7/07/2014

Catching up on Star Trek Fan videos - Hope for the Future

  I grew up watching Star Trek reruns (i.e. Star Trek: The Original Series) as a kid in the 70s, and loved it.  While I never considered myself a full-blown Trekky (or even Trekker), I was pretty excited when they started the Star Trek movies and then came out with Star Trek: The Next Generation series.  Alas, as the series went on, it seemed to lose that something that made Star Trek great, and I didn't stick with it faithfully, although I tuned in for the finale of the series.

I gave DS9 a shot, but didn't follow it closely, and I don't even think I gave Voyager a decent shot, only seeing the occasional episode now and then.  Likewise, the movies seemed to lose their way, and switching to the TNG cast for movies didn't help.  Worse, JJ Abrams' take on the franchise, while good action movies, seems to have no idea what makes Star Trek special. 

Ultimately, Star Trek is about hope for the future, exploring the nature of humanity and how we might successfully deal with the various problems and moral issues that we face.  Dark and gritty versions of Star Trek, while they may make for exciting action and adventure stories, tend to lose that "hope for the future" part.

Given the latest two Star Trek movies, and the fact that there has been no Star Trek TV series for several years now, is there any hope for the future of Star Trek's 'hope for the future'?  Surprisingly, the answer is 'yes', but from a rather unexpected source: Star Trek fan videos.

I'd tended to avoid Star Trek fan fiction (especially prose) not only because fans tend to be amateurs, but also because they want to play too much with the various Star Trek elements, trying to put too many references in, and engaging in overly-ambitious ideas that their skills simply cannot handle very well.

And with the development of computer technology and digital video and effects, there are more fan videos (both live action and animation) than ever before.  Many of them suffer the same problems as any other fan fiction, but with the added problem of amateur acting and directing, not to mention limited funds for production.

Happily, I've recently discovered a few that have overcome these problems.  "Of Gods and Men" is fan-fiction only in that it was not officially sanctioned and was not intended to make a profit.  With several professional actors involved, including Nichelle Nichols and Walter Koenig, and with Tim Russ (Voyager's Tuvok) directing, it comes off surprisingly well, and much closer to the heart of Star Trek than the two Abrams movies.  Better still, Tim Russ has a new project called Star Trek: Renegades, and has been busy creating a pilot episode as a proposal for a new TV series.  This indeed is hope for the future of the Star Trek franchise.

There are also fan-produced Star Trek series out there of high quality.  The best of them, I think, is the more recent Star Trek Continues, with Vic Mignogna being the main guy behind it, as well as doing a great job of playing Captain Kirk.  ST: Continues attempts to continue where the the original series left off, and succeeds at many levels at obtaining the look and feel of the original show: great sets, great costumes, good acting, good, meaningful stories, even the lighting of the original series was recreated to mimic the original show.  Yes, there are certain nitpicks one could complain about, but it really does match the tone and style of the original show--you could almost believe these are "lost" fourth season episodes that never got aired. The actors are mostly professional actors, even if they are not well-known or big name actors.

"Starship: Farragut" is another web series that has some kind of relationship or ties with the Star Trek Continues people.  I've only seen one episode of it so far, but while much of the production values are similar to Continues, it lacks the professional actors of Continues, and suffers by comparison.  Still enjoyable, but it takes more suspension of disbelief to "buy into" the reality of the show.

Continues and Farragut are both relatively new web series.  An older and more established fan series has been Star Trek Phase II.  James Cawley is the main guy behind this series, and he, too, plays Captain Kirk in the series.  Being the obsessive-compulsive that I am, I started watching with the pilot episode, and that was very nearly a mistake on my part.  It's very much an amateurish, fan video, and barely worth watching.  The second episode was overly-ambitious, and tried to do too much with too many references, but it was definitely a better production, and much more watchable.  The third episode, which is the last I've watched, was better still, and much more like a typical Star Trek episode.  According to reviews and comments I've read, later episodes are also good (there's something like ten episodes altogether), but I haven't watched them, yet.

Phase II also suffers from amateurish actors, but two or three of them are pretty good, and most of them are good enough to get by, especially with quality of the rest of the production.  All these series have decent CGI effects, but that's almost a given for any modern fan series worth watching.

There are plenty of other Star Trek fan productions, but I believe that the ones mentioned above are the best of them.  However, it's possible I've missed some other high-quality productions.  If you know of an especially good one, mention it in the comments, so I can watch it.

Given the fandom of Star Trek, it's inevitable that people with professional skills can get together to make high-quality fan material like these, and their dedication to Star Trek ensures that they will do their best to capture the heart of Star Trek, that hope for the future I was talking about.

Given crowd- and fan-funding, and improved technology, semi-pro and professional web series may indeed be the future of Star Trek.  With lower overhead expenses, there's no need to create JJ Abrams-style box office extravaganzas, and less concerns about making a profit means they can concentrate on making better Star Trek stories for Star Trek fans, without being overly-concerned about the mass consumer.


5/14/2014

Natural Flavors and Other Strange Ingredients

Somehow, I happened to have a Snapple juice drink, and noticed that it says that it is "All Natural".  The Snapple slogan is "Made from the Best Stuff on Earth."  This one is the "Naturally Flavored" Snapple Apple flavor.   But what does it really mean to be "naturally flavored"?

First, it really does taste--and smell--like a fresh apple, and not so much like apple cider or something.  Food manufacturers are well aware how much our sense of smell affects our taste of foods.

Second, let's look at the ingredients.   It contains Filtered Water, Sugar, Apple and Pear Juice Concentrate, Citric Acid, Vegetable and Fruit Juice (for color), and Natural Flavors.  The label says that it contains 10% Juice, which means that it's almost 90% water and sugar!  The Best Stuff on Earth, indeed.  While it doesn't specifically say cane sugar, that would be a good guess, because it doesn't specifically say fructose, dextrose, or High Fructose Corn Syrup, the latter being a common ingredient in soda pop and other cheaper juice drinks.  All Natural it may be, but that doesn't make it all that healthy as a drink.

And vegetable juice for color?  Which vegetable or vegetables?  It doesn't specify.  Yum--shades of V8!  Citric acid, on the other hand, is no big deal.  It's an acid, yes, but it's a weak acid, and commonly used as a preservative and to give a bit of a kick to the flavor of foods.  In my home cooking, I've discovered that vinegar, another weak acid, also provides a tangy taste to foods.

The real kicker on the ingredients list is "natural flavors".  Since it sounds okay, you probably don't even think twice about it.  But the list has already mentioned apple and pear juice concentrate, citric acid, and some unspecified vegetable and fruit juices for color.  What OTHER natural flavor could they possibly be adding to this juice drink?

Well, according to Wikipedia, the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations describes a "natural flavorant" as:
the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or any other edible portions of a plant, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose primary function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

So Snapple could be adding just about anything derived from natural sources, including meats, eggs, or dairy products.  We simply don't know based on the term "natural flavors".  The only way to be sure would be to contact Snapple and ask them what specifically was added, as the FDA regulations don't require such specific information on the label.

And you thought that the FDA was here to protect the consumer?  Well, that may be their alleged purpose, but given a label like "natural flavors", one has to wonder how protective of consumers the FDA and the government really are.

Now admittedly, no food manufacturer is out to deliberately harm or kill their consumers--anybody who thinks so has got to be a real conspiracy nut.  Harming your customers is bad for business.  However, that doesn't rule out unintentional harm to consumers, or even just simple misleading information.  Suppose one of those natural flavors was from a meat or poultry source, and you're trying to be a good vegetarian, for example?  Or it might truly be something harmless, but which would seem terrible to your average consumer.  Castoreum, for example, is one natural flavoring that is extracted from the dried glands and secretions of a beaver’s rear end.  Sounds disgusting, doesn't it?  But it really is harmless, and adds certain flavors to foods and drinks.

Now I'm not trying to pick on Snapple--one of their products just happened to be on hand--most food manufacturers use natural flavors and a variety of other strange-sounding ingredients to improve the shelf-life, longevity, color, texture, and taste of their foods, because they know consumers won't drink an apple juice that doesn't smell or taste like apples, or eat a fruit pie that has an unappetizing-looking, strangely-colored amorphous blob for fruit.

Still, if you really want to know what you're consuming, you can't trust the FDA to protect you.  Check the label for the ingredients and if you find something you don't recognize, look it up on the internet.  If it really bothers you, contact the company, or else just don't buy that product!  If nobody buys it, the manufacturer will change it or stop selling it.   It's really that simple.

One other thing I've noticed on the Snapple bottle is a K in a circle, with the words Kosher Pareve next to it.  This is apparently a private certfication symbol of the Organized Kashrut Laboratories signifying that the product is neither meat nor dairy, nor prepared with either meat or dairy products.  That is, it's kosher, and meets certain Jewish dietary requirements.  Thus, I think we can assume that the natural flavorings in my Snapple Apple are not from any meat or dairy source.  Imagine that--private certfication.  What a concept!  Exactly why do we need the FDA? More importantly, how can we trust the FDA to do the job right?




an extraction of the dried glands and secretions from a beaver’s rear end - See more at: http://foodidentitytheft.com/%E2%80%9Cnatural%E2%80%9D-can-run-the-gamut-from-bugs-to-beaver-butts/#sthash.wJwfov6F.dpuf
an extraction of the dried glands and secretions from a beaver’s rear end - See more at: http://foodidentitytheft.com/%E2%80%9Cnatural%E2%80%9D-can-run-the-gamut-from-bugs-to-beaver-butts/#sthash.wJwfov6F.dpuf

4/05/2014

Protecting Our Liberty

Twice a year we think of our armed forces.  On Memorial Day, we honor those who died while serving our country, and on Veteran's Day, we think of those who lived to tell about serving our country.  But what are we honoring?  Do the armed forces really protect our liberty?  Sure, it's safe to say that they have protected us from foreign invasion, but there are greater threats to liberty than merely foreign invaders.

Criminals are also a threat to our liberty and our property, and thus we have the police to protect us from criminals.  However, both the military and police are provided by the government, with our tax money.  Who will protect us when our liberty is threatened by our own government? 

Today, even in the so-called liberal democracies, we live in a world proscribed by government, where we must have the government's permission to do many things, and where we pay many taxes for the privilege of doing so.  The military and the police might seem like good things that we need to pay for, but they are only good as long as they are doing what they are intended to do, protecting our liberty and our property. 

But whose side are the police on when the local bureaucrats tell you that you need a license to operate a vehicle, engage in certain types of occupations, or start various types of businesses?  Licensing is a privilege, where the government gives you permission to do certain things, and without that license, you are legally restricted from doing those things.  Are the police protecting your liberty when they support licensing and prevent you from doing things without the "appropriate" license?  Furthermore, we get to pay for all of these licenses and privileges. 

When the military is busy protecting "our way of life", does that include licensure and taxation, too?  Our government requires us to pay a tax for having a job and making an income,  for buying goods and services from businesses (sales tax, VAT), and even makes us pay a "property tax" for things that we supposedly own, like our homes and land.  Can you really be said to own your own home if the government can take it away from you for not paying your property taxes?

In a very simplistic form, socialism is where the government controls everything, and communism is where the government owns everything. Exactly what is the difference between owning and controlling?  Doesn't ownership imply control?  And if one cannot control his property, then "ownership" is a hollow term that merely means you have the deed or title to the property, while someone else controls what is done with it.

Here in the United States of America, an alleged liberal democracy and capitalist nation where individuals are supposed to be free to own and control property, the various levels of government exhibit a surprising amount of control over its citizens and their property.  If, for example, our military had failed us, and the U.S. had been taken over by the former Soviet Union, Americans would no doubt have been subject to heavier controls over their lives.  There would have been more licensing, and heavier taxation.  But note that this would have been a matter of degree, not kind.  We simply would have been subject to more of what we already have, more limits on what we can do with ourselves and our property, and not subject to something we had never experienced before.  Does the military protect our freedom, or does it merely protect us from foreign control over our restrictions?

Our liberty *is* restricted, and the rest is just a matter of determining to what degree it is restricted.  It's nice to think of our armed forces protecting us from foreign invasion, but it's not so nice to think of them protecting the licensure and taxation that we have to endure every day.  It's nice to think of the police as protecting us from criminals, but not so nice when the "criminals" are simply people who haven't gotten the government's permission to do something, or who have failed to pay their taxes on their income, their purchases, or their property.  And isn't it called a "protection racket" when someone coerces you into paying for protection?  Are the police merely a criminal gang with the legal authority to act as they do?

Licensing and taxation are nothing new--they've been around for thousands of years, or really, as long as governments themselves have been around.  What is new, or at least fairly recent in human history, is the idea that the purpose of government is to protect the rights and liberties of the individual, that the individual is important.  Converting government from an authoritarian overseer to a rights-protecting agency has been a slow and difficult process.  Indeed, given the fundamentally coercive nature of government, it may well be impossible for it to be limited to nothing but the protection of rights.  

After all, a government is essentially the organization in society that has been granted the legal authority to initiate force, and it is the initiation of force that is inimical to liberty, as any criminal or foreign invader knows.  Yes, we want protection from foreign invaders and criminals, but that is not enough for the protection of our liberty.  We must also be protected from all forms of initiation of force, including the politicians and bureaucrats who force us to do things "for our own good". 

The rules and restrictions of Obamacare are merely the latest in a long line of attacks on our liberty, and in that respect, there's nothing new about them.  President Obama is merely the latest in a long line of politicians who would whittle away at our freedoms "for our own good".  More importantly, we as individuals must understand that it is not merely "bad" politicians or bureaucrats, Republicans or Democrats, who are the main threat to liberty.  Everything is *not* okay if we simply get the "right" people into office. It is government itself that is the greatest threat to our liberty.  The organization that has been granted the legal authority to initiate force is a poor tool for minimizing and preventing the initiation of force in our society. 

Furthermore, because government is fundamentally flawed in this way, no amount of reform will fix it.  Government can never successfully police itself, no matter how it is organized or divided, and no matter how many constitutions or bills of rights are written up.  In order to protect our liberty, we must stop forming governments, and start forming different kinds of organizations and associations for protecting our rights and liberties. 

However, we don't really have to start from scratch in creating these non-governmental organizations and institutions, for they, too, have been around in human history, and still exist today, even under the weight of governmental rules and regulations.  Human creativity and ingenuity apply to more than just art and entertainment, and people have found many ways to solve the basic problems of society, even when governments attempt to regulate and restrict human behavior. 

Businesses and charitable organizations have always tried to meet the needs and desires of people, and always will, if we allow them to.  The standards so useful and necessary to the various industries have almost always come from private organizations, even if governments tended to adopt them.  Emergency services have been provided in various ways, even when governments have been unable or unwilling to provide them.  Various types of voluntary certification have existed, and could exist, to provide for the competency and security to consumers of professionals and businesses, and provide it in a much more satisfactory way than governmental licensing can. 

Even in the area of law and legal matters, private organizations and solutions have arisen, where not restricted by governments.  Merchant Law, and the various arbitration and mediation services, provide examples of the creation and enforcement of non-government laws.  The history of law itself has always shown two tracks:  that which kings and rulers have taken upon themselves to create and enforce, and that which the mass of common and ordinary people have done to protect themselves, their property, and their interests.   In English legal history, the differences between the King's Law and common law are very telling.

Okay, this article is getting a little long, and I guess I need to wrap it up. 

In short, government, licensure, and taxation are restrictions on liberty, not protections of liberty.  Government is not a necessary evil, and humanity will be immensely better off without governments, without licensing, and without taxation.  Nevertheless, we will continue to be burdened with government until a significant number of people realize these basic truths, and start denying the legitimacy of government. And hey, don't forget to do your income tax return!  After all, you have to pay for the privilege of having a job and working, remember?

Sheesh!  This stuff makes my blood boil.  It's much more fun to write about comics, I think.

3/31/2014

Obamacare turns innocent citizens into criminals

Yes, you read the title right.  By legally requiring citizens to purchase health insurance, that part of the Obamacare plan turns harmless, innocent people into "criminals", subject to punishment by the law.  Isn't it just *wonderful* to be an American citizen?  To live in the "land of the free"?  Oh sure, there are plenty of countries that are worse to live in than the United States, but I'm not talking about being relatively free.  I'm talking about the liberty to do as one wants as long as one is not doing harm to other people.   Real freedom, true liberty. 

Mandatory national health insurance as Obamacare calls for is a clear and obvious violation of the individual rights and liberties of the citizens of the United States.  Have the American people become so cynical and jaded that they cannot see such a simple and obvious point?

Sure, we can say that most Americans already have health insurance of some kind, that only a limited number of Americans are actually being affected by this requirement. We can even say that the penalty is simply a relatively small fine, payable through their income tax returns--it's not like the non-compliers will be rounded up and sent to Guantanamo, or even to their local jail.

Nonetheless, rights are still being violated, however mild the penalty.  Furthermore , since the law allows the government to act if someone doesn't comply, the penalty could be changed later, if the government deems it necessary. 

Of course, some people will want to be pragmatic, practical.  They say that we *have* to do this, in order to bring down health care costs.  They will think that the coercion involved is justfied by the results the law brings about. 

The problem with this is that there is no reason to believe that it will actually lower health care costs.  The use of coercion tends to have unintended consequences.  By forcing people to do things that they would not normally do, you are upsetting the equilibrium of the economy.  The economy will react to this coercion, and a new equilibrium will be reached, but it is difficult to say exactly what this new equilibrium will be.

Given the complexity of legislation like Obamacare, there are many possible ways for people to react, many possible unusual consequences and undesirable results.  People may fraudulently claim to be one of the exceptions to the legal requirement, for example, as they seek a way to meet the legal requirement while still trying to get the services they actually want from the medical community.  Medical providers may charge differently, knowing that everyone has, or is supposed to have, health insurance.  And since they're being paid by insurance, what the insurance company says becomes more important than what the patient says or wants. 

And certainly insurance companies will react to the changes caused by the legislation.  The insurance companies will do what the legislation requires, regardless of their customer's wishes or desires.  They may have to charge more in order to meet the legal requirements.

Insurance, properly understood, is not merely spreading the risks among a larger pool of people.  It involves statistical and actuarial data, and when done right, an insurance company already knows how much they can be expected to pay out in a year, and they charge their premiums to different homogenous groups according to those statistics. If the government steps in and requires insurance companies to treat heterogeneous groups like homogenous groups, or if they require uninsurable people to be insured, this will create a higher degree of risk and uncertainty, not only for the insurance companies, but for their customers. 

Insurance companies should be allowed to provide real insurance, and not merely be used by the government as a way of shifting health care costs, which is essentially what mandatory health insurance will result in, causing higher, not lower, health insurance and health care costs for most Americans. 

In short, mandatory health insurance is not only morally wrong, but is an impractical way to reduce health care costs and relieve the burdens of American citizens. It will interfere with the market's ability to satisfy consumers, and will increase the difficulty and frustration of getting good health care.  And when the results of Obamacare are seen to be undesirable, as they inevitably will be, the government will undoubtedly step in and take more drastic regulatory measures to try to fix it, and thus create a vicious cycle of even more problems with health care in the U.S. 

But don't take my word for it.  We're all about to live with the consequences of this far-reaching, devastating legislation.  And I won't say "I told you so" if you'll wake up to what's wrong with it, and help me try to reclaim our liberty and support individual rights.

3/24/2014

The Emergence of Marvel Comics and the Silver Age

I was a child of the 1970s, and didn't really get into comics until the summer of 1978, the time of the DC Explosion, quickly followed by the DC Implosion.  Nonetheless, while I tried various comics in my early stages, DC, Marvel, Charlton, etc., I tended to prefer the DC comics to the others.  This, of course, was before the internet, but I still found out about comics history through back issues, reprints, fanzines and the like.  I loved how DC had incorporated the Golden Age characters they had absorbed from other early comics companies into a multiverse.  And I hated how DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985 retroactively erased all that previous multiverse continuity they had developed over the previous twenty or so years.

The first meeting of the Silver Age Flash and the Golden Age Flash in 1961--the beginning of the DC multiverse.


One of the things that always puzzled me is how Marvel Comics rose to popularity so quickly in the early 1960s.  Sure, I had read some reprints of the early Marvel comics, and I already had developed a soft spot for Kirby and Ditko thanks to their work at DC in the 70s, like Omac and Shade, but frankly, the early Marvel stuff just seemed rather crude and undeveloped to me.

Jack Kirby's Omac.  One of my favorite comic series


Steve Ditko's Shade.  Another of my favorite comic series
Many years later, I've finally had a chance to read more of both Marvel and DC comics from the late 50s and early 60s, and I've discovered some interesting things, including why Marvel's popularity took off the way it did.  DC comics had gotten complacent, stultifying, repetitive, and downright boring in the early 60s.  They were doing imaginary stories, silly stories, and soap opera stuff with their superheroes.  Things like Superman keeping Lois Lane from discovering his secret identity, Batman and Robin having to put up with Bat-Mite, those kinds of things.  Frankly, I'm surprised the Aquaman series managed to survive long enough to get better, although it eventually did get better as the 60s went along.

Aquaman #1 from 1962.  "Thrilling" is not a word that I would use for the story.


Marvel came along with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the revived Captain America, etc, and while the stories and art were a bit crude, (Kirby and Ditko had yet to reach their artistic peaks at this point), they were exciting, and full of action, as the heroes went head-to-head against powerful villains, not knowing if they would be able to defeat them.  Furthermore, the heroes had more realistic problems that they weren't sure they could overcome, not silly soap-opera problems.  The Fantastic Four fought amongs themselves, Spider-Man was a troubled teen wanted by the police, Iron Man had to always worry about his chest-plate and protecting his heart, Bruce Banner couldn't control what he did as the Hulk, and usually couldn't control when he became the Hulk, etc.

Given the context of what was going on at DC, it becomes obvious why Marvel became popular.  Not that there weren't *some* bright spots at DC.  The new versions of the Flash and Green Lantern were both interesting and enjoyable, and The Doom Patrol were an interesting and unusual superhero group, for example.  

My Greatest Adventure #80 (1963) - Introducing The Doom Patrol, the World's Strangest Heroes.


Furthermore, the rise of Marvel gave DC a jolt, and throughout the 60s, DC tried different things to keep up with their competition, although what finally worked for DC was simply getting new, younger writers and artists in the late 60s and early 70s.  Plus, the Marvel formula was getting overworked and overextended by the late 60s, and the initial excitement they generated just wasn't sustainable.

Another interesting point is how Marvel's, or rather Atlas', monster and alien stories fed into their superhero foray.  Atlas?  You see, Marvel wasn't really a new company in the early 60's, that was just their latest company name.  They were originally Timely Comics back in the 40s, changed to Atlas Comics in the 50s, and became Marvel Comics in the 60s.  Stan Lee was no newcomer, either, as he had started with them back when they were Timely, and thus was quite familiar with superheroes.

Marvel Comics #1, published by Timely Comics (Not Marvel Comics) in 1939.  It includes The Human Torch, Namor the Submariner, and Ka-Zar, all characters to be revived by the later Marvel Comics company.


When Superman appeared in 1938, it started an explosion of superheroes and superhero comics.  There were several comic book companies in the 1940s, and they all had their superheroes among their other comics.  However, as the 1940s went on, superheroes seemed to be a dying trend. Most superhero titles were cancelled, and the surviving comic book companies continued by publishing various genre comics: westerns, romances, teen, funny animals, crime, horror, etc.  It was the crime and horror comics that especially disturbed Dr. Fredric Wertham, and which led to Congressional investigations and the development of the Comics Code Authority, a self-policing group within the comics industry.

Strange Tales #28 from 1954 - An especially scary cover pre-Comics Code Authority.  Notice the Atlas logo.


Ironically, it may have been thanks to Wertham and the Comics Code that superheroes made a comeback.  With the restrictions put upon comics, the crime and horror comics had trouble sustaining their popularity, and a return to superheroes allowed the comics companies to do something interesting and exciting while still staying within the limits of the code.  Superheroes could fight supervillains with stylized violence that didn't call for blood and gore.  However, DC didn't merely revive the Golden Age versions of Flash and Green Lantern, but created new versions of them.  When these did well, DC created the Justice League of America, a new superhero group, instead of trying to revive the Golden Age group Justice Society of America.



The first appearance of the JLA in The Brave and the Bold #28 (1960).  Superman and Batman were also part of the team, but de-emphasized for some reason.


It was the popularity of the JLA that led Martin Goodman, publisher at Atlas/Marvel, to ask Stan Lee to come up with a version of the Justice League.  Instead, Stan and Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four, and thus began the Marvel Age of Heroes.

Atlas, like the other publishers of the time, was publishing genre material like westerns, romance, and humor comics.  But because of Wertham and the Comics Code Authority, they had switched from doing straight horror and crime stories to stories mostly involving monsters and aliens. They did a LOT of monster and alien stories. So when Goodman wanted them to switch to superheroes, it was like they carried that monster and alien sensibility over to their superhero stories.

An early Tales to Astonish issue, Groot is both a monster and an alien!  But still approved by the Comics Code Authority.


The early Fanstastic Four shows this monster and alien sensibility.  The Fantastic Four were less like the Justice League and more like the Challengers of the Unknown, a title Jack Kirby had created for DC a few years before, but the FF had superpowers, whereas the Challengers were ordinary humans.  The FF's earliest foes were monsters and aliens; one of their members, the Thing, was for all intents and purposes, a monster, although he fought against bad guys. They didn't even have costumes until the third issue.

Fantastic Four #1 - No costumes as they fight a monster from the underground.


This monster and alien sensibility wasn't so strongly felt in other titles, but it was there.  Spider-Man runs into his share of monsters and aliens, too.  Thor's first Marvel appearance involved an alien invasion.  The Hulk was himself a monster, moreso than the Thing, because you couldn't be sure if he would do good or evil.  And even the Hulk encountered aliens early in his publishing history. 

The Hulk fights the alien Toad Men in his second issue, 1962.


But eventually, Marvel developed a more superhero sensibility, although monsters and aliens never completely left.  Once they had established enough superheroes, they even came up with their own version of the Justice League with the Avengers title.

Avengers #1 - Okay, they're fighting Loki, a Norse God, but technically he's still an alien to Earth!


But I still consider myself more of a DC fan than a Marvel Fan.  Sorry Stan!


3/16/2014

A Matter of Perspective

I found a great deal at the local dollar store.  I found a package of chip bag clips for a dollar.  Fifty of them in the package!  For a dollar!  Wow! 

The only thing I can't understand is why they called them "wooden clothespins"...Ha!

The clothespin with a 101 uses.


But seriously, I've tried those plastic chip bag clips, and while they're colorful, they're just not as strong as the even cheaper wooden clothespins, nor do they last as long.  The plastic ones tend to break too easily.

The cheap, plastic, breakable Chip Clip.


Furthermore, I use clothespins clipping all sorts of bags, and occasionally find other uses for them.  One use I *don't* have for clothespins is hanging wet clothes on a clothesline.  I can't recall ever using clothespins for their designed purpose, and I know few people who don't use an electric dryer to dry their clothes.

Even when my dryer was broken, I'd just hang my clothes over doors, chairs, shower curtain rods, and other places, and still didn't need clothespins. 

These are not the clothespins I am talking about.


So how about you?  Do you have things that you put to uses other than their intended use?  I bet you do. 

12/25/2013

My Variant on Eight Ball Pool

  Thanks to my girlfriend's nephew and son, I've been stuck with this pool table in my living room for some time now.  Yes, that would be great if I were an avid pool player, but really, I'm just an occasional, or "social" pool player.  Nonetheless, since it's so convenient, I've been playing more pool lately, and thinking about it. And, as I am wont to do, researching it.

  Pool is part of a wide variety of cue sports, and includes billiards, snooker, and carom.  Hey, I  used to have a carrom game when I was a kid, although I probably didn't play it according to the rules.

The cheap, Americanized version with the plastic rings that also lets you play chess, checkers, and backgammon on it.
More importantly, there are several different games and rules that can be played with a standard pool table and set (16 balls, 15 colored balls numbered 1 through 15 and a cue ball). The most popular version is Eight-Ball, which you've probably played yourself many times.  One player has to knock in the solids (balls 1 - 7) and the other player has to knock in the stripes (balls 9 - 14), and only once you have dropped all your balls can you go for the 8 ball.

One variant I've played since I was a kid, especially when playing by myself, is simply that you have to knock all the balls in in numerical order.  You have to drop ball 1 before you can go for ball 2, and so forth, until you drop ball 15 in last.  In this game the 8 ball is nothing special, just another ball to knock in after the 7 and before the 9.  I mistakenly called it Nine Ball, but apparently, that's a rather different game than what I played.

Pictured: A Nine-Ball rack


Much more recently, I came up with a simple variant on Eight-Ball that I rather like, based on the colors of the balls. At first, you can knock in any ball you want to, except for the 8-ball, but when you knock in one ball, you have to go after the other ball of the same color before you're free to shoot at any other balls.  So, for example, if you knock in the 10 ball, which is blue, you have to go after the blue 2 ball before you're free to shoot any other balls.

Furthermore, if, while going for the 2 ball, you accidentally knock in the green 6 ball, you now have to shoot for the blue 2 and the green 14 ball before you're free to shoot at any other balls.  Any other player can shoot your balls in for you with no penalty, but then, why would they want to help you?  ;-)  Once all the other balls are in, then the players can shoot for the 8-ball.

  This variant has several interesting features.  For one thing, it's just as easy for 3 players to play as it is for 2 or 4 players, as there's no need for teams.  It also creates a tremendous but temporary challenge as you are restricted to getting both balls of the same color before being free to shoot at any other ball. This variant also makes a good handicap game for widely mismatched players, as a good player could knock in most of the colored pairs, but still lose if the weak player ends up knocking in the 8-ball at the end. Unless you want to keep track of how many colored pairs each player knocks in.  Then, of course, the stronger player has the advantage.

Obviously, these rules aren't set in stone, so feel free to modify them as you see fit.  But I think it's a nice variation, especially if you're just playing for fun.

Upon checking, I found one variant that is somewhat similar to mine, although not exactly the same:  Cribbage Pool. In Cribbage, instead of knocking in pairs of the same color, you have to knock in pairs that add up to 15.  For example, if you knock in the 6 ball, you next have to knock in the 9 ball.  There are some other differences, as well, but it is at least similar to my variant. 

I gave it a try, and I'd say Cribbage is much more difficult than my variant.  With my variant, if you don't drop the matching colored ball, then you just keep trying (when it's your turn again) until you do.  With Cribbage, if  you don't make the matching ball, then the first ball that you dropped gets put back on the table.  If you're not very good at pool, a Cribbage game can last a long time.

So go play some pool!  And let me know if you like my variation on Eight-Ball in the comments.  Oh, and Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays and all that stuff...


4/29/2013

Comic Book Plus --A lasting stack of comics!

Okay, I discovered this great site some time ago, but for some reason, hesitated to blog about it.  I guess I hate to gush over something, especially if I'm not getting paid anything for it, but it's really hard for me to be critical of this site.  Comic Book Plus is a great site with tons of public domain comic material in their archive.   Old comic books, comic strips, fanzines, pulp magazines, and a few other odd things are available at their site, free to read online or download.  They currently have almost 18,000 books, and are adding more every day.

A lot of the material is the more obscure stuff that you've probably never heard of, but you'll also find some suprisingly well-known characters in the archive, due to carelessness or negligence or who knows what on the part of certain comic book companies.  The original Captain Marvel, Plastic Man, The Spirit, Blackhawk, The Phantom Lady, and more.

You'll also find some great early work by many of comics' great artists, although unless you know what you're looking for, you'll merely stumble across them.  For example, Wally Wood doing the artwork for an adaptation of one of the Fu Manchu novels, in the early '50s.

And naturally, there's much to explore for the historical buffs.  See the earliest comics transition from illustrated pulps to superhero fare.  Check out the wider variety of genre material from the 1950's, when superheroes were a dying fad.  Horror, romance, westerns, funny animals and humor, science fiction, crime fiction, and even some decent detective fiction.

I've long been a fan of mysteries and detective fiction, since my childhood days of reading Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, and it's always bothered me how little detective fiction there's been in comics, at least since the 1970's, when I started reading comics.  But there were more mysteries and detective fiction in the older comics.  Not only were there short-lived comic book series of Charlie Chan, The Saint, and Sherlock Holmes, but there were others that were conceived as comic book characters, and not merely adaptations from prose, such as Ken Shannon, Private Detective.

Besides the large archive of a wide variety of material, the site itself has some nifty features, too.  If you create an account, the site will track what you read for you, and let you create bookmarks and such.  There's a forum for discussions, of course, and as I already mentioned, you can read the comics online if you want, without having to download and decompress them to your hard drive.  Save the hard drive space for just your favorites.

There's probably more that I've forgotten to mention, but why don't you go check it out for yourself?  You're bound to find something you'll like, whatever your tastes.


3/16/2013

A Libertarian View on Religion

  Recently, a religious person asked me if I was happy about being an atheist.  I wasn't expecting such a question, and mumbled something along the lines of "I guess so".  But upon a moment's reflection, I realized that there's a problem not just with the answer, but with the question.  Why should there be any significant emotional content in being an atheist?

Assuming that one is not simply being contradictory or rebellious for its own sake, atheism is merely a logical conclusion based upon available evidence (or lack of evidence).  So why should I be particularly happy about being atheist anymore than I should be happy about the sun rising every morning, or that letting go of an object above ground level causes it to fall to the ground?  Atheism is just a rational conclusion, and it is probably best not to invest too much emotion into it.  There's no particular point in being smugly confident about being an atheist for example, or to be overly pessimistic about a lack of an afterlife.  If you're too emotional about atheism, then you're probably believing in it for the wrong reasons, and should re-think why you are an atheist.

In a related point, there is the question of how libertarians "ought" to treat religion.  From a strictly technical standpoint, libertarians should be probably be neutral about religion, as long as religion is not an excuse to initiate force or fraud against other people.  In short, libertarianism is *merely* a political philosophy, and has little or nothing to say about anything that is not political.  A person should thus be free to believe in any nonsense they want to believe in, as long as they are not aggressing against other people.

But if there is no God and no afterlife, aren't religious people perpetuating a fraud against other people?  Not necessarily.  While there are no doubt some people who are hypocrites or outright liars, and merely use religion as a means of controlling and manipulating other people, many religious people truly believe in the tenets of their religion, and thus cannot be said to be initiating fraud against others.  You can't be engaging in fraud if you believe it yourself.

Nonetheless, even though libertarianism doesn't specifically preclude religious beliefs, there may still be a problem with having religious convictions.  Libertarianism is essentially just a basic principle, the non-aggression principle, followed through to its logical implications and conclusions.  Religious convictions are essentially beliefs held for decidedly non-logical reasons.  Thus, while being an atheist doesn't require emotional content, being religious certainly does require an emotional investment on the part of the religious person, and a decided lack of reason and logic to continue to hold religious beliefs.

The mind tends to work hard to justify emotional beliefs, resulting in such things as alleged logic of Intelligent Design, and its supposed superiority over evolutionary theory. And if you can believe in one impossible thing, then why not two, or even, like Alice in Wonderland, six impossible things before breakfast? 

The libertarian who holds illogical religious beliefs is thus at greater risk for distorting libertarian views to justify an illogical implication or conclusion.  For example, libertarians who believe in immigration restrictions.  Admittedly, religious belief is not the only illogical view that puts one at risk for distorting libertarianism.  People who believe in the supernatural, UFO's, or conspiracy theories are also exhibiting illogical or irrational tendencies. 

Religious people are still in the great majority of the mainstream, however, and religion still strongly influences our society.  If you think about it, aren't devout Christians as much a threat, if not a greater threat, to our Western intellectual values and the Classical Liberal tradtion than are believers of other religions, like Muslims?  Christians are in a much better position to distort and undermine the culture of science and free inquiry than any Muslim could be. Perhaps Christian Conservatives and liberal hippies are both on the wrong side of the Culture War.

2/04/2013

Imagination, Art & Entertainment, and Interactivity

There's always a certain degree of interactivity between the viewer or consumer of art and entertainment and the work.  I'm not going to try to define art, nor will I try to make a sharp distinction between art and entertainment.  Instead, I will suggest that such distinctions are best made by the viewer of the work.

Whether we're talking about a novel, a movie, a comic book, a song, or even a painting or sculpture, in all cases, the creator's work is meaningless until the viewer or consumer of the work brings their own ideas and imagination to bear upon the work.  Of course, the work has meaning to the creator, but the creator is also a view/consumer of his own work, so the creator actually has a dual role, both in creating the work, and in attributing his own meaning or interpretation to the work. And this meaning or interpretation may be quite different from how others view his work.

Art is largely subjective, because the viewer brings their own meaning or interpretation to the works that they view.  Oh, sure, there are objective aspects of art that can be defined and measures, but these only have to do with the "production quality" of the work, which can be affected by the training and experience of the creator, as well as by technology.  An obvious example of technology is how film quality has changed since its inception, with improved filming cameras and techniques, and now computer processing, but even writers may have been subtly affected by the development of the typewriter, and later the word processor and personal computer in how they go about writing novels and stories.

Nonetheless, the meaning and interpretation of a work is largely independent of the technology used to create the work, and rests solely with each individual viewer of the work, and thus is subjective.  This goes a long ways towards explaining differences in artistic tastes, not only from person to person, but between different cultures, separated by distance or time. A person growing up in the United States will be familiar with various pop music icons like Elvis or the Beatles, while a person growing up in India may be more familiar with their own native ragas than with Elvis.

But these environmental and cultural influences are only tendencies towards certain influences and styles--people are still individuals capable of choice and change.  If your parents listened to country music while you were growing up, you may have rebelled as a teen and listened to rock, instead.  But even if you did, you might still find that as an adult you like country music.  Or you may have encountered jazz or classical as you got older and decided that you liked those styles of music instead of, or in addition to, country and rock. In any case, it's a sure bet that you wouldn't like Indian ragas if they were unavailable to you and you had never heard them. 

One thing I find interesting is how variable this attribution of meaning can be even within the same person.  If you're tired or ill, you may find it more difficult to enjoy even a favorite novel, movie, or song than if you were well-rested and focusing on the work.  Or you may find new meaning upon repeated viewings/readings/listenings of the work.  Having supplemental or background material about the work and creator may also influence how you view the work.  That's one of the reasons I like the special features that are often included with dvds.  I like seeing things like how the movie was made, or what the producer/director or principal actors thought about the movie they made. 

There also seems to be a degree of interactivity that can be brought to bear upon the work.  What was the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky really trying to show the reader in The Brothers Karamazov? What was its theme?  When Randy Newman wrote the song "Short People", was he really trying to offend short people, or was he trying to highlight the bigotry of not liking short people?  In the science fiction movie "Total Recall" (either version, they're quite similar in regards to the plot), is the main character Douglas Quaid really a deep-cover secret agent, or is his espionage adventure just an implanted dream or memory?  These are the types of questions each individual has to think about and decide for themselves.

Even the medium can affect the degree of interactivity.  When reading a prose story, the author can describe characters and settings, but it still requires the reader to imagine what things look like, and how certain things described in the story actually work.  With film, actors, props, and settings are all visible to the viewer, so less imagination is necessary.  Still, a good movie like "The Matrix", "Inception", or the previously mentioned "Total Recall" can make the viewer question if what he is seeing is "real" or not.

This idea of subjective interactivity can also be brought to bear upon non-fiction, or even upon reality itself.  When reading an account of a scientific event, for example, you have to know enough science and the terms they use to understand what the article or account is telling you. When watching or reading a news story, you have to understand if they are reporting facts for you to interpret, or if they are merely giving you a second-hand account or interpretation of the events.  Is that National Enquirer headline really reporting the fact that Elvis is alive and living incognito in North Dakota, or are they merely reporting that someone else is saying that Elvis is alive, without sufficient evidence of their assertion?  Is history really a set of facts written down?  Or is it a set of facts that the historian deemed as important, and thus ignoring the rest of the available facts?  Or is it even just the historian's interpretation of a set of facts, and not the facts themselves?  Again, just like fiction, the individual has to bring their own understanding and interpretation to bear upon what is presented to them.

And isn't that how reality itself works?  Your senses perceive raw data, such as the light that reaches your eyes, and your mind interprets that data to tell you what you've seen. Thus, reality itself may indeed be quite objective, but our perception of reality is subject to how we interpret the data of reality, the meaning that we individuals ascribe to our circumstances and situations.

What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction, then?  Fiction could be said to be an attempt to create meaning by describing a set of facts or events, while nonfiction attempts to find meaning by discovering and interpreting a set of facts or events.

And now I believe I've strayed far from my original starting point.  I suppose I should be providing my grand conclusion or thesis at this point, but I don't really have one.  I've presented my interpretation of various facts, tried to see if there's a connection or relationship between them, and I now leave it up to you to come up with the conclusion to be derived from it.