare occurrence.  Many people such as journalist Greg Palast noted that the voter i.d. laws seemed to fit into a pattern in recent years of Republicans trying to make it harder for people to vote, especially people likely to vote for Democrats.

It makes one long for the ideal democracy wherein candidates and political parties try to win elections by appealing to the voters with good public policies, not by trying to prevent people from voting.

But, assuming the critics of the Republicans are right and the voter i.d. laws were just an attempt to prevent the elderly, minorities, the poor, and students (those most likely to not have the right i.d.s and "coincidentally" those most likely to vote Democratic) from voting, did the Republican plan backfire and actually hurt their chances of winning?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his supporters seemed confident he was going to win the 2012 election right up to the end.  Perhaps that was because they were believing what they wanted to believe, or because Romney, at least, knew Karl Rove or somebody had fixed some voting tabulation computers to make Romney seem like the winner (until some hackers checkmated Rove and prevented him from doing that).

Perhaps overconfidence or a failed electoral theft are the whole story behind Romney's surprising loss (well, surprising to him at least), but I was also reminded of a story a friend of mine told me years ago about how his father, a hardcore conservative Republican, used to vote twice every election, once at his current polling station and once at the polling station for where he used to live a few years earlier (he moved but never updated his address there, leaving him on the rolls).  So, basically, some guy who loved Rush Limbaugh and Republicans was voting twice in every election.  Maybe that was an anomaly, or maybe he wasn't the only Republican who did stuff like that.  In any case, with the voter identification laws in place in many states, he wouldn't have been easily able to do that anymore.  So, even if the Republican plan was actually to clean up voter fraud, then it didn't work how they imagined it would.  All they did was prevent the Dittoheads from voting twice (or three times, I heard another story that one woman voted in her mother's and grandmother's name after they were deceased since they all shared the same name).

All of this is at the level of friend of a friend stories (it's shocking how people aren't more open about their electoral fraud, isn't it?  Ha!) so it's a pretty thin ice argument, but it is interesting to think about.

Maybe in the future, instead of trying to prevent people from voting, the Republicans should just concentrate on trying to appeal to all the voters by offering policies people like.

That might be less likely to backfire on them.

Of course, then they probably wouldn't be able to mainly stand for rich people doing enough for society as is so they shouldn't have to pay taxes too, and for rich people being able to loot the public treasury any time they want, which seem to be ultimately their two primary public policy positions.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Leaving Books On Consignment

Today, I received a package in the mail from Freebird Books in New York City and got reacquainted with some old friends I hadn't seen in over five years.

Two copies of The Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus.

I had left them on consignment at Freebird in 2007 when Crazy Carl Robinson and I did our book tour.  Every year, I'd dutifully check in with Freebird and get the same depressing news that the books were still there unsold.  I'm thankful that Freebird was nice enough to keep stocking them, and I always told the Freebirders (originally Sam and then later Peter) that I'd stop by to pick them up the next time I was in New York City (plus that way I could shop at Freebird--it's a cool store).  After five years though, it was apparent that I wasn't getting back to N.Y.C. anytime soon so I asked if Peter would mind shipping the books back to me in order for me to get them back and for him to free up room on his shelves for books that would actually sell, which he thankfully did, going above and beyond expectations by generously picking up the postage costs.

I learned a lot about leaving books on consignment over the years, and my basic advice for authors is don't do it.  I've been lucky enough to have some great experiences such as the one with Freebird but I've also lost books from stores that went out of business.

The one exception is local stores.  If you live nearby a store and can pick up your books whenever you want, then maybe leave the books on consignment.  Even that could be a pain though.  One of my favorite bookstores in the Cleveland area is Mac's Backs, and they've probably sold the most books for me over the years, but at one point they reorganized the store and their Emus copies got lost in the backroom, where, of course, no one could see them nor buy them.  Eventually, I got the books back, but it took a while.

In general, I would suggest to authors to make the bookstores buy the books out right.  If the stores don't have confidence enough to do that, then they have little motivation to move the books.  Particularly if you're on a book tour and may never visit that city again, good luck getting your books back or even getting paid if they do sell.  So don't do it.  Even if you follow all the bookstore's rules and dutifully check in on your consignment, you may end up losing some books.  One time I left zines on consignment at Quimby's, a great store in Chicago, and I checked on them as I was supposed to and at one point Quimby's decided to purge a bunch of zines from their stock, mine among them, and mailed a postcard to all the consignment holders.  I never got my postcard so they just disposed of my consignment material.  Obviously, I never left anything on consignment there again.

Even if I did though, checking in on out of town consignments is a pain and seldom worth the money.  In my case, I make more selling books directly to readers than I do selling them through stores (not surprisingly, a book with a toilet on the cover isn't prone to impulse buys by bookbrowsers).  As my remaining stock of books dwindles, I've been collecting my books from consignment (I'm down to Webster's in State College, Pennsylvania now) so I can sell them directly.

Also, beware of friends that offer to leave books on consignment for you.  They often mean well but won't always follow through.  So this may seem like a great way to extend your books' reach via consignment, but it usually isn't.  I lost 12 books when a pal went homeless and obviously had more important things to do than check on my books.  He's fine now, but in the meantime I lost 12 books when stores that he stocked went out of business.  Another "pal", I suspect, was hoping I'd forget about the consigned books so he could keep the money from them; fortunately, that didn't happen, but it was yet again another pain hardly worth the effort to deal with.

Perhaps with the growth of ebooks, leaving books on consignment will be less of an issue for authors in the future, but, for the record, don't do it unless the store is local, and think about it even then.  I did make some money from consigned books, and I'm happy so many stores carried Emus on their shelves, but I like it better when I run into copies of the book the publisher stocked at places such as Skylight Books.

Why?  I already got paid from those books so I don't have to check on how they're selling every year.  Nevertheless, I do want them to find good homes, so if any of you Angels in L.A. are looking for a good read, then you know where to find it.

N.Y.C., you missed your chance.

However, don't despair, mail order is available worldwide!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

I'm Enjoying The MOOC, But I'd Prefer A Book

Recently, I've been hearing a lot of chatter about MOOCs.  At first I thought people were talking about cows with speech impediments, but then someone explained that a MOOC is an acronym for a "massive open online course".  Since, supposedly, this phenomenon is going to destroy higher education as we know it but possibly save students money, I thought I'd investigate and signed up for a course called Think Again.  The course really isn't teaching me anything new, but it's been a fun experience thus far.  I watch videos as a professor explains concepts of logic and rhetoric and then I take quizzes to test whether I've been paying attention and learning the material.  However, I must confess that I don't see what all the fuss is about.  The professors (the course is co-taught) won't answer questions since a couple hundred thousand people are taking the course.

Yes, that's right.  The equivalent of the city of Akron, Ohio is taking the course.

So, we can forgive the professors for not holding office hours, as understandably they would like time to eat and sleep and stuff like that.

So basically, the course is like watching YouTube while filling out related crossword puzzles between videos.

I actually had a course like this in undergrad.  The communications professor was a control freak so he wouldn't let anyone else teach his courses when he went on sabbatical.  Since the university wanted to run the courses while he was gone, they worked out a deal, and the professor was taped giving his lectures.  So when I and my fellow students showed up for lecture, we watched a video of our professor giving the lecture.

I didn't like it much.  I much preferred live human professors.  The chief advantage of the video from the student perspective was that everyone, teaching assistants included, would occasionally make fun of the video aloud, making it a bit like a showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  In fact, this experience served as the inspiration for one of Funnybear's moneymaking schemes in The Pornographic Flabbergasted Emus.

Ultimately, humanity invented the equivalent of the MOOC centuries ago.

It's called a book.

If someone can't be there in person to explain something, then he or she can just write it down, and the reader can read it at her or his own pace.

Nevertheless, I'm enjoying my MOOC, and I think it's very cool of the professors to teach people around the world for free, but I don't think I'll sign up for another one.

I'd rather read a book.

If I want to watch a video, I'd rather it be something like this.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Gender Obsessed Junk Mail

I get a lot of bulk/junk mail, probably just like you do, and I find it interesting how I get addressed in it.  Most of the time just my name is used on the envelope and my first name on the letter salutation, which is fine.  It's nice to know that I'm "dear" to a  car dealership and that we're on a firstname basis though we've never met; it makes me feel very egalitarian and fuzzy, though I still don't visit the dealership and I just recycle the mailing approximately five seconds after I open it up.

Some organizations, however, must think that's a bit too informal, so they slap a "Mr." on their address labels and salutations that use my surname.  Women, I assume, get a "Ms." or "Mrs."

Now, we're fairly well-conditioned in American society to view things through the prism of gender, but I still find it a bit strange.  Perhaps it's helpful for marketers to know my gender, but why bother to waste ink using it on the mail materials?  Do they think that helps the mail carrier know who to deliver it to ("Look for the one with the penis")?  Is it a vestige from more formal days?  Why do they really care what gender they're selling a product to?  Just focus on selling the product, folks.

I feel bad for those with gender neutral names who occasionally get the wrong gendered salutation (not to mention transgendered folks who get the wrong gendered address label), but mainly my objection to it is that it just seems like a waste of energy and resources.  Imagine all that ink being used to print millions of misters and whatnot.

Oh, wait, it's junk mail.  It's all a waste of ink.  Never mind.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

When Did Barack Obama Turn Into Dick Cheney?

I wake up to National Public radio (NPR).

Don't ask me why.

Perhaps listening to music instead would make me linger in bed and be late to work whereas hearing some cheerful NPR announcer repeat the inane comments of a government official gets me out of bed and going just to get away from the sound of such mundane horror.

The other day I woke up to a report that Obama wanted to keep the Bush era tax cuts.

I thought I might have still been dreaming.

Perhaps it was a nightmare.

But no, I was awake, and that actually was what the President wanted.

I knew there was a reason I didn't vote for him, the first Democratic candidate for president I didn't vote for ever (I even voted for him in 2008).

Is Obama nuts?  Can he really not add like fans of nutty Paul Ryan claim?

Why on Earth does he want to continue the Bush era tax cuts?  They are one of the two major reasons the federal deficit and debt continue to grow, which is likely to cause long term problems for us as a country when we have to spend money paying interest and repaying debt instead of spending it on something useful for the country (the other major reason is the government spends too much--when Tom Coburn makes more sense than Obama, we know we live in a scary world).

It made me long for the actual Bush era when most Democrats hated the tax cuts and railed against them, pointing out the problems they would cause down the road.

Guess what?  We're down the road now and looking at record deficits and a record debt.  We're probably entering a new recession (you probably didn't even know the last one was over, eh?).

In short, we're in bad shape with ever fewer choices to get into good shape.  Being no fan of higher taxes, I still prefer them to a future economic and governmental collapse.

So why is Obama sounding like Dick Cheney, who allegedly said in 2002 that deficits didn't matter?  Why would he want to continue at least a portion of the tax cuts that caused such a fiscal mess?  He's reelected; he doesn't have to pander to the populace anymore; he can do the right stuff now.  Instead, he seems to want to keep cranking up the debt.

Maybe we'll be better off going over the "fiscal cliff".  At least one Democrat still has some sense.

It's too bad we didn't elect Howard Dean in 2008.  Or, even better, in 2004.

I mean I like that Obama read comic books growing up.

I just wish he'd read some economics and math books as well.

And that he'd now stop reading from the Dick Cheney playbook.