30 November 2013

This “Dude” Was a Dud

I’ve been looking into the origin of the word “dude,” which originally meant a dandy or a fop. It exploded into public consciousness in early 1883, though researchers have found two uses in the late 1870s.

Mary Mapes Dodge, editor of St. Nicholas Magazine, muddied the waters a little in 1890 when she wrote in an article about curious words:
The word dude began to mingle in the speech of the people of this country about the year 1873, but did not make its appearance in print until 1876, when it boldly met the public gaze in the February number of “Putnam’s Magazine.” The origin of the word has been a question ever since it asserted itself in every-day speech, and its claim to represent a human nonentity in raiment befitting either fool or fashion-plate has never yet received the stamp of authority.
In fact, Putnam’s Magazine wasn’t being published in 1876. The issue at issue was dated February 1870. Furthermore, that magazine didn’t include the word “dude”; it included the word “dud,” with the direct opposite meaning.

That issue of Putnam’s included part of a novel titled Eirene: or, A Woman’s Right, by Mary Clemmer. In it someone asks a young man what he thinks of a young lady, and he replies:
“Think! I think she is dressed like a dud. Can’t say how she would look in the costume of the present century.”
Maximilian Schele De Vere quoted that passage (without exacting accuracy) in his Americanisms: The English of the New World (1871) under the entry “Dud.” Context shows it was a form of the old word “dowd,” as in “dowdy.” It meant a woman unfashionably dressed and not a man too fashionably dressed.

After “dude” burst on the scene in 1883, however, etymologists went looking for its origin. Some found De Vere’s entry and cited it in an argument that “dude” had grown out of “dud.” For discussion of a more convincing theory, see this posting at Boston 1775.

29 November 2013

Atomic Clock

“A couple of minutes after 9 p.m. on Saturday,” Dana Millbank of the Washington Post wrote, news wires reported that the U.S. and five European allies had reached an agreement with Iran to slow its nuclear enrichment in exchange for somewhat reduced economic sanctions.

It took only until 9:08 P.M. for former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer to tweet that Barack Obama had presided over some sort of “abandonment.” Fleischer of course had no knowledge of the details of the agreement. His statement was clearly a knee-jerk reaction.

It took only until 9:11 P.M. for former Dick Cheney staffer Ron Christie to call the treaty a “disgraceful deal.” Again, he had no way to knowing the details of that deal, only that the Obama administration had agreed to it.

It took only until 10:15 P.M. for Sen. John Cornyn (R–Tex.) to suggest that the whole diplomatic initiative, years in the making and involving seven large countries, was just a way to distract from problems with the Healthcare.gov website.

President Obama described details of the agreement for the press shortly after 10:30 P.M. As of today, less than a week later, UN inspectors have been invited to view an Iranian heavy-water facility for the first time. Diplomats are looking ahead to possibilities of a more permanent agreement.

Responsible people can oppose this agreement based on its provisions or the record of the parties involved. But people with OIP Derangement Syndrome don’t need to go into such factual details. They can announce their opposition within minutes because whatever President Obama does, they’re against it. As Millbank wrote: “This president could negotiate a treaty promoting baseball, motherhood and apple pie, and Republicans would brand it the next Munich.”

28 November 2013

Let Us Be Thankful That This Isn’t Rerun Every Year

In 1980 the Muller Rosen animation company released a half-hour holiday special for television titled Thanksgiving in the Land of Oz. That show was then recut to remove the Thanksgiving references and released on video as Dorothy in the Land of Oz; as of this holiday, it can be watched in two parts on YouTube. In 1982 Romeo Muller adapted his screenplay into a short illustrated book titled Dorothy and the Green Gobbler of Oz.

Like most Oz videos in the television age, this cartoon was written to invoke MGM’s Wizard of Oz. Dorothy meets the Wizard in Kansas again, the Cowardly Lion is bipedal, there are songs, and so on. But the filmmakers also obviously knew the Oz books and used them as inspiration for characters, settings, and plots points, albeit without being faithful to those books.

Thus, for example, just as in L. Frank Baum’s original novel and the MGM movie, Dorothy and Toto accidentally travel to Oz and meet three male companions who help her on a quest to vanquish a villain. One of those companions is an animated refugee from a farm, another made of metal, and the third a big carnivore with gentle habits. But in this movie those characters are Jack Pumpkinhead, Tic Toc [sic], and the Hungry Tiger, whom Baum introduced in different ways in his second and third Oz books.

Jack lives in a pumpkin house, as John R. Neill drew it in The Road to Oz. Other Oz houses resembles those he and W. W. Denslow designed, and a sequence of children opening Christmas presents owes a lot to Denslow’s art, rendered with less character. However, a trip over a rainbow at the end is clearly inspired by the MGM movie’s most famous song.

The end of the cartoon shows Ozma as rightful ruler of the Emerald City, but there’s no explanation of how she came to the throne. This Ozma seems much older than Dorothy and more like the Glinda of the movie.

Another element that the filmmakers borrowed from Baum’s books appears at the start: Uncle Henry and Aunt Em are about to lose their farm to the bank. The couple plans to go into an “old folks’ home” while Dorothy will have to live somewhere far away with a cousin—perhaps Zeb Hugson from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz. This is a better fate than what Baum wrote about in The Emerald City of Oz, which suggested Dorothy would have to go to work while her aged relatives might end up begging. Still, it was probably a shock to many viewers.

The big-name star of the production is Sid Caesar, who plays the Wizard and narrates the story in that role. Caesar also plays a mince pie that’s brought to life, takes the name U.N. Krust, and delivers every line in a different foreign accent. The pie and its speech patterns play no role in the plot; they seem to have been included just to put Caesar’s shtick to use. We haven’t seen so much ethnic humor in an Oz adaptation since the 1903 Broadway show.

Another notable casting detail: Joan Gerber supplied the voices for both Ozma and Tic Toc.

The cartoon includes a couple of forgettable songs. Dorothy uses one to convert the villain back into a benevolent toymaker, and at the same time deliver a paean to Christmas shopping. In that respect, this modestly produced special was a perfect start to commercial television’s holiday season.

27 November 2013

Corporate Cultures and the Marvel Method

This episode of Decompressed, a podcast by British comics scripter and journalist Kieron Gillen, is one of the most interesting discussions of comics scripting that I’ve ever heard.

Gillon tries to focus his podcast on the mechanics of creating comics, not just enthusiastic appreciation. The nominal subject of this discussion is the contrast between Marvel’s three-stage plot–art–dialogue method of creating comics and the full-script (or plot–dialogue–art) method that DC and most of the industry use.

Gillen shares lots of examples from the participants, including script pages and finished line art, on his blog. (At left is a first-stage “Marvel Method” script with short action descriptions and the artist’s thumbnail sketches but no finished dialogue.) The practical insights from fellow writers Mark Waid and Matt Fraction and special guest artist Jamie McKelvie are useful but not particularly surprising.

I was more struck by the participants’ observations about how the cultures of the “Big Two” American comics publishers have been shaped by those different approaches. Fraction notes that Marvel still pays a writer separately for the plot and the dialogue even if he (since it’s usually a “he”) delivers them at the same time. Waid points out that DC, at least as of the 1980s when he was an editor there, paid twice as much for a story’s dialogue as for its plot—which naturally motivated writers to provide full scripts.

The comics creators in the conversation—three of them writers—also make interesting observations about what happened when artists Dick Giordano and Joe Quesada came to be in charge of DC and Marvel, respectively. Suddenly the artists were getting more compensation.

26 November 2013

Creating Bravely with SCBWI New England in May

This proud lion adorns the announcement of SCBWI New England’s 2014 conference in Springfield, Massachusetts, on 2-4 May. A “Save the Date” postcard just went out to members in the region. Registration will open on 5 February.

That conference has the theme “Create Bravely: Make Your Mark,” hence the lion’s medal and the pencil and paint brush in his mane. I’m scheduled to make my mark there by leading one workshop and handling some other duties.

This fine feline was drawn by artist Denise Ortakales, who normally works in cut-paper sculptures. Check out her website for lots of lovely work.

25 November 2013

“This gentle, kindly naturalist”

From the New York Times Book Review’s “By the Book” interview with Richard Dawkins:
Did you identify with any fictional characters as a child? Who was your literary hero?

I didn’t know children were expected to have literary heroes, but I certainly had one, and I even identified with him at one time: Doctor Dolittle, whom I now half identify with the Charles Darwin of Beagle days. This gentle, kindly naturalist, who could talk to nonhuman animals and commanded godlike powers through their devotion to him, is nowadays unfashionable — and even banned from libraries — because of suspected racism. Well, what do you expect? Hugh Lofting was writing in the 1920s, and the ubiquitous racism of England at that time can be seen in so much fiction, including Agatha Christie, Sapper (“Bulldog Drummond”) and many other popular writers for all ages. This is not to excuse it, but Lofting’s racism was paternalistic rather than malign and, in my opinion, sufficiently outweighed by the admirable anti-speciesism of all his books.
Dawkins grew up to be an evolutionary biologist, ethologist, and proponent of secular rationalism.

24 November 2013

Counting All Covers

In preparation for the “Celebrating 75 Years of Dick Grayson” anniversary, I got a question about the assertion that Robin was on the cover of more DC comic books of the 1940s than any other costumed hero.

A commenter told me that fact soon after I started the weekly Robin, saying it was a good way to win bar bets. (Not at any sort of bar I know, but okay.) A quick check of titles confirmed the fact, but I decided to do a more careful accounting.

In the 1940s, Superman appeared on the covers of:
  • Action Comics, #20-139 (120 comic books).
  • Superman, #3-61 (59).
  • World’s Fair, #1, and World’s Finest, #2-42 (42).
  • All-Star Comics, #36 (1).
  • Superman’s Christmas Adventure for 1940 and 1944 (2).
  • Superboy, #1 (1).
Total: 225 comic books.

Batman appeared on:
  • Detective Comics, #35-154 (120).
  • Batman, #1-56 (56).
  • World’s Fair, #1, and World’s Finest, #2-42 (42).
  • All-Star Comics, #36 (1).
  • Star Spangled Comics, #88-94 (7).
Total: 225 comic books.

Robin appeared on:
  • Detective Comics, #38-152 and #154 (116).
  • Batman, #1-46 and #48-56 (55).
  • World’s Fair, #1, and World’s Finest, #2-42 (42).
  • Star Spangled Comics, #65-95 (31).
Total: 244 comic books.

I might have missed some of the more obscure guest appearances, but Superman and Batman still have a lot of ground to cover before they catch up to the Boy Wonder. His usually-solo run on Star Spangled at the end of the decade put him in the lead.

Now I can’t claim that Robin was more prominent or popular than Superman or Batman in the 1940s. On many of those covers he appears subordinate to Batman, as a background assistant, observer, or boy hostage in need of rescuing. When Superman and Batman guest-starred on All-Star Comics with the Justice Society, Robin didn’t come along. When sales of Star Spangled featuring Robin began to slip, the editor added Batman to the cover before finally replacing the Boy Wonder with Tomahawk.

Furthermore, if we count the appearances of Superboy on the covers of More Fun Comics, #104-106; Adventure Comics, #103-147; and Superboy, #2-5 (52 more comic books in all) in Superman’s column, then he’s the clear leader. Superman was undoubtedly DC’s flagship property, with a national comic strip, radio show, movies, and novelizations. Starting in 1942 the company even included the name of Superman in its logo. But the US courts have decided that Superboy is a separate legal property.

So those are the numbers.

23 November 2013

Grayson: Haly Origins Trailer

On his latest “Fatman on Batman” podcast, Kevin Smith led Paul Dini into rapture over the preview for the Batman: Arkham Origins videogame. In a short series of animated scenes, the “trailer” traces the early life of Bruce Wayne from happy spoiled kid to Dark Knight.

That got me wondering what the equivalent might be for Dick Grayson. Right away I decided that a wordless video about Dick would require more movement. And this is the series of shots I came up with.

1) A fanfare from a pipe organ. Bright lights illuminate the back of a preteen boy’s head and shoulders: black hair combed and sprayed into barely acceptable neatness. The boy leaps up and forward, then plunges down and straight away from us viewers on a trapeze, swinging in an arc up and out of sight in the distance.

2) As the boy is off screen for two or three second, the pumping music is drowned out by oohs and ahhs and applause. The boy comes swinging back toward us, face front and grinning infectiously, and comes to a halt in the foreground where he began.

3) The boy moves out of the frame to the left, and a woman’s back appears from the right. She, too, swings down and then up and out of sight on the trapeze.

4) The music suddenly cuts off and the crowd gasps. The trapeze swings back into the foreground, empty with one rope broken. The bright lights fade as the broken trapeze swings away again. There is one second too long of emptiness.

5) From the distance the Batman swings down on his rope and up into the foreground. He comes to rest and moves out of the frame to the right.

6) The boy’s head appears again, his hair not so tamed and his shoulders now draped in yellow. Batman and Robin swing away into the distance on twin ropes.

7) Batman and Robin swing back into the foreground in parallel arcs. Batman now has a yellow oval around his chest emblem. Dick is a year older and smiling as before.

That’s enough for an origin. But in the interest of completeness and loyalty to the pre-New52 universe:

8) Batman and Robin swing into the distance. Robin is another few inches taller. Swinging slightly behind Batman, he takes advantage of the privacy to curl upside-down on his rope.

9) Batman and Robin swing back into the foreground on their ropes. Batman is serious. Robin, now in his mid-teens, looks grumpy.

10) The teenaged Robin swings away, alone.

11) Robin the Teen Wonder swings back, once again smiling, flanked by Wonder Girl and Starfire in flight.

12) Dressed in a high-collar outfit with light blue highlights, Dick as Nightwing kisses Starfire as she carries him into the distance.

13) Encouraging a new, pants-wearing, and not quite as graceful Robin swinging forward on the rope, Nightwing glides in from the distance, using the aerodynamics of a new outfit with yellow highlights and wings and an unfortunate haircut.

14) Nightwing swings away to the distance, now handsomely coiffed and in a sheer black outfit with blue highlights all the way down his arms. Another second passes.

15) Batman swings in from the distance, coming to rest in the foreground as in shot #5. At the last instant, Batman cracks the same smile as the preteen boy in shot #2.

22 November 2013

Hacking OIP Derangement Syndrome

Sophos’s Naked Security blog noted a little-reported aspect of the Healthcare.gov rollout—at least sixteen cyberattacks on the site from 6 to 8 November. It’s unclear whether there were more on other days.

In addition, Information Week reported on software programmed to overload the website. As distributed on right-wing websites, it says:

"This program continually displays alternate page of the ObamaCare website. It has no virus, Trojans, worms, or cookies. The purpose is to overload the ObamaCare website, to deny serivce [sic] to users and perhaps overload and crash the system," reads the program's grammar- and spelling-challenged "about" screen. "You can open as many copies of this program as you want. Each copy opens multiple links to the site."
The technology magazine goes on to say that the “Destroy Obama Care” tool isn’t well designed for its intended task, and therefore is less effective at slowing the federal website than the lack of cooperation from Republican state governments.

Opponents of health-insurance reform have also tried to attack the law by spreading false news. Most notoriously, on the day the website went live an anonymous person posted a long complaint from a “Will Sheehan” about suffering penalties, including loss of a driver’s license and garnished income, after trying to sign up. Politifact and other news sources showed how that story could not be true. But clearly someone had put a lot of time and imagination into concocting it.

These efforts to stop people who need health coverage from obtaining it seem akin to gluing shut the doors of a hospital, tearing down the signs to a soup kitchen, or pushing in front of poor kids at a school cafeteria. Who would do something that cruel? Only people with OIP Derangement Syndrome.

21 November 2013

Creating a Safe Place

As long as I’m linking to videos, I’ll add this time-lapse record of Dean Trippe’s work drawing a significant page in his autobiographical Something Terrible comic, available here.

The completed image, titled “You’ll Be Safe Here,” reflects what heroic fiction can provide to troubled readers. Most of the comic is in muted two colors, but for this image Trippe bursts out in full, bright coloring, as the last seconds of the video shows.

The video was created by Scott Fogg, writer of a comic-in-progress called Phileas Reid Knows We Are Not Alone. The artist is Marc Thomas. Trippe is slated to do the coloring and Vito Delsante the lettering. There’s a Kickstarter campaign for the book going on now.

20 November 2013

The “Wizard of Ahhhs” and the Man Behind the Curtain

Here’s another latter-day remake of the MGM Wizard of Oz. Called “The Wizard of Ahhhs,” it features the vocal group Pentatonix, from TV’s music-contest show The Sing-Off, and actor-director Todrick Hall, who was a finalist of some sort on American Idol. (A hat tip to Betsy Bird at the Fuse for alerting me to this video.)

Pentatonix is an a cappella group consisting of five vocalists, one offering beats. Their early interviews make a big deal of not using an Autotuner, but the songs for this video really sound like computers are involved. Kirstie Maldonado is the only female member of the group, so she plays not only Dorothy but also, with camera moves and a body double, Glinda and the Wicked Witch of the West. Director Hall plays the Wizard in a striking, Wiz-like interpretation.

This video uses only one song from the MGM movie—the iconic “Over the Rainbow,” of course—and drops in a whole bunch of recent pop songs for the rest of the score. Here’s the full list of songs from Aaron Coney. The recording is available through iTunes.

As far as the storytelling goes, the video’s so short that it’s designed to evoke our emotional memories of the MGM original without bothering to have a coherent story. Of course, the same strategy worked for Oz the Great and Powerful.

Starting as a teenager, Hall has been working on his own Oz: The Musical and staging it with young casts. The collapse of one touring production in 2010 brought some complaints from young performers’ parents who had invested in the show. In 2011 Hall turned to Kickstarter, and there are impressive videos of that production, but it has also produced complaints about unfufilled promises. It sounds like he has lots of ideas and talent but needs a John Houseman to manage his Orson Welles.

19 November 2013

Not in Florida Anymore

Here’s a striking video of The Wizard of Oz, largely based on the MGM movie, from a Florida state school. The troupe is called Eyes Alive!, and all the young actors are deaf, performing in American Sign Language.

The school’s blog explains:
Jessica Stultz, a deaf elementary teacher, founded the performing arts group in 2010. “With many deaf films rolling out within the past decade by ASL Films, Rustic Lantern and others, I felt creating ASL films by our young students was a great way we could share old classics in the language of the deaf.” She added, “Having our young students perform in these films helps build their ASL acting and storytelling skills – they also learned nonverbal and facial expression skills. This increases their self-confidence and they also learn to collaborate with others.” . . .

In the fall of 2011, the Eyes Alive! group decided their next project would be “The Wizard of Oz.” After writing the 25-page script, they quickly realized that the production would be better if it were made into a movie instead of being performed live on stage. Jessica Stultz contacted Michael Johnson, FSDB video production specialist, to see if he would help produce the film. Mr. Johnson has a degree in Film and Television Production from Full Sail University in Orlando, FL and spent a couple of years in Los Angeles working on multiple motion pictures, television shows, and commercials.

With his help, photography started in early 2012 and filming was completed by the end of April. On June 5, 2012, “The Wizard of Oz” was performed live for elementary students and their families in Kirk Auditorium.
Clearly all the kids worked hard on the project, and some are quite expressive actors.

18 November 2013

Why Any Hollywood Auteur Needs a Good Personal Assistant

From the New York Times Book Review’s Q&A with movie director J. J. Abrams:

When [our youngest son] was in kindergarten he brought home some books by Mo Willems, who has one of the most remarkable comedic voices I’ve ever read. His sense of humanity — of heart and generosity — is staggering.

I was so blown away, I got his number from his agent and called him. I was essentially a sycophant, expressing what a deep fan of his I am, how I would love to work together one day. He was quiet on the phone, almost monosyllabic, disinterested. Frankly it was a bit of an odd reaction.

It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered that I had, in error, called Mo Williams of the Portland Trail Blazers.

17 November 2013

A Plethora of Alternative Robins

There’s no Robin in the official DC Comics continuity right now, and the company is trying to raise questions about the fate of Dick Grayson as Nightwing in the “Forever Evil” crossover (accompanied by a shift in the Nightwing comic book’s writer).

But the company is offering a plethora of Robins in alternative universes. These include:
None of these alternatives is, of course, adequate for fans of one Robin or another—though none of those specific Robins might satisfy everyone. Together they do demonstrate the continued storytelling viability of Robin as a symbolic figure.

16 November 2013

Print on Demand Has Gone Too Far

On Thursday I noted a website that allows customers to insert their names into The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and other classic (i.e., public-domain) works of literature. As disturbing as that prospect might be, it wasn’t the aspect of the site that worried me most.

Even more alarming, the business offers generic romances, mysteries, and “teen books” ready for customization and delivery. What are the “teen book” choices now?

  • Black Lace - Paranormal Romance
  • First Bite - Vampire Romance
  • Night Wolf - Werewolf Suspense
  • Prom & Prejudice - High School Fun
  • Sea Spell - Fantasy Romance
So one reason publishers are telling us that paranormal romance is over-published might be that the offerings have become so generic that final texts can be produced by machine.

As with the classics, the site asks customers to enter certain traits for each character—up to nineteen characteristics. To generate a preview requires only a handful of traits, such as name, gender, and hair color. Of course, this can be the result:
After a pause, Abelone said, "Whats with the third clue?"

Preservia re-read the clue and looked at the numbers.

"It just looks weird to me," Abelone told Preservia. "The number of words doesn't seem to fit."

The two pondered the list silently, playing absently with her light brown hair.
(Is that last line an editing error or a hint of something more erotic?)

Even the generic novels aren’t what really bugs me about this site. No, that irksome detail is the site’s name: BooksbyYou.com. It says, “You co-author our personalized novels…” Those titles appear under categories like “Romance By You” and even “Classic Book By You.”

That suggests that the only thing involved in co-authoring a novel is to choose the name and superficial characteristics of the major characters. The characters’ personalities and desires, the plot, the voice, the setting, even the copyediting—those are someone else’s responsibilities.

15 November 2013

Lindsey Graham and the Unreliable Contractor

This fall Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster with an explicit politically conservative mandate, released The Embassy House: The Explosive Eyewitness Account of the Libyan Embassy Siege by the Soldier Who Was There, credited to “Sgt. Morgan Jones” and a writer named Damien Lewis.

As The Week reported:
Davies talked about scaling the 12-foot walls of the Embassy during the attack, hitting an al Qaeda member in the head with the butt of his rifle, and seeing J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, dead in the hospital.
Sounds like a good adventure novel, doesn’t it?

That quote refers to “Davies” because it turns out there was no “Morgan Jones”—that was the pseudonym of a British contractor named Dylan Davies. There was also no “Libyan Embassy Siege”—militants in Benghazi, Libya, attacked a US consulate and a larger CIA compound it was providing cover for, not an embassy. And Davies/Jones wasn’t “There,” despite offering an “Explosive Eyewitness Account” that supported stories that the people on the American right have been telling each other for years.

On 27 October, Sixty Minutes aired a segment interviewing Davies as Jones. The television show neglected to note that its network and Simon & Schuster are part of the same corporation—i.e., that the segment was part of the book’s publicity push. The McClatchy news service has since found other significant omissions and exaggerations in the televised piece. But the bulk of the story was the interview with Davies.

The next day, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.) threatened to hold up all of President Barack Obama’s appointments, even for judgeships and the chairman of the Federal Reserve, unless there were new hearings about the events in Libya. He went on CNN, and the transcript shows that in making his case he referred twice to “the 60 Minutes piece” and “the 60 Minutes Story.”

Within days, however, Dylan Davies’s credibility was in tatters. He had given one story to his employer and the FBI shortly after the attacks. He then sold another story to the CBS corporation. (In between he apparently asked FOX for money for an interview.) When it became clear that Davies had changed his tale, the TV show apologized for its story. The publisher canceled the book.

How did that affect Lindsey Graham’s position? Not at all. “I never asked for the British contractor [as a hearing witness],” he claimed. “I didn't know he existed.” He made that claim despite having referred at least twice to the television story built around that man’s lies.

Media Matters noted other members of Congress who had touted the Sixty Minutes story: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R–N.H.), Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R–Utah), and Rep. Frank Wolf (R–Va.). They too remain unbowed by not having the facts they thought they had. Wolf announced, “Our position on Benghazi hasn't changed.”

Significantly new facts should change how people think—but not when that thinking wasn’t based on facts to begin with. All along the American right wing’s fixation on Benghazi has been a symptom of OIP Derangement Syndrome. It’s politicized and interfered with a necessary look at American foreign policy and diplomatic security. Dylan Davies sensed an opportunity, and editors and politicians seized his bait.

If Sen. Graham must have hearings, they should cover questions like these:
  • What did he, Sen. John McCain (R–Ariz.), and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I–Conn.) tell Muammar Qaddafi and his son when they met with him in 2009? The official diplomatic cable about that meeting, released through Wikileaks, contradicts McCain’s account, and Graham’s is somewhere in the middle. It would be good to clear up that discrepancy.
  • What’s the full story behind Dylan Davies’s fiction? When did he change his story to conform to right-wing talking points, and did his coauthor or editors encounter any reasons for doubt? How did Threshold Editions get time on Sixty Minutes, and how did politicians like Ayotte and Chafetz learn about the piece beforehand in order to promote it?
  • How do Graham, McCain, and their Republican colleagues justify blackballing UN Ambassador Susan Rice from the post of Secretary of State because she’d delivered mistaken talking-points about Benghazi despite supporting UN Ambassador Condoleezza Rice for the same post after she’d made false statements about Iraq?
  • In June 2011 Graham was saying, “The War Powers Act is unconstitutional, not worth the paper it’s written on. It’s an infringement on the power of the commander in chief.” He took a similar stance during the discussion of Syria. With opponents in his upcoming primary, will he propose to repeal that law?

14 November 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of You

A tweet alerted me to this service, which offers to create an edition of L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz customized for yourself or a person of your choice.

This consists of stuffing your specified names (and, curiously, eye color) into the novel’s public-domain text. I tried it out, and this is part of the resulting preview:
They walked along listening to the singing of the brightly colored birds and looking at the lovely flowers which now became so thick that the ground was carpeted with them. There were big yellow and white and blue and purple blossoms, besides great clusters of scarlet poppies, which were so brilliant in color they almost dazzled John's brown eyes.

"Aren't they beautiful?" the girl asked, as she breathed in the spicy scent of the bright flowers.

"I suppose so," answered Buckingham Scarecrow. "When I have brains, I shall probably like them better."

"If I only had a heart, I should love them," added Pablo the Tin Woodman.

"I always did like flowers," said Harold the Cowardly Lion. "They seem so helpless and frail. But there are none in the forest so bright as these."

They now came upon more and more of the big scarlet poppies, and fewer and fewer of the other flowers; and soon they found themselves in the midst of a great meadow of poppies. Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever. But John did not know this, nor could she get away from the bright red flowers that were everywhere about; so presently her eyes grew heavy and she felt she must sit down to rest and to sleep.
I think we might agree that there’s still one bug in the system.

The same site offers to treat various other classic (i.e., public-domain) texts in the same way. That means, I presume, you can stand in for Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie’s first mystery novel, insert your name in Jane Austen’s roundelays, or head off to Treasure Island with Long John Silver—or rather Long Jason Silver if you prefer.

COMING UP: But wait! There’s more!

13 November 2013

History in Comics Form

Over at Boston 1775, I look at how Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey lay out the life of George Washington in Action Presidents!, #1.

My favorite comics work by this comics team is The Comic Book History of Comics, which covers a lot of detail in only five or six issues. I suppose that one could argue that series left out a lot, as I found Action Presidents! did. But it continues to surprise me how much history Van Lente and Dunlavey found space for, including the European and Japanese comics scenes and the retail ups and downs of the 1990s.

12 November 2013

Trivia Tonight at the Emerald Lounge

Here in Boston tonight, the Revere Hotel’s Emerald Lounge will host an evening of Wizard of Oz trivia.

The host will be John Fricke—author, stage performer, and past editor of The Baum Bugle. His book The Wonderful World of Oz, and practically every other book on the MGM movie, has been reprinted for its 75th anniversary this year.

The bar’s announcement adds:
The evening will also feature themed craft cocktails, like the Ozmopolitan (Grey goose cherry noir, St Germain, claret syrup, fresh lime juice, simple syrup, lemon zest) and Dorothy’s Time Out (Bacardi Gold, Crème de Casis, lime juice, simple syrup, soda water), along with complimentary cupcakes in honor of Toto’s 80th birthday.
Lots of giveaways and prizes for the top trivia teams.

11 November 2013

Back Into the Wild with Chromatography Analysis

Earlier this year Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild, published a follow-up article on the New Yorker website. That book described the death of Christopher J. McCandless in the Alaska wilderness in 1992; it prompted widely varying reactions.

Krakauer’s article suggested that a hitherto unrecognized factor in McCandless’s death is that he had been eating seeds from the wild potato Hedysarum alpinum. People thought this plant was non-toxic, but Krakauer wrote that new laboratory testing showed it contained large amounts of an amino acid that cripples the nervous system. He shared the lab’s report.

Last month Chemistry and Engineering News asked experts to review the lab findings. They replied that the high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) results don’t show what Krakauer understood they did. Certainly my untrained eye sees stark differences between the HPLC charts for another seed known to contain the amino acid and the Alaskan samples tested. That’s not just what different compounds appear but the quality and complexity of the readout.

The C&E News experts don’t say the neurotoxin theory is untenable; they say the lab test didn’t offer results good enough to interpret one way or another, so it’s far from proven. They also suggest that a mass spectrometer and other tests would be more reliable.

The journal spoke to an Alaskan professor who’d analyzed the same type of seeds for Krakauer years back and found no toxins; he seems relieved that his findings haven’t been contradicted after all.

10 November 2013

Investigating the Presets on the Batmobile Radio

That awkward moment when you look back and realize your mentor’s music was cooler than your hair.

08 November 2013

Filing False Insurance Claims

In reforming our health-insurance system, the Affordable Care Act requires insurers to offer plans with a minimum set of benefits, and not to spend too much of customers’ premiums on marketing and other things not directly related to patient care. The latter provision has already lowered my medical insurance premiums here in Massachusetts.

The first provision has meant that some bare-bones insurance policies, which didn’t offer much protection when people might actually need it, are no longer available. (Actually, those policies would still be available if health insurers had maintained the same basic terms as when the law had passed in 2010. But of course companies take every good opportunity to raise prices and otherwise change terms for their own profit, so that “grandfather clause” doesn’t apply to most plans.) That’s affected people who, like me, pay for medical insurance themselves.

Speaker of the House John Boehner is now trying to claim that he and his colleagues warned Americans of that problem. On 29 October, his office issued a statement claiming, “House GOP Warned Americans Would Lose Health Plans.” But it pays to take a closer look at the five “warnings” that press release quotes. Do they really address stricter requirements and higher premiums on policies sold to people who self-insure?

Two of those statements come from Boehner himself and his close, if not trusted, colleague Eric Cantor. And neither man said anything about people who buy their own medical insurance. Neither man said anything about how or why health coverage would change. They just said that insurance policies would change, which was an easy guess since insurers already changed their offerings all the time.

Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) did indeed say, as quoted by the Speaker’s office: “So much for the President’s claim that, ‘If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.’” But Boehner’s office carefully cut out Camps’s preceding paragraph:

Buried deep within the new regulations that will govern employer-provided health coverage is the startling estimate that by 2013, under the most likely scenario, 87 million Americans (1 out of 2 Americans with employer coverage) will no longer be able to retain the health plan they have and like. According to that same regulation, this number could be as high as 117 million Americans (7 out of 10 Americans with employer coverage) being forced to change health plans. And these numbers could be higher if the Obama Administration's assumptions and estimates turn out to be overly optimistic.
Camp was obviously talking about “employer-provided health coverage,” not policies for those of us who self-insure. Boehner’s office was deceptive to present him as saying anything more.

Likewise, the Speaker’s statement quotes Fred Upton (R-Mich.) saying, “When the president said if you like your health-care plan you can keep it, he was just flat-out wrong.” But again the press release removed the adjoining sentence in Upton’s remarks to the Washington Post, shown here: “Look at page 737. I read it.” Upton pointed to that same page on the House floor, and what was his problem with it?
They’re going to make sure that every American verifies that they have health insurance? Maybe they’ll look at page 737 in the health care bill, which says that every business will have to file a new 1099 with the IRS for any $600 business-to-business transaction. So if you’re a homebuilder, and you just happen to show up at that same Chevron or Shell gas station every other week to fill up your car, and you spend more there…or your pick up, and you spend more than $600 for the course of the year there, you’re going to have to file a 1099.
Again, Upton didn’t say a word about policies for people who buy their own medical insurance; all his compassion was for business owners having to follow the law. Furthermore, that provision about 1099 forms was repealed over two years ago. So Upton’s “warning” no longer applies.

The closest thing to an actual prescient warning quoted in the press release from the Speaker’s office was an August 2009 radio address by Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), transcribed here. Price did speak directly to the issue of rising standards leading to a higher premium price: “For starters, within five years, every health care plan will have to meet a new federal definition for coverage – one that your current plan might not match, even if you like it.”

But then Price went on to say things like, “Now the President has also said that he thinks the government should compete with your current health care plan.” That was a reference to the “public option,” which President Obama had successfully campaigned on in 2008 but dropped in a largely fruitless attempt to gain more Republican support. Price was speaking months before the passage of the Affordable Care Act. He was “warning” about provisions that weren’t in the final text.

Ironically, Speaker Boehner and his office issued that press release in an attempt to argue that President Obama wasn’t fully truthful. But the Speaker’s statement, when examined fully, shows that Boehner and his staff are willing to conceal the truth. Believing that you’re justified in such a double standard is a hallmark of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

07 November 2013

Fresh Music on Fresh Air

I remember discovering Terri Gross and her Fresh Air radio interviews soon after I started work in publishing. I thought they were terrific, and of course my firm wanted to get our authors booked on that show. I don’t recall if we ever did.

Last week my old friend Steve Young sat down to talk with Terri Gross, so now I’m jealous. He was in the studio along with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and performer John Russell to discuss “industrial musicals” of the late twentieth century: musical shows written and performed at a professional level for big American corporations’ sales conferences and trade shows.

Steve just co-wrote a book documenting that little-known art form: Everything’s Coming Up Profits. He’s assembled a website that shares some of the surviving recordings. The songs are both catchy and hilarious, and it’s clear in the lively radio conversation that Terri Gross loved hearing and learning about them. If only we’d known what would catch her attention.

04 November 2013

“Add a Manicule in the Margin,” Tom Said Pointedly.

I read a couple of interesting extracts from Keith Houston’s new book on typography, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, including an article on the history of the “manicule”: the pointing hand drawing readers’ attention to a particular line or passage.

Created by medieval scribes, that symbol was reproduced by early printers. The presence of the pointing hand in many early sets of lead type justifies Houston’s decision to treat it as a form of standard punctuation. Web-browser programmers adapted or reinvented it for designating hyperlinks as one moves a computer cursor over that part of the screen.

But what’s the standard term for the pointing hand? Houston uses the Latinate word “manicule,” which carries an air of antiquity. However, Michael Quinion reports in World Wide Words:
The history of manicule in English is a bit of a mystery. It isn’t recorded in the recent review of the letter M in the Oxford English Dictionary, nor is it in any other dictionary I’ve been able to consult. And I’ve found no example in print before 1996. However, William Sherman wrote in a detailed study of the sign in 2005 that he had been told it had become the standard term among scholars who study ancient manuscripts. I wonder if his informant actually had manicula in mind, either the Latin word or the identical Italian one; this has certainly been used in English-language works on manuscripts. Alteration of the final letter to turn it into an English equivalent seems to have happened very recently.
William H. Sherman’s essay was titled “Toward a History of the Manicule” (PDF download), and it became part of his 2009 book Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England. Sherman noted a host of terms for the symbol:
I have now found 15 other names for what I prefer to follow the manuscript specialists in calling the manicule: hand, pointing hand, hand director, pointer, digit, fist, mutton fist, bishop’s fist, index, indicationum, indicator, indicule, maniple, and pilcrow. The last three terms are outright mistakes: indicule and maniple are mishearings, misrememberings, or conflations of similar words.
(Houston’s book also has a long discussion of the pilcrow, which is this: ¶.)

The official, and long-established, English term for the pointing hand is “index.” However, we use that word for other things in designing books today, so perhaps we should adopt “manicule” and pretend it’s much older than what the evidence points to.

03 November 2013

Dick Grayson and Redheads

A few weeks back I had a Twitter conversation about the idea that Dick Grayson is attracted to red-haired women. Where did this idea come from, and who promulgated it?

Dick’s two longest and deepest relationships in the comic books have been with Koriand’r (Starfire) and Barbara Gordon (Batgirl, Oracle). And both those female superheroes are redheads. But otherwise they’re very different characters.

DC Comics introduced Barbara to prepare the way for Batgirl in the Batman television show. She was already at work in a library while Dick was in high school. Later she served in the House of Representatives when he was in college. In the late 1970s the Batman Family magazine raised the possibility of a relationship between them, only to bat it down.

In 1980 Marv Wolfman and George Pérez created Koriand’r in New Teen Titans to become Robin’s love interest. That was obvious from their first storyline. Together Dick and Kory led DC into exploring relationships that involved sex, as I discussed back here. Their pairing was a mainstay of the Titans comics for more than a decade, until the mid-1990s when they broke up.

The first Nightwing miniseries; Nightwing Annual, #1; and the Nightwing-Huntress miniseries showed Dick Grayson exploring the possibilities of other relationships. But it was apparent—especially in the last—that the company was moving him back toward Barbara Gordon. That partnership finally took hold during the No Man’s Land crossover.

In most ways Kory and Barbara were symbolic opposites. The first was an extraterrestrial princess descended from cats who had spent her adolescence in slavery. The second was the daughter (or niece and/or adopted daughter) of Gotham police commissioner James Gordon who had spent her adolescence earning a library science degree. Kory was emotionally open and naïve about life on Earth; Barbara was all about knowledge. Kory was a towering, buxom, barely-dressed supermodel who represented physical power and pleasure. Barbara at that point was paralyzed from the waist down and represented intellectual power and pleasure.

But of course both had red hair. Was that why Dick Grayson was attracted to them? I don’t like to think so, for two reasons. In the first place, that would make Dick rather shallow, driven by one physical trait rather than his deep emotional connections to people. I interpret his character as drawn to strong and strong-willed women who nonetheless seemed to need rescuing, as both Kory and Barbara did at times.

The second reason is all those other women DC’s creators showed Dick attracted to over the years, at least for a while:
  • Mary Wills in Star-Spangled Comics, #103 (1950), redhead.
  • figure skater Vera Lovely (1957), blonde.
  • tennis star and occasional crime-fighter Betty Kane/Bat-Girl (1960-64), blonde.
  • college student Lori Elton (1975), blonde.
  • damsel in distress Miggie Webster (1995), dark hair.
  • murder suspect Emily Washburn (1997), blonde.
  • landlady Bridget Clancy (1997), black straight hair—she being Eurasian.
  • fellow vigilante Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (1998), black hair.
  • fellow Titan Jesse Chambers/Jesse Quick (2000), blonde.
  • first kiss Wily Wendi (2002), black curly hair—since she’s African-American.
  • fellow vigilante Catalina Flores/Tarantula (2003-04), black hair.
In sum, DC Comics didn’t depict Dick Grayson as having a physical “type” at all.

Nevertheless, the idea that Dick likes red hair took hold. The earliest exemplar of that statement I could find is a fanfiction request dated 20 July 2004 which says: “Dick had a definite thing for redheads - Barbara, Wally, Kory, Roy.” That offered two more data points not from the comic books but from slash fanfiction—which DC was still running away from at the time. The Titans comic books don’t really show Dick in love with Wally West (Kid Flash, Flash) and Roy Harper (Speedy, Arsenal, Red Arrow, Arsenal,…); some fans just like that idea.

Only after the redhead meme became popular among fans did DC’s writers adopt it, in a way. The collectively written magazine 52, #30 (Nov 2006), showed him saying to Kate Kane/Batwoman, “I’ve got a thing for redheads.” Kate’s type is policewomen, so the creative team knew that wasn’t going to work out—it was just a wink to Nightwing fans.
Since then, however, the comics have shown Dick in a series of other relationships with a variety of women—brunettes, blondes, and, it appears, a somewhat higher fraction of red-haired women. What started as a cheeky fan observation has apparently become part of the mythos.

02 November 2013

“Inside Story” at Odyssey Bookshop, 3 Nov.

Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be introducing the many talented authors and artists who are participating in the “Inside Story” event at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Massachusetts.

This event is sponsored by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in conjunction with First Book. The authors will share the story behind their latest books, which range from picture books through early readers and middle-grade novels to YA. There will be free prizes and a drawing to win a phone call from a famous author. First Book will donate a book to a child in need for every book purchased. Here’s the lineup of talent.

Picture book creators at 1:00:

  • Diane deGroat
  • Corinne Demas
  • Deborah Freedman
  • Jannie Ho
  • Sandra Horning
  • Jane Kohuth
  • Jason Lefebvre
  • Richard Michelson
  • Hazel Mitchell
  • J.C. Phillipps
Middle-grade and YA authors at 3:00:
  • Stacy DeKeyser
  • Christine Brodien-Jones
  • Erin Dionne
  • Natasha Lowe
  • Jennifer Ann Mann
  • Rebecca Rupp
  • Chris Tebbetts
  • Kathryn Burak
There are similar events planned all over the country.

01 November 2013

“It would kill them to say anything gracious”

From May, journalist Andrew Sullivan analyzed the right-wing response to President Barack Obama like this:

Every now and again, an event happens that makes you see much more clearly how divorced from its previous ideals the GOP has become. Obama’s speech at Morehouse was something every conservative has always asked of African-American public figures. We have in Obama a black man raised by a single mother who is now, as even his critics acknowledge, a dedicated father to two daughters, whom he obviously adores. If the right is concerned about the black family, they should be falling over themselves to celebrate what Obama’s family is, and means. But they don’t. It would kill them to say anything gracious about this president.

Drudge yesterday cherry-picked only those parts of the speech that could divide people racially, only those moments when Obama dared to recognize the discrimination and difficulties of young black men – before urging them to overcome them. There’s a racial nastiness here that decent voters still hear and that Republicans have deployed constantly. Their historic refusal to cooperate even one iota with the first black president betrays, it seems to me, a staggering lack of grace and historical sense.

But as with everything Obama says, the speech balanced calls for equality with an admonition that personal responsibility is the inextricable complement to equality.
Most people suffering from OIP Derangement Syndrome insist that race has nothing to do with their politics. Often they also deny the effect and very big legacy of racial discrimination in American society. They deny the significance of the recurrent racism of right-wing rhetoric for the past few years. Some attack anyone who acknowledges those facts.

Such a response looks like a strong indicator that race is a factor in those people’s political thinking, however strong their denial. And when those critics of the President abandon their established positions and stated values, as Sullivan describes, that’s an even clearer sign of forces at work deep within their minds.