Monday, December 26, 2011

Are Hergé's Tintin Comics Racist? Of Course They Are.

Let's get the bias-clearing part out of the way right up front: I love Tintin. I've read pretty much every Tintin story ever published, I own most of them, and when I was very small my dad and I used to read them. He'd be Captain Haddock, I'd be Tintin and we'd narrate our way through each adventure, sitting side by side in my big yellow chair. (It took forever for me to figure out why Andy Serkis's Captain Haddock sounded weird in the trailer; it's because he doesn't do my dad's distinctive pronunciation of things like "Blistering barnacles!")

As a lifelong reader, I think I have a decent say in the debate over whether the Tintin comics are racist in their portrayals of people who aren't white Europeans. My answer? Yes. Duh. Absolutely. Of course. Let the apologists argue over whether it was on purpose or whether Georges Remi was an innocent product of his times; I prefer to cede the debate entirely by admitting what is plainly obvious: Tintin, as a comic, is racist through and through. One has only to look at the Congolese of Tintin in the Congo to see this. For further examples, I recommend the black crew members of Cigars of the Pharaoh, the Muslims of The Red Sea Sharks, the hired guns of Rastapopulous and his gang in Flight 714 and dozens more. 

Tintin himself is vehemently anti-racist, and is often seen sticking up for downtrodden locals over the objections of imperial powers (see: Zorrino in Prisoners of the Sun, Chang in The Blue Lotus). The trouble is that said locals are always portrayed as incapable of protecting or defending themselves, and in need of Tintin's intervention for their own safety. You could make similar cases about the inefficencies of provincial governments around the world that Tintin travels to, the political instabilities in various regions (the Balkans, the Middle East, South America) that Tintin regularly soothes, and so forth, but that's not the point. 

The point is, if you get caught up in the comic's racist tendencies, you're going to miss just how freaking good it can be. Tintin is an adventure hero, and he's a bit of a Mary Sue for pre-teen boys; without much of a personality of his own, he travels around the world, fights crime and solves mysteries. Who wouldn't want to put themselves in his shoes? The comic is drawn well, the stories are decently complex and frequently comment on issues of the day, and there's plenty of comedy (from Captain Haddock and Thomson and Thompson, among many other sources). It's all right to label Tintin as racist; that's what it deserves. But if you pigeonhole it away with Rudyard Kipling and Doctor Doolittle and all the other racist literature that also happens to be very good, you're missing out on some eminently readable and visually stunning childrens' tales.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Review of "Womb"

"Fuck that movie." -Sid

Womb is aggressively bad. It appears to have been made by hipsters, for hipsters, with the sole goal in mind of being spectacularly boring. Its lone virtue is the beautiful high-definition camera, which is used to good effect in most of the shots. Beyond that, however, Womb is just terrible.

The movie is a character drama that focuses on the lives of Rebecca and Tommy, in both of his incarnations, but by the end you really know very little about their characters. Rebecca is simply emotionless, staring blankly at her fellow actors for most of the movie, and Tommy isn't much better. It's impossible to relate to them.

Director Benedek Fliegauf's cardinal sin is prolonging shots far, far longer than they need to last, particularly shots of Rebecca staring at Tommy (or anything, really). They're consistently 30 to 40 seconds long and nothing happens in them but the actor staring vacantly, or yet another shot of the house Tommy and Rebecca live in. These aren't a momentary artistic diversion, either; they occur frequently throughout the movie. There's just so much wasted time that could've been used for dialogue, of which Womb has very little. Also, there's virtually no music and no background noise in these shots, so they're just downright boring. If you've seen the cover art with Rebecca staring at something off-camera, you've seen probably a solid 15 minutes of the movie.

I suppose Womb's persistent tendency to convey surpassing awkwardness is a point in its favor. However, there's really no scene in the entire film that isn't skin-crawlingly awkward in some way (Rebecca's staring and the long shots convey this well). It's an awkward subject anyway; I mean, the world's biggest Oedipal complex in Smith combines with the world's most obsessive person in Rebecca. I've seen reviews arguing that it's heartfelt and adorable because of the length Rebecca goes to regain her lost love; I vehemently disagree. Because of Rebecca's lack of character, the act of cloning and raising Tommy comes across as simply creepy rather than something she's doing out of love. (Tangent: I also see Rebecca as one of the most thoroughly selfish characters in cinema, but that's another story. Her selfishness is her defining trait.)

Also, Fliegauf's directing contains perhaps the most heavy-handed use of symbolism I have ever seen. The only thing he doesn't do to get his points across is putting them in a subtitle at the bottom of the screen. Example: Tommy is conflicted about whether he should be with Monica or Rebecca. We know this because there's a shot of both their bedroom doors, which are right next to each other. Both doors are open and both women are lying disconsolately on their respective beds, and Tommy walks between them, then leaves. This takes about a minute and really doesn't deserve 10 seconds.

So, that is Womb. If I've left anything out, it's that the dialogue could probably have been written in about two or three hours by a writer who wasn't concentrating very hard. There's nothing striking, witty, clever or even memorable about any of the lines. Most often the lines aren't even there, replaced by vacant silence where human interaction is supposed to be, and also where people could've justified their actions. Why did Tommy-2 bury the dinosaur? Why did Tommy-1 randomly strip down and jump into the ocean? Why did Rebecca take a solid 12 seconds to seductively eat a banana? How did Tommy-1 become, of all things, a cockroach breeder? These answers just aren't there. Arguably, it's for the viewer to answer these questions, but for me it just felt like apathetic storytelling. On a scale from "I utterly wasted my time" to "You must spend every waking moment of your life seeing this movie", Womb is pretty close to touching the bottom. Don't go here.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cops Killing Animals: Zanesville Tranquilizer Controversy

The big Ohio story over the last few days involved an exotic animal owner who opened the cages of his private menagerie and then shot himself. The escaped animals included lions, tigers and bears (of course), wolves, baboons and monkeys. All were hunted down and shot. This has sparked some minor controversy about whether the animals should've been tranquilized instead, an argument which ignores both the facts of the escape and the practicalities of doing so.

First of all, police officers are not equipped with tranquilizer guns as part of normal procedure. The deputies that responded to a call of escaped wild animals carried assault rifles, as well they should have. There was no time to get the required equipment together, and waiting around to do so would've raised the possibility of an escaped animal injuring or killing someone in the meantime. This is plain and obvious.

Secondly, it took until Wednesday night to deploy experts with tranquilizer guns (the animals were turned loose on Tuesday). Should the police have simply let the animals run free in the meantime? Of course not. This is, again, obvious.

Thirdly, note the word 'experts' in the paragraph above. It's not simply a matter of handing guns to cops, once you get the guns, and telling them to tranquilize all the animals they find. The user of a tranquilizer gun basically needs to be part anesthesiologist, according to this site. You have to calculate the dosage based on approximate body weight, species and the concentration of the drugs you're using, which is an inexact process. And since (as a now-armed cop) you don't know exactly what animal you're likely to encounter, and thus what dart you'll need, there's a major risk to the cop AND to the animal. Shoot a dose intended for an elephant into a monkey, it probably dies anyway. Shoot the monkey's dose into the elephant, you just make it mad. And expecting somebody who's not trained with that piece of equipment to get it right, under pressure, for every animal is an unacceptable and unreasonable demand. I'm not saying I like the idea of exterminating the animals, but killing them on sight was by far the best way to ensure that nobody got hurt (and indeed, nobody got hurt with the exception of the owner, who apparently committed suicide).

The Curse of the China Doll

A little-noticed fluff piece on today revealed that Sean Payton, head coach of the New Orleans Saints, apparently has a habit of giving his injured players china dolls. If that's the case, I think that would have a seriously negative effect on injured players. 

From the player's perspective in the NFL, the front office is always trying to replace you. There is tremendous pressure on every player but the superstars, all the time, to stay on the field and make plays. This leads to players concealing or downplaying injuries in an effort to look good, which leads to their quality of play declining and can often lead to them getting cut. If the coach is actively mocking players with injuries and accusing them of being fragile, as the china doll gift suggests, that puts even more pressure on those players and can hurt their careers. It also leads to a poor outcome for the football team, if the player never lives up to his talent level because of injuries that never got a chance to heal. 

Jack Bechta of the National Football Post says it much more eloquently than I do, but our point is the same: this is a really bad thing for injured players.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

To Those Who Burned the Mosque in Tuba-Zangariya...

You are disgusting. You are foul. You are vile and contemptible and ugly. 

There can be no excuses made for the crime of setting afire a holy place. Mosque, synagogue, church, temple, I do not care. That is beneath any decency, beneath any right, beneath all attempts at temporizing and half-hearted justifications. 

That is wrong.

Don't ever fucking do that. EVER


one pissed-off Jew. 

Many Links!

A great profile of Eric Cantor,

An article about forgiving consumer debt,

The majority letter to President Obama on the cement bill:

A column on stateless income:

Another profile from New York Magazine on the guy who wrote Moneyball and The Blind Side,

Politico Primary:

Steve Jobs
A journalist remembers Jobs:

Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford commencement speech, full text,

Also, nuclear:

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Doctor Who, Contd:

Some quick thoughts that I've had in a Word document for a few weeks now. I'll post a Top 10 Who episodes of the new series list, seasons 1-6, when I get around to it; however, failing that at present, here's just a few things. SPOILERS BEWARE.

-Steven Moffat really likes presenting his characters with two choices, both of which are ultimately false (See: "Amy's Choice", "The Almost People" (in the case of Jenny), and arguably "The Girl Who Waited"; Rory has to choose one or the other Amy, but it turns out the choice was made for him anyway.

-He's also run the scenario twice where the Doctor brings two opposing groups to the negotiating table, ready to talk peace, only to have an unexpected murder spoil everything and nearly provoke a war. ("The Hungry Earth"/"In Cold Blood", "The Rebel Flesh"/"The Almost People".)

-Moffat and Davies have each run a scenario with galactic policeman trying to capture an escaped intergalactic criminal, who are willing to sacrifice human life to capture that criminal (or are indifferent to it). ("Smith and Jones", "The Eleventh Hour")

-Turning ordinary objects/situations into something science-magical/frightening. ("Gridlock" and "The Idiot's Lantern", not to mention the TARDIS itself.)

Monday, September 26, 2011

Is the Doctor Really Ruining His Companions' Lives?

First of all, I'm finally, finally, FINALLY caught up on Doctor Who. I just watched my first-ever newly aired episode, "Closing Time", this weekend. Unfamiliar sensations!

Second of all, I've got some Doctor Who thoughts to post, and I shan't stop until they're all gone. Here's a sampler: I don't think the Doctor has any reason to feel guilty about screwing up the lives of his past Companions, which has been a major theme this season. 

Yes, bad things happened to the Companions in-episode or in-season, which is fine. But that's more than counterbalanced by the wonders the Doctor shows each of them when roaming across the universe. And honestly, I think almost all of them are better off for their time with the Doctor, so I don't see why he's whingeing about screwing up their lives. 

Look at the Companions we’ve seen so far: Rose, Mickey and Rose’s mum are happy, and Rose has her own Doctor, which is what she’s always wanted. Sure, they’re in an alternate universe and sure, Rose had to give up everything else in our universe to gain what she has, but she gained her dad back as well and it’s not like she ever seemed to particularly care about anything besides family. Martha’s having the time of her life, having been elevated from a lowly doctor’s assistant to Companion and then to UNIT VIP, before leaving them to run around blowing things up (in "The End of Time"). She’s married, in love and clearly happy, even if she’s not on the TARDIS. And Donna, while she’s suffered the greatest loss of any Companion, is also oblivious to it! For Donna, her life is exactly the same as it was pre-Doctor. She’s neutral.

Obviously we've yet to see what happens to Amy and Rory, but for now, I think it's safe to say that the Doctor shouldn't feel guilty about his past Companions.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Edmund Finney: Sane or Insane?

In the successful, long-running webcomic Edmund Finney's Quest to Find the Meaning of Life, protagonist Edmund has met innumerable strange people. There's the Count that speaks only in literal statements, the executioner who creates an execution-themed amusement park, the dragon who's a scam artist, a homicidal elevator operator and many more. All of these people seem to be insane from the perspective of the reader and of sane, rational Edmund, who shares the reader's values and often acts as an audience surrogate. The question is, are they insane, or is he?

If we accept that insanity is a species of craziness wherein the lunatic's values/beliefs/actions are following a recognizable pattern (e.g. slamming your face into the floor five hundred times every night to ward off the invisible goblin gods)...

...and if we accept the precept that insanity (and therefore sanity) is not a fixed concept, since sanity (normal behavior) is defined by the society you're in, and therefore sanity is relative...

...and if we accept Ray Bradbury's quote, "Insanity... depends on who has who locked in what cage"...

...might it not be the case that Edmund, who appears to be the only sane, rational person in the comic from the perspective of the reader, is actually the crazy one? He appears sane to us, but in the world of the webcomic, he's the one out of step with every other character. Folk wisdom has it that if you encounter a problem at your job, and you switch jobs six times and the same problem reappears every time, you're likely to be the one with the problem. Could this apply to Edmund, who seems out of place in every situation he enters?

Sure, he seems sane to us because we share his values. Edmund Finney's defining traits are logic and rationality, traits that most of his readers sympathize with. But from the perspective of beings in Edmund's world, he's the abnormal one. Their twisted logic and crazy decisions are the norm. What we consider rationality is strange and alien. Wouldn't it make sense, then, for them to lock Edmund up?

And that's exactly what happens, actually. In one telling comic, Hand-Farmer McGann harvests a crop of hands from the ground, then runs off into the night. The police come by looking for an escaped mental patient, and Edmund (sanely and rationally) tells them that a guy claiming to farm hands just passed by. The police call off their search and take Edmund into custody. One reading of the comic is that the police arrested Edmund because he sounded crazy telling them about McGann, and they thought he was the mental patient. My argument, however, is that they arrested Edmund because he gave the rational answer. He wasn't punished for sounding crazy by our standards, but by theirs. Even if McGann had escaped from an asylum (and we see later that the asylum inmates aren't much crazier than the outside world's inmates), the police did their "sane" duty by arresting an innocent man. Everything fits.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dear Anonymous Senior Republican Aide...

Fuck you.

Yes, you. The guy who was quoted in Politico's print story this morning as arguing against cooperation with President Obama to pass his jobs bill, saying in so many words, "Obama is on the ropes; why do we appear ready to hand him a win"?

I like the fact that you were candid, Mr. Senior Republican Aide, sir, but what I dislike is your entire mindset implied by that comment. Since when exactly is fixing what's broken in the country less important than scoring political points, a currency not accepted at any major bank?

So, my very dear friend Senior Anonymous Republican Aide, go fuck yourself. When you're done, come back and start negotiating with Democratic leaders about the best way to fix the economy!

Most sincerely,

Andy Tisdel

Friday, September 9, 2011

Student Alcohol Policy: Coda

In the last few days, I’ve been to a Student Government meeting and asked about the policy, been to a First Responders meeting and asked about the policy, and had a meeting with the Dean of Students to talk about the policy. So I think I’m on pretty firm ground here when I say that, contrary to what was reported by the Wooster Voice, it’s neither a big deal nor a big change.


First of all, the College’s alcohol policy remains the same as ever, which is to enforce state law. In practice, what typically happens is that upon a first alcohol violation, you go to the Wellness Center and have to talk to a counselor.

With regards to the Dean’s office, well… In the past, Security, Judicial Board, the Dean’s office and the Wellness Center all kept records, depending on which one a given offender came in contact with. This made it harder to detect people who seemed to be having a serious problem; it’s easier to see three violations in one place than it is to communicate between different offices and figure out that Student A has been in trouble three times. The emphasis is not on punishment, but on helping Student A; the worst punishment A will receive is talking to an alcohol counselor, which after a few massively drunken episodes, they probably need anyway.


-The College is obligated to enforce state law, and underage drinking is in fact illegal. I keep forgetting about that because it’s so widespread, but the fact is, Security enforces the law and the law says that drunk and disorderly conduct, or underage drinking, is illegal.

-You don’t actually have a right to privacy at a private school. When you step onto this campus, you forfeit your right to freedom of speech and privacy. There’s nothing illegal, in that case, about the Dean’s office having access to the fact that you came to the Wellness Center drunk the other day. We exercise free speech and have limited privacy because he doesn’t want to run the campus in a draconian manner, but there’s nothing unlawful about his ability to get that information. However, the information remains confidential to those outside his office.

-Students eschewing the Wellness Center’s care hasn’t been as much of a problem in the past as I thought it could be. The sober friends of a given drunkard tend to make the smart call, and the drunk friends get scared and take their drunker friends to the Center. This isn’t always the case, but it is very often the case.

-If you have a beer, fall down and bruise your arm, you don’t get a notification because that isn’t your chief complaint. In other words, if you haven’t broken the law and you come to the Center with alcohol in your system and another ailment, the Dean doesn’t get a notification.

-There’s no actual list that the Dean keeps. Most of the time, he doesn’t even see the first-time notifications. It’s the second- and third- time people that might have a problem that the notifications are designed for. Once again, the focus is on helping repeat offenders, not punishing them.

-Finally, the policy doesn’t extend to all your medical information. It’s exclusive to alcohol. Drug abuse, however, has to be reported to the City of Wooster.


There’s no actual change in how the College treats offenders, and there’s no change in which offices have access to what information. In addition, the Dean does not have access to your medical records via this system. He is only told when there’s a violation of law or policy, i.e. underage drinking, drunk & disorderly conduct, etc. If you don’t like that the Dean hears about your alcohol-related malfeasance, well, that’s the price of doing business when you go to a private school.

Please spread the above around as broadly as you can, and just as importantly, please spread the word that it is as safe and to your benefit to visit the Wellness Center as it has always been.

Many thanks,

Andy Tisdel
College of Wooster ‘12

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Patriots and Colts: Two Conflicting Philosophies

It occurred to me, as I was reading about the imminent end of Peyton Manning's games-started streak, that the Indianapolis Colts and their arch-rivals the Patriots don't just have a quarterback rivalry. Their philosophies on how to build a professional football team are also in direct conflict.

Indy's Incompletions
The Colts have traditionally staked everything on arguably the greatest players in the NFL today, Peyton Manning. Their offense has been tailored for a decade precisely the way that's best for him. The Colts don't have many star players, excluding Manning and defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. Usually, they just in pieces around Manning and let his unbelievable brain, feet and arm do the rest. Boom, 12 wins. Boom, playoff berth.

Because of Manning's ability, the Colts have been able to squeeze by with some really crappy high picks over the past half-decade. Indianapolis arguably hasn't had an elite first-rounder since Dallas Clark (TE) in 2004. CB Marlin Jackson (2005) is no longer with the team, and subsequent picks Anthony Gonzalez (WR, 2007), Donald Brown (RB, 2008) and Jerry Hughes (DE, 2009) have all been unimpressive. Only Joseph Addai (RB, 2006) has made the Pro Bowl, and he hasn't had a 1,000 yard season since 2007.

The Colts' third- and second- round picks have also been largely crappy. Larry Tripplett (DT, 2002, 2nd), Joseph Jefferson (SS, 2002, 3rd), Mike Doss, (2003 S, 2nd) Donald Strickland (CB, 2003, 3rd), Bob Sanders (S, 2004, 2nd) Ben Hartsock (TE, 2004, 3rd), Gilbert Gardner (LB, 2004, 3rd) Kelvin Hayden (CB, 2005, 2nd), Vincent Burns (DT 2005 3rd), Tim Jennings (CB 2006 2nd), Freddy Keiaho (LB 2006 3rd), Tony Ugoh (OT 2007 2nd), Dante Hughes (CB 2007 3rd) and Quinn Pitcock (DT 2007 3rd) are no longer with the team. Jennings, Sanders and Strickland all had success (particularly Sanders, a former Defensive Player of the Year), but the rest of these players haven't had much.

Mike Pollak (G 2008, 2nd), Phillip Wheeler (LB, 2008, 3rd), Fili Moala (DT, 2009, 2nd), Jerraud Powers (CB, 3rd, 2009), Pat Angerer (LB, 2010, 2nd) and Kevin Thomas (3rd, CB, 2010) are still with the team, but only Angerer has impressed thus far.

Most teams that draft this poorly would be perennial 6-10 squads. The Colts have avoided this fate by riding their stars (Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne and of course Manning) and just letting Manning make competent players out of whoever they throw at him. Without Manning, the whole artifice comes crashing down.

(The Colts have also drafted an astounding ten defensive backs in rounds 1-3 over the past nine years. Only Powers and Thomas are still on the roster, and Thomas missed all of 2010.)

The Patriot Way
The Patriots, by contrast, are famous for signing older, established free agents-Andre Carter, Chad Ochocinco, Shaun Ellis and Albert Haynesworth from this season alone-and drafting enough talent for Tom Brady to get by. Like the Colts, they have strong systems that they can plug players into and get results from just about anybody. Unlike the Colts, they are built to survive without Tom Brady (witness 2008, when they went 11-5 with Matt Cassel at the helm). Indianapolis, with its culture and players completely centered around Peyton Manning, is unlikely to fare as well if he misses extended time this year.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Dear Mr. Romney...

Dear Mr. Romney, 

You are a hell of a lot smarter and better-informed than I am, so I'm in no position to criticize every part of your editorial in USA TODAY that came out this morning. I do, however, want to make three basic observations, based on those areas you covered where I have (some little) expertise. 

Observation #1: It's true that, on the books, the U.S. corporate tax rate looks too damn high. 

However, when you take into account loopholes, write-offs, tax credits and exemptions that corporations can qualify for, the effective tax rate doesn't look nearly as scary. The estimates I saw in some brief research seem to peg it at between 25 and 28 percent. 

Also, in the paragraph immediately before the tax rate one, you say the difference between President Obama's actions and a future President Romney's "could not be starker". If that's the case, your first examples of that difference might not want to include a proposal that the White House has been working on at least since May

Observation #2: This has to do with the paragraph on energy. You say that you'll "utilize to the fullest extent our nation's nuclear know-how" and devote time to "rationalizing and streamlining regulation". I'm not very knowledgeable about the oil, gas and coal industries, but in the case of the nuclear industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just experienced a major regulatory overhaul. Stirring the pot and unsettling everything there with another round of "rationalizing and streamlining" might actually be counterproductive. 
Also, "utiliz[ing] our nation's nuclear know-how" is all very well, but the 'nuclear renaissance' has been held up because of regulatory delays and the expense of constructing new plants, not any lack of enthusiasm on the President's part. He made $18 billion available in start-up loans for new plants, in the form of a Department of Energy fund. Doing more than that might not jibe with your spend-less philosophy. 

Observation #3: I'm not one to expect specifics for fixing everything in one small editorial, and I eagerly await your 59-point plan for fixing America. That said, a lot of the ideas in your column sound good, but are short on crucial details. I look forward to see you elucidating them more clearly on the campaign trail.


Andy Tisdel

Friday, September 2, 2011

Student Alcohol Policy UPDATE

I talked to a member of the student government here this afternoon, and he told me that the view of Dean Holmes having just received access to their medical records was a "common misconception". According to him, the Dean has held this power for some time now. In the past, the Dean could call up the Wellness Center and requisition the files of a repeat offender, or in other words, someone who appears to pose a danger to themselves. The rule change, this member said, is just putting the data in a more convenient position for the Dean's office to recognize repeat offenders.

While this is less disturbing than the idea of the Dean suddenly having access to students' medical records, I believe that this is still a problem for a number of reasons. Consider:

-Either way, students have no knowledge of when their medical information can be accessed by the Dean, or what criteria he uses to decide when such access is necessary. I didn't know that was possible and I've been First Responding at the Wellness Center for three years.

-The Dean gets to make the determination of when a series of alcohol-related incidents requires him to step in. Given that the Wellness Center staff is in the best position to judge when a student is having a problem, and given that they naturally have access to a student's medical history,  I would rather see them inform the Dean if they believe a student has a serious problem.

-This is because not all alcohol-related incidents are created equally. Some students visiting the Wellness Center are utterly trashed and some are not. It seems like the staff is in a better position to determine who appears to have a problem and who does not. There's also the question of, what if someone comes in with a cut on their hand and they've had a few drinks, but the cut was unrelated to the drinking? Would they get a report sent to the Wellness Center as well, perhaps unjustly?

-Either way, it's still a big problem if students believe they will get in trouble by going to the Wellness Center. The policy still provides a disincentive for students to go or take their friends to the Center, particularly if they're not informed about what the policy actually is and what each individual notification of the Dean entails. One might assume that someone with one visit to the Dean already on the books might hesitate to go back to the Center, for fear of suffering penalties. 

-Finally, the Dean's policy hinges on clear communication with the student body about what the notification is and what it entails, why students should not fear going to the Wellness Center because of it, and what repeat offenders should expect. As I said in my letter to Dean Holmes, the point isn't to convince the sober, clear-headed, rational people on campus of the policy's purpose when they're sober. The point is to ensure that students feel like they can bring their drunken friends to the Wellness Center late at night and not have their friends (or themselves) suffer negative repercussions from doing so. This requires clearer communication about those topics than the Voice article provided.

Dear Dean Holmes...

Wow, I didn't realize until I came here that this would be two "Dear Powerful Dude..." posts in two days. This one is unrelated to the last. 
This post has to do with a just-enacted policy by the College of Wooster, specifically Dean of Students Dean Holmes, which requires the Wellness Center to notify the Dean's office whenever a student comes to the Center with an alcohol-related malady. I am (formally) vociferously opposed to this policy and (informally) mad enough to bite through bricks. 
Below is a letter to Dean Holmes regarding this policy. I have already sent copies of this letter to the Dean's office (in person) and to the campus newspaper, the Wooster Voice (via email). If you are as outraged by this regulation as I am, I encourage you to write and submit your own letters to the Dean's office. He's in Galpin Hall. Go in through the front door, walk straight and it'll be on your left.

UPDATE: I have a second post up on this topic. A member of the student government told me that the Dean had already had the power to requisition students' information, and that this is an expansion of that rule rather than its inception. However, I think there are still several problems with this policy, which you can find at this link.

UPDATE II: It struck me that I should probably mention the following: In this and all subsequent posts and letters, the opinions I have expressed and will express are mine own and do not necessarily represent the views of my First Responder comrades, or the organization as a whole, or any other body to which I belong, unless stated otherwise. However, the overwhelming majority of students with whom I have spoken on this topic to date, First Responders or not, have agreed with my position and sympathized with my concerns. 

Dear Dean Holmes,

My name is Andrew Tisdel, and I have been a First Responder for the past three years. I was surprised and extremely displeased to read in the Wooster Voice today that the Longbrake Student Wellness Center will now be required to inform the Dean’s office when an intoxicated student arrives at the Center.

This rule not only undercuts the First Responders’ entire reason for existence, but it results in a clear and obvious danger to the safety of intoxicated students.

Let me explain what I’m talking about. Both Resident Assistants on campus and Security officers receive some form of medical training, similar to the training course First Responders undergo, and are able to provide medical assistance in an emergency. The Wellness Center’s nurses, who provide exemplary medical care inside the Center, are also fully capable of performing our duties. In that sense, we are a redundant institution at this College. The quality that sets us apart from other organizations is the very one that you have just eliminated, namely, our ability to guarantee patient confidentiality.

 In the past, when a student brought her drunken roommate to the Wellness Center, she could do so with the knowledge that the worst consequence would be a session with an alcohol counselor. Unless the drunkard was brought in by Security, there would be no mark on the student’s permanent record, and no outside agency would be informed. This ability to provide confidential medical care is the only reason why First Responders exist. Students can call us when they need help, and we can provide receive assistance that doesn’t come with unpleasant consequences, like being written up by Security. Your rule takes away this much-needed aspect of patient confidentiality.

However, I must emphasize that the irrelevance of the First Responders and the blatant disregard for patient confidentiality that this rule implies are comparatively trivial. Much, much worse is the danger that this rule poses to the health and safety of intoxicated students.

As I said above, the advantage of the First Responders and of a confidential Wellness Center is to give students someplace to seek consequence-free medical aid. What you have done, Dean Holmes, is to give students a real incentive not to bring their drunken friends to the Wellness Center, and thus keep them from receiving medical attention. That is by far the most important consequence of the rule change.

Students who are afraid of getting written up by Security, or who think the Wellness Center will report them to Security, are less likely to bring their friends to the Center when they need assistance. In trying to help the drunkards, these well-meaning friends keep them away from medical attention, and in so doing, put the intoxicated students’ health and safety at risk. What this new rule does is ensure that more students, often slightly intoxicated themselves, will make the wrong choice.

I believe that the rule, while unmistakably well-intentioned, is also unnecessary in the context of catching repeat offenders. You stated in the Voice that the purpose of the rule is to draw attention to students that are showing signs of alcoholism, and likened the notification of your office to a “parking ticket”. But the Wellness Center nurses already keep records of student visits in those students’ medical histories! They, and the counselors, are already well set up to ‘catch’ potential alcoholics early and give them treatment and counseling.

As for the “parking ticket”-like nature of the notification, a logical and rational person such as yourself will probably recognize it as such. But to a student who is tipsy, and who is scared because her friend is throwing up blood and it’s 3 AM and who is afraid of getting in trouble, it won’t be seen that way. That is a guarantee. It will be seen as a reason not to go to the Wellness Center and get her friend medical aid, and that is exactly what you and I do not want.

This new alcohol policy removes the First Responders’ raison d’etre, it deals a huge blow to the principle of patient confidentiality, and it poses a serious danger to intoxicated students on this campus. For all these reasons, Dean Holmes, I implore you to rescind it as soon as you possibly can.


Andrew J. Tisdel
Class of 2012

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President, 

My name is Andy Tisdel. I'm in my very early twenties, I'm in my senior year of college and I want to be a journalist someday. I'm an independent voter, although I voted for you in the last election, and I do my darndest to stay informed about the issues of the day in Washington. 

When I went to college, as the United States was careening into the Great Recession, what comforted me was the hope that in four years the economy would have improved. These things go in cycles, right? It has to improve sometime, right? That was the kind of thought that went through my head. Now it's three years later and things have scarcely improved. There's talk of a "double-dip" recession (who came up with that name? Seriously?), the jobs number that comes out on Friday will probably be disappointing (if that's logically possible) and overall, things just seem to keep on hitting the fan. 

The problem is, you seem to be focused mostly on who gets the blame for all this. 

Let me say this clearly, and in a tone that I imagine a lot of us twenty-something, liberal-leaning independents might adopt:

I could honestly give a fuck who is to blame. I don't care if the history books paint you, Speaker Boehner, intransigent Tea Partiers or God Almighty as the villain of this piece. I care about being able to get a job when I get out of school. Obviously most of that is up to me, but improving the economy is in large part up to you. 

I voted for you because you said you were going for a less partisan Washington. Three years later, this is the worst partisan environment the U.S. has had in decades. Nothing is getting done, and for a pragmatist like myself, that's the most frustrating thing plausible to see. We're to the point where you tried to schedule your jobs speech during the Republican debate on Wednesday, then had to back down in shame. I'm sick of this egregiously partisan bullshit, Mr. Commander-in-Chief, sir. 

If I could speak to you in person and tell you one thing, I would say "Get your shit together, Mr. President". On the economy, on partisanship, on creating jobs, I implore you on behalf of the American people to get your shit together and help said American people. Am I being unfair in telling you this and not Congress, who is just as responsible for the Washington gridlock as you are? Yes, I am. Life's like that sometimes. 

Get it together, Mr. President. Forget about casting blame on the Republicans and focus on results. You will have to compromise. You will have to make deals, as you have shown the ability to do. But above all, you will have to govern effectively, which right now you are not doing (in my humble opinion). 

See you next November, sir. 


Andrew Tisdel
College of Wooster '12

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Message Boards are the Scariest Place on the Internet

In As Good As It Gets (1997), Jack Nicholson's character is asked how he writes women so well in his books, Nicholson being a writer. The irritated author replies, "I think of a man, then take away reason and accountability". 

The message boards are like 4Chan, if you subtract reason, intelligence and a modicum of sanity.

So it begins.
The place has the perfect blend of ingredients for total anarchy. There are no omnipresent mods, although particularly offensive comments do get deleted. There are no names or faces, and accounts are easy to make, so there's no accountability. And best of all, because everybody's a fan of one NFL team, absolutely everybody comes to the party ready to whale on 31 other factions.

Whether your player was ranked too low or criticized or someone else was ranked too high, there's always some reason to cuss out both the writer of a given article and anyone else within reach. And boy, do they cuss. I was reading a Michael Lombardi article (who I've read a lot of on and on; he's a Peter King-like writer and a good football analyst) on the best players in the league and practically every commenter was saying you suck, you're horrible, you should be fired because you ranked XXXX lower than YYYY, leaving ZZZZZ off the list is criminal (Criminal! Can you imagine?), and so on and so forth. For every positive comment towards a given article/other poster, there's 10-15 negative ones.

The only saving grace is that swear words are technically unlawful. I say technically, because since nobody gives a rip, the commenters find moderately clever ways to cuss each other out anyway ("b u l l s h i t, bullsh!t, bullshet, etc). The restriction also does nothing at all to mitigate the vitriol on the boards, just the ways in which it can be expressed. It's one big crowd of loud, angry, overwhelmingly male, poorly articulating, flagrantly misspelling, misogynistic all-hating assholes.

Oh, and few commenters even try for correct grammar or spelling, so it's that much more of a mess. There are some reasonable comments, sure, but the lack of a direct 'reply to this comment' function leads to one huge confused thread instead of lots of little threads that make sense. The reasonable comments get lost in a sea of misdirected Internet rage.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An Open Letter To Creationists

Dear creationists,

Here’s a couple of interesting things I just learned.

In London, in the 1830s and ‘40s, there were a series of cholera epidemics. The city had no sewers as we know them today; instead, human waste was being flushed into Londoners’ drinking water, giving them cholera thereby. In 1849, a doctor named John Snow figured out that cholera was not spread by “miasma” or bad smells, but by sewage-contaminated water. Naturally, he published papers on the subject and told anyone who would listen, but the medical establishment remained convinced of the “miasma” theory and would not entertain Snow’s idea. Snow’s findings were not accepted until 1866, and as a direct result, tens of thousands of people died of cholera in the meantime.

We move now to Panama, near the turn of the twentieth century. Here, too, diseases ran rampant. Yellow fever and malaria, mosquito-borne illnesses, terrorized the French and later American workers building the Panama Canal. The medical establishment, again, thought that “miasma” was the culprit and that clean-living, morally upright people would somehow be protected from the disease. A Cuban doctor had discovered the mosquito’s role in spreading disease in 1881, and an American doctor corroborated it in 1898, but the American crews came to the Panama Canal in 1904 completely oblivious to the insects’ danger. Hundreds of workers sickened and died until, in the middle of 1905, the canal-builders began a concerted effort to eradicate the mosquito from their area.

I bring these two things up to illustrate the following point. In both cases, the people who believed in “miasma” were not malicious, evil or vindictive. They thought they were right, and were unwilling to even entertain contrary scientific evidence because of this, and consequentially many people died when they could have lived. Remove the deaths, creationists, and this should sound very similar to your own worldview. 

Science, at its core, is an attempt to fully describe and understand the world in the most detailed possible way. It is detailed, thorough and open-minded. And when a pre-scientific method idea runs up against a post-scientific method idea, the post-scientific method idea has always won and will continue to always win, because it is backed by evidence. See: flat Earth, the Sun revolving around the Earth, the Aristotelian theory of the atom, the Four Humors, the luminiferous aether, etc.

That’s not to say that the ancient minds who thought up those (wrong) theories were mentally inferior to present-day man. They weren’t. Both ancient and modern minds were engaged in the same pursuit: to explain a huge, crazy, confusing, wonderful world. Present-day man just has better tools and more experience to draw upon. If you view human history as one long march towards understanding, as I do, it’s not difficult to see ancient ideas as the bottom-most layer of a pyramid. Each successive layer of ideas brings us closer to understanding the world we live in.

You happen to be stuck on a layer that’s thousands of years old and no longer applies. Your layer describes the way that people thought the world worked thousands of years ago. Since then, we’ve found out (through a shitload of trial and error) that the world works differently, and we’ve moved up the pyramid. But you’re stuck with a set of ideas that are as hopelessly out of place in the modern world as a Tiktaalik roseae would be in New York City.

The point I’m making is that it isn’t just you who’s not caught up on your history. At every stage of history, people have resisted every scientific theory that differed from what they previously believed. And pretty much every time, science, progress and ascension up the pyramid have won out. So, just for the sake of breaking the trend, could you fucking well get ahead of the curve for once in our species’ existence? Otherwise, we’ll be dragging your dead weight well into the age of metahumans, and nobody really wants that.


Andy Tisdel

Monday, August 22, 2011

Linkstorm 8/22/11: The Most Fascinating News in the World

I stopped doing this awhile back, but a zillion interesting articles have accumulated on my computer in the past couple days and I feel like sharing them with everybody.

The most interesting thing has to be Warren Buffett's New York Times 8/15 op-ed (1) calling for-huh?-the unbelievably rich citizens of the U.S. to pay more in taxes. Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris had an interesting follow-up on his site (2), and linked back to a lengthier, more thoughtful piece on the inequality of wealth in the U.S. at present (3). Meanwhile, comedian Jon Stewart mounted his own defense of Buffett's claims (4).

Elsewhere on the New York Times site lurks a movie column containing the best description of Keanu Reeves I've ever seen (5), a rather astounding study showing that black scientists are less likely than white scientists to get funding from the National Institutes of Health (6) and the single best project ever, a $500,000 grant from DARPA to study the implications of sending humans to Alpha Centurai (7). Finally, The Fifth Down is a snooty but knowledgeable and thought-provoking football blog that I've only just come across (8).

Speaking of football, if you haven't perused the Yahoo! Sports investigation into Miami University's NCAA-illegal benefits, you absolutely should (9).

What else have we got? Vogue magazine has about the dozenth profile story I've seen on Jon Huntsman (photos by Annie Liebovitz of Washington Semester Program fame) (10), Charles Krauthammer has a damning but accurate column on Obama's leadership ability in the Washington Post (11) and the Post has a quick roundup of the idiotic things Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum have said lately (12). Bachmann gets a pass for hers; anybody can make a verbal slip, but is there a better way to scare independent voters like myself than to pooh-pooh evolution (Perry, 13) or link homosexuality with the failing economy (Santorum)? And in the most disquieting story of them all, the Washington Monthly reveals how an ex-Marine who pushed the deployment of armored personnel carriers in Iraq paid for it with his professional career (14). (If you're as outraged by that as I am, checking out The Pentagon Labyrinth (15) will really get your blood boiling.)

Coincidentally enough, one of the opinion pieces got its own blog post on Tisdel's Tirades, my mouthiness outlet to the Internet, the other day. The POLITICO op-ed, about the storage of nuclear waste, is here (16) and my take on it is here (17).

A few .pdfs for the road: The Progressive Policy Institute has published a study illustrating that it's easier to be an ideological nutcase than a moderate if you're running for office. It actually cost moderate House Democrats about twice as much as liberal Democrats to run their respective campaigns in 2010, as just one rather shocking example (18). In the "I'm Glad To Know Somebody Out There Is Thinking About This" department, a serious scenario analysis has been published on possible contact scenarios with extraterrestrial life (I haven't read all this yet, but by God I'm gonna) (19). And the 192-page snoozefest sure to interest only me, the Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future's draft report to the Department of Energy, is also something I'm working my way through (20).

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Nuclear Waste Storage: An Intermediate Option

Robert Bryce, a successful author on energy policy, recently wrote an op-ed in Politico encouraging the U.S. to store nuclear waste on government land.

His thesis is that, given the post-Fukushima Daiichi danger of storing spent nuclear fuel (SNF) on the grounds of reactors, the federal government should move it to regional collection centers on federal land, which is what people in the nuclear industry have been saying for awhile. This gets rid of the problems of moving the waste long-distance to Yucca Mountain (in the middle of the desert), which is a bad idea anyway, and would save the federal government billions of dollars in lawsuits.

I don't disagree with Bryce, but I want to clarify a couple of key points. First of all, the meltdown at Fukushima Daiici was exacerbated by spent nuclear fuel storage, yes. But there are two kinds of fuel storage. After being removed from the reactor core, nuclear fuel rods typically spend around five years in a pool of water, called the spent fuel pool, cooling off. After they're cool enough to handle, they're packed into giant casks and kept on the grounds of the plant from whence they came. Bryce's plan would fix the problem with the casks, which definitely needs fixing, but the pools are what went wrong at Fukushima and they're non-negotiable. There's not another practical way to cool down the waste, and there's not really another place to put it for the five years it needs to cool off. In this sense, his plan would lessen, but not remove, the danger of having waste on the grounds of each reactor.

Secondly, regional waste collection centers reduce the dangers of transporting waste by reducing the distance each cask has to travel, but they do not eliminate it. Any plan to relocate the waste from its current scattered state (at all 104 currently operating reactors, plus several other sites) has to take that into account. The casks are tested against falls, fires and floods, but they are not invulnerable (particularly to periods of extended heat; a truck crashing and catching on fire in a tunnel, for example) and should not be treated as such in the planning process.

Finally, waste collection centers are a first step, not a longest-term solution. The next step should be the construction of reprocessing plants to turn SNF into mixed-oxide fuels, which can be fed back into nuclear reactors and used to generate power. Because of the low price of uranium, there is little financial incentive to do this right now, but a reprocessing plant is the only known way to get rid of nuclear waste permanently. They will be expensive and hard to fund while the price of uranium remains low, but if nuclear power is still a part of the U.S.'s energy generation when the price rises, we will definitely need reprocessing technology. The time to make a start on that is now.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Andy's Random Going-To-College Fact of the Day

Here's a bit of free advice: Don't wait until you get to the College to buy your textbooks. If you have your class schedule (I can't remember when in the freshman orientation process you get them), buy everything now. If you don't, I strongly recommend buying everything off of Amazon as soon as you do get them.

(I apologize in advance if you already know this and I'm just being pedantic.) Here's what you do: go to the Current Students tab on the Wooster website and click Bookstore. Go to Books and select your department and course numbers. For each individual course, it'll give you the new and used prices. (Never buy new, of course.) Order those books on Amazon instead and it's a lead-pipe cinch you will save a ton of money. I saved $102.75 this semester alone like this.

Textbooks are basically one enormous scam. It used to be that colleges didn't have to post the class reading lists online before students arrived for school, so they just kept it to themselves. Students arriving at school either had to pay the inflated prices for the books the school had on hand, or order online and miss a week or more of class readings while the books percolated through the mail. It was bad enough that the colleges are now required under federal law to make their textbook lists available a certain time before students arrive, so you can order now and avoid exactly that situation.

Textbook buy-back is a whole 'nother kettle of fish, but suffice to say, it is much better to NOT sell your books back at the end of the semester because there will be a huge glut of textbooks on the market and no one will give you fair value. Instead, wait until the beginning of next semester when everybody's buying.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Things I Have Learned By Learning How To Juggle

-Juggling balls are expensive. I thought the sign said “4 for $6.50”, but it’s actually $6.50 for each ball. Yikes.

-It is incredibly addictive. As soon as you get a good one, your brain goes into overdrive and starts yelping “Do it again! Do it again!” Next thing you know, it’s an hour later and you’re sweaty and disgusting from chasing flying balls.

-That’s another thing. For a beginning juggler, it’s actually kind of a workout, because you’re constantly running around the room tracking down wayward flying balls, or making ridiculous dives to the ground to grab them just in time. Zoom!

-Remove anything and everything fragile from the room before you start juggling, because if you keep at it for like an hour, you will lose balls in every possible way and direction. Seriously, you’ll be playing out the “sum-over-paths” solution for an electron in real life by following every possible path the ball could ever take. So far, I’ve hit glasses, dishes, windows, the TV, a stack of breakable floor tiles and the cat. Move everything.

-The three most frustrating things in the world are, in order: 1. Balls knocking into each other in mid-air and falling to the ground. 2. The soft thump of yet another ball hitting the floor (this will happen literally hundreds of times). 3. Your body’s instinct to catch everything and not let it go.

-The three most satisfying things in the world: Getting a good rally. Getting a good rally. Making a stumbling, impossible catch of the ball that was flying into the kitchen at Mach 8 before it breaks glassware.

-Testicle jokes will get old really, really quickly.

-For some reason, every time you juggle, the balls end up carrying you forward instead of just being in an up-and-down plane. This will often, but not always, result in you crashing into the nearest wall.

-Juggle with friends! It’s that much more fun, and you learn a lot from watching the other person (mutual screw-up watch x10). Also, it means you’re less likely to get discouraged when you somehow manage to drop all three balls in .14 seconds, if the other person does something even worse a minute later.

-Despite all appearances, literally anyone under the age of 60 can learn to juggle. All you need is a ridiculous amount of practice. It took me about a week. Grab some tennis balls and try it yourself!

(P.S. 'How to juggle' books are a total waste of money. Here's how you learn to juggle: Try juggling. Repeat a thousand times. Results: 1) you now know how to juggle. 2) carpal tunnel syndrome in your poor, ravaged shoulders.)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Babylon 5: The Final Verdict

If you somehow missed the Babylon 5 rumpus that's been taking place around here for the past week, fear not: all the links can be found right exactly here. Last Friday, I did an overview of the show. Monday was the show's best characters, Tuesday was its worst, Wednesday was its best aspects and Thursday and Friday covered its worst aspects. Today, we wrap up the whole thing.

It occurred to me while I was writing the 'worst things' posts that I might be grading Babylon 5 on an unfair metric. Comparing B5 to the three best sci-fi shows of the 2000s--Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Firefly) inevitably puts it at a disadvantage, and there are all kinds of mitigating circumstances relating to why it stinks at times. Its first four seasons aired on a network (PTEN) that was relatively unknown and probably doomed from its inception, its budget was poor, it was in an era of TV sci-fi that didn't have all that many standout shows, and so on. The best sci-fi shows of the 2000s benefited from ample budgets, well-known networks and better actors than B5 could muster.

I'm not so sure that's an excuse, though. Less than two decades after its release, Babylon 5 looks extremely dated. The bad CGI, the heavily made-up cast contribute to it and the pre-HD cameras contribute to it, but there's a certain look to the footage, sets and in the directing that just stamps the show as old-fashioned. (The camera basically remains at shoulder height for the entire series.) It gained a large cult following and is remembered fondly by many sci-fi fans, but against sleeker, more modern shows it just doesn't measure up.

Ultimately, it's hard to pin the show's faults on J. Michael Straczynski or on extenuating circumstances. The actors are wooden, the directing is ordinary and the dialogue is poor: is that Straczynski's fault, or was it the fault of the era? It's hard to prove one way or the other. Ultimately, though, the only real criteria upon which I can evaluate Babylon 5 is how it looks to me, a fan of sci-fi that came of age in the 2000s.

Viewed purely on its own merits, then, Babylon 5 falls short in most ways. As I've been saying throughout this weeklong review, the show is consistently mediocre. Straczynski often likened his creation to a novel, but it's not an exciting one if that's the case. Bad writing, a lot of bad acting, bad casting, bad set design and stories that took forever to tell drag this show down, and good acting, some good universe-building and a pair of good seasons resuscitate it. I think some of the show's appeal originally lay in its serialization and consistent mediocrity: you could turn on the TV every week and know what you were getting. It wasn't going to be more than occasionally good, but it wasn't going to be horribly bad either, perhaps because there was so little at stake.

If you're a fan of the shows I mentioned at the start of this post, Babylon 5 is probably not for you. It's not remotely in their league. If your standards are lower or you're a fan of '90s sci-fi, then give it a try.

More Or Less Arbitrary Grading Scale
Acting: B-
Set Design: D
Character Development: A-
Average Episode Quality Relative to Itself: C
Imagination: B
Writing: D+
Universe-Building: A-
Good Villains: C- (good in seasons 2 and 3, terrible in 4 and 5)
Good Heroes: D-
Good Characters Who Are Both: A
Series Ending: F
Arc Continuity: A
Character Continuity: D+


Friday, August 12, 2011

The Worst Aspects of Babylon 5 (Part 2)

We're nearing the end of the Babylon 5 blitz. In case you missed the deluge of B5-related posts over the past week, here are some links: last Friday's overview of the show, Monday's rundown of the best characters, Tuesday's rundown of the worst characters, Wednesday's 'Best Aspects of B5' and Thursday's 'Worst of B5, Part 1'. Today I'll have Part 2 of the Worst Things, and then we'll wrap everything up on Saturday.
The Writing Stinks
I’ve been dancing around this for awhile, but I’ll just say it: The writing, done almost entirely by J. Michael Straczynski, is consistently bad. It is full of clichés, the dialogue isn’t clever (there’s a fascination with light bulb jokes that goes on for way too long), it’s fairly humorless and it doesn’t make you feel for the characters. The best thing you can say about the writing is that it gets the job done and tells you what you need to know in a given episode. The worst thing you can say is that’s all it does. The writing isn’t My Immortal-bad, but it’s serviceable at best. Compare it to Battlestar or Doctor Who or Firefly or even Star Trek and you’ll see what I mean. It’s a handicap to the actors rather than a help.

Consequence: Moral Superiority and Lousy Villains
I wrote the following halfway through Season 4:

“The thing that makes the current B5 conflict so uninteresting to watch is the absolute moral battle lines that have been drawn. Sheridan is what they call a paragon of virtue, a perfect ideal. He stands for Truth, Justice and the American Way, all in capital letters. ______'s side stands for nothing but fucking up other peoples’ shit. There’s no moral conflict because it’s been spelled out in the most explicit terms. Plus, there’s no documentation of what ______ does, how he does it or why. We don’t know how he got to be a police state-type of fellow, we’ve barely met him. We don’t know how he keeps everyone in line, other than through misinformation.

“There’s just such absolute ideological superiority from Sheridan, who sounds like a horse’s ass every time he draws upon it. There are very few moral choices or ambiguities to be found in B5.”

This is part of what I was saying about Sheridan, Zack Allan and Dr. Franklin in the Bad Characters post. They are so morally upright and the villain (in this case especially) is so poorly defined, it makes them unbelievable. There are very few moral conflicts on this show, and most of them feel manufactured (like the one near the end of Season 4 with the telepaths). The only convincing one comes at the end of Season 3, where Sheridan holds Morden against his will. For the rest, nothing. Sheridan and Co. are always right and the other guy is always wrong, period, end of line. This is especially true of the Season 4 villain, an evil cardboard cutout that we almost never see on-screen.

I’m Sorry… You Do What Now?
B5 relentlessly hammers home the theme that its characters are special people. There’s an entire Season 2 episode devoted to making sure that Sheridan and Delenn are the right people in the right place at the right time. But on the level of their jobs, they never seem to have much expertise. This is a minor quibble, but what does Garibaldi do exactly? He’s a good shot and he knows how to ask questions, but he doesn’t possess any skills specific to being a Security Chief. Dr. Franklin lets machines do all the work for him, is rarely seen in surgery and operates as a glorified diagnostician. Everything from mission-critical research to flying starfighters is handled by omnipresent computers.
picture unrelated.
The point here is that nobody really seems like an expert at their job, the way Chief Tyrol is an expert Viper repairman (Battlestar) or the way Wash is a special pilot (Firefly). They don’t have to say ‘I’m competent at my job’, we see them demonstrate their competence. In B5, nobody seems to be that skilled at any job. The emphasis is on having the right people and the right personalities, not their skills, which I find strange.

You Had A Problem? Since When?!
Here’s a fairly typical scenario:

Something traumatic happens to Garibaldi in Episode A. The episode ends, the threat is dealt with and Garibaldi goes back to work. Several episodes go by, during which Garibaldi seems unchanged. Then in episode H, Garibaldi has a nervous breakdown and goes “I’ve been haunted by the vision of my wife’s buttocks ever since Episode A!!”
Seconds before bursting into incoherent rage.
This happens ALL THE TIME. A character has a crisis, then seems totally fine, then tells us that they haven’t been fine all this time, even though they’ve been acting totally fine. I don’t know what to attribute it to, but it’s really lousy continuity between episodes. It feels like the show wants to have the emotional continuity of a Battlestar Galactica, but doesn’t really know how to go about it. This results in a lot of unintentional comedy, as characters have massive freakouts over something they were totally okay with just last episode.

In The Conversation:
-The music isn’t very good or very memorable, and it’s kind of used as a blunt instrument. You know exactly how you’re supposed to be feeling because the violins tell you it’s an emotional moment.

-Straczynski’s enormous plot arcs move maddeningly slowly, although this shouldn’t be unfamiliar for recovering Lost fans like myself.

-Because we rarely leave the station in the first two seasons, it’s hard to get a sense of the greater outside universe. This does change in seasons 3-5, as more of the characters venture outside, but it’s a little off-putting early on.

- B5 tells, it doesn’t show, particularly with regard to characters’ emotions. Straczynski doesn’t let the actors show you how the character is feeling, he writes in huge info-dumps where the character tells you exactly how he feels today.

Not Bad, Just Weird:
For some reason, whenever a character has a minor wardrobe change, it’s made into a big honking deal in the show itself. Sheridan’s beard, Delenn’s hair, the new B5 uniforms, Security uniforms, G’Kar’s eye color, etc. are all played up much more than you’d imagine them being. It’s not a bad thing, just a quirk.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Mayhem Week: The Worst Things About Babylon 5 (Part 1)

Welcome to the week-long review of the TV show called Babylon 5! In case you missed 'em, here are links to last Friday's introduction to the show, Monday's 'Best Characters', Tuesday's 'Worst Characters' and Wednesday's 'Best Aspects of B5' posts. Tomorrow we'll have Part II of 'Worst Aspects', and then I'll wrap everything up in Saturday's post.

That Confounded Bad Acting
Kindly check Tuesday's post for a discussion of said bad acting.
Humans in Suits
Early in the show’s run, creator J. Michael Straczynski made the decision to eschew CGI aliens in favor of human-looking aliens. The choice was a sensible one, because the CGI of the mid-1990s looks awful, especially on a Prime-Time Entertainment Network budget. There’s some sort of Centauri-world bloodsucking thing in Season 1 that proves this particular point. Putting guys in makeup, therefore, was a logical decision.
The problem with this is twofold. One, nobody ever gives any reasons why the Minbari have bony heads, or why the Narn are orange, or why the pak’ma’ra have facial tentacles. They don’t serve any obvious function, so right from the start they feel like semi-random ornamentation. Two, even if the actors look like humans wearing makeup, there’s always the possibility that their bodies are more alien than they look, but this idea is systematically stamped out over the course of the series. 

It’s established that the majority of the ‘aliens’ speak English without trouble, have five fingers, four limbs, bipedal movement, two eyes that see in the human visual spectrum, breathe a nitrogen-oxygen mix, have approximately the same physical strength and vulnerabilities that humans do, think the same way that humans do, and are comfortable with Earth ‘standard’ gravity. This strains one’s credulity a bit far, don’t you think? (The First Ones that we meet are all nonhuman, but they are seen far less often than the human-esque races, probably due to budget constraints.)
I Mentioned the CGI…
I feel kinda bad putting this on here, because it’s really not the fault of the creators. They had in mind a very CGI-heavy show, with lots of space battles and expeditions, and mid-1990s CGI was both expensive and godawful. YouTube videos are better nowadays. But they went ahead with it anyway, and so while the CGI is worse than anything else you will ever see on TV, it’s also a testament to the show’s creative spirit. Hey, I guess that sort of turned into a good thing, huh?
Even the Real Sets Stink
Chalk another one up to a presumable PTEN budget crunch. It seems like a weird thing to criticize, but you know how in Firefly, the characters had a real connection and identification with the ship? How in Battlestar Galactica, the ship is a prison, a symbol and a source of hope all in one? How both ships really have personality and feel like home for their characters? 

B5 doesn’t have that. It sounds picky, but the sets are clunky and featureless and boring. There’s really not much effort to sell the station as someone’s home, as opposed to ‘where alien races meet to hang out’. This holds for all the sets, whether they’re on Mars or on Minbar or on the bridge of some ship somewhere. They don’t look remotely real, and more importantly, they don’t feel real. The actors don’t treat them like they’re real places. It’s like they took one of the worst lessons from Star Trek. (Small exception: the Drazi homeworld, which we visit in Season 5, is incredibly compelling.) 
I Saw That Coming
If someone on B5 mentions that Garibaldi must be having a great time on vacation on Zogblog VII, you can take it to the bank that the next shot will be of a bloody, bruised Garibaldi gasping for air. It’s a fairly predictable show. I’m not going to give away anything, but there’s a particular event in early Season 4 that is meant to be a huge surprise, but it’s just completely unsurprising. Even Season 5 is guilty of this. The viewer can predict B5 without too much effort, and the show doesn’t really make you think. That, to me, is pretty damning.
Speaking of S5…
I like Season 5 the best of all of the Babylon 5 seasons. Like I said before, they get decent acting out of Jeff Conaway and Patricia Tallman, introduce some good guest-stars and have some really great universe-building episodes. But the season itself was spectacularly mismanaged.
Due to a flash-forward in Season 3 and a brief scene at the end of Season 4, the viewer basically knows all the important points about one of the major threats of season 5. I was waiting around for eighteen episodes while the characters stumbled around with this threat, going “I know this! I know this one, dammit! Figure it out!” And when they finally do catch on to what the viewer could see eighteen episodes ago, is there a showdown? Is the evil defeated? No! That storyline and a half-dozen others are intentionally punted, left to be resolved in made-for-TV movies and the spin-off series, replaced by four episodes’ worth of characters saying their goodbyes!

I think that’s a total waste of a season. Wikipedia revealed that there was a lot of confusion with the demise of PTEN and the creators not knowing whether their show would be picked up (it was, by TNT, for Season 5), which might be a root cause of the fractured season. I get that, I do, but surely they could have done better than that. It would be like Battlestar Galactica declining to reveal the fifth member of the Final Five Cylons, wagging its finger at the fans and saying “Uh-uh-uh! You have to watch Caprica to get your answers! C’mon, I’m gonna string you guys out for ALL of your attention span!”

Tune in tomorrow for more embarrassing flaws in the show!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Best Aspects of Babylon 5

Good afternoon! If you're just tuning in, we're midway through a weeklong super-review of the TV show Babylon 5. Last Friday's preview of the show can be found here, Monday's post on B5's best characters here, and Tuesday's description of the worst characters here. Today, we tackle the best things about the show. Thursday and Friday will be posts about the worst things, and then we'll wrap it all up on Saturday.
Good Acting
B5’s cast, while accomplished, can’t compare to the David Tennants and the Nathan Fillions and the Edward James Olmoses of the world. It’s full of duds, including some of their biggest ‘stars’, and a lot of those duds’ on-screen time is a total waste of your patronage. But, surprise surprise, they have a lot of good actors/actresses putting in time as well. Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas are golden whenever they’re on screen, and both get a ton of time and storylines in all five seasons.

Aside from Lennier, Ivanova and the frequent guest stars I just mentioned, B5 brings in dozens of outside names every season. I can’t think of an episode that didn’t feature at least one one-off or recurring guest star, and a lot of the time it’s pretty effective. Wayne Alexander, who plays several of these roles, was a recurring favorite of mine.

Racial Psychologies
This is primarily a Season 1 and 2 thing, but one of Straczynski’s better moves was giving each major species its own background and personality, and having them manifest through that species’ ambassador on B5. Londo dreams of the vanished days of his once-great Republic, and sets horrible plans in motion based on those dreams. G’Kar’s race was repressed by Londo’s, and his species is still looking for its place in the universe. That’s evident in Katsulas’s acting. A lot of the humans are veterans of the Minbari War, a war they only won when the Minbari surrendered (they were about to win), and they’re still visibly freaked out about it. It's good casting, acting and writing all together.

The Big Ones

Like I said in the beginning, the series is primarily composed of mediocre episodes,  but every now and again comes a spectacular one. Babylon 5 doesn’t futz around with time travel much, but those episodes are some of the best. The culmination of the Shadow War in Season 4 is a kick-ass episode, as are a number of episodes in Seasons 1 and 5 (the Jewish one in S1, the fighting one in S1, the one in S5 where Garibaldi and Lochley bonk heads, etc). If you have the patience to sift through the crap, there’s some gold underneath.

Season 1, Season 5
In fact, those might be the show’s two best seasons. Season 1 featured Michael O’Hare instead of the wooden Bruce Boxleitner, and Season 5 got a lot of things right that hadn’t worked previously. It expanded some characters’ roles and scaled back others, gave Lyta Alexander a personality and introduced Robin Atkin Downes (“Lord” Byron) and Tracy Scoggins (Elizabeth Lochley). It’s perhaps an indictment of Straczynski’s inflexible arcs that his show’s best seasons were largely free of the series’ two longest-running storylines, but what can you do? Babylon 5 was best when it was universe-building, and that made up the meat of S1 and S5.

The Offbeat Episodes
Most of the B5 episodes followed a pretty specific formula. Station is hanging out, outside force/person/technology enters the station, someone wants to capture/speak to/negotiate with said force/person/tech, mayhem ensues. According to Wikipedia, Straczynski’s ideal show differed from the Star Treks of the time by having the universe come to the station, not having the station go and explore the universe.

I’m fine with that formula. But once or twice a season, the creators would try something completely different. It could be a news report on the state of the station, or following around random maintenance workers we’d never seen before, or taking a snapshot a million years in the future. All of these episodes served as a welcome change of pace, and most of them were pretty darn good.

A Bigger, Older Universe
 This is my favorite of the good things, and just about the only thing B5 has that sets it apart from the rest of TV sci-fi. You know how in Doctor Who, there’s a sense of the future being wide-open and full of wonders and practically infinite? Babylon 5 does a similar thing with the past. It has a wonderfully pervasive sense of age, of ancient wonders and fallen species and a history that far predates human experience. Any show can say that there’s been civilization millions of years in the past, but Babylon 5 makes you feel that sense of age and the unknown, of ancient mysteries and hidden treasures. That, I feel, is B5’s most distinctive and best feature.