Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Take a "Deep Breath": Reflections on Doctor Who, Series 8

It seems as though it’s been ages since Trenzalore. Decades at the very least, possibly centuries. Of course there were other adventures along the way: televised ones, with older Doctors and 1970s styles and 1980s music; audio ones, with small casts and loud noises; print ones, with sexual escapades, expansive worlds, and levels of violence that could never have made it onto the small screen. Still, we wanted a new adventure, with a new Doctor. As it turned out, we got our wish on Saturday night , a mere eight months after “The Time of the Doctor.” Was it really just last Christmas we said goodbye to Eleven and started to anticipate Twelve?

Previews showed a dinosaur menacing the Houses of Parliament, and “Deep Breath” got that McGuffin out of the way early on. While earlier regenerations showed the new Doctor picking up exactly where the old one left off, here we have a presumably small gap between the end of “Time” (where Twelve asks Clara, “Do you know how to fly this thing?”) and “Deep Breath.” As Victorian London marvels at the dinosaur, the creature coughs up a familiar blue box and a slightly manic Doctor explains he seems to have flown the TARDIS into the mouth of the beast, dragging it with him to the nineteenth century.

But this episode is not about extinct animals. Rather, it’s about meeting the new Doctor and, in particular, about the changed relationship between Clara and the Doctor. The regeneration trauma is mercifully short: unlike Ten, who spent most of his premiere episode lying in bed before some restorative tea perked him up, Twelve starts out unable to remember basic things, including Clara’s name, ends up taking a nap for a short while, then sets out in his night shirt seemingly back to himself. He is more short-tempered than Eleven, less tolerant of the foibles of humans (but, thank goodness, he doesn’t attempt to strangle his companion, like a certain other recently-regenerated Doctor we know!), but ultimately the same man as before. (At one point, he comments that he has “made mistakes” in the past that he intends to put right. How intriguing!)

Clara mopes about, mourning the loss of “her” Doctor, the playful puppy-like Eleven, until Madame Vastra sets her straight. With the help of an old friend in an unexpected cameo later in the episode, Clara realizes that this man *is* the Doctor, strange face and all, and that he needs her help, not her whining, in this unsettled time for him.

Lest I create the impression that the episode was too serious, jokes were plentiful. I particularly liked how the Doctor thought everyone else sounded very strange until he realized that he’s Scottish. An annoyed Doctor complained that he was on the “planet of pudding brains,” and at one point confused Strax with one of the Seven Dwarves. At one point, the Doctor says to Clara that he was “not your boyfriend.” Clara says, “I never said you were,” to which the Doctor replies, “I didn’t say it was your mistake.”

The implication that Time Lords have some control over their appearance – hinted at in “Night of the Doctor,” when the Sisterhood of Karn gives Eight his choice of elixirs, and as far back as “The War Games,” when the Time Lords force Two’s regeneration and offer a choice of faces – becomes more explicit here. He chose a more serious face – an older (and wiser?) face possibly for a more serious time.

The episode even had a plot of sorts, bringing back the clockwork robots from “The Girl in the Fireplace.” The control robot found people from whom to harvest body parts in order to keep the robots going as they searched for “paradise.” I’m not sure how successful that particular plot was, but it clearly sets up a story arc for later in the season. (Who built these robots, anyway? We’ve had two episodes in which they behave in murderous fashion. Would you want to be on a spaceship with these guys?) We also got a hint that we will eventually discover who gave Clara the telephone number of the TARDIS in “The Bells of St. John” last season.

In all, the episode gave viewers a great deal to appreciate and to anticipate – the new Doctor, the changed interplay between the Doctor and Clara. The script gave both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman much to work with, and they didn’t disappoint. Like Clara, viewers might take some time to adjust to the new face in the TARDIS before coming to the realization that, when it comes right down to it, this is the same Doctor we’ve always known.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

A More Modest Ambition

My neighbor in Mayfair reverted to his older, smaller house - one that fits on the property better - and rotated the house 90 degrees, which also fits the property better.

The old:

Mayfair neighbor 6 21 14 001

And the new:

Mayfair 8 20 14 001

And having the same neighbor for more than a month is an unusual treat.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Two Americas

Not the John Edwards kind, wherein the U.S. is divided into the poor and John Edwards. It’s the divide between liberal and conservative.

One of the more amazing parts of the Ferguson, Missouri story is how, in the first days of coverage, both liberals and conservatives agreed that the behavior of the police was unacceptable. Unarmed man shot in the back, heavy-handed tactics to handle protests, police officers without badges or other identification, harassment of the press, and so on. What was so remarkable was that I often found myself double-checking which Twitter account a particular tweet or retweet came from, because all sides seemed united. (I’ll admit to being puzzled by one comment, that “Second Amendment supporters” should have handled the situation. I wasn’t sure what the author was saying, but he seemed to imply that supporting an individual’s right to own firearms obligated one to travel to Ferguson and blast away, which to me was both wrong-headed and poor advice.)

As more facts came to light, however, old positions reasserted themselves. The Right wants to make a big deal of the (apparent) facts that Brown robbed a store shortly before his fatal confrontation and that he was shot in the front, not the back, as a witness initially claimed. Yes, the first fact cuts against the “he was a good kid who just wanted to go to college” narrative, and the second fact undermined the “gun-happy police just shot someone in the back when the suspect couldn’t have been a threat to the cop” meme, but neither necessarily justifies the shooting, and certainly does nothing to resurrect the reputation of the police department for its subsequent behavior.

But the Left wants the story to be solely about the shooting, ignoring the rioting and looting that have taken place in the aftermath of the shooting. Protest all you want; march with others with your hands in the air to show solidarity with the victim; and demand that the incident be investigated fully by outside officials – all of those things are both within individuals’ rights and perfectly understandable. Heck, if you like, even invite racial huckster Al Sharpton to come and stir things up. It’s a free country. But no amount of bad behavior on the part of the police justifies individuals burning buildings, smashing windows, and stealing things. (I hasten to add that the protesters and looters are not necessarily one and the same, and, indeed, reports suggest that the looters are coming from elsewhere to take advantage of the situation.) The idea that righteous anger justifies taking someone else’s stuff is thoroughly misguided.

I keep reading stories by the self-aggrandizing press that night after night of looting is a result of unnecessarily heavy police tactics. But it’s become increasingly clear that some people are using the cover of protests to enrich themselves. Protesting is fine; stealing is not. This doesn’t seem to be a difficult narrative, and the distinction is not subtle – swiping hair extensions and sneakers is not protected speech – and yet I’m not seeing the tweets and blog posts from the Left that decries the thieves. In fact, if one wants to complain about police tactics, Rich Lowry points out that the police have utterly abdicated their role as protectors of property. This may seem to be unimportant in the larger picture right now, but business owners are less likely to locate in a spot when they have to worry about their investments going up in flames. If one wonders why the poor have fewer, lower-quality choices in shopping yet higher prices, this is one reason.

Friday, August 8, 2014

More Eighth Doctor and Charley

I’m continuing to work my way through the Eighth Doctor audio stories from Big Finish Productions, and just finished the excellent, if lengthy, and interconnected series of stories, starting with 2002’s “Neverland” through 2004’s “The Next Life.”

“Neverland” introduces the concept of anti-time and people who live beyond time and space. Romana, now President of the High Council of Time Lords, attempts to fix the rip in the universe the Doctor caused by rescuing Charley Pollard from the R-101 in the 1930s (in “Storm Warning”). The sequel, “Zagreus,” continues the story in the TARDIS – and on Gallifrey. By the end of the story, the Doctor is exiled from our universe, unable to return and under penalty of death from the Time Lords if he finds a way to do so. As Zagreus was the 50th story in the Main Range of Big Finish Doctor Who stories, it is longer than usual, at around three hours, and has a large cast, including actors who played other Doctors (Colin Baker, Peter Davison, Sylvester McCoy) and companions (Elisabeth Sladen, Nicola Bryant, Sarah Sutton, Nicholas Courtney) in different roles.

From “Zagreus,” the next stories take place in the Divergent Universe, a pocket universe created by Rassilon  to contain the anti-time creatures. In “Scherzo,” “The Creed of the Kromon,” “The Natural History of Fear,” “The Twilight Kingdom,” “Faith Stealer,” “The Last,” and “Caerdroia,” the Doctor and Charley explore the Divergent Universe while simultaneously trying to find the TARDIS and understand the world around them. By “The Next Life,” the Doctor thinks he understands how the pocket universe works, but he discovers yet more secrets before finally making his way back to our universe.  Along the way, the listener understands how all the stories are connected, with events from “Neverland” and “Zagreus” affecting those in “The Next Life.” It’s an ambitious project, and I enjoyed the series as a whole, even if some of the stories were hard to follow in places. (Thank goodness for the Internet and plot synopses!)

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Carnival of Doom

Via Ziki Questi’s blog, I encountered Deadpool 2.0, where an abandoned carnival nestles against an insane asylum.

Deadpool 001

The roller coaster and Ferris wheel dominate the skyline, and the entire carnival focuses on the macabre and gruesome. Ghosts haunt the buildings.

Deadpool 002

Up a hill, past the skeleton on the ground, up the stone stairs flanked by trees in the shape of grasping hands, stands an asylum, as abandoned as the carnival.

Deadpool 003

Inside, lights flicker, illuminating the haphazard body or the occasional lunatic. The gentleman below has “Kiss the cook” written in blood on his toque and continues to grasp his bloody butcher’s knife.

Deadpool 004

The medical center is no cheerier, with the blood-soaked sheet over a corpse and the message “No escape” scrawled next to the gurney.

Deadpool 005
No doubt there was much more to explore, but the wiser part of me decided this was a good time to leave, while I was still among the living.

Deadpool 006

Deadpool 007

Deadpool 008

Sunday, July 20, 2014


While the weather people argue whether the burst of cool (for July, at any rate) temperatures should be characterized as a polar vortex, the rest of us were just enjoying the temporary break from heat and humidity. Saturday seemed as good a time as any to pay a visit to the Antietam battlefield, in central Maryland.

The Battle of Antietam (or Sharpsburg - the Union and Confederate sides couldn’t even agree on the name of the darn thing, a la Manassas/Bull Run), held on September 17, 1862, was the first major battle of the Civil War on Union soil, is known for being the single deadliest one-day battle in the war, with over 22,700 dead, wounded, or missing. Although the outcome of the battle was inconclusive - despite far superior number, the Union forces couldn’t destroy the Confederate forces, though the Confederates ended up withdrawing from the battlefield - President Lincoln, in the aftermath of the battle and the retreat of General Lee’s forces back to Virginia, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the conflict states.

I’m not a big military history buff, and all the tactical business of moving armies around farmland bores me. However, it was a nice day for a walk, even in such a somber place.

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Maryland memorial

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Dunker Church

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Burnside’s Bridge

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Group floating down Antietam Creek

Friday, July 18, 2014

Small Worlds

I was reading The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume 7 (2013; Johnathan Strahan, ed.), minding my own business, when I came across a story called “GOOGLES (c. 1910),” by Caitlin R. Kiernan. It’s a brief, enjoyable tale of young orphans in a post-apocolyptic Steampunk world in which three children are sent to dodge packs of stray dogs in an effort to scavenge enough food for the orphanage.

Then I got to the end of the piece, where the author has a brief dedication: “For Jimmy Branagh, Myrtil Igaly, Loki Elliot, and for the New Babbage that was.” Hey, I know those people!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Exciting Lives of Victorians

As a follow-up to the post on John Ruskin and "The King of the Golden River," I ran across an article in The Scotsman newspaper on a movie coming out about Effie Gray, Ruskin's wife. The movie stars Dakota Fanning as Gray, and includes Emma Thompson, Robbie Coltrane, and Derek Jacobi.

Ruskin reportedly wrote "The King of the Golden River" for the then 12-year-old Gray. Seven years later, when he was nearly 30, he married her, but supposedly never consummated the marriage. She modeled for the Pre-Rafaelite painter John Everett Millais and the two fell in love. She had her marriage with Ruskin annulled and she and Millais married.

The existence of the movie shows, I suppose, that the lives of eminent Victorians can still fascinate movie-makers, if not necessarily movie audiences, a century and a half after the fact - at least, if those eminent Victorians have unusual personal lives!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Oh, Immodest Ambition!

Just a few days ago, I noted that I had a new neighbor in Caledon Mayfair, with a modest two-story house and a useful windmill in the back. Here’s the photograph from that Journal entry:

Mayfair neighbor 6 21 14 001

I return to my lodging not a week later, only to see the earlier property replaced by… well, a larger structure:

Mayfair neighbor 6 23 14 001 001

(The two photographs are taken roughly 90 degrees from one another.) I suppose the upside to a large house on a small property is that there isn’t much lawn to mow.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

No Free Lunches

Well, sometimes one writes a piece knowing that it does nothing for one's popularity...

Contrary to most who have written about the Hobby Lobby decision, on all sides of the political spectrum, I don't think it's a big deal. As most Supreme Court decisions have been in the past decade or so, it's a narrowly-written piece, applying to "closely held" corporations, involving a piece of the Affordable Care Act for which there is a readily-available substitute. Indeed, the majority decision suggested (though it fell short of endorsing this view) that one possible less-restrictive alternative available was to have Hobby Lobby's insurer provide the specific forms of birth control for "free" - meaning that the cost is rolled into Hobby Lobby's premiums every year. Going forward, Hobby Lobby's employees still won't have to pay for their Plan B, and the company will still pay for the 16 forms of contraception that it's always paid for.

Despite this, so many people are in hysterics over the decision that even smart people have taken leave of their senses. Glenn Fleishman tweeted: "Corporations are people with religions who can provide men with Viagra and block women’s contraception." As that made no sense to me, I replied that this was an "absurd characterization of the case and decision." Fleishman responded with: "SCOTUS rules that women are the only gender that has sex. Men were nowhere near there at the time and have no responsibility. Hobby Lobby covers erectile dysfuntion. It does not cover (nor allow its insurers to provide) any reproductive medical help, whether for pleasure (like Viagra) or for medical necessity (cysts, etc.)." I was really confused at that point. "The only gender that has sex"? How can you construe that from what the Supremes wrote? Men have "no responsibility"? Ditto. Hobby Lobby covers "erectile dysfunction" - so what, by the way, as this has nothing to do with the religious conscious argument - but does not cover Viagra - isn't the latter a form of treatment for the former? I recommend this piece, by Charles C.W. Cooke, for a discussion of what the case was about, and why blaming the Supreme Court for the failings - intentional or unintentional - of Congress is wrong.

However, in all the nonsense written about the Hobby Lobby case, one point that I rarely see made is that the "no free lunch" dictum still applies to health care products, and no amount of mandating on the part of the government can change economic fundamentals of employers. An employee's compensation is salary plus benefits and her cost to the employer is compansation plus other costs (training, a desk and computer, cost of office space). In a competitive market, firms must pay the market rate of compensation to induce employees to come to work, and the value of that work must exceed the cost to the employer before the job is created. Even before the ACA, salary and benefits were substitutes: a firm that offers, say, health insurance benefits needn't pay as high a salary. If it weren't for the tax benefits to employers of firm-provided health insurance (which, at the corporate tax rate of 35%, allows firms to pay 65 cents for every dollar of insurance they provide employees), no rational firm would provide health insurance. Instead, firms would offer higher salaries and let employees purchase their own amount of insurance.

The ACA changes things only in as much as firms that provide health insurance are now obligated to include in the policies coverage over things, such as contraception, that were not previously an obligation. But there's no free lunch: if the average employee uses $100 per year of insurer-provided contraception, that's $100 that's comes out of the employee's salary; see the previous paragraph. Some employees are better off under the ACA - those who use more than the average amount of health care - while some are worse off. But the idea that the ACA causes firms to provide free contraception is nonsense. All it does is shift hide the cost from employees, and to create some weird cross-subsidies (men and post-menopausal women subsidize contraception, while women and, er, functioning men subsidize Viagra). The ACA doesn’t - because it can’t - create something out of nothing.