27 January 2020

Review: Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber

Trade paperback, 440 pages
Published 2006 (original ed.: 1985)

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2019
Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber

Our baby would basically only go to sleep two ways: being nursed or moving (e.g., rocking, walking, swing, stroller, car). This meant he was co-sleeping at night and for many of his at-home naps. As he hit 25 pounds, he became impossible for me to put to sleep, as he was too big for the swing, and he was uncomfortable to carry around. But placing him in his crib for a moment resulted in tears.

After two times where he fell out of our bed after sleeping in it, we decided to do sleep training for his safety and health. (He was about ten months at this time.) A little bit of research, and I felt like Ferber's "graduated extinction" method seemed like a good fit for us, and the local library had his book. I'm glad I read it, because even though I had read brief explanations of the Ferber method on-line, the actual book explains why it works; the discussion of sleep associations was in particular very useful for making us understand exactly what we were doing. The first night felt rough; he took about 45 minutes of constant screaming before he fell asleep around 8:45pm, and then he woke up at midnight and didn't go back down until 4am! But subsequent nights got better, and though (I write this about two weeks in) he still cries when going into the crib, he's usually asleep before the first check, and when he wakes up crying, he puts himself back to sleep. As I guess so many parents say, we were surprised how easy it was! Hopefully he continues to improve.

The one downside is that Ferber has very little discussion of nap training, just saying to do basically the same thing as at night. On day one of nap training, we couldn't get him down for his morning nap in 30 minutes; Ferber says to give up at that point. We tried for longer that afternoon, and he took a very short one. But the next day we could not get him to nap at all and he was cranky and sleep deprived and utterly terrified of every aspect of his bedroom. Ferber provided no insight, seemingly believing your baby would catch on quickly enough that this wouldn't be an issue. Some Googling for "ferber naps" brought me a recommendation for The Sleepeasy Solution, which the library also had. It's basically an un-cited rip-off of Ferber (the authors' claim to expertise is that they're sleep consultants to famous Hollywood people, as though having been hired by Ben Stiller is somehow meaningful), but there is a more extended discussion of naps, which suggests waiting to do nap training until nighttime sleep training is well established.* I also skimmed Good Night, Sleep Tight by the self-proclaimed "Sleep Lady" who suggests that if you are delaying nap training, try to put your baby to sleep other ways than the association you are trying to break. (So we've been using the stroller during the day when we can, because the primary association we want to break is nursing in bed.)

But other than that deficiency, Ferber has been a real useful guide for us. He's matter-of-fact, thankfully not fluffy, and empirical, but he's sensitive to the emotions involved. Plus he gives you nice charts to fill out! If you think total cry-it-out is too much, and you want to understand the why of sleep training, not only the how, this is the book.

* I found the book hard to take seriously when it suggested thinking really hard at your baby when he's crying it out during graduated extinction, so he can receive your good vibes.

24 January 2020

BIG EMOTIONS

A couple weeks ago, I was meant to buy creamed corn but accidentally bought normal canned corn. Hayley realized this in the middle of cooking corn pudding. So I took Little Buddy with me to Publix to exchange the cans.

We both take him to Publix a lot. He likes riding around in the cart and getting to eat the bits of deli meat, and at least three different people will stop to compliment his hair every time we go.

I hadn't realized to what extent he'd already internalized the routine, though. Since we were just exchanging three cans, we didn't need a cart... but when we passed the carts, he pulled me in that direction, and resisted all my attempts to redirect. I had to pick him up because I was certain he was going to yank himself off my hand so hard he'd fall over.

At 25+ pounds, he's a heavy guy to hold while standing in a slow customer service line.

When we were done, we started heading out. I had put him down again, and he resisted my attempts to lead him to the exit door, instead leading me off in our usual direction into the store. Only he started leading me toward the bakery. When we got to the bakery, he demanded, "Up!" I picked him up and pointed at the free cookies they set out for kids. I should have known, I suppose. He knew the drill, and he wanted it followed.

I haven't been around a kid as young as Little Buddy since my siblings were this age-- which means that, since my sister was born when I was 5, I don't really remember what kids this age are like, so it's a constant joy of discovery. I think what fascinates me most is how much he learns, how much he puts things together and makes deductions. Obviously a lot of it is in language, but as the above story shows, he can work out something and extrapolate from it.

(He goes "neigh neigh" when he sees a horse or pony or unicorn... and now also when he sees a rainbow, because so many of the unicorn images he sees have rainbows in them!)

Imaginative play has started to make a show. I think one of the first examples (other than driving toy cars/trucks/trains around) is at Christmas when, having been told something at his grandmother's was a dog bed, he laid down on it and went "Night night!" (Well, more like "ny ny!") Now he lays his baby dolls and other toys down and declares "Night night!" Sometimes he randomly lays down on the floor and goes "Night night!" Or recently, after I unbuckled him from his car seat, he clambered into the driver's seat of the car and started going "Vroom vroom!" and "Beep beep!" as he turned the steering wheel.

Of course, now, there are times this backfires, times where I won't let him have the cookie (metaphorically or literally). And this is when he just totally loses it. He wails. He used to fold up on the ground

We're still figuring out how to deal with it. Redirecting works sometimes, but sometimes he gets too mad too fast and no amount of "Do you want to play DUPLO?" or "Look at these beads!" will help. Hayley likes to just validate his feelings. "I know, such big emotions!" Recently, we tried just letting him walk around crying; Hayley told him we'd be waiting for him in the living room when he was done. It might have kind of worked?

One of his favorite words is currently "Uh oh!", which doesn't just cover accidents, but also malicious dropping. "Uh oh!" he crows as he throws a cup on the floor, or some food, or whatever. One time I was watching him in the evening while Hayley worked late... but he wanted some milk. When this happens he walks around the house in circles trying to find her, most often looking in the bedroom (I guess because when she's home but not present where he is, it usually means she's asleep.) He resisted all my attempts to give him a cup of milk, and kept trying to throw it on the floor. I kept a hand on it so he couldn't, and he kept on shaking it more and more violently. "Uh oh uh oh uh oh UH OH!" It was simultaneously horrifying, sad, and kind of funny. Not even cartoons would calm him down.

Then all of a sudden he picked up the cup, started drinking it, and sat on my lap to watch Arthur. So who knows. Recently these big meltdowns have been happening every day. Is it because he's had to go back to daycare after two weeks with mom and dad? Because he's consolidated to one nap? Because he's undergoing that process that seems to explain all unrest... TEETHING? Or just because he know knows enough to have things to be upset about, but doesn't know enough to be able to deal with those feelings?

I keep recommending him the Mollmann way-- ignore and suppress your feelings-- but I am told I am not allowed to tell him this.

22 January 2020

Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman: Final Post and Reflection

from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #594
(art by Mike Wieringo & Lary Stucker)
What makes a good run?

This is the question I'm trying to answer, but I think it requires us to step back and ask another question first: What makes a run?

People always talk about "runs" in comics, but I think we're talking about a couple different things.
1. When a single creator or creative team defines a character or title from beginning to end. Good examples of this would be Neil Gaiman on The Sandman, Matt Wagner/Steven T. Seagle and Guy Davis on Sandman Mystery Theatre, James Robinson and Tony Harris/Peter Snjejbjerg on Starman, Roy Thomas on All-Star Squadron, Walter Simonson on Orion. Though most of those titles had existences outside of those creators, there are versions of those titles entirely defined by those creators. There was a Sandman vol. 1 and a Sandman before Neil Gaiman, but every issue of Sandman vol. 2 was written by him. The character of Orion existed before Walter Simonson, but the comic book called Orion was primarily his work as writer and artist. 
2. When a creator or creative team takes over a character or title, but that character/title extends beyond that creator. Here I'm thinking things like Geoff Johns's The Flash vol. 2 #164-225, George Pérez's Wonder Woman vol. 2 #1-62, Paul Cornell's Action Comics vol. 1 #890-904, Judd Winick's Green Arrow vol. 3 #26-75/Green Arrow and Black Canary #1-14. There were 163 issues of The Flash vol. 2 before Geoff Johns and another 22 after him; Geoff Johns was just there for a time.
    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #596
    (art by Mike Wieringo & Jose Marzan, Jr.)
    But you can identify another way of looking at a "run":
    A. The telling of a discrete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos's Alias, for example.
    B. When a writer is just in charge of a character/title for a while. There's no "climax" to the run-- it's just a series of stories. Mark Waid's The Brave and the Bold, or Gail Simone's Birds of Prey. This doesn't mean that there are no arc elements, just that there's not One Big Story being told.
    Of course, there's certainly a midpoint between type A and type B. Cameron Stewart and Brendan Fletcher's Batgirl vol. 4 #35-52 is a good example of this, as it (as I recall) tells three discrete stories, but each one leads into the next. Or there's the Mark Waid and Barry Kitson run on Legion of Super-Heroes, which tells two over-arching stories.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #600
    (art by Mike Wieringo & Jose Marzan, Jr.)
    So these two typologies overlap. I could draw you a chart with four quadrants if I wanted, but I'll just make a list of examples:
    • 1A. Single Title, Single Story: Gaiman's Sandman; Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos's Alias; Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta's The Vision
    • 2A. Partial Title, Single Story: Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee's Superman; Don McGregor and P. Craig Russell's Killraven
    • 1B. Single Title, No Overarch: Matt Wagner's Sandman Mystery Theatre; Paul Cornell's Captain Britain and MI13
    • 2B. Partial Title, No Overarch: Paul Cornell's Action Comics; Gail Simone's Birds of Prey; G. Willow Wilson's Ms. Marvel; Walter Simonson's Thor
    Okay, why do I bring all this up? Because I think comic fans and comic critics tend to prioritize type-1 runs and type-A runs. Obviously a type-1A is the best: a single creative vision, no extraneous stuff you have to disregard (imagine if there was a Sandman vol. 2 #76 by John Ostrander!), a a beginning, middle, and an end. It's hugely satisfying to read and discuss-- comics at its best. Type-2A and -1B runs aren't quite as good, but they're still very good. You either get a complete creative vision or a complete story.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #602
    (art by Pete Woods & Jose Marzan, Jr.)
    In the era of the collected edition, the type-1A is king. You can get a nice set of Sandman volumes, an Alias Omnibus, and a complete Vision hardcover. 2A doesn't do too badly. Azzarello and Lee's Superman fit nicely into two trades. Both type-B variants fare less well. DC has fizzled out doing a run of SMT collected editions twice now; you can get all of Paul Cornell's Action Comics in trade, but I doubt there will ever be an omnibus.

    But then type-2B runs languish at the bottom of what we appreciate. This is, perhaps, silly on the face of it. People love Simone's Birds of Prey and Wilson's Ms. Marvel. But I think it casts its effect on the way you read it. It's a little tough to get into Birds of Prey because these characters have some not-quite-explicated history. The whole run kind of fizzles out without a climax if you leave when Simone does. On the other hand, if you keep going, Tony Bedard takes over, and he maintains some stuff, but up-ends the status quo in other ways.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #610
    (art by Derec Aucoin)
    And Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman is probably more type-2B than most 2Bs! There's no one big story here; in fact, Casey's run was often in service to other people's stories. In the 35 issues of his run, eight were part of crossovers with other Super titles, not to mention that there were two other fill-ins, and one issue wrapped up the previous writer's story arc. That's almost a third! What was left was not telling one big story; the closest the run got to that was #612-16, just five issues. 

    And Adventures of Superman had a long history before and after Casey wrote it. (His run was #588-623; Adventures of Superman ran from #424 to 649, plus before and after that, it was just called Superman vol. 1, which ran from #1 to 423 and 650 to 714. He's just a drop in the bucket!) His run begins by trying up someone else's, as I said, and the early parts of the run in particular are very dependent on you knowing what Superman had been up to in Action Comics, Superman, and The Man of Steel. He's happily married to Lois, he's on a break, they're together; he's happily employed, he's fired from the Daily Planet, now he's not.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #612
    (art by Derec Aucoin)
    It just doesn't satisfy as a cohesive unit. I wanted it to. I felt like there's a really good story to be told about Superman's growing discomforted with the amount of power he possesses and what he does with it... but this, to be honest, isn't it. It's jumpy, it's not always in focus, and the thread doesn't come to a climax so much as a stop.

    But is this fair? Am I judging a type-2B run by the standards of a type-1A? Why should the best comic book runs be ones where a single creator tells a single story? Isn't that just the imposition of a certain kind of storytelling that came into vogue in the late 1980s? Comics didn't do that for fifty years prior. Maybe I should be judging Casey's run by what it was actually trying to do (telling interesting individual Superman stories focusing on his power while weaving in and out of Big Events), not what I wanted it to do.

    Type 1 isn't better than type 2; type A isn't better than type B. They're just different ways of writing comic books, with their strengths and weaknesses.

    I think what bothers me, though, is that the part of this type-2B run with the most potential to take off was often the most frustrating. The set of stories where Superman is a pacifist didn't work for me! Casey sets out a great challenge for himself: to tell Superman stories where he can't win through force. Yet the ways he does win often seem as arbitrary as the fact that he's always the strongest guy around. Many of the run's later issues invoke great ideas, but fail to climax satisfactorily (e.g., #603-05, 614-16, 617-18, 619-20, 621-22). I love of a lot of the premises here, but too often Superman doesn't do anything that feel brave or clever, and instead he wins just because. Plus, I really wish there had been a story that tested his pacifism. (Ending Battle is kind of this, but it felt hollow, and it actually comes before he's a pacifist!)

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #619
    (art by Derec Aucoin)
    Indeed, if I list the individual issues I liked the most, most of them, though not all, come from early in the run (e.g., #590, 594, 596, 599, 600, 608, 610). I feel like Casey did some of his best work when he was constrained by the overall plan of all the Super titles. Maybe because he couldn't tell complete stories based on external conflicts (as those ran across the Super titles), so he had to settle for stories based on internal conflicts purely (as those he could handle in a single issue on its own). Or maybe he just wasn't that good coming up with Superman plots on his own, but as part of a group doing it, he was just fine.

    I don't know. This makes it seem like I really didn't like the run, and while I did groan my way through both Return to Krypton stories and The Harvest and big chunks of Our Worlds at War, most of my problems with those stories can't be laid at Casey's feet.

    When he was writing, I was enjoying what I was reading more often than not. Casey himself has a good grasp on Superman as a person, and on the sense of humor and playfulness a good Superman story should engender. It reminded me of All-Star Superman in that regard, without being quite so on the nose about it. And both Casey's main artistic collaborators, Mike Wieringo and Derec Aucoin, were great in very different ways. I always like me some José Marzan, Jr., and it was nice to see early Pete Woods. And even if the story doesn't lead to a satisfying climax, there's a great continuity of theme: the stuff that will come into the open with Superman's pacifism in #616 is clearly layered at least as far back as #590, over two years earlier.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #623
    (art by Derec Aucoin)
    This was solid Superman stuff on the whole.

    I guess I just feel like I was promised spectacular, and this isn't it. I think I went it thinking I was getting a type-1A run (even though obviously I couldn't be!) or perhaps a type-2A, and that's why a type-2B was doomed to disappoint me. If you read Casey's Adventures of Superman, judge it on its own terms as much as you are able.

    ACCESS AN INDEX OF ALL POSTS IN THIS SERIES HERE

    I link to my usual reading guide above. A couple thoughts on it now that I'm done:
    • Reading the Super title events that included Casey's Adventures (e.g., Return to Krypton, Our Worlds at War) was the right move even when I didn't enjoy them.
    • The Superman/Batman story Casey wrote in 2009-10 (The Big Noise) is utterly terrible and utterly skippable, but it you are going to read it, definitely read it where it seems to go chronologically (S/B #64 after Adventures #588; S/B #68-71 between Adventures #596 and 597). If you read it in publication order, it would be a very dismal way to go out. Chronologically, it just reads like another mediocre Super titles crossover.
    • Jay Faerber's fill-in (#607) was worth it.
    • The Joe Kelly stuff I added in (Lost Hearts, The Harvest, Hungry Ghost) mostly wasn't worth it, and it contradicts what Casey was doing in Adventures. I probably should have saved it for, say, a Traci Thirteen-focused read, if I had to read it at all.

    21 January 2020

    Review: Doctor Who: Terrorformer by Robbie Morrison, Dave Taylor, et al.

    Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
    Published 2015 (contents: 2014-15)
    Acquired September 2018
    Read November 2019
    Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor, Vol 1: Terrorformer

    Writer: Robbie Morrison
    Artist: Dave Taylor with Mariano Laclaustra
    Colorist: Luis Guerrero
    Letters: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt

    If I ever become Grand Czar of Doctor Who Tie-Ins, I would have a stamp made for rejecting proposals, and it would read, "IF YOUR BORING NEW VILLAIN IS AN ANCIENT ENEMY OF THE TIME LORDS, IT'S STILL BORING." This volume opens with "Terrorformer," a painfully by-the-numbers Doctor Who story with cartoonish characterization, and a terribly uninteresting villain that I'm sure we're doomed to hear more about going forward.

    It continues with "The Swords of Okti," about the Doctor and Clara unravelling some kind of plot by an evil family and evil aliens across past and future India (picking up on some of the hints in the Moffat era that future India is a space power). This has its moments, but suffers from some weird tonal shifts; a guest character's dad dies, and moments later she's grinning widely and bantering about jelly babies.

    I didn't think much of artist Dave Taylor's stiff, plasticky faces, especially the somewhat caricatured villains in the second story.

    20 January 2020

    Review: Discworld: The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

    Mass market paperback, 455 pages
    Published 2014 (originally 2000)

    Borrowed from my wife
    Read September 2019
    The Fifth Elephant: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett

    The Fifth Elephant continues the strong run of City Watch novels that came once Terry Pratchett perfected the concept. It's not as good as the novels on either side of it-- but given Jingo and Night Watch are my two favorites, that's nothing to sneer at. Like those two novels, Fifth Elephant takes Commander Vimes to his limits, as he's forced to play diplomat in the foreign land of Uberwald, but (of course) discovers a murderous conspiracy. He ends up on the run from a werewolf in the forest, forced to do anything he can to survive. The action scenes here are gripping and tense, as you know much this all means to Vimes as a person. Meanwhile, werewolf Sergeant Angua travels to Uberwald herself as part of a wolfpack, and her boyfriend Carrot follows here, and meanwhile meanwhile, "nature's sergeant" Colon goes mad with power when he becomes an officer.

    Thematically, it's all quite tight: what is the difference between savagery and civilization? What separates the killing that Vimes and Angua must do from the killing that the werewolves of Uberwald carry out? Vimes marches right up to the line, but manages to not cross it by setting up circumstances that let him fairly kill someone. Like Jingo before it, it's at its best when it uses the genre of the police procedural to examine these issues of power and violence that suffuse the heroic fantasy-- and our own society. Vimes really is the best of us, and The Fifth Elephant shows why. Plus the stuff about Colon's going mad with power is hilarious.

    17 January 2020

    I Got What I Wanted Out of a Star Wars Sequel Trilogy Movie

    I finally saw The Rise of Skywalker last week. I told a friend I thought it was probably my favorite Star Wars sequel trilogy film. She informed me that that was a very unique perspective! But c'mon, what could I have wanted that I didn't get?

    So here's a list of what I wanted that I got:
    • Adventures for Rey, Finn, and Poe. Way back in 2016, I wrote that I wanted to see these characters go on adventures together-- but that due to the way The Force Awakens ended, that was impossible in the short term. "Not until Episode VIII," I said. Little did I know that Episode VIII wouldn't give me that either! The first half of Rise of Skywalker seemed to be working to remedy that mistake, to finally give us Rey, Finn, and Poe (plus Chewie, C-3PO, and BB-8) on a madcap Star Wars adventure together. Longtime readers of this blog know my favorite genre of screen sci-fi is "disparate group of people bond on a quest," so of course I ate it up! Hopefully we can finally get lots of Rey/Finn/Poe tie-ins now, either wedged in between Episodes VIII and IX, or in sequels to the sequels. (Though, c'mon, enough with the queerbaiting.)
    • Lando Calrissian. Lando is probably my favorite sort-of main character from the original trilogy. That they brought him back honestly seems arbitrary and fanwanky, but hey, I'm cool with it. The main thing is that I would have preferred more "suave Lando" moments; there was really just the one, where he told Rey to give his love to Leia. (Did he just live in the desert on Pasaana for thirty years, though? That doesn't seem very Lando.)
    • Wedge Antilles. If you're a fan of a certain age, you grew up reading the X-Wing novels, and if you grew up reading the X-Wing novels, you know that Wedge Antilles is the real hero of Star Wars. He's the only guy to turn up to both Death Star battles... and he doesn't even have Force powers! So I was delighted to see him here, even if it was for just ten seconds. I don't think  I would have recognized him, though, except that I know what old Denis Lawson looks like from watching Bleak House.
    • The Emperor. Actually, I didn't particularly want the Emperor back, even though he's one of my favorite film villains, and Ian McDiarmid is perfect in the role (except in Revenge of the Sith, the worst Star Wars movie). And it's like, the plan that the Emperor supposedly had going on is so needlessly convoluted as to beggar belief... but if there's one villain who I'd believe would have a needlessly-convoluted belief-beggaring plan to do... um, something, the Emperor is it. So cackle away, Ian McDiarmid, I've missed you. (I do like that the movie barely even explains how he's still alive; it's just like, "oh you know, clones or some shit," and then moves on.)
    • The Way the Rey/Kylo Scenes Were Shot. One of my favorite things about The Last Jedi was the way those back-and-forth cross-galaxy Force communication scenes between Rey and Kylo were shot. No fancy effects, just cutting back and forth between two different locations in such a way that it seemed like the two were looking at each other. But with J. J. Abrams liberally discarding much of what Last Jedi did, I wouldn't have expected this directorial flourish to survive... but not only did it survive, but Abrams built on it in what I found to be some clever ways.
    • General Hux. Someday I should post my General Hux fanfic to this blog, but suffice it to say, I think he's great. This is a guy who earnestly believes in the First Order... and thus spends all his time fretting over how Kylo Ren is screwing it up. He's the one who wants to prosecute a galactic war, but Kylo keeps going off half-cocked and ranting about the Dark Side and his dad. But, poor guy, not even Snoke values his efforts. I was delighted with the use Rise of Skywalker came up for him, and delighted with his scene with Finn, and his final scene. (Why did General Richard E. Grant seem to outrank him, though?)
    • A Good Final Space Battle. Hot take time: there hasn't been a good Star Wars space battle since Return of the Jedi. The battles in the prequels lacked tension due to George Lucas's inability to direct; the battle in Force Awakens didn't really involve Our Heroes; I don't think there was one in Last Jedi? But this one had a clear objective, a couple good twists, and I thought, a really great moment for Finn, where he comes up with a new plan on the fly when the Final Order changes theirs.
    • All the Feels. I think the sequence that runs from OKAY SPOILERS Rey stabbing Kylo to Leia dying to Rey healing Kylo to Chewie mourning to Han appearing is the biggest emotional gamut I have ever experienced in a Star Wars film.
    • An Ewok. Yub nub!
    That isn't to say I thought the film was perfect. I'd like to rewatch all three sequels in succession, though, and see how the trilogy holds up as a unit. (And then watch all nine films in a row to see how it works as a saga?) ((All eleven??))

    15 January 2020

    Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman #621-23: Superfiction, Part 3

    "The Mack Minute" / "Mighty Bubbles" / "Bittersweet"


    The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #621-23 (Dec. 2003–Feb. 2004)

    Writer: Joe Casey
    Art:  Derec Aucoin

    Colors: Tanya & Richard Horie
    Associate Editor: Lysa Hawkins
    Editor: Eddie Berganza 


    Joe Casey's run on Adventures of Superman comes to an end with three final issues. The first two (#621-22) make up one story. All the children in Metropolis five and under turn into insects at the same time that Supeman has to contend with an attitudinal new vigilante in Metropolis, the Minuteman (because he defeats bad guys in under sixty seconds). These things turned out to be linked (the fact that the Minuteman is the mail cart guy at the Daily Planet is just a gigantic coincidence, though): the Minuteman is training for the arrival of the Anti-Angelica, insect creatures from another dimension. The Anti-Angelica cannot breed in their home dimension, so after they get married, they travel to another dimension and, as they say, "we can become parents. We borrow... and we breed..."

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #621
    To be honest, it doesn't really work. It might be the very weakest of all the non-crossover stories by Joe Casey. First, there's the big coincidence of the mail guy being the Minuteman, and then once the Anti-Angelica show up, what Superman does is kind of lame. He accidentally gets sucked into the Anti-Angelica honeymoon suite, where he does (very easily) free the kids, and then accidentally gets sent by the Minuteman to the Anti-Angelica dimension. There, he talks to them for a minute, and then just... goes back home, trading places with the Minuteman, who is sealed in the Anti-Angelica dimension. Like, he doesn't even do anything, and I don't really get what the point of it all is supposed to be. No one does anything clever or particularly inspirational, we don't learn anything about Superman or his beliefs, despite some banal ruminations on the final page. I don't know that any of the post–Ending Battle stories worked for me 100%, but this one worked least of all.

    The final issue of Casey's run is "Bittersweet" (#623)... and it's bittersweet. (Unlike every other non-crossover story in his run, it actually has been collected in English before, in a 75th-anniversay collection of standalones with the unwieldy title of Superman: The Man of Steel: Believe; I think it was meant to tie into the Man of Steel film.) In this issue, Clark and Lois go flying together while they have A Talk. Their sometimes rocky marriage has been a consistent but also inconsistent background element of Casey's run: they have endured multiple separations but also reaffirmed their love for each other.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #623
    Here, they talk about their relationship, but occasionally pause as Superman narrates an old adventure for Lois, so we get a series of synopses, ranging from one to three pages each, of exciting adventures that happened elsewhere. A lot of them have a whiff of bullshit about them: these are the wacky kinds of adventures Superman would have in the Silver Age, not the more "realistic" ones of the post-Crisis era. For example: Superman helping Santa when all the reindeer are sick with a viral infection, someone remote controlling a ghost quarterback, Superman up against the entire (mind-controlled) JLA, the Earth turning into a single-cell organism, and so on. I've seen this kind of thing done well elsewhere-- I feel like this a trope of final issues, though now of course I can't think of any examples-- but I don't feel like these ones entirely work. They're all... too easy? too boring? too distant? I dunno. I know I've seen this kind of montage/snippet adventure done well, and I expected something more interesting here.

    What does work is the conversation between Lois and Clark. Clark acknowledges that "We haven't seen much of each other..." because he's been so busy, and in a particularly neat bit, they reflect on the beginning of their relationship sitting atop the house of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose writings gave Lois the name "Superman" when she first reported on him. She acknowledges how that shows her uncertainty about him; Clark's rejoinder that "They called his philosophy 'realism'... which is probably the furthest thing from describing me..." feels a little bit like a metatextual jab at those who want to downplay the character's more fantastic elements. Lois acknowledges that their marriage will never be typical: "I get selfish, too... having to share you with the rest of the world, but I know how important you are... what you mean to people..." It's a good portrayal of the Loic/Clark relationship and its complications; it's great being married to Superman, but it will never be easy.

    from The Adventures of Superman vol. 1 #623
    The last few pages of the comic intercuts panels of ordinary people doing good, but with the Superman symbol prominent in some way: a fireman wearing a Superman t-shirt beneath his jacket, an EMT wearing a Superman cap in the cold, a doctor with a Superman tattoo on his arm... It's a decent pay-off of some of the stuff set up in #610 about Superman's relationship to ordinary people. Even if he's off in space instead of helping the "little guy," he still helps ordinary people through the virtue of the example he sets, helping us help each other.

    It ends with an affirmation of Lois and Clark's marriage as Superman flies off into the sunset. The issue as a whole might be a little rocky, but its closing moments certainly nail it.

    That's my last issue... but I'm not done! Come back next week for my overall reflections on the entire Joe Casey Adventures of Superman experience!

    ACCESS AN INDEX OF ALL POSTS IN THIS SERIES HERE

    14 January 2020

    Review: Doctor Who: After Life by Al Ewing, Rob Williams, Simon Fraser, and Boo Cook

    Comic PDF eBook, n.pag.
    Published 2015 (contents: 2014)
    Acquired September 2018
    Read November 2019
    Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol 1: After Life

    Writers: Al Ewing & Rob Williams
    Artists: Simon Fraser and Boo Cook
    Colorist: Gary Caldwell
    Letters: Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt

    As of this writing, I've dipped into Titan's offerings for the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth Doctors; The Eleventh Doctor series is my favorite of the three. In my review of the first Tenth Doctor volume, I said it did what a lot of good tie-in fiction does, and hit the nostalgia button. After Life goes one better, and does what the best tie-in fiction does, which is offer nostalgia and the new. The writing of Al Ewing and Rob Williams captures Matt Smith's voice, and the art of Simon Fraser and Rob Williams gets his crazy kineticism across on the comics page.

    On the other hand, it's hard to imagine Steven Moffat pairing Matt Smith's Doctor with a grieving middle-aged librarian, much less adding two more companions who are a David Bowie riff and a shapeshifting service robot. But Alice is a great companion, and while Jones is often more of a joke than a character, he's a funny joke, so I'll allow it. (ARC doesn't make much of an impression in this volume, to be honest.) And while Revolutions of Terror was often (though admittedly not always) trying to be tv episodes on the comics page, the stories in After Life feel like they are told like comics. I especially appreciated their usual done-in-one nature; this volume collects five issues but four stories, whereas Revolutions of Terror did two stories in six issues.

    The stories are vibrant and dynamic and out there, but also emotionally true. My favorites were the opener, "After Life," with its focus on depression, and good use of color, and the batshit insane "What He Wants..." (#3), where Alice and the Doctor accidentally pluck Alice's mother's favorite pop star out of time at the beginning of his career and transport him to 1931 Mississippi, leading to a series of escapades that results in Bessie (in the form of a monster truck!) careening through the delta while a blue musician blasts a crowd of zombies with his guitar. Oh my god, what? So good, and the kind of rapid-fire invention that one reads Doctor Who comics for. (I find it interesting how this comic is written. In this collection, Ewing & Williams co-write the first issue, but take turns on subsequent stories; Ewing goes on to write #2 and 4-5, while Williams pens #3. Maybe not coincidentally, I found the two solo-penned by Ewing more traditional, though still strong work.) And even though these are mostly done-in-ones, the writers are clearly working through a long-term plan, I look forward to seeing it unfold...

    13 January 2020

    Review: Discworld: Jingo by Terry Pratchett

    Mass market paperback, 437 pages
    Published 2007 (originally 1997)

    Borrowed from my wife
    Read September 2019
    Jingo: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett

    People love genre mash-ups. Genre mash-ups are the entire way that Marvel has kept its film line vital. Captain America: The First Avenger is superhero movie plus WWII film; Thor is superhero movie plus epic fantasy; Guardians of the Galaxy is superhero movie plus science fiction; Ant-Man is superhero movie plus heist film; it seems to me that Black Widow will be superhero movie plus espionage thriller.

    But why is this? Is it just in that combining the tropes of two different familiar genres, something sufficiently new emerges as to be entertaining? I think that's part of it, but not all of it. Or, at least, not in the best cases. In the best cases, the writer is thinking through not just the features of a genre, but its project, and uses that to make some kind of commentary on one or both of the genres. Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos's Alias (a.k.a. Jessica Jones) is probably the gold standard of this for me: in combining superhero comics with noir, they use the powerlessness inherent in the noir genre to highlight the power fantasy inherent in the superhero genre. The stories of hopelessness told in Alias were heightened by taking place in a world of gods. On the other hand, as much as I enjoyed Alan Moore and Gene Ha's Top 10, I didn't feel like it really had anything to say via its combination of superheroics and police procedurals. It has good jokes, but it's mostly just the familiar beats of police procedurals with a veneer of superheroics on top: it's got all the features of its two genres, but it doesn't really do anything with their projects.

    So what is Terry Pratchett doing in the City Watch books by combining heroic fantasy and police procedurals? Is he pulling an Alias or a Top 10? The dedication of the first City Watch novel, Guards! Guards!, might suggest he's doing the latter:
    They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they wanted to.

    This book is dedicated to those fine men.
    Ohoho, okay, it's funny to give the generic guards of fantasy stories actual lives.

    But actually this dedication isn't very accurate: the City Watch of these novels never ends up in a situation remotely like the one the dedication describes! Despite the title of the first book, there's no point an evil tyrant ever does something like shout out "Guards! Guards!" as Boldnose, Son of Whomever saves the day. So why is this dedication actually here?

    It points to the fact that heroic fantasy and police procedurals have very different attitudes toward the role of violence. In heroic fantasy, violence is authorized by the individual's own moral certainty, if not his Heroic Destiny, and operates outside the law. The hero does whatever he has to do to change the world because it is Right. In procedurals, on the other hand, the police deploy violence to restore the status quo, which is the rule of law; their violence is only authorized inasmuch as it prevents crimes (i.e., violence not authorized by the state).

    All of the City Watch novels in fact deal with this tension between political violence and what we might call regulatory violence. In Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, and Feet of Clay, there's criminal conspiracies and murders and such, but the real crime is someone's attempt to place a true king on the throne of Ankh-Morpork. Attempts to remake the political structure of the land are the bread and butter of heroic fantasy-- indeed, the placing of a "true king" on the throne is usually how you know everything in your heroic fantasy adventure has Gone Right-- but are fundamentally illegal and immoral actions in a story about the rule of law. And in these stories, the villains are the people trying to restore the true king. (There are two interesting wrinkles about this, which I don't have time to go into here: Lord Vetinari, the patriarch of Ankh-Morpork, has no democratic legitimacy, he's just better than any alternatives, and there is a real true king in the series who could rule Ankh-Morpork and would do so justly... and he's content to be a cop.)

    So I bring all this up now (as opposed to in my reviews of the other City Watch books) because I think the conflict between regulatory violence and political violence reaches its peak in Jingo. When a new piece of land is discovered in the sea between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, both sides claim it posthaste. Soon, war fervor is beginning to sweep through Ankh-Morpork: Klatchians who have lived in the community for years start to come under suspicion and become the target of racist attacks. As xenophobia sweeps through society and as aristocrats prepare to line their own nests at the expense of the lower classes who will do the actual fighting and dying, Commander Vimes of the City Watch can do nothing but watch in frustration. Because it turns out that you can kill one man, and it's a crime-- but propel your nation into a war that will kill thousands, and it's patriotism. It's weird to think that Pratchett wrote this in 1997, when there are so many obvious echoes of 9/11 in it; it's pretty discomforting to read it in 2019, a time once again of heightened xenophobia. Reading it, I shared in Vimes's sense of powerlessness and despair. People told me the Discworld books were funny. They didn't tell me they would be like this!

    The book's climax is amazing, and bears quoting at length. Vimes turns up just before the battle is due to begin, and attempts to arrest the head of the Klatchian army:
    "Vimes, you have gone insane," said Rust [head of the Ankh-Morpork army]. "You can't arrest the commander of an army!"
         "Actually, Mr. Vimes, I think we could," said Carrot. "And the army, too. I mean, I don't see why we can't. We could charge them with behavior likely to cause a breach of the peace, sir. I mean, that's what warfare is."
         Vimes's face split in a manic grin. "I like it."
         "But in fairness our—that is, the Ankh-Morpork army—are also—"
         "Then you'd better arrest them, too," said Vimes. "Arrest the lot of 'em. Conspiracy to cause an affray," he started to count on his fingers, "going equipped to cause a crime, obstruction, threatening behavior, loitering with intent, loitering within tent, hah, traveling for the purposes of committing a crime, malicious lingering and carrying concealed weapons."
         "I don't think that one—" Carrot began.
         "I can't see 'em," said Vimes. (386-87)
    It doesn't work, of course. The two armies do surrender (and Carrot reads them their rights!), but when one of Vimes's Klatchian allies asks what they're going to do now, Vimes can only say, "I never thought we'd get this far!" (390) Soon Lord Vetinari shows up, ready with political machinations that he deploys to bring the war to an end.

    But by God, it ought to work that way, and that's what Pratchett taps into for four glorious pages. The detective story is, Pam Bedore tells us, about contamination and containment: "The police procedural emphasizes the police detective's liminality rather than his conformity, as the police hero tends to function at the limits of the law, struggling to pursue justice within the bounds of his numerous rules and scarce resources" (29). As far as the rules are concerned, leading thousands to death in a war-- as the heroes of heroic fantasy do all the time-- is perfectly legal. Vimes can arrest someone plotting the death of one other, but has no way to impose justice on someone plotting the deaths of thousands.

    By bringing the police procedural into the heroic fantasy in Jingo, Pratchett shows how war warps our very notions of justice, and twists good people into bad. You couldn't tell this story in an ordinary heroic fantasy story: you need the police procedural to expose the injustice of it all.

    Plus it's very funny. Obviously the side-plot with Lord Vetinari, Sergeant Colon, and Nobby adventuring in Klatch is hilarious, but my favorite joke is probably this one:
    "Veni, vidi, vici." I came, I saw, I conquered.
         As a comment it always struck Vimes as a bit too pat. It wasn't the sort of thing you came up with on the spur of the moment, was it? It sounded as if he had worked it out. He'd probably spent long evenings in his tent, looking up in the dictionary short words beginning with V and trying them out... Veni, vermini, vomui, I came, I got ratted, I threw up? Visi, veneri, vamoosi, I visited, I caught an embarrassing disease, I ran away? It must have been a big relief to come up with three short acceptable words. He probably made them up first, and then went off to see somewhere and conquer it. (213)
    And it's moving. The sub-plot about Vimes's organizer (bingeley-bingeley beep!) starts off  funny, but thanks to some timeline shenanigans, become quite a clever way to generate tension over a world that never came to be, but could have been quite significant, as you learn what kind of things could have happened there.

    All of the City Watch novels are strong, but for me, Jingo is the master class in plotting, themes, humor, and character. It all comes together perfectly.

    10 January 2020

    How I Teach Academic Writing, Part I: Pausing and Articulating Your Teaching

    I am planning my spring classes now, so I'm thinking about my teaching, which means it's probably a good time to do something I've been thinking about, and begin a series of blog posts about how I approach academic writing. This post, however, is less about anything in particular that I do, and more about how I ended up doing what I do in the classroom.

    I was trained to teach first-year writing (though then we called it "freshman English," which seemed so weird as an official term) at the University of Connecticut, but both my graduate degrees are in literature, for better or for worse. I've taken exactly one class on the teaching of writing, and it was taught by someone with a Ph.D. in literature as well. I'd be scared to look back at my early classes and see what they were like. I don't know that I had any kind of coherent theory or idea of academic writing, even if I thought I did. I suspect a lot of my early assignments probably boiled down to "here's a jumble of texts and some questions I thought of; see if you can make something of it all."

    I definitely did not have any sense of what it meant to do academic writing, and thus I didn't have the ability to communicate it.

    Over time, though, something slowly evolved. I'm sure some teachers spring fully formed out of the gate, but I'm very much a figure-out-as-I-go kind of person. I take a stab at it, then refine, try again, then refine, and over time I accrued a way of doing things that I am pretty proud of.

    There are a couple key things that brought this about. One is that for five semesters, I served as one of the Assistant Directors of First-Year Writing. Instead of teaching, my assistantship was to help co-ordinate this gigantic academic writing program, which ran something like 100 sections per semester. I did a lot of different tasks, but most relevantly, the ADs did two things: 1) we ran the orientation for new TAs, and 2) we collected assignments from every instructor.

    As any teacher knows, nothing forces you to figure out what you do like telling other people how to do it. I always finished orientation week energized and excited to teach... and then went back to my office job.

    But chasing down assignments turned out to be really helpful, too; without even trying, I saw hundreds of different assignments, and started to get a feel for what made sense to me and what did not. Part of the problem of teaching is that it's hard to experiment in variations; you might decide to change how you do something, but then you're largely stuck with it for fourteen weeks. Then next semester, you can tweak again, and so on. Variations can only accrue incrementally. Plus: it's hard to learn any genre by just writing it, and one of the trickiest aspects of teaching is that you rarely see others teach, and even if you do, it's just one other person or so, like a mentor.

    But when I finally went back to the classroom, I had read so many different assignments, I had a feel for the genre I just hadn't gotten by writing them. I tossed out my assignments and rewrote them from the top down.

    Another thing that helped a lot was working alongside Professor Scott Campbell, who was the faculty Director of First-Year Writing for three of my semesters in office. Scott and I did not always agree, but I had a lot of respect for his thoughtfulness, and some of his ideas have become foundational to my teaching of writing. One of the things I always try to remember is that academic writing is a genuinely exciting medium. There is no other form of writing that quite allows for this kind of detailed, thoughtful approach to a topic, and that can be exciting to read and to write if done well.

    There were two final steps in my time at UConn that turned out to be really useful. Around the time I went back to the first-year writing classroom, I went on the job market and had to write a teaching philosophy. A friend of mine (also an English professor) posted this on facebook a couple months ago:
    Can we throttle back the relentless positivity of academic social media? Students are not always fantastic, conferences are not always generative, keynotes are not always quotable, interventions are not always so true, and nobody is *that* excited about writing a teaching statement. Our profession has its joys and pleasures, but I feel like the job market increasingly compels us to post as if we feel that every professional experience is equally superlative. (emphasis mine)
    I commented, "Wait, people claim to be excited about writing teaching statements?"... but then soon realized that I kind of was. I wouldn't say that I was excited per se, but I actually did find it useful. I had to sit down and articulate what I thought about teaching writing, why it was important, and how I did it. It was something I'd never had to consciously do before, and in doing it, I reached a better understanding of my own teaching.

    Most academics I talk to hate writing teaching philosophies, and fair enough, it did kind of suck. But that doesn't mean it can't be valuable. Many writing instructors make their students write reflections on their writing with the claim that this will help them become better writers-- it seems hypocritical to then turn around and claim there's no value in doing written reflection on one's own teaching. (Of course, faculty do hypocritical things like this all time, such as complaining about students on laptops and then using their laptops during meetings.) When I finished, I felt something had crystallized, and I took that understanding back into the classroom and made it even better.

    One last key experience: During my second year on the market, I got to a second-round video interview for a term position teaching academic writing. One of the classes I would have taught was a "basic writing" class, for students who struggled. During the interview, they asked how I would teach it, and I had a (decent) answer prepared, based on talking to others at UConn who had taught our basic writing course... which I had never taught myself. But then one of the interviewers asked, "That sounds challenging. Do you think those students would be ready for it?" I could only claim that I thought they would be, but had no practical experience to back it up. So for the next year, I asked for a section of UConn's ENGL 1004 ("Introduction to Academic Writing").

    Once again, being forced to articulate how something works is actually quite helpful. The model of academic writing at UConn was to do the same kind of assignment four times. But 1004 ends with that kind of paper. So I had to make a set of assignments that lead up to that kind of paper, breaking down what had been a unified whole into parts. I also had to explain academic writing to a mix of nonnative speakers and low-performing domestic students, so I had to be much better at explaining!

    And then I came to University of Tampa (where I talked about 1004 during my interview, so I made the right call there!), which has a similar model to UConn, but not the same, and so my teaching has evolved again.

    I didn't set out to teach college writing. I think few people who do actually did. But I've been doing it for over eleven years now, and trying to do so as thoughtfully and deliberately as I can. But it's hard to deliberate in the moment of banging out a syllabus the week before classes, so having opportunities that have forced me to be thoughtful have been key to my growth as a teacher.

    Anyway, that was all kind of vague; in future posts I'll get into concrete specifics that build on what I've said here.

    08 January 2020

    Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman Supplement: Supergirls

    Hungry Ghost: "Blood, Broads and Bushido" / "Blood Sisters" / "Blood Demands..."

    Action Comics vol. 1 #806-08 (Oct.-Dec. 2003)

    Writer: Joe Kelly
    Penciller: Pascual Ferry

    Inker: Cam Smith
    Guest Art: Karl Kerschl
    Colors: Guy Major
    Associate Editor: Tom Palmer jr
    Editor: Eddie Berganza 


    This is my last side-step from Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman comics, and my second-last set of comics in the whole sequence. As with Lost Hearts and The Harvest, I picked it up because it co-features Traci Thirteen and I liked the covers.

    Joe Kelly's story (called "Supergirls" on the covers but "Hungry Ghost" inside) features three female characters prominent in the era's Superman comics: Traci Thirteen, Natasha Irons (niece of John Henry Irons, one-time Superman himself), and Cir-El (the Supergirl I know the least about). Additionally, like the Kelly-co-written Lost Hearts, it features a prominent role for Lana Lang, one-time Superboy's girlfriend, now Second Lady of the United States of America. (Are you really Second Lady if there's no First Lady?)

    from Action Comics vol. 1 #807
    (art by Pascual Ferry & Cam Smith)
    A weird ghost lady (she's a poorly explain pre-established character) stabs Superman, and Traci Thirteen tries to keep him alive. Of course, Natasha misunderstands and there's a brief fight, but soon all four women are working together to revive Superman and defeat the ghost lady.

    To be honest, like a lot of Joe Kelly Superman comics, I'm coming to realize, it sounds better than it is. There's a lot of fight scenes, but a story like this really depends on the conflict and combination of character voices to be interesting... and I felt like this never really got anywhere. The covers have those cool quotes on them (Action #807's is my favorite, from Natasha: "I march. I protest. And I have a giant robot with a killer body. It's very complicated."), but that sense of voice is missing from the actual comics. There's too much space taken up by the generic fights and boring ghost backstory for these seemingly badass women to get to demonstrate their badassery. Kelly might have co-created Traci Thirteen, but (as is often the case with franchise comics), it was other creators who would go on to make her interesting and vital.

    from Action Comics vol. 1 #806
    (art by Pascual Ferry & Cam Smith)
    Also Pascual Ferry just cannot draw women's foreheads for some reason.

    ACCESS AN INDEX OF ALL POSTS IN THIS SERIES HERE

    07 January 2020

    Doctor Who at Christmas: Twice Upon A Time

    I interrupt my reviews of Titan's Doctor Who comics to bring you a seasonal review: this year's Doctor Who Christmas read:

    Mass market paperback, 161 pages
    Published 2018

    Acquired and read December 2019
    Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time
    by Paul Cornell

    "Twice Upon a Time" is one of the least Christmassy Doctor Who Christmas specials; just a couple scenes of it take place at Christmas (though there are a couple more scenes in the snow). As a tv episode, I felt it left a lot to be desire: a couple good jokes, of course, but the episode begins with a character dilemma (will each Doctor give in to regeneration?) that it seems to forget about in favor of a not very interesting mystery (as the Doctor points out, the evil plan is a complete lack of an evil plan).

    Cornell's novelization can't change the plot (or doesn't anyway), but the arc of the two Doctors' resistance to moving on is better explained, better explored, and better resolved. I also really liked what we learn about Bill Potts and her life after the Doctor-- and what we don't learn. It's not a great novel, but it is a very good novelization, and probably the best one this source material could sustain, to be honest, without major rewriting. Cornell does a great job pastiching the Terrance Dicks prose style, though he seems to lean less on that and get more introspective as the story goes on. The regeneration speech still isn't great, but it's better without the bombast of the episode, and I really liked the final chapter from the new Doctor's perspective.

    There are some good jokes; my favorite was the one about Mary Berry of Great British Baking Show fame. It's not very Christmassy, but Cornell does bring out the poignancy of the Christmas armistice moment, and makes it more significant to the characters than it was in the episode of broadcast. All in all, another solid installment in this line of books.

    06 January 2020

    Review: Discworld: Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett

    Mass market paperback, 357 pages
    Published 2007 (originally 1996)

    Borrowed from my wife
    Read September 2019
    Feet of Clay: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett

    Feet of Clay is probably the weakest City Watch novel in one sense: it's the one I remember the least about, and probably has the least to say. At times it's a bit too much like Men at Arms to be satisfying on its own. But it's also the strongest City Watch novel thus far, as Pratchett continues to refine and perfect the format of this subseries, nailing the existing characters and adding new ones. Vimes's single-mindedness in pursuing the poisoner of Lord Vetinari was pretty great, too. Despite the comedy trappings, there's obviously something fundamentally meaningful underneath all this, and at times ominous; I really liked what was done with the golems. On the other hand, I was surprised that there was a whole chunk riffing on Ian Fleming's On Her Majesty's Secret Service! (Or maybe Pratchett and Fleming just have the same thoughts about heraldry and its devotees.)

    03 January 2020

    Credit Card Crisis!; or, My Fraud Investigation Nightmare with Chase Bank

    image courtesy Gizmodo
    On September 19th, I awoke to an e-mail from Chase Bank asking if I had made a declined $61.82 charge at a restaurant. I had not, so I logged into my account to see if there were any other transactions I should know about.

    What I saw astounded me. My Amazon VISA card had been used at a series of restaurants across the last few weeks: Dave & Buster's, Chick-fil-A, Chase's Chicken, Applebee's, Taiga (a local hookah bar). The fraudulent transactions totaled over $800! But both Hayley and I had our cards, so evidently someone had "cloned" our cards, leaving us none the wiser. I only check my transactions when I get and pay the physical statement in the mail, and these had lined up just right to evade my notice for a while. I guess this guy has a taste for mediocre chain restaurants. But then, he does live in Tampa.

    I immediately called in and reported it; our cards were cancelled, the $800 credited back to us, and all was well.

    So I was not ready when, on November 5th, I received a phone call from Chase. They had completed their fraud investigation and determined that I was responsible for the fraudulent transactions. It was one of those moments where it feels like the world is dropping out from under you.

    The basis of this appeared to be that the fraudulent transactions were made in the area where I live, in between valid transactions. My objection that this is exactly what would happen if your card was cloned fell on deaf ears. Like, obviously the cloner would live near where I live, and thus spend their money where I live.

    They said I could appeal, so I did, but the $800 would go back on my statement, and I would be obligated to pay it unless and until I was validated on appeal.

    I asked what I could do to prove my innocence. They suggested filing a police report and obtaining receipts. The former turned out to be useless; the investigators did nothing, because the restaurants wouldn't keep security footage that long. If only someone had told me that, oh, I don't know, back in September!? I've had my card ripped off two or three times in my adult life, but every time I just got the money back. No one ever told me that I might be investigated for fraud myself, or that I would need to prove I didn't do it, or that filing a police report was a thing you should do when your card was cloned.

    Getting receipts turned out to be frustratingly difficult, and an Applebee's manager told me it would be pointless; it would just demonstrate that someone used my card. Which I already knew! I called in to Chase to ask follow-up questions about my appeal, they told me no one had been assigned to my case yet, and when they were, they would call me. Multiple people told me this.

    So I was pretty surprised when I received a letter in December telling me Chase had "researched [my] fraud claim thoroughly" and found that I was responsible. I called the investigator, and she told me they didn't call people who didn't supply more documentation. I asked how one was meant to document that they didn't go somewhere! How can one prove that one hasn't gone to Applebee's!? They said I could re-appeal it, but I pointed out that the same result would come down if I couldn't submit something useful.

    In a previous phone call, I had got the specific times of the transactions. Many were during the working day (the guy got breakfast at Chick-fil-A); many others were were after midnight. I asked if they thought I was really going to hookah bars at 1am when I was a teacher with a toddler at home. ("All you would do is look at a picture of me," I said at one point, "and you would say, 'This is a man who would never go to a hookah bar.'") I came up with the idea that I could submit the location data from my phone; they said sure.

    So I e-mailed that in, screenshotting my movements and Hayley's from our Google Timelines every day there had been a fraudulent transaction.

    Someone called me a couple days later to say they still thought I did it.

    This person I got very mad at, though I hope I remained professional. "You're calling me a liar," I said. "No, Mr. Mollmann, I didn't say that." "If I say, 'I did not do it,' and you say, 'We think you did,' you are calling me a liar even if you don't use the words, 'You are a liar.'" It was quickly very clear to me that these "investigators" do not have much flexibility to make real decisions or training to make inferences from evidence. I hate to abuse the word "Kafkaesque," but I was beginning to feel like K. in The Trial. (Also this one I think was just dumb. "Well, it's not possible to impersonate the chip." "Were any of the transactions done with the chip, or just swipe?" "They were all swipe transactions." "!!!???" Like c'mon, what inference might you draw from that!?)

    Why would I, after twelve years of paying this credit card in full every month (with, I think, two exceptions), suddenly turn to a life of crime? Why would I suddenly perform a series of transaction so far outside my usual patterns? Why were they suspicious of me, when in fact they were the ones that first pointed out something was up!?

    Thankfully, my anger caused the case to get escalated to a manager, and the manager seemed competent and sympathetic. In addition to the Google Timeline screenshots (which the previous investigator had clearly not even understood what they were), she let me send in my and Hayley's teaching schedules, to show it was pretty unlikely that we would be jaunting off to Church's Chicken mid-day.

    Finally, on December 23rd, the manager called me to say she had decided the transactions were not valid. ("It looks like you and your wife don't really do much after 7pm. Is that right?") I got the money back.

    But I still think the whole experience is ridiculous. What if I hadn't had the idea of sending in the Google Timeline data? Or what if it hadn't existed? How can you prove you didn't go somewhere? The big sticking point was that the fraudulent transactions appeared in between valid ones, demonstrating the cards were still in our possession, but if a card is cloned, what else would you expect? How can a supposed fraud investigator not realize that? If I was going to try to defraud Chase myself, wouldn't it make more sense for me to go on a spree and then just claim my card had been stolen? According to what they told me, they would have been more likely to believe me!

    Plus, this hurt them. If they had told me to file a police report in September, there's a chance the police could have found this guy and he would have been held responsible. Now, he's out there still doing his thing, and Chase is out $800. Like, the bank is literally the only people who lost here! (Well, except for all the undue and unneeded stress this caused me over three months.)

    Anyway, can anyone recommend a new credit card?

    02 January 2020

    Reading Roundup Wrapup: December 2019

    Pick of the month: Shadows Beneath, edited by Peter Ahlstrom. Better than Middlemarch!? Well, no, but Middlemarch has already received this highly coveted honor once before. I did really enjoy this, though: great stories, and a great insight into the writing process of several accomplished professionals and Howard Tayler.

    All books read:
    1. Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology edited by Peter Ahlstrom
    2. Doctor Who: The Tenth Doctor, Vol 2: The Weeping Angels of Mons by Robbie Morrison
    3. The Walking Dead: Compendium Four by Robert Kirkman
    4. Thud!: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett
    5. Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor, Vol 2: Serve You by Al Ewing & Rob Williams
    6. Once Upon a Parsec: The Book of Alien Fairy Tales edited by David Gullen
    7. Middlemarch by George Eliot
    8. Doctor Who: The Ninth Doctor, Vol 1: Weapons of Past Destruction by Cavan Scott
    9. Doctor Who: Twice Upon A Time by Paul Cornell

    All books acquired:
    1. Inventing Tomorrow: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century by Sarah Cole
    2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
    3. Star Trek: Discovery: Dead Endless by Dave Galanter
    4. Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time by Paul Cornell
    5. H G Wells: A Literary Life by Adam Roberts
    6. Thor: The Mighty Avenger by Roger Langridge
    7. Thor by Kieron Gillen: The Complete Collection by Kieron Gillen
    8. Running from the Devil: A Memoir of a Boy Possessed by Steve Kissing + Charles Santino
    9. The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition by Ursula K. Le Guin
    10. Collected Multi-Doctor Comic Strips, Volume 2: The Clockwise War: Collected Comic Strips from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine by Scott Gray, Alan Barnes, Tim Quinn, Paul Cornell, and Gary Gillatt
    11. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
    12. The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

    As you might imagine, a fair few of these were Christmas presents, specifically #6-12. #11-12 were specifically from LibraryThing's gift exchange, SantaThing.

    Books on "To be read" list: 657 (up 6)
    Books on "To review" list: 14 (no change)