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The New 52 - Week 4 and FINAL!

Oct. 2nd, 2011 | 11:35 am

Well, it's been a busy month for all of us comics readers. 52 titles, some good, some... less good, and overall a whole lot for us to take in. It is tempting, of course, to paint the whole reboot with a broad brush and complain about the changes - or the lack of changes - simply so we can be aggrieved fanboys who have something to complain about.

What's important to remember, I think, is that as much as we may be fans of these characters, they don't belong to us. Hell, they only belong to DC in that picky legalistic sense. These characters belong to our shared culture, and if we want them to persist - and we do - then we have to accept that they're going to change as times change. If you think that the Christopher Reeve Superman is the best and only Superman out there, then stop reading comics and watch those films over and over. If you think that nothing good has come out of comic books in the last twenty years, then stop reading comics, collect those back issues, and revel in the Good Old Days.

Change is part of the medium, and it's important to accept that. Our job as readers and fans is to encourage the creators to take risks, explore new avenues and, most importantly, give them the freedom to screw up from time to time. And they will, oh trust me they will. But if they don't take those chances, then we'll just end up with the same old safe, boring storylines again and again. And no one wants that.

Okay. Off soapbox number one, onto soapbox number two. Spoilers abound....

Off we go...Collapse )

So, to wrap things up: The reboot has been interesting in many ways, frustrating in others. Overall, I think that it wasn't quite as daring and radical a change as it was made out to be, at least not yet. A lot of the characters we knew and loved are pretty similar to what they were before, just with more complicated costumes. With the inclusion of characters from Wildstorm, Milestone and Vertigo, however, the DC Universe has expanded a bit and offers some more variety in storytelling, which I look forward to exploring.

On the whole, though, I think DC stayed pretty conservative with the reboot, especially when contrasted with the world they'd created for Flashpoint, which was radically different. I can certainly understand, though. As I noted above, comic book fans don't generally handle change well, and altering the status quo too far could have rebounded pretty harshly on them in terms of sales.

It must be remembered, of course, that this is only the first month. Even for the crappy titles, there's a chance they could pull through, and if they don't, well, they get dropped. New writers will come in and new artists will join, and the characters and world will continue to evolve as they always have. And I'll be here to see it, no doubt. The plan so far is this: I'll follow all of these titles through their first major story arc, and then decide what to cut out. Hey, some people spend their disposable income on nice clothes or expensive food of having "a life" and "friends." This is my vice, dammit...

I will not, however, be doing these full reviews every week. It takes forever, to be honest, and I have enough on my plate as it is. So if anything really exciting happens, I'll chime in on it, but otherwise this is the last complete rundown for the New 52.

And I must say, it's been made a hell of a lot easier with the same-day digital decision. That was easily, hands-down the best thing DC did with this relaunch. Reading comics on my iPad is great, even if Comixology gets kind of persnickety about how many comics I should be keeping on board. For those of us who are several thousand miles away from our local comic book store, I must say Thank you.

Here's my final judgment of the first month, in convenient list form (which may be altered based on my whims):

I'm going to follow these because they look really good:
Action Comics
Animal Man
Aquaman
Batman
DC Universe Presents
Demon Knights
The Flash
Green Lantern
Nightwing
Static Shock
Supergirl
Swamp Thing
Wonder Woman

I'm going to follow these out of a sense of deep-seated nostalgia:
The Fury of Firestorm
Justice League International
Green Lantern Corps
Green Lantern: New Guardians
Legion Lost
Legion of Super-Heroes

I'm really interested to see where these are going:
All-Star Western
Batwing
Blue Beetle
Captain Atom
Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E.
Birds of Prey
I, Vampire
Justice League
Justice League Dark
OMAC
Red Lanterns
Resurrection Man
Stormwatch
Voodoo

I can take 'em or leave 'em:
Batgirl
Batman and Robin
Batwoman
Savage Hawkman
Superboy
Superman
Teen Titans

Probably not going to make it:
Batman: The Dark Knight
Deathstroke
Green Arrow
Grifter
Hawk and Dove
Men of War
Mister Terrific
Red Hood and the Outlaws
Suicide Squad

Oh, HELL no:
Blackhawks
Catwoman
Detective Comics

And that's it! Thanks for sticking around for the first month of the Reboot, and happy reading....

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The New 52 - Week 3!

Sep. 24th, 2011 | 10:21 pm

And here we are with Week Three - a big week for superheroines, both good and bad. A few gems in the rough, and then a bunch of rough. So why don't we get started....? Watch out for snakes spoilers!

Let's go!Collapse )

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The New 52 - Week 2!

Sep. 18th, 2011 | 02:49 pm

Well, since I had such fun last week, staying up late and burning pixels into my retinas, I thought I'd do it again! The second wave of #1 comics was released this week, with a few gems, a couple of head-scratchers, and an overall sense that the kids over at DC have some interesting tricks up their sleeves. Spoilers will be aplenty, of course, so read at your own risk.

But enough of my yakkin'. Let's boogie.

Read on....Collapse )
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The New 52! A first round of reviews....

Sep. 11th, 2011 | 01:04 am

Wow, it's dusty in here....

What with the story blog, the LabLib and the general convenience of other social media, I don't have a lot of times when I think that LJ is just the ideal platform for what I want to write, unless it's a long ramble about something that I'm not sure anyone will want to read. And what with the whole new slate of DC comics that is being pushed out as we speak, I think LJ will do just fine in this instance.

Before we begin, I've been looking forward to this. I know it's unsettling to see our favorite heroes and villains completely revamped, especially since DC has a habit of doing universe reboots every few years as it is, but any chance to get a fresh look at old stories is fine by me. And so, here's what we have so far and, more importantly, my thoughts on it. Fair warning, there'll be spoilers involved here.
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2011 Reading List: When Prophecy Fails

Jun. 3rd, 2011 | 09:04 pm

Book Thirteen

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter

You're a good person, right? Of course you are, I never doubted it for a moment. We all like to think were good people - fair, honest, generous, all that. Very few people, if asked, would say, "Well, I'm a right bastard and I don't care who knows it!"

So imagine that you - a good person - do something bad. Genuinely bad. You cheat on your spouse. You lie to a friend. You steal from your boss. You commit an act which, if someone else did it, you would roundly condemn them, forcing them into public shame and ignominy. What kind of heel, what kind of cad, what kind of a bastard would do such a thing?

Well, you, as it turns out.

Now you have a problem. The vision of you that you carry in your head - the good, honest, kind, humble (let's not forget humble) person - directly conflicts with the nasty, dishonest thing that you have just done. They're grossly dissonant views, and there is no room for both of them in your head. So what do you do?

Your first option is to reduce your opinion of yourself. Maybe you're not that good a person. Maybe you are a bit of a dick. Maybe, when it comes right down to it, you're just a jerk who knows how to hide it. That right there is some painful truth, and very few people are willing to face up to it.

So you turn to your other option: justify what you did. The spouse you cheated on? Well, maybe if they paid a little more attention to you,you wouldn't have to do it. The friend you lied to? Well, was he honest about that "business trip" that made him miss your annual Memorial Day Meatapalooza Barbecue? Hell, no. He was "in the hospital," visiting "his sick mother." As for work, well if your boss actually paid you what you were worth, you wouldn't need to steal from the register.

You rationalize what just happened, which allows you to not only move on with your life, but paves the way for similar actions in the future, making it that much easier to cheat, lie, and steal the next time.

Welcome to cognitive dissonance.

The classical view of humankind was that we were, ultimately, rational animals. That if you show a person sufficient evidence, that person will alter his opinion accordingly. So, under that model, our Imaginary You (tm) would admit to your inherent badness when confronted with the evidence if your misdeeds.

In the 20th century, however, psychologists were noticing that this wasn't true at all. In fact, in a lot of cases the direct disconfirmation of a belief merely made that belief stronger. Show a smoker data on how dangerous cigarettes are, and she'll tell you that they help her relax, or they only take off the bad years at the end. Show a climate change denier data on the warming of the planet, and you know who you'll hear from only minutes after the first snowfall of the season.

Humans, as it turned out, were a lot less rational than we had suspected. By being able to hold two thoughts in our minds that are mutually incompatible, we set ourselves up for mental disaster, and the only way out is to fool ourselves.

In the mid 1950s, the authors of this book were looking into this phenomenon, especially as it applied to groups and millennialism – the belief that the world is rapidly in danger of ending. They looked at various historical examples, such as the early Christian church, who believed that Jesus' return was right around the corner, the Anabaptists of the 16th century, the followers of Sabbatai Zevi in the 17th century and the Millerites of the nineteenth. They all believed that the end of the world was at hand, they all collected groups of followers who believed wholeheartedly that they were right, and they were all, without exception, wrong. Despite that, not only were they not swayed from their beliefs, they actually became more convinced that they were, ultimately, right.

What could account for such patently irrational behavior? Festinger and his partners believed they knew what it was, and set out five simple conditions under which the phenomenon could arise. In brief:

1. The believer must believe implicitly and that belief must have an effect on how he or she behaves.
2. The believer must have committed him or herself to the belief, performing actions that are difficult or impossible to undo. For example, giving away all their money, quitting their job, etc.
3. The belief must be specific, related to the real world, and able to be proven unequivocally wrong.
4. Evidence disconfirming the belief must occur, must be undeniable, and must be recognized by the believer
5. (and most important) The believer must have social support for his or her belief system.

Under these conditions, Festinger hypothesized, not only would a person persist in their belief, but they would become more convinced, and likely try to convert more followers. After all, if more people believe that you're right, then maybe you are.

But how to test it out? Their best cases, after all, were at least a hundred years gone, and time travel hadn't been invented yet. Fortunately, they got wind of a group of UFO believers who held that the earth was going to be ravaged by floods and that aliens would rescue the faithful to make them the new enlightened rulers of the species. Led by a woman out of Chicago who was receiving messages through automatic writing, this group held that the event would take place before dawn on December 21, 1954.

Knowing a good chance when they saw one, Festinger and his colleagues managed to infiltrate the group and observe their progress, attitudes and beliefs up to, during, and after the event that never happened. In the book, they go through the timeline and touch on all the major players – names changed to protect the innocent, of course – and watched to see if their hypothesis would hold. Would the media-shy Mrs. Keech do an about-face once the disaster didn't show? What would happen to people like Dr. Armstrong, who sacrificed his job and his good name in order to assure that he would be picked up by the aliens? How would the group handle predictions that never came true, follow orders that never worked out, and rationalize this fundamentally irrational behavior?

The study does have some fairly glaring flaws, which the authors themselves point out in the epilogue. For one, they had barely enough time to get involved with the group, and gaining entry was a matter of brute force more than finesse. For another, it was almost impossible not to influence the group. Observers were taken as believers, and expected to act as such. Acting undercover, they couldn't record meetings or, in many cases, take notes until after the fact. Any meeting with the academics had to be carefully arranged so as not to blow their cover, and the long hours, erratic schedule and generally high tension of the group made being an academic double agent very difficult indeed.

Despite that, Festinger and his group present a textbook case of group cognitive dissonance that follows the pattern they expected it to. Believers who met all five criteria were much more likely to seek out new believers than the ones who, for example, were not with the group when the world didn't end.

Of course, the reason I picked up the book was because of the May 21, 2011 Rapture prediction by Harold Camping. He had the Rapture scheduled down to the minute, and had attracted followers who met the initial criteria set out by Festinger more than fifty years ago. Sure enough, when the Big Day came and went, Camping and his followers kept to the script. They saw that the Rapture hadn't come, then revised their predictions and went out looking for people to convince.

More interestingly, though, is how this can apply to other group dynamics. It can be applied to political parties, regional differences, racial differences, bigotry of every flavor and color. It can be connected to celebrity worship and religious fervor, to economic theories, institutional groupthink and scientific biases. Almost any common belief that can gather a crowd is an open invitation to Festinger's five criteria. Lovers of organic food. Adherents to market capitalism, homeopathy, religions of every size and shape. The antivaxxers, conspiracy theorists, Democrats, Republicans, Tea Partiers, Klansmen, environmentalists, educators.... The list is endless.

What slowly dawned on me the day after I originally wrote this review was the implications of the Internet on Point Five (the need for social support). Let's say it's 1956, and you have a favorite political candidate. For our purposes, let's call her, I dunno, Kara Whelan. You really believe she is a good candidate, and you've spent a good deal of time and energy supporting her. Maybe you've tried to convince friends and family – perhaps encountering resistance, maybe had a few arguments - donated money, or even worked on her campaign in the belief that she is smart and capable, thus fulfilling the first three of Festinger's requirements.

Then she says or does something that is breathtakingly stupid, thereby disconfirming your opinion of her. Point four. In the 1950s, it might have been harder to find people to commiserate with. In the book's case study, people who were away from the group when the flood didn't happen almost invariably gave up on their belief and went back to their lives. Being cut off, or only having access by phone just wasn't enough to keep their belief supported. So, our 1956 person might read the paper, think, "Holy cow, Kara Whelan is dumber than a box of dead ducklings," and have no one around to help fight against that realization.

But here in the 21st century, that kind of support is just a click away. You can go to the Kara Whelan website or supporters' forum and talk to dozens of people who are all busy rationalizing the boneheaded thing she just said and finding reasons why it actually makes her a stronger candidate. The Internet makes it easier to find support for whatever you believe, no matter how untethered to reality it may be, and it allows these beliefs to survive and propagate in a way that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago. Working together, your fellow supporters can elevate your belief and trash those who disagree, generating an internal logic that confirms your belief despite evidence to the contrary. If Mrs. Keech had had a website, this would have been a very different story.

So what does this do for us, other than make us skeptical of anything that more than five people believe at a time? Just that: it keeps us skeptical. When you know what to look for, you can figure out who is likely to be persuaded by reason and who is not. You know who is a valid source of information and who is not. You know who you want to trust, and who you do not.

Most importantly, it allows you to check yourself, to see if you're being as skeptical as you should be. None of us are exempt from this little psychological phenomenon, but we are all equipped with the ability to deal with it properly. Let Mrs. Keech and her UFO cult serve as an object lesson.


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"When you stop and think of it, it seems rather cruel to drown all these people just to teach them a lesson, doesn't it? The way to teach people a lesson, or the way to educate people is to educate them slowly; you can't educate them with one big jolt. And it seems rather silly to drown people and hope to educate them in the astral life. It doesn't seem very logical, does it?"
"Fred Purden", in When Prophecy Fails

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2011 Reading List - The Ultimate Harry Potter and Philosophy

May. 17th, 2011 | 10:02 pm

Book Twelve

Harry Potter and Philosophy, edited by Gregory Bassham

When a co-worker of mine noticed the title of this book, his response was distinct and dismissive, something along the lines of, "Huh. I don't think she went in putting anything philosophical in those books." The air of disdain was palpable, and while I didn't have a chance to continue the conversation, I got the distinct feeling that he was not one of J.K. Rowling's biggest fans.

However, he may have had a point, one which mildly threatens this whole series of popular culture and philosophy books that I enjoy so much: how much of what these pop culture philosophers talk about is really there in the text, and how much are they just spinning from thin air? When Rowling wrote these books, was she consciously honking of Aristotle and Plato, of the reasons why Harry Potter's decision to embrace death was so similar to that of Socrates? Was she asking herself questions about the difference between the Greater Good and the Common Good, about whether her writing was more aligned to radical feminism or liberal feminism or feminism at all? Did she set out to create a world where the concept of a soul made sense, to determine the true nature of love, or to decide what makes for a great leader?

Probably not. Like many writers who are not philosophers, Rowling probably just set out to write a rollicking good tale. That tale, however, is necessarily supported by some of the most important issues in western philosophy, so whether she wanted to address them or not, they showed up in her work.

One interesting question that was raised in this book - and there are plenty – is the question of identity and agency. By looking at Sirius Black as a case study, Eric Saidel explores what it is that makes us who we are – is it that thing we call a "mind," or is it something else? Sirius black is a man, who sometimes looks like a dog, and when he's a dog he sometimes acts like a man. When he's not doing that, he's acting like a dog. Is there any reason why this should be so, why a man should be a man sometimes and a dog others? Who – or what – is making those distinctions for him? It seems like a trivial question, one that can probably be chalked up to Rowling's dire need for an editor as the series went along, but for Saidel it poses an interesting thought experiment. Is there an "essential Sirius Black", regardless of the shape he's in, and what influence does that shape have on him?

And as long as we're talking about matters ephemeral, what of love? Throughout the series, Harry is told that his mother's love is what protected him from death at the hands of Voldemort. Indeed, the love that Harry feels for his friends is actually a potent protection against the Dark Lord's evil. What is it about love that makes it so powerful, and what has Voldy done to himself that makes it so dangerous to him?Catherine Jack Deavel and David Paul Deavel explore the topic of love and its mysteries by looking at three characters that are far more similar than they might appear – Voldemort, Harry, and Snape. Three "lost boys" who grew up very differently and whose lives were drastically shaped by love in one way or another.

Moving on to matters that are bigger than the human heart, Jeremy Pierce explores issues of destiny and prophecy in his chapter, "Destiny in the Wizarding World." We all know that prophecies exist in the world of Harry Potter, rare though they may be, but what does it actually mean for an event to be prophesied? The slightly batty Professor Trelawney has had only two accurate foretellings in her otherwise fraudulent career – the first being the one that put Voldemort on the trail of Harry, and the other about Voldemort's return. But how do we judge a prophecy for its accuracy, especially once we've heard it? Is there any way to stop it, or does the very nature of causality mean that hearing the prophecy necessarily forces it to happen? Pierce goes back to Aristotle on this one, and tries to untangle all the different ways that a brief glimpse at the future could be revealed without ruining everything.

There's something for the political types as well. Andrew Mills looks at the issue of patriotism – what is it, and is it actually a good thing? How is the loyalty of a Hogwarts student to her House morally different from the loyalty of a Death Eater to their Dark Lord? Is patriotism morally acceptable in any way, and if so, how? And what about Dumbledore? His "hands-off" approach to dealing with the school has caused some people to hold him up as a model of Libertarian governance. He doesn't meddle in others' affairs, allows Harry and his friends all the freedom they need, and generally tries to govern as little as possible. But is he really a Libertarian? Beth Admiraal and Regan Lance try to figure that out. And what makes him worthy of the power and influence he has, anyway? Is this the sort of man who should be a leader? David Lay Williams and Alan J. Kellner hark back to the story of the Ring of Gyges and Plato's assertion that the one best suited to lead is the one who wants it least.

Things even get a little meta-fictional, too, if you like that kind of thing. In 2007, after the series was finished and in the hands of the fans, Rowling announced that she'd always thought of Dumbledore as gay. Some fans loved the idea, and others utterly hated it. But there were some fans who refused to grant her the right to make that declaration ex libris. As she hadn't put it in the books, the argument goes, it's not really true. So, Tamar Szabo Gendler undertakes the very challenging task of trying to figure out how we can determine what is "true" in a work of fiction.

Rowling probably didn't write this series with the intention of scoring philosophical points, but the fact that these philosophers can do it is a testament to the care and thought she did put into her writing. She not only took from hundreds of years of fantasy literature, but also drew on some of the most fundamental aspects of being human – the need for love, the desire for power, the fear of death – and made them the centerpieces of her books. And, as luck would have it, those are just the kinds of things that philosophers love to talk about.

So, if you're a fan of the books and a fan of philosophy, give this one a read. Then go back and read the books again, and see what else you can get from them.

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"Doing what we want to do may be necessary for freedom, but it's not sufficient; we must also have the freedom to do otherwise."
- Gregory Bassham, "Love Potion No. 9 3/4"

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Can you homosexuality?

Apr. 29th, 2011 | 11:30 am

So I came out to one of my classes yesterday.

It really wasn't something I expected to do, certainly not in the lesson plan, but when that ball starts rolling there's really very little chance of stopping it.

Here's how it worked out: we were practicing some basic can/can't, could/couldn't language. We talked about some famous people - Salvador Dali, Albert Einstein, for example - and what they could and couldn't do as children. Then the students had to ask each other questions - "When could you...?" or "What could you do when you were...?"

All well and good, and then I had them ask me questions since we had some time left and I needed to fill it. I got "When could you teach English?" and "When could you cook?" And then... "When could you get married?"

This question, or some variant of it, comes up from time to time, and I first correct the grammar - "When could you get married?" - and then tell them that I'm not married. This is usually followed by "Eh? But... Ring! Ring!" They point to the ring I wear on my left hand, given to me by The Boyfriend a few years ago.

And this is where the dilemma starts. I don't feel comfortable sharing that part of my life with my students. Approaching that boundary between the teacher/student relationship and the human being/human being relationship is awkward to me, and I would rather preserve the distance in order to do my job better. I know other teachers do it differently, and that's cool, and I don't want to be a featureless placeholder to them. I need to be human enough so that they'll enjoy the class, but not so human as to distract them from what's going on.

It makes sense in my head. Really. I swear.

At the same time, I can't lie about it. To do that, to say, "Oh, yes, my wife. She's lovely. Moving on..." would be an insult to The Boyfriend. I told him, and he was surprised and, I suppose, flattered, even though he would find it hard to do the same thing. With his colleagues, he has chosen to avoid the issue as much as possible, and if that means making a few... embellishments so that they'll change the topic, then so be it. My overriding sense of honesty, however, won't let me do that.

As for the students, they probably get lied to enough as it is, and I don't want to be a part of that if I don't have to. They're growing up, and someone has to start treating them like adults, if only in a few small ways.

On top of that, there is what I believe to be the ethical responsibility of someone in my position - a gay man with some authority and standing amongst a group of young people who are still developing their moral view of the world. I know that I have a chance to expose them to a gay person, to let them know that we are real people, which may help them be more tolerant and accepting of gay people in their future. What's more, statistics suggest that there are probably about 50 gay kids in this school, and perhaps knowing that there's at least one teacher like them will help them get through this tough time in their lives. I don't expect them to start hovering around my desk from now on, but I hope that, when word gets around - and it will - there'll be a few gay kids who can at least say, "Well, he's gay and open about it and doing okay. Maybe I can deal with it too."

All this shoots through my head, creating a cognitive block so that all I can really do is answer the questions as they are fired at me rather than just open my mouth and explain the whole thing. Am I divorced? No. Is it fashion? No. Is she dead? No. Is it another man's wife? Hell, no.

Finally, one of the boys asked if it was a woman or a man, and laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea. I told them that was the key question, and that was pretty much that. They asked if I was serious, the girls thought it was the coolest thing in the world, and I had to let them all kind of freak out for a minute before I ended the class. To my relief - but not surprise - no one really got upset as far as I could tell. And the Alphas in the class seemed cool with it, which is the important thing.

Any remnant of a lesson plan that I had was pretty much out the window, so we ended early.

I'm not afraid of anything, certainly - my colleagues all know, and no one has blinked at it. And I think I've built up enough of a rapport with my students between last year and this year that even if they have a predisposition against gay people, they may find themselves wondering if they can maintain it against someone they know and like.

It was just a very strange way to end my day, and I figured I'd share.
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2011 Reading List - The Way of Kings

Mar. 30th, 2011 | 01:15 pm

Book Ten

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

There are times when I hate having grown up to be a fantasy fan. Most of the time it’s when I pick up a book that seems promising – maybe because it’s from a familiar author, or because you heard from a friend of a friend that it was good – but it turns out to be disappointing. Stock characters, old and tired plotlines, and a world that’s basically Tolkien with some greasepaint and false noses added on. Given the number of people who write fantasy, the odds of coming across a truly interesting world with compelling characters and a story that has some surprises is difficult indeed.

Fortunately, it looks like Sanderson has managed to pull it off.

The world of Roshar is a strange and tempestuous place. The seasons come and go in unpredictable ways, sometimes bringing with them great highstorms that are so powerful that even the plants of this world have evolved ways to hide from them. It is a world filled with spirits, ubiquitous beings called spren, which pop up for almost any reason. There are the spren of nature – windspren, firespren, rotspren, riverspren and the like. There are spren that seem attracted to humans, like alespren, gloryspren, anticipationspren and logicspren. No one really knows what they are or why they exist, but they are everywhere in this world.

The greatest kingdom in Roshar is that of Alethkar, which is barely a nation at all. A loosely bound alliance of ten high princes, the people of Alethkar are a hostile, ambitious, violent folk whose first and greatest love is battle and winning. Since the assassination of their king by the savage Parshendi, they have been involved in a seemingly endless siege of revenge on the great Shattered Plains.

The greatest warriors of Alethkar – or any nation – are those who wield the amazing shardblades. Swords that seem to condense out of mist, the shardblades can cut through anything, though if they cut through a person their effects are a little more subtle. A warrior armed with a shardblade, wearing shardplate armor, can use the incredible power of stormlight to achieve feats that no normal man could survive. Bound within glowing gemstones and restored by the howling winds of the highstorms, stormlight is Roshar’s greatest treasure.

Within this world we follow an ensemble cast which, while adhering to certain fantasy archetypes, still is made interesting and worth watching. Dalinar, the brother to the dead Alethi king, is searching for a way to hold together the weak nation that his brother formed. He has been learning of the old ways, the teachings of the vanished and reviled Knights Radiant, in the hopes that they can help hold his people together.

On the other end of Alethi society is Kaladin. Once a promising young surgeon, Kaladin joined the army in hopes of being able to fight on the Shattered Plains. He made it there, but not as a soldier – as a member of a bridge crew, one of the most expendable resources in the entire war. He became the lowest of the low, forced to find a reason to stay alive.

In a city far from the fighting, young Shallan Davar has fought to become the ward of the great heretic scholar Jasnah Kholin. While she has ostensibly come to learn from the woman, her true purpose is to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster, a device which, if used properly, can turn something into something else – stone into smoke, glass into blood, a man into fire. With this, Shallan hopes to revive her family’s flagging fortunes after the death of her father. What she discovers with Jasnah, of course, is far, far more.

Then there’s Szeth-son-son-Vallano, truthless of Shinovar. Poor, poor Szeth. From a race of people known for their peaceful and easygoing natures, Szeth is the most powerful assassin the world has seen. He can harness the stormlight to manipulate gravity, making him able to do the impossible while he uses his shardblade to cut down anyone in his way. In truth, though, Szeth wishes only one thing – to find someone who is good enough to kill him, and end his tormented life.

As you may have guessed, it’s a complicated tale, and Sanderson doesn’t hold to this whole “Give the reader time to get used to it” style of writing. If you’re not paying attention from the beginning, you are likely to be very, very lost within the first chapter or so. But once everything settles down, the story turns into a fast-paced, multi-leveled adventure that takes place in a world that is imaginative and fascinating.

The characters are enthralling, too, with many levels and – most importantly – flaws. While Kaladin is a brilliant organizer and leader, he has to fight continually against the despair of realizing what his life has come to. The easy thing would be to allow himself to die, but he knows he can’t let himself do that. Dalinar, plagued by visions of what might be Roshar’s ancient past, is fighting centuries of Alethi martial tradition by trying to bring the high princes together and end the war, rather than allowing it to go on. He’s pulled between the love of his nephew, the king, and his frustration that the king won’t be strong enough to do what needs doing. Shallan, who left her home with a clear purpose, is finding that nothing was what she thought it would be. Jasnah isn’t an evil woman, despite being a heretic, and her plan to steal the soulcaster becomes less and less certain the more she learns.

All of these characters are at the front edge of thousands of years of history, much of it shrouded in uncertainty – legendary Knights Radiant who fought Voidbringers before giving up their duty and turning against mankind. What actually happened is unknown, and perhaps won’t ever be known. But the effects of those events echo to the present day, causing problems which our characters will eventually have to deal with.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to Sanderson is that when I finished the book, I immediately went back to the first page and started reading again. There are very few books that have inspired me thus, but this one did – especially after the cascading Big Reveals at the end, which explain a lot, and cast a new light on a whole lot more.

What’s more, I found myself wishing that I had access to an animation studio while I read the action scenes. Fights can be hard to do in written form – there’s a tendency to either describe too much or too little, and very often the reader gets slowed down trying to visualize what’s happening in the story. Sanderson is very, very good at writing action, something I first noticed in Towers of Midnight. Even when Szeth is hopping from floor to ceiling to wall, flinging people around like toys, the action was very clear in my mind’s eye, and it’s something I would love to see animated, if not done in live action.

And yes, to get back to why I hate being a fantasy reader sometimes, it is the first book in a series, which means I’m likely to be following it for quite some time. There’s nothing truly wrong with that – there are plenty of series that I’ve followed in my day – but I never look forward to the waiting game that you have to play as the author works on the next book. To be fair, though, Sanderson is busy right now finishing up my favorite series, The Wheel of Time, so I think I can give him a little latitude.

In any case, if you’re looking for a dense, fun new series to read, definitely pick this up. I plan on getting into some of his other books, mainly in order to have something to do while I wait for the next one of these.

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"The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon. Too often, we forget that."
Hoid, The Way of Kings

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2011 Reading List - Adventures Among Ants

Mar. 30th, 2011 | 01:12 pm

Book Nine

Adventures Among Ants by Mark W. Moffett

Moffett knew from a young age that he wanted to be a field biologist – traveling the world in search of the most interesting animals he could find. And ever since his childhood, he’s had an abiding interest in ants.

And who could blame him? There are thousands of species of ants, found all around the world, and once you get down and really look at them, they display some amazing behaviors. They communicate through a series of smells, functioning almost as a group organism to take care of the nest, forage for food, and move from place to place. Some species of ants live their whole lives without touching the ground, while others ravage the ground they walk on, devouring everything in their paths. Ants are nature’s workhorses, utterly communistic in their behavior and presenting a model of order that humans should envy.

We follow Moffett as he travels around the world to find the most interesting representatives of ant-dom. In India, he found the marauder ant, a vicious species of ant that goes on raids to find food near its nest. Connected by a complex system of trails, the marauder sends out every able-bodied ant it can muster, from the tiny workers to the (comparatively) giant soldier ants. They find, subdue, and dismember their prey with frightening efficiency, and carry it back to the nest, all without a leader to give them instructions or make sure they’re going the right way. Each ant just knows what her job is, and just does it. In that way, the ant super-organism takes care of itself.

In Africa, he hunts the famous African army ant, a species that is famous for its terrifying raids and voracious appetites. They swarm out around their nest, devouring anything in their path, sometimes raiding other nests for food and larvae. When army ants come, the lucky prey gets out of the way.

Ants are not confined to the ground, of course. The weaver ant is a tree-borne species that has mastered its domain with harshness and efficiency. The Amazon ant kidnaps pupae from neighboring nests and raises the young ants as their slaves. The leafcutter ant invented agriculture fifty million years before humanity even walked the earth, and the Argentine ant lives in supercolonies that cover hundreds of square kilometers and engage in violent, no-quarters war with each other.

The sheer variety of ants on this planet is astounding, and Moffett shows an unstoppable enthusiasm for the little critters. What’s more, he’s an outstanding photographer, who has developed his technique and equipment to be able to get some remarkable shots of these tiny, tiny creatures in action. The hardcover edition that I have is printed on nice, glossy paper, pretty much in order to showcase Moffett’s photographic work, which he has regularly done for National Geographic Magazine.

What’s more, he continually seeks to find connections between ants and humans, who have more similarities than one might expect. We both live in large, complex societies, where individuals take on specific roles that often last that individual’s lifetimes. We engage in wars, slavery, and varied communal activities that benefit both the individual and the society at the same time. Like us, the ants build highways and infrastructure, communicate over distances, tend gardens, hold territory, plan for the future and learn from the past. And they started doing all this thousands of millennia before we even thought about standing upright. We are not the same as ants, of course – ants are unmoved by things such as status, greed, or ambition, but their instinctual dedication to the greater good of their colony is probably something that we could use a good dose of.

For all that, however, I don’t think this was the right ant book for me. Written by a person who truly loves ants, I think that would be the best kind of person to read it. I don’t have a particular fondness for the little buggers, and there were a lot of times where I had to stop and start over, or where I found myself looking for anything else to do rather than continue reading, which is never a good sign. It isn’t Moffett’s fault, I think. He put a lot of work and detail into this book, assuming that the reader would find ants just as fascinating as he does.

And I don’t.

Oh sure – I find them fascinating in abstract, but not quite fascinating enough to get into the down-and-dirty details about how they construct trunk trails out of their nests, or the exact division of labor that exists between one class of ant and another. I’m not sure what I thought the book would be when I saw Moffett on The Colbert Report, but it wasn’t quite enough for me to sit down and devour the way I hoped it would be.

If you like ants – or you know someone who does – this is a great book, and it gives an excellent insight into what it means to be a field biologist (lots of staying in one place, apparently). For anyone who really loves insects in general, and ants in particular, this book will be a welcome addition to their bookshelf.

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“Is [an ant] intelligent? To my way of thinking, yes. We know a worker can evaluate the living space, ceiling height, entry dimensions, cleanliness, and illumination of a potential new home for her colony – a masterly feat, considering that she’s a roving speck with no pen, paper, or calculator.”
- Mark Moffett, Adventures Among Ants

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Oh, that's right - earthquake

Mar. 14th, 2011 | 09:26 am

So remember when I said that I wanted to write more than book reviews over here? Yeah, I remember that.... Well, as I have been gently reminded, the recent events in Japan this weekend are pretty good as far as blogging fodder. This is for several reasons: they're dramatic, and I am far enough away from said events that I am not only alive, but still have a home and an internet connection by which to blog them.

Anyway, a timeline: The first I heard of the quake was when The Boyfriend sent me a text saying that he and the pets were fine, there was just a little shaking, nothing to worry about. Since my school is apparently built on something quite sturdy, I didn't feel a thing, but within moments the TVs in the teachers' room were on, and we were all watching the events unfold in horrific real time.


This was right after the high school graduation ceremony. We had all had a nice morning, seeing off our graduated students, taking pictures and swapping contact info, and then this. One of my colleagues has family up in Sendai, and was trying to get through to them, but the phone lines were, as expected, jammed. He had hoped to take a quick flight up there to help out, until we watched Sendai airport get crushed by a ten meter wave.

The rest of the day - the rest of the weekend, in fact - was just a constant parade of horrors as more and more terrible news came to light. Cities had been washed away, and some were not only under water but also on fire, like Kesennuma:



I made sure to put messages out in the Social Network-O-Sphere that I was fine, undamaged and well away from the quake. When I got home, The Boyfriend was watching live coverage on both the TV and his computer, and was pretty wound up about the whole thing. Considering that our building is right next to the Yodo River, this is understandable. He wanted to make plans, what to do if it happens while we're home, what to do if it happens while we're away, where we should meet and if anyplace around here could truly be called safe. If the quake had happened down on, say, Awaji island, a wall of water would no doubt have come slamming into downtown Osaka, which would make Friday's devastation look like small potatoes.



I spent most of my weekend fielding emails and messages and phone calls from people who wanted to make sure that I was okay, which I was. When I wasn't doing that, we were watching the news and following along as things went from bad to worse. Bad enough that the quake was the biggest in Japan's recorded history, that entire towns had been flattened, that some towns still couldn't find half their residents - now we had a nuclear problem as well.



The media in Japan is pretty much like the media in any other country - they're not allowed to stop and say, "Look - we have no information for you. When we do, we'll let you know, but until then let's all just chill and watch some funny cat videos." So they invited experts on to try and guess what had happened, and those experts predicted everything under the sun. Everything is fine, they said, unless it isn't. No, there's going to be a meltdown, just like Chernobyl! No, it's totally different from Chernobyl, but let me mention Three Mile Island.... The news ran the footage of the Fukushima plant explosion over and over again, without any real information to back up what had happened.

And even after the Chief Cabinet Secretary came on TV and said, "Everyone relax - here's what happened," no one could relax. Not with the word "MELTDOWN" being repeated every fifteen to twenty seconds. Not when we learned that they would be flooding the reactor with seawater - an absolute last resort, given that it would permanently cripple the mechanism. Not when problems started arising in other reactors.... Then the internet starts to spin up the panic cycle, with people predicting a massive nuclear cloud swirling across the Pacific and irradiating the west coast of the US, people sending messages as they leave Yokohama for Kyushu just to get away from the possibility of a meltdown, and all the smug hippies going online and saying, "We told you nuclear power was bad! We TOLD you!!!"

My personal opinion on this: Nuclear power is like airplanes - you never really think about it until something goes horribly wrong. For the most part, it's a fine way to generate electricity, especially when we're trying to cut down on greenhouse gasses and fossil fuel consumption. There are certainly drawbacks, as there are with any kind of power generation. But by and large, nuclear power is safe and clean. Except when it isn't. And a 9.0 earthquake followed by a tsunami of historic proportions is one of those times. Engineers in Japan are very good at preparing for disasters, but the Earth is also very good at creating them. And the Earth will, inevitably, win.

When I got online this morning, there was a message on my Facebook home page that Tokyo Electric was going to start rolling blackouts across the prefectures that had been receiving power from the Fukushima plant. Across Eastern Japan, train services will be suspended or limited, and areas will experience power outages lasting about three hours each. How long this will continue, no one knows. Fortunately, I live down in Kansai, which is run on a very nearly separate power network, so we won't be affected down here.

That last line is full of frustration, too: we won't be affected down here. Really, all we can do is watch and donate money. The economic hit that the country is going to take will catch up with us pretty quickly, I imagine, but in terms of actual aid or sacrifice right now, there isn't a whole lot we can do.

And of course, this has brought out the cockroaches as well, figuratively speaking. Apparently there's this diseased meme going around the dark, sweaty, squalid parts of the internet wherein this whole disaster is some kind of cosmic retribution for - of all things - Pearl Harbor. One of the earlier jackasses to use this is a Family Guy writer who has a cutoff point for disaster humor. When the death toll is 200, it's okay to make jokes. When the death toll is possibly 10,000, it's insensitive. I would really like to know at what number of drowned, burned and crushed people, missing family members, destroyed houses, businesses and livelihoods, things go from funny to not-funny. If Alec Sulkin would like to provide us with his estimate, I would greatly appreciate it.

Also, the less said about those who believe this was triggered by a "supermoon" or HAARP, the better.

All in all, a pretty crappy weekend for Japan, and it's not going to get a lot better. Entire towns are gone, and the week will probably be a relentless parade of body recovery. The rebuilding will be a Herculean effort for a country that is not in the best of economic shape as it is. All we can do is what the Japanese are very good at - pick up, move on, and recover.

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