23 October 2020

COVID Positivity Rates at My University

Every Friday, my university updates its COVID case tracker. They list how many students had a positive test in the past week; this can come from either testing positive in the campus health center, or from a student obtaining a positive test result off campus. Of course, this means the total number of infected students is probably higher. Unlike some other schools (my grad school alma mater, UConn, for example), UT does not do random testing, and some students test positive at off-campus venues and don't report it to UT. On top of that, students have told me that if you go to the health center and ask for a test, they try to discourage you from getting one if you're not symptomatic.

The chart is somewhat striking:

We had an initial steep rise, things backed off somewhat, and in the past couple weeks have bounced back up.

Now, I should say I am not terribly worried about my personal safety. While 550 students have reported positive cases since the semester began, only 5 faculty and staff have-- and the Dean informed us at this week's college meeting that contact tracing indicates all those faculty and staff were infected off campus, not in pursuit of their college duties. So it seems the things we're doing in the classroom to mitigate transmission (limited class sizes, masks, and so on) are working. Students are getting infected in their social interactions, in the dorms, and at parties and clubs and so on.

(That said, we were told to make seating charts for contact tracing... and never given anywhere to submit those seating charts, and no one has ever contacted me to do contact tracing when any of my students have become infected.)

I know from talking to my students, that some students take it very seriously, and some students absolutely do not take it seriously at all. An old student I chatted to this week who is playing it totally safe-- they and their suitemates do no go out, and do not interact-- told me they thought it was probably around 45/55 don't take it seriously / do take it seriously.

The Tampa Bay Times has a weekly feature where they round up all the COVID statistics from local schools: K-12 and higher education. If you read this column, what will strike you is that the number of students infected at the University of South Florida is usually about the same as the number infected at UT:

Until the past couple weeks, at least, when USF's kept level but UT's swung back up. (The Times first reported the total number of infected USF students in its 5 Sept. column.)

But of course USF is a big state school, and UT is a mid-sized private one. So yesterday I sat down and worked out the positive tests as a percentage of total population. UT has 9,605 students enrolled this fall, though that includes students taking classes remotely and (I think) on-line. USF's three campuses had 50,927 students enrolled as of the 2019-20 school year (I couldn't find this year's numbers), though that includes things like the graduate program and the medical school (but I think the positive case numbers do too). The numbers might not be exactly comparable, but the ballpark idea that there are five times as many USF students than UT ones ought to be valid. If you graph as a percentage of total population, the differences are stark:

USF has never even broken 0.2% of students testing positive in a single week. I also looked at the cumulative cases thus far. (This is not quite accurate, because I think if you report multiple positive tests you would get counted again each week that happens, but it gives a sense of how many students overall have been infected at some point.)

At this point, over 5% of UT's population has had a positive COVID test at some point, while not even 1% of USF's has!

Quite why this should be, I don't know. Does USF have fewer in-person students? (UT made it difficult for students to go fully remote.) Do they actually enforce their penalties for partying? Are they just even worse at testing than UT? Is it about the location? (UT is downtown, USF is out in Temple Terrace.) Do UT students just like to party more than USF students?

I don't know what the cause is but it seems to speak poorly of either the behavior of students or administration (or both) at UT.

21 October 2020

Review: The Tyrant Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Published: 2020
Acquired: August 2020
Read: September 2020

The Tyrant Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

If The Traitor Baru Cormorant was a razor blade-- sharp and focused and incisive-- then the middle duology of this trilogy, The Monster Baru Cormorant and The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, is a Swiss army knife-- still sharp but full of bits that I don't understand why they're there. I reserved judgment on Monster until I finished Tyrant, but now that I've read both, I have to admit... I don't get it.

Let's start with the end. So, um, some spoilers, though I'll try to keep them light. The book ends with Baru-- an agent of the Imperial Throne, but secretly dedicated to overthrowing it-- establishing a trading concern. The ostensible purpose of the trading concern is to enable the Masquerade's exploitation of a new country; the real purpose is for Baru to ultimately destabilize and overthrow the Masquerade, replacing it with something better. The climax of the book is Baru's machinations pulling this off. But the climax sits awkwardly on the rest of the book, because the trading concern is largely a background element, and it comes together mostly offscreen. The actual plot of the book is Baru first trying to escape from the Cancrioth (a weird group of people who pass memories over generations via tumors) and then trying to contain their threat. We spend the first two hundred pages just with Baru trying to get off a boat! The climax feels like it comes from a totally different novel. You can write a book about someone trying to fight an enemy, but then the climax needs to be about that! Or you can write a book that climaxes with an economic coup de grâce, but then the book really needed to be about economics (as the first Baru Cormorant book was) throughout. It feels like Dickinson had an ending in mind, but didn't know how to get there, or like he had a plot in mind, but his editor told him he couldn't write an 1,100-page story about economics. I don't know that either of these is true, but that's what it feels like, and the result is an unearned ending.

The result is also an uninteresting book. The beginning especially piles complication upon complication, but if Dickinson was going for one of those situations where things keep escalating, it instead just feels messy. Person after person after person shows up, and Baru keeps getting jerked around, but it goes on so long, it loses all sense of urgency. Even once Baru gets off the boat, the book still kind of limps along. Supposedly a deadly plague ship is coming... but Baru has the time to attend a fancy masked ball and flirt, which really drains the book of the feeling that there's any kind of imminent danger. The periodic insertions of flashback chapters does so too; yes they kind of end up plot relevant, but there are too many of them, and they go on too much, and tell us too little of interest. Ultimately, I'm not really sure why the cancer people are even in the book. They feel like a neat idea that belongs in a different story that is actually about them; there is an attempt to analogize them to imperialism, but I didn't think the analogy really took off or did anything interesting. I came here for a book about Baru taking down an evil empire from within and getting corrupted in the process... instead I got a book about her trying to get off a boat and stop a plague ship. Obviously authors shouldn't do exactly what you expect of them, but I feel like the end of Traitor made a promise that Monster and Tyrant failed to keep.

Aside from the plot, a big point of contention for me is Baru herself. Supposedly Baru is a super-competent agent-- but this is undermined by two things. One is that she far too often blurts out naïve or revealing questions or statements. The other is that so many people turn up who can tell what she really thinks... far more than ones who seem to be fooled by her! When one character states that surely Baru must have yet another selfish, out-for-herself plan, I was like... what? why? Almost nothing Baru does in this book or the previous one would lead me to believe she's fooling anyone; everyone seems to know she's really out to destroy the Masquerade on behalf of her dead lover.

But like I said, the book is sharp at times. The bit where Baru goes home is good; I liked Baru's relationship with the Clarified woman; the ideas are often interesting; the worldbuilding is strong; the book raises (though sometimes too obviously) questions about complicity and resistance with authoritarian regimes. And the series still has a lot of goodwill from me on the basis of Traitor. I think I will still be there for a fourth book, so I can see it through to the end, though the author's afterword makes it seem as though he might not be there for it! It looks like it will be a long time before book 4, if ever.

19 October 2020

Review: Fauna by Christiane Vadnais

Translation published: 2020
Originally published: 2018
Acquired and read: October 2020

Fauna by Christiane Vadnais
translated by Pablo Strauss

This is a series of linked short stories, published in French in 2018, and just now translated into English. The stories all take place in and near a town called Shivering Heights, where something strange is happening: the people have attributes of animals, some have voracious appetites, and a parasite is changing the local ecosystem. The stories mostly center on a biologist from outside the community who comes to investigate it, but there are other ones about its residents: a young man who falls in love with her, a group of people staying together in a cabin as their numbers dwindle, an HR administrator visiting a spa.

There are some great visuals and metaphors here, but none of the individual stories came together for me. Strange things happen, and some I get, but many just seemed strange for the sake of strange. Which can work-- I don't think this is the kind of sf that trades on explanations-- but then something else needs to carry you through the story-world, and I didn't think the characters interesting enough or the themes complex enough to do it. Why can't Laura's lover find her when she leaves, and why does everyone else act like they've never even heard of her? What does the opening story about the spa have to do with anything?

I did like "In Vivo," where Laura (the biologist) comes to term with her own infection, and her apparent pregnancy. This one felt like it had something to say, about how we get supplanted, as individuals by our progeny, and as species by whatever can succeed better as the ecology of the world changes. I wish more of them had been like this, sharp sets of observations focused on a compelling idea.

16 October 2020

Pandemic Pedagogy: Week Eight

Somehow it's the eighth week of the semester already, meaning we're over halfway through. (Here at UT this semester at least, we're running fourteen weeks of instruction, though the last week is just the two days of Thanksgiving week.)

This is the point where you begin to get a feel, I think, for what works and what doesn't-- but it's also the point where I feel locked in no matter what. I know other instructors pride themselves on their ability to be adaptable on the fly, but I hate make any substantive changes to class during the semester; I'd much rather be locked into a bad plan than try to come up with a new plan and implement it midstream.

As I've said here before, we're "hybrid." Administration wants as many students in the classroom as can happen with social distancing, and they want things to be as synchronous as possible. I can accommodate eleven students in the classroom at a time. But we also have to work with students who are fully remote (I have one student in Turkey and another in Peru), and students who can't come to class any given week because they tested positive for coronavirus or their roommate did. I don't like the idea of livestreaming the classroom experience (sounds awful), so I do it like this:

  • MONDAY: All students attend class over Zoom (I teach from home).
    • They usually have "prework" for the Monday Zoom sessions.
  • WEDNESDAY: Half of the students attend class in person.
    • There is prework for this.
  • FRIDAY: The other half of students attend class; I reteach the same material I taught Wednesday.
  • SATURDAY: They have "weekly work" due; this is often meant to take the place of the "missing" day.
    • Additionally, if they didn't attend Wednesday/Friday, they have some kind of "alternative" replacement assignment that is due, too.

It's okay but it could be better. Making the work due on Saturdays was meant to give them maximum flexibility in deciding when to get it done. But I think this results in them doing a lot of work at the last minute on Saturday (or not at all). It also gives me too much temptation to introduce stuff in a Friday class that I intend them to use in an assignment due on Saturday, which means my encouragements to work ahead within a given week are kind of meaningless!

We've got the same format in the spring, so I will have to tweak it to make it work. I think I will go back to a more traditional M/W/F format for homework like we're in a "normal" semester. Something like:

  • MONDAY: All students attend class over Zoom.
    • Homework is due by the time of class.
  • WEDNESDAY: Half of students attend class in person.
    • Homework for all students is due by the time of class.
  • FRIDAY: Other half of students attend class in person.
    • The work for the "missing day" is due-- perhaps at 11:59pm since it won't be tied to a particular class session.

I suspect this will be a little confusing, but I also suspect that anything I do in the current circumstances will be a little confusing. I need to figure out a way to make the class Blackboard site more navigable; right now I do folders for each week, with a subfolder for each day. This works well if you are keeping up, I think, but becomes a nightmare if you fall behind. You can see in "My Grades" you haven't done the Quiz on Paraphrasing, but in what folder and subfolder is the Quiz on Paraphrasing? I'm not sure what the best way to handle this is, though, because it seems to me that having all assignments in one kind of common area would be overwhelming, too.

The other thing is that my "weekly work" has been kind of minimal. This was by design: I know from last semester that you have to be less ambitious in what you cover when it is being covered outside of class. Activities that move quickly in class with you there take students forever when you are not. But I think I swerved too much in the other direction, and there is content I just don't have the time to deliver! I am grading annotated bibliographies right now, and though I will say that is always a tricky assignment for my students, the quality this semester is much lower than in the past. (Not for everyone, but definitely for the students who are less able to handle work that is more self-directed.)

The spring will be strange, though, because we will have no spring break. Instead there will be four reading days across the course of the semester, and three of them are on Fridays, meaning I will have to work around that in my attempt to impose some kind of regular pattern on the class!

14 October 2020

Review: Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain by David Gerard

Published: 2017
Read: September 2020

Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain: Bitcoin, Blockchain, Ethereum and Smart Contracts
by David Gerard

Like me, David Gerard is a poster to the subreddit known as "Sneer Club," dedicated to dunking on Internet "rationalists," that weird subculture that believes in granting intellectual charity to all ideologies including Nazis and white nationalists but not feminists and "SJWs," though Gerard is much more prolific (and posts under his real name). Gerard's book is a guide to bitcoin, a thing I have never understood despite no matter how many explanations of it I have heard/read, and it sounded interesting enough to ask my local library to buy it. Well, I still don't entirely get it, but I don't know if I could come any closer to understanding than this given my level of technical know-how. Gerard is a tech guy himself and skewers a lot of the assumptions around bitcoin and the blockchain, pointing out it has immense technical and logistical challenges it will basically never overcome, thus preventing it from ever really taking off in the way its adherents claim. So anyone proselytizing it is either trying to dupe you, or is themself a dupe.

It's a fun book: a lot of the stuff here is pretty ridiculous, and he doesn't shy away from saying so. The bitcoin exchanges run by literal teenagers on security-free PHP was pretty mind-boggling! As a Tampa Bay resident, I of course was interested in the very short-lived Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl. The tales of how hard it is to actually spend bitcoin are interesting, and I was fascinating by the story of how when the Mozilla Foundation trialed putting a "donate in bitcoin" button their donations page, their total donations actually went down, so little do people trust bitcoin. A lot of ransomware folks take payment only in bitcoin, and so they actually have customer service teams dedicated to helping you acquire it, or they would never get paid. The mysterious inventor of bitcoin-- and those who have pretended to be him-- was also interesting, and so were all the tales of bitcoin hucksters, including the guy who kept a list of his crimes on his computer in a .txt file, and then later tried to claim it was someones else's work.

This is a quick read; if you're already skeptical of the technology (as I was), you will have your biases confirmed. I don't know if it would win over an adherent, but it seems pretty obvious to me that bitcoin can just not be what its proponents promise or hope for.

12 October 2020

"a sweet distraction for an hour or two": Octopussy

"Octopussy" is a short story, and not a very cinematic one at that, so going into the film I had little idea how they would adapt it, especially as one element of the story-- that Bond was essentially raised by an Alpine ski instructor after his parents died (is that why Bond movies always involve ski chases?)-- was one of the ingredients of Spectre, making me thing it must not have been used in a previous film.

The film at first actually owes more to "The Property of a Lady," another of the short stories in the Octopussy & The Living Daylights collection. In the short story, the Russians pay off a spy in the Secret Service by arranging for her to "inherit" a Fabergé egg from a supposed distant relative, which she then has auctioned off. The story is pretty simple stuff; Bond goes to the auction to see if the Russians have planted anyone to drive up the price so that their agent gets more money. They have, and he nabs them. The plot of Octopussy is considerably more complicated; the Russians are making fake Fabergé eggs (among other jewelry) but auctioning off real ones in the UK. Another 00 agent steals one of these duplicates from a circus in Berlin, so the Russians need to get the real one back when it's auctioned off. Okay, but why are they doing this? My wife and I paused the film a number of times trying to figure out the plot, and never really did. The last act is all about a crazed Russian general using the jewelry smugglers to plant a nuclear bomb in a circus performing at an American military base in West Berlin; it will look like an American bomb went off by mistake, meaning Western calls for unilateral disarmament will be successful, allowing Soviet tanks to sweep in and conquer western Europe. But why are they duplicating and smuggling jewelry? Just as a lucrative side hustle? I guess so.

I mean, I get that Bond villains often have overcomplicated plots, but no one in the movie even stops to act like this one makes sense.

The plot of the short story "Octopussy" actually does come into play. Bond, investigating the smuggling, goes to India to look into an exiled Afghan prince; while there, he meets "Octopussy," who has repurposed an ancient octopus cult as a smuggling concern that manages circuses too. In the story, Bond finds out a former British army officer killed a ski instructor and stole some gold; he goes to arrest him, but gives him twenty-four hours to turn himself in, during which the man commits suicide. (In the story, it is suicide by his pet octopus, "Octopussy.") In the film, this happened many years ago, and Octopussy is the daughter of the man. I'm not really sure why the plot of the short story is wedged into the film like this-- Octopussy rattles all this backstory off in a quick speech, and then none of it is ever relevant to anything.

Anyway, outside of all that, this is a pretty typical lower-tier Roger Moore Bond film. At their best, the Moore Bond films have these sublimely ridiculous vehicle moments, and Octopussy has a few of those: a plane hidden in a horse van in the teaser sequence, a chase through an Indian bazaar in three-wheeled taxis, a crocodile submersible for aquatic infiltrations, Bond's car shredding its tires but then sliding onto a railroad track and chasing a train(!), a hot-air balloon with a Union Jack on it. But none of these quite approach the sublimity of similar moments in For Your Eyes Only or The Spy Who Loved Me.

The Bond girls are perfunctory, too. Maud Adams didn't really win me over as Octopussy; for the leader of an international smuggling ring, she comes across as pretty wimpy. Kristina Wayborn seemed unnatural as Magda. As always, Roger Moore's flirtation is so perfunctory it's hard to imagine anyone could actually be charmed by him, though he's not as smarmy and boorish as he would be in his next and final film, A View to a Kill.

At the beginning of the film, 009 appears briefly; he's dressed as a clown. I thought to myself, "I bet 007 never has to do anything as undignified as that." At the end of the film,  Bond dresses first as a gorilla... and then, well:

His big heroic moment comes when he's dressed as a clown! Do you think they will make Daniel Craig do this in No Time to Die? It was all a bit ridiculous in the worst way. (Moore's comedy chops really come through in the awesome sequence where he hides inside the gorilla costume, though.)

I think there was promise here. India looks great, and there are lots of neat ideas. But the whole thing feels aimless and sloppy, like it was made up as they went along.

Other Notes:
  • The film introduces an assistant for Miss Moneypenny, Penelope Smallbone. I'm not sure why, because she is only in one scene, has nothing to do with anything, and never appears in another Bond film. Was she designed as a potential replacement for Lois Maxwell that was never used? (When she did eventually leave the role, they would just recast.)
  • This is the fifth Bond film I've seen with General Gogol in it; he was antagonistic to Bond in some of the earlier ones, but here, despite being head of the KGB, he is a figure of reason, opposing the plan of the villain.
  • Speaking of which, Bond doesn't even get to take out the main villain himself; Gogol has him gunned down as he tries to cross the border from East to West Berlin.
  • One small role is Vijay Amritraj as, um, Vijay, a Section I agent who helps Bond out in India. The actor and character are immensely likable-- which means, of course, that he is utterly doomed.
  • Gary Russell-- who would go on to write a number of very bad Doctor Who novels and to mastermind Big Finish's Doctor Who range during its first seven years-- briefly appears in the film as one of a group of joyriding teenagers who don't give Bond a lift.
 Film Rankings (So Far):
  1. Casino Royale
  2. Dr. No
  3. From Russia with Love
  4. For Your Eyes Only 
  5. On Her Majesty's Secret Service
  6. Thunderball
  7. Spectre
  8. You Only Live Twice
  9. Goldfinger
  10. The Spy Who Loved Me
  11. Moonraker
  12. Octopussy
  13. Never Say Never Again
  14. A View to a Kill
  15. Live and Let Die 
  16. Diamonds Are Forever

09 October 2020

Why Are Vampires Uniquely Vulnerable to Stakes?

Everyone knows that vampires are vulnerable to stakes. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am pretty sure there's a time a vampire accidentally gets a splinter in its finger and-- bam!-- he turns into a cloud of dust.

But why is this?

I am sure all kinds of different vampire stories have offered their own explanations and rationalizations. In the excellent 1998 British vampire techno-thriller Ultraviolet, the vampire-hunting task force uses "carbon bullets" as a modern upgrade to stakes, so apparently vampires are somehow vulnerable to organic compounds entering their body at high velocity.

Like much of modern vampire lore, it all goes back to Dracula. But also like much of modern vampire lore, it's much more based on someone's hazy memory of Dracula rather than anything actually in the novel.

I recently listened to an audio drama, Dracula's War, that was a sequel to a faithful adaptation of Dracula from Big Finish Productions (I have a review of the original here; I haven't written my review of War yet). There's one scene where Mina Harker and Van Helsing must fight their way through an army of vampires on a train, and so they are staking vampires left and right, turning them to dust.

This made me go, "hang on!" I thought this was supposed to be a faithful adaptation?

If you go back to Bram Stoker's novel, it's not that vampires are uniquely vulnerable to stakes. Here's the first time stakes are mentioned, when Jonathan Harker and Van Helsing are discussing what is to be done about Lucy now that she's a vampire:

“Do not press me too hard all at once. I am willing to accept. How will you do this bloody work?”
     “I shall cut off her head and fill her mouth with garlic, and I shall drive a stake through her body.” (210)*

Lucy is vulnerable to stakes in the same way that you or I are vulnerable to stakes: if you drive one through her heart, she dies. It's just that since Lucy is dead, this is the only thing she is vulnerable to.

If you pause and think about, it would actually be quite hard to drive a stake through someone's body. It's not the kind of thing you would get the force to do just by thrusting really hard with one in your hand. Indeed, it turns out to be pretty tough work. Harker tells us that Van Helsing took out

a round wooden stake, some two and a half or three inches thick and about three feet long. One end of it was hardened by charring in the fire, and was sharpened to a fine point. With this stake came a heavy hammer, such as in households is used in the coal-cellar for breaking the lumps. (221)

Then, Van Helsing gives the stake to Arthur Holmwood and tells him what to do:

“Take this stake in your left hand, ready to place the point over the heart, and the hammer in your right. Then when we begin our prayer for the dead — I shall read him, I have here the book, and the others shall follow — strike in God’s name, that so all may be well with the dead that we love and that the Un-Dead pass away.”
     Arthur took the stake and the hammer, and when once his mind was set on action his hands never trembled nor even quivered. Van Helsing opened his missal and began to read, and Quincey and I followed as well as we could. Arthur placed the point over the heart, and as I looked I could see its dint in the white flesh. Then he struck with all his might.
     The Thing in the coffin writhed; and a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions; the sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut, and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam. But Arthur never faltered. He looked like a figure of Thor as his untrembling arm rose and fell, driving deeper and deeper the mercy-bearing stake, whilst the blood from the pierced heart welled and spurted up around it. His face was set, and high duty seemed to shine through it; the sight of it gave us courage so that our voices seemed to ring through the little vault.
     And then the writhing and quivering of the body became less, and the teeth seemed to champ, and the face to quiver. Finally it lay still. The terrible task was over. (223)

It's hardly the clean, antiseptic transformation into dust! I mean, how else would you get a stake through someone's rib cage into their heart? It certainly isn't a thing one could do by one's self, with one's hands, in the middle of a battle! But nothing else will kill a vampire, for they are already dead.

And why do they turn into dust? You'll note that Lucy did not. Van Helsing says that this ought to happen to Dracula, according to Jonathan: "If the Count is there, Van Helsing and Seward will cut off his head at once and drive a stake through his heart. [...] The Professor says that if we can so treat the Count’s body, it will soon after fall into dust" (329). Why is explained later, when Van Helsing kills Dracula's vampire minions where they sleep in their tombs:

hardly had my knife severed the head of each, before the whole body began to melt away and crumble in to its native dust, as though the death that should have come centuries agone had at last assert himself and say at once and loud “I am here!”  (362)

Later, Dracula does turn into dust when he is stabbed with a knife (not a stake!) by Quincey at the same moment Harker slits his throat. It seems that the reason is the same for him as for his minions; when a vampire ceases to be Un-Dead, the decay that should have happened catches up to its corpse. Decay of days does little to Lucy, but the decay of centuries means that only dust is left of Dracula.

So vampires are not vulnerable to stakes-- it's just that they're invulnerable to almost everything else, because they're already dead.

Now, fine, adaptations can do what they want. But I do object to an adaptation that bills itself as faithful taking its cues from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and not the actual novel!

* All of my citations of Dracula are from the 2002 Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism edition from Bedford/St. Martin's, which reprints the text of the 1897 first edition.

07 October 2020

Review: Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Volume Two by Paul Levitz, Gerry Conway, Joe Staton, et al.

Comic hardcover, 463 pages
Published 2018 (contents: 1978-80)
Acquired July 2018
Read July 2020
Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, Volume Two

Writers: Paul Levitz, Paul Kupperberg, Len Wein, Gerry Conway, Steve Apollo 
Pencillers: James Sherman, Arvell Jones, Joe Staton, Steve Apollo, Dick Dillin, Steve Ditko
Inkers: Bob McLeod, Danny Bulanadi, Jack Abel, Joe Giella, Murphy Anderson, Dick Giordano, Dave Hunt, Joe Staton, Frank Chiaramonte, Vince Colletta, Dan Adkins
Colorists: Cory Adams, Gene D'Angelo, Glynis Wein, Adrienne Roy, Jerry Serpe
Letterers: Ben Oda, Shelly Leferman, Jean Simek, Todd Klein, Mike Stevens, Milt Snapinn

DC inches ever closer to plugging the gap between the last Legion of Super-Heroes Archive and The Great Darkness Saga with this, the second and final volume of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes. (The just-annonced Before the Darkness series will continue from where this collection leaves off.) I'm glad this collection exists, but it's not the Legion's best material.

I don't know much behind-the-scenes information for this era, but the book gives every indication of being jerked around. First we have the five-part Earthwar saga scripted by Paul Levitz, where Earth is invaded by Khunds working for Mordru (to be honest, I don't remember who Mordru is). This is okay: it does nicely subvert your expectations at points, and the events are big... but they never feel big. When Levitz came back to the book for The Great Darkness Saga, he would do much better and more epic work than he did here, and it would feel meaningful to the characters in a way this sorely does not.

James Sherman, why couldn't you have stuck around for more than two issues?
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #241 (script by Paul Levitz, art by James Sherman & Bob McLeod)

Then we get a couple issues written or co-written by Len Wein that read like inventory stories to me, with small references to the recent big events shoehorned in. I did kind of like the idea of "Savage Sanctuary!", where the Fatal Five kind of go legit, though the actual story got a bit stupid. The rule forbidding married couples to be in the Legion is rescinded, and thus Saturn Girl and Lightning Lad rejoin, and Lightning Lad is elected to leadership in short order, replacing Wildfire.

Poor Emerald Empress.
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #247 (script by Len Wein, art by Joe Staton & Jack Abel)

Then we have a couple stories by Gerry Conway that more directly deal with the aftermath of Earthwar-- suddenly Earth is a wreck in need of repair. These are okay, nothing special. (Brainiac is extra jerk-like, which I assume is to set up the next story, though.)

That's uh, quite an outfit. (How does Reep having the hots for humanoid women fit with Invasion!'s revelation that the actual form of Durlans is a weird squid monster?)
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #249 (script by Paul Kupperberg, art by Joe Staton)

Then we have a couple stories by Steve Apollo (better known as Jim Starlin) that were clearly orignally written to slot in around the time of Earthwar, with some last-minute dialogue tweaks: lip service is given to the fact that Lightning Lad is leader, but he and Saturn Girl aren't in the story even though it supposedly features all active Legionnaires (even Tyroc turns up!); Wildfire is clearly in charge. In this story, Brainiac is revealed to be a murderer, having gone insane, and Matter-Eater Lad goes insane, too. Not a lot of it makes sense. I didn't really buy any of this, and why do we need another giant attack on Earth when we just had one?

Tall panel!
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #250 (plot & layouts by Steve Apollo, script by Paul Levitz, art by Dave Hunt)

Then Gerry Conway takes over permanently, dealing with the fallout of Apollo's story... but his stories are repetitive (three different ones are about people coming to take revenge on the Legion for slights, real or imagined) and contrived (the one where Superboy makes people think Legionnaires are dead by activating a latent chemical in their bloodstreams is particularly bad). Brainiac is healed in an entirely unconvincing way, and the Legion undertakes bizarre lengths to do it. The only thing I liked was the subplot about how R. J. Brande went bankrupt... but then realized he was a hoarder and gave away all his money.

If my dreams were like this, I wouldn't want to leave them, either.
from Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #252 (script by Gerry Conway, art by Joe Staton & Dave Hunt)

(There's also a couple issues of DC Comics Presents by Levitz included, where Superman gets told by the Legion that he has to let Pete Ross's son be kidnapped by aliens to preserve future history. I found this kind of gross.)

Shouldn't Saturn Girl know that Pete Ross knows Superboy's secret identity, because Pete was a Legionnaire himself?
from DC Comics Presents #13 (script by Paul Levitz, art by Dick Dillin & Dick Giordano)

Finally, the last issue writes out Superboy from the comic that used to bear his name (Superboy vol. 1 became Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes became Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2). I liked how this was done, actually: Superboy finds out how his parents will die. The problem is that when he travels back to the 1950s, he loses his knowledge of future history only to regain it up returning to the 2970s. This means that every time he travels to the future from now on, he will be newly hit with the knowldge of how his parents die. Ouch! He promises to keep up his visits, but the Legion (okay, this part I like less) plant a telepathic block to stop him from doing so, so he flies off to the past for the last time.

Poor Clark.
from Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 2 #259 (script by Gerry Conway, art by Joe Staton & Dick Dillin)

Conway is often not a great writer (I found his run on All Star Comics around this same time pretty bleh), and Legion feels typical of his lesser output. Lots of bombast, not a lot of sense. Which you can kind of get away with in other comics, but Legion is trying to have an ongoing story with ongoing consequences, and those just don't play to Conway's strengths. There are some good artists on the book (e.g., Joe Staton, Jim Starlin), but it's no one's best work. James Sherman, who I really like, does the first couple issues but that's it. His characterful work could have kept this all a bit more grounded, I reckon.

I read a Legion of Super-Heroes collection every six months. Next up in sequence: Five Years Later Omnibus, Volume 1

05 October 2020

Hugos 2020: Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

Collection first published: 2019
Contents originally published: 2005-19
Acquired: May 2020
Read: August 2020

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

I picked this up for my Hugo reading, since two of its stories ended up on the Hugo ballot; once Hugo voting was closed, I circled back and read all the other stories. Other than Arrival and "Story of Your Life," this was my first exposure to his work. At his best, Chiang hits that doubling effect of science fiction I love so much: he build other worlds based on scientific ideas, and his ideas serve as metaphors about our world. Chiang tends toward the hard sf end of the spectrum, which is to say that his ideas are put forth in great detail. I don't know if the science is real but it feels real, and Chiang keeps explaining it interesting, usually by paralleling it with the human impact of the technology.

Stories that really worked in this way including "The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling," about how writing reshaped our cognition, and about how memory retrieval is likely to do so again; I really liked his point that memory technologies will do for individual people what writing did on a societal scale. (As I was reading the story, I thought, "someone knows his Walter Ong," and then I got to "story notes"... and yes he does!) I also really liked "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom," about branching timelines. It's clearly a grounded, realistic take on the idea, and in being so, does some really interesting stuff that I've never seen before in sf.

The more middling stories don't quite thread this needle. I thought "The Merchant and the Alchemists' Gate" (a take on how a time machine would "actually" work) was intellectually interesting, but it didn't have the emotional impact of Chiang at his best; similar thoughts were spurred by "Omphalos."

Chiang seems to be at his weakest when in short-short mode; all the stories I liked least were ones that explored an idea but didn't really support it with character or thematic work. Thus you lose the doubling effect of the best sf: I liked the weird other worlds, but I want to see the connection to our world. I felt the title story fell into this trap, as did "What's Expected of Us" (I didn't even remember what this one was about until I flipped back through it to write this review) and "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny" (about a Victorian who makes a mechanical child-rearer, it's told in the form of a museum guidebook, which keeps you rather distant from the actual events, and as a Victorianist, I didn't think the period details rang true; it felt like someone's stereotypes of the era). I think Chiang actually did pull off the form in "The Great Silence," a cute story about the parrots who live near the Arecibo Observatory.

My favorite story in the book was "The Lifecycle of Software Objects," about a group of people "raising" AIs in a computer environment. I really appreciated its accurate depiction of AI; ever since I read Gödel, Escher, Bach, it's seemed unlikely to me that AI would spring into the world fully sapient. Any truly emergent system would have to be taught just like human have to be taught. It's a really neat look at how that process might go, and how difficult it might be, and how external factors might influence it-- and it's also a really moving depiction of the difficulties of parenting and figuring out when to let someone be autonomous. An incredible piece of sf writing that does what only sf can do at its best.

02 October 2020

Putting My Money Where My Mouth Is

There are things that I think are important to me, that I actually don't do anything to demonstrate the importance of-- but recently I have. For example, WNYC's On the Media (my favorite podcast) often does episodes talking about how local news coverage is collapsing, and how that has negative consequences for the country as a whole. For example, according to the episode "No News Is Bad News":

PENNY ABERNATHY: We lose transparency at the very local level when we don't have someone showing up to cover routine government meetings. And there's been recent research that shows when you lose on newspaper, citizens in a town tend to end up paying more in taxes because there's just no one reporting on the local bond issue. The second thing we're losing is the watchdog function, which expose corruption of both government and business executives and officials.

BOB GARFIELD: I’m thinking of the case of Bell, California, about 10 years ago, where the town council fleeced the citizens of millions and millions of dollars, largely in public meetings attended by no press.

It's something I've been talking/thinking about myself a long time as a result, but I've never taken action on. But the coronavirus pandemic made the struggles of local journalism that much worse-- as the above episode discusses, the problem newspapers have had is that they were largely advertising supported, and as advertising has shifted to the web, they've struggled to stay afloat. (Craiglist was a big part of the problem, as it destroyed the classified ads page.) The coronavirus accelerated this trend: businesses stopped advertising because they weren't open, so there were almost no advertisements to keep the newspapers going. My local paper, the Tampa Bay Times, went from a daily to a twice-weekly.

A lot of local papers are owned by big media conglomerates who aren't strong incentivized to keep the papers going if they struggle to make a profit, or to keep funding big newsrooms. But the TB Times is actually owned by a nonprofit journalism institute, and it is actually a pretty good paper, having won four Pulitzers in the last decade, and having been nominated for several more. So I've been thinking for a year now that if I believe the decline of local journalism is a problem, and if the TB Times is actually a good paper... why don't I do something about? But I never did.

Until a few weeks ago, when the spirit finally moved me. I think I was trying to read some articles on the TB Times website, and I had reached my free article cap, and instead of getting annoying and switching browsers, I was like, "No, you should just sign up." And I did. I did consider an online-only subscription, but a print subscription was only marginally more, and I felt like I was more likely to read the paper if I had an object in front of me. So now, early every Sunday and Wednesday morning, someone drops a newspaper on my driveway!

Attempts to get my wife to grab my pipe for me while I prop my feet up and read the paper after work have proven unsuccessful.

In a similar vein, I, like much of America, have been fretting over the November elections. After ten years of living in reliably blue (though not as much as people imagine) Connecticut, I once again live in a state that could have a big impact on the presidential election. FiveThirtyEight gives Biden a 59% chance of winning Florida; recent polls average out to Biden being about 2 points up on Trump. There's an 11% chance that Florida could be what 538 calls the "tipping point" state (the state that puts Biden over the 270 electoral votes he needs to win, if you line up all the states in order of margin of victory). According to JHK Forecasts, if Biden wins Florida, he has a 99% chance of winning the country as a whole; if Trump wins Florida, Biden's chances drop to 49%.

So anyway, it matters!

Additionally, I am kind of invested in our local races. I live in Florida's Fifteenth Congressional District, which takes in east Tampa suburbs, rural Hillsborough and Polk counties, and west Orlando suburbs. Because of recent demographic trends, it has gone from 60/40 Republican/Democrat in 2014 to 53/47 in 2018. In 2018, I attended a forum for the Democrats vying for the FL-15 nomination, and really liked Andrew Learned, a Navy vet and graduate of my own University of Tampa. Alas, he didn't win the nomination. This year, he's running for the State House instead, a seat currently held by a Democrat on the back of 2018's blue wave, but only very narrowly. 

I don't see a lot of yard signs in my neighborhood when I take my son out for walks (I feel like I saw more in 2018), but the ones I do see are usually for Trump. There was one house in the whole neighborhood with a Bernie yard sign back during the presidential primary; I don't think I saw any others for either candidate. One neighbor has a Trump 2020 flag and used to have a "Make Liberals Cry Again" sign, though that's gone now. After passing an Andrew Learned yard sign in a roundabout, I started to think, "Should I have a yard sign?"

My first reaction was to say no. I'm not quite sure why. My fear of commitment, of making definitive statements? A vague sense that it was somewhat gauche to populate your yard with advertisements?

But the more I thought about it the more I felt that my reasons were dumb. And the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I could make some small difference. I used to go office-to-office getting grad students to sign union cards, and I was notoriously good at it! I know people are reluctant to sign up for things, but also that their reasons for not signing up are usually not very compelling. What would I say if I encountered me, I thought?

So I "bought" a Joe Biden yard sign (in exchange for a donation), and made a donation to the Andrew Learned campaign (and asked for a yard sign), and made a donation to the campaign of Alan Cohn, who is the Democratic candidate here in FL-15. (If Cohn has yard signs available, there's no indication on his web site.) FL-15 is in fact the most "flippable" congressional district in Florida, and if it were to flip, Florida's House delegation would become majority Democrat. (Some people claim this could be important if there was an electoral vote tie!)

So, in some small way, I am matching my values with actions, because what are values without action?

If you want to know the more Steve Mollmann thing ever, though, it's this: I never actually read my copies of the Tampa Bay Times, because whenever I think about doing it, I also think, "but if you read a book instead, you will increase your 'books read' numbers!" I have no system in place for reading the paper, so I never actually do it.