The Alexandrian

Archive for the ‘Random’ category

ElephantAccording to a Scientific American article, the footprints of an elephant each contain dozens and possibly hundreds of different animals — mites, mayflies, backswimmers, leeches, and gastropods. Given proper conditions, such footprints can endure for weeks, giving them plenty of time to turn into little micro-habitats.

Which is super cool.

Now, scale it up for a fantasy world: A breathtaking colossus that slowly bestrides the world, leaving in its wake footprints a half-kilometer wide. Colossi gnomes scurry in its wake, delving into the exposed depths. Demonic creatures boil out of exposed underworlds. Such footprints could last for years or even decades, perhaps coming to support entire communities.

I was recently linked to this story on Facebook: U.S. Government Bans Native American Tribe From Protesting On Their Own Land – Send In Police To Remove Protesters.

As far as I can tell, the linked story is bullshit. First, it’s unclear which judicial action it’s reporting on. The article was written on September 7th, but the only judicial action on that day was actually a victory for Native American protestors.

Digging a little deeper, however, it appears that this is actually just a spam site that’s repackaging a story that got a lot of clicks on Facebook so that it can harvest some of that proven clickbait. It was most likely posted by an algorithm that noticed an uptick in Native American-related or pipeline-related stories on social media, and decided to copy-paste an earlier story on those topics which was a known success at attracting likes and shares.

The story it was copying, however, was actually just a spammy repackaging of actual reporting that had taken place several days earlier by Telesur.

Telesur’s story, however, wasn’t accurate. And their headline (“Native Americans Banned from Protesting Pipeline on Own Land”) was total bullshit. As Native News Online accurately reported, the judge’s order only prohibited them from physically interfering with construction. It didn’t ban them from protesting. Furthermore, the site covered by the judge’s order wasn’t actually on a Native American reservation, so it never banned them from ANYTHING “on their own land”.

So, to sum up: Inaccurate reporting tied to a completely inaccurate headline caused a bunch of fringe websites to post mock-outrage stories about something that wasn’t actually happening. One of those mock-outrage stories remixed the headline into a mostly fact-free rant masquerading as a news story and paired it to a really great photograph that caused people to click it and share it. Then some trashy sites noticed that the post was popular and duped it in order to harvest the advertising revenue.

The photograph, by the way, is actually of a Brazilian man from 2012: “An indigenous man stands as riot police stand guard during the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Brazil’s indigenous are protesting the government’s plan to construct the large Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon.”

And that’s how most Americans are getting their news in 2016.

Which is a problem. Because, as we’ve just demonstrated, what the algorithms, systems, and mob psychology of social media select for is not the dissemination of truth. It is the dissemination of outrage. When you unthinkingly allow yourself to take in that outrage, you’re doing a disservice to yourself. And when you unthinkingly allow that outrage to drive your actions — even the simple action of hitting a Like or Share or Retweet or Up Vote button — you’re doing a disservice to everyone around you.

I was horribly ill back in December when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released. I dragged myself to the theater multiple times to see it through a sequence of flu, strep, and pneumonia, but I wasn’t able to devote the time necessary to write-up my thoughts on it immediately. (And after only a short while, it seemed somewhat redundant.) However, with the film’s recent release to home video and in celebration of the week of May 4th, there are a couple of things I’d like to say.

First, and by way of context: I love the film. I think it’s great. The new characters are fabulous. J.J. Abrams, by and large, is remarkably successful in capturing Lucas’ directorial style while still being true to his own.

There’s really only one thing I don’t like. And it probably won’t be terribly surprising:


Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Starkiller Base

When Starkiller Base first appeared on screen my immediate reaction was, like many people, “Really? We’re doing the Death Star again?”

The most remarkable thing about the Starkiller Base stuff is how utterly irrelevant it is. If you removed it from the movie entirely, virtually nothing would change for the main characters. (Han, Chewie, and Finn still go to the First Order’s base to rescue Rey. Han and Kylo Ren still confront each other. Et cetera.)

There’s also the fact that literally everything to do with the Starkiller Base is poorly done: They fail to establish the stakes for the first time it’s fired (it’s a planet that’s scarcely been mentioned and you see a bunch of people die that you have no reason to care about). The entire thing is a giant plot hole (it needs to consume the system’s sun in order to fire at the end of the film, but doesn’t do that the first time it fires). The off-hand reference to the entire New Republic navy being stationed on the surface of Hosnian Prime doesn’t make any goddamn sense. (It’s as if someone told the story of Pearl Harbour, but for some reason the entire American navy was drydocked in Iowa.) The plan for destroying it is literally the characters saying, “Fuck it. You saw the first film and ROTJ, right?” The attack fleet sent to destroy it doesn’t make any sense. (Why would you only send some of your ships on this mission?) For some reason, after being briefly spied so that Han can suggest bombing the regulator, the X-wing fight is never seen nor heard again by anyone on the ground. And the film couldn’t even be bothered to correctly track the number of ships which had been destroyed during the battle. (Count the number of X-wings that arrive; the number of X-wings destroyed just on screen; and then count the number of X-Wings that leave.)

So, when I’m given the godlike powers to fix stuff that doesn’t make sense in movies, I would probably just eliminate the whole thing. (Because, honestly, we don’t need to go back to the “duplicate of the Death Star” well again. It was already a mistake in ROTJ. The Star Wars universe is big enough that we can explore other cool sci-fi ideas.)

But let’s say that you wanted to keep it. (There’s some cool thematic elements to the whole “light going out” thing with parallels between the sun and Kylo Ren. Plus, I’m guessing the whole “blowing up the government of the New Republic” is probably going to be significant going foward.) Here’s what you’d do:

  1. Starkiller Base doesn’t fire at the midpoint of the film. Instead, the Resistance would learn of its existence through some other means. (For example, Finn reveals the location of the base when debriefed about Rey’s capture. The Resistance sends scout ships — which is something they do in the film anyway — and have the “oh shit” moment of discovering what it is.)
  2. The mission to destroy Starkiller Base at the end of the film is to stop it from firing on the New Republic capital planet. This eliminates most of the grievous continuity errors.
  3. It also gives you the narrative space to add several scenes involving coordination between Leia and her contacts within the New Republic government. These scenes would nicely clarify some of the details on how the modern political landscape actually works in this film; it would also give you an opportunity to learn enough about the Republic and Leia’s allies in the Hosnian System so that its destruction is meaningful to the audience. (This doesn’t take a lot. The first film made the destruction of Alderaan relevant with just a handful of lines.)
  4. Finally, and this is the key thing, the mission fails. You hit basically all the same beats you do during the film as it was released (although with a few tweaks to improve the execution and eliminate the continuity errors), but with the key distinction that they don’t destroy it fast enough. You know how Luke destroys the first Death Star just before it can fire on Yavin 4? You have basically the same moment, except Po Dameron doesn’t manage to destroy the regulator until just after it’s fired.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Destruction of Hosnian Prime

This last point is important not just because it conserves the presumed narrative necessity of destroying the New Republic government, but because it single-handedly justifies the entire presence of Starkiller Base in the movie.

One of the great things about Star Wars is its use of narrative leitmotifs. (Something which is echoed in John Williams’ leitmotif-based scoring.) George Lucas, whatever his flaws as a filmmaker may be, was ingenious at taking common moments and, in mythic fashion, changing the perspective of them so that they commented on each other. (For example, despite the myriad flaws of the prequel films, the telling of Anakin’s fall and its parallels with Luke’s story radically transform the ending of ROTJ: In the context of the original trilogy, you really don’t believe there’s any risk of Luke falling. He’s the Hero. He’s going to be the Hero, right? But once you’ve seen Anakin — who was also the Hero — fall, that tells you something about Luke and adds tremendous depth to that final confrontation in ROTJ which is otherwise absent.)

But when you use a leitmotif you can’t just do the exact same thing again (only bigger!). You have to transform the moment. And I think transforming the destruction of the Death Star into the failure to stop Starkiller Base would definitely have a deeper thematic resonance here. (A lot of The Force Awakens reminds me of a Shakespeare quote: “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right.” And nothing would feel more out of joint than this twisted mirror of A New Hope.)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Destruction of Starkiller Base

The Plan of Palpatine
Star Wars: Episodes VII, VIII, and IX

Spider-Man - John Romita, Sr.

The core of it is that he’s a geeky teenage Everyman that the core reading audience of comics can either identify with, dream about being in 5 years, or can reflect upon with fond nostalgia.

But that’s not enough.

Steve Ditko gifted him with one of the Top 3 rogue’s galleries in the biz. (Batman and Flash are the only ones to give him competition.)

Stan Lee gave him the wisecracking wit that makes him beloved.

Still not enough.

The core philosophical principle of, “With great power comes great responsibility.” carries a lot of weight here. Very few heroes come packaged with a core thematic element which can be used in so many deep and meaningful ways. (Superman used to have this with “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, but those values don’t lend themselves easily to resonant storytelling and they’ve mostly been turned into a joke over the past couple or three decades.)

The importance of the tragic element can’t be understated. It provides a persistent emotional weight that counterbalances the wisecracking. (It’s not coincidental that the three most popular superheroes — Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman — all have dead parental figures.) The death of Gwen Stacy was a major thing, too. It was a unique angle on the superhero tragedy that nobody else would get until, arguably, Batman lost a Robin.

The fantastic supporting cast from Ditko, Lee, and Romita in the ’60s also can’t be undervalued. Simply richer and larger than any other superhero at the time (and most since). And, as with Gwen Stacy, they’re essential for emphasizing both the central theme and the tragic losses.

But what really pushes him over the top?

It’s the webslinging. It’s so goddamn cool. But, more importantly, it’s so utterly unique: There’s a bajillion Batman-esque and Superman-esque characters. There’s exactly one superhero who can do the webslinging thing.

It’s your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

Orange Juice with Juicy BitsSo, as most of you know, I’ve been working as the line developer on Modiphius Entertainment’s Infinity roleplaying game. Although I live in the middle of America, Modiphius is based out of London. I’ve had to make a lot of adjustments to my time zones, my culture, and even my writing style. (You may have noticed a few UK spellings of words back-creeping onto the Alexandrian.) But if you’re going to do an honourable (ah, there it is) job of it, that’s just what you have to do.

But I’ve also been working with other American freelancers, and I’ve noticed that some of them struggle with the British-isms more than others. Everybody knows you say “flat” instead of “apartment” and you use “lift” instead of “elevator”, but there are more esoteric examples, too. For example, if you’ve ever been to the UK you may have noticed that many of the orange juice containers there are labeled as containing “Juicy Bits”. Most Americans assume that this is just another cultural synonym and buy the orange juice thinking that it’s going to contain what we call “pulp”.

This, however, is just a common misunderstanding.

The “juicy bits” in this case actually refers to the pornographic pictures or text which are sold with the orange juice. This is kind of a weird tradition in England, but it dates back to the 19th century when Queen Victoria signed a law outlawing the sale of pornographic material. However, there was a loophole in the law which allowed the pornography to be given away for free. As a result, the street pornographers would essentially “disguise” themselves as orange sellers: You would buy an orange and they would wrap it for you with “free” pornographic content.

(It’s possible they got the idea from the French, who would wrap croissants with poetry. See Cyrano de Bergerac for a depiction of this practice.)

Eventually the laws were changed, of course, but by that point the whole orange-and-pornography thing had become traditional. This included wrapping glass bottles of orange juice with pornographic labels: As you drank the juice away, the pornographic images would slowly be revealed. A “moral outrage” in the mid-20th century caused the orange juice companies to temporarily eliminate the “juicy bits” OJ containers, but there was a backlash and so they reached a new compromise: They print the “juicy bits” inside the container.

Most people don’t bother of course, but next time you finish off a “juicy bits” container of OJ in the UK, cut it open and enjoy!

(One last thing: A few years ago there was a bit of a scandal because one of the OJ manufacturers thought they could get away without actually printing the “juicy bits” inside. It was never clear if it was a manufacturing mistake or if they were just trying to save money on the assumption that nobody really looked any more. In any case, there was a big kerfluffle about it. So if you cut open your container and there isn’t a “juicy bit” in there, make sure you call the company: They’ll have to provide with a free replacement.)



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