Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Holidays

Home may be where they have to take you in, but holidays with family can stretch everyone’s tolerance to the breaking point. Fondly-remembered quirks in July become aggravating, nails-across-chalkboard character faults at the end of December. Fortunately, there’s another twelve months until another enforced captivity with the irrepressible savages we call family.

Merry Christmas. Yes, you, too, you annoying so-and-so.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Good Week for Apple

Apple found itself in two different courtrooms this week. One had a happy outcome for the company, and the other… well, we’ll have to wait and see, but the signs look good.

The Early 2000s Called...


The first case dated back a full decade, and involved claims that Apple excluded songs not purchased through iTunes from iPods, and prohibited songs purchased through iTunes from non-Apple music players. As John Gruber (no, not that Jon Gruber, the MIT professor of “speak-o” fame and a big believer in the stupidity of the American voter, but the tech writer) noted, the case was absurd on its face:
[The case] had nothing to do with rival stores’ music files, and everything to do with rival music stores’ DRM [digital rights management].
Gruber goes on to note that Apple used DRM at the insistence of music publishers, and that one could always put music without DRM (i.e., unencrypted MP3s) onto iPods. Furthermore, in an amusing twist, the class-action lawsuit had two named plaintiffs. Apple showed that neither plaintiff actually purchased an iPod during the window claimed by the class. Oops. The judge allowed a last-minute substitution to another plaintiff, but it’s a little embarrassing to not vet your named plaintiff properly.

After the trial, the jury deliberated for a mere three hours before finding Apple not guilty.

Antitrust Overreach


On Monday, Apple and the U.S. Department of Justice presented oral arguments before the D.C. Circuit appeals court in the ebook price-fixing case. On Monday morning, George L. Priest, a law professor at Yale Law School and an antitrust expert, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal explaining why Apple should win its appeal. (The piece is behind the Journal’s paywall, sadly.) Priest wrote, in part:
Yet what Apple had coordinated was hardly a typical price-fixing conspiracy. The publishers had chosen Apple’s terms—including a cap on prices—even though the terms reduced the returns they would receive from e-book sales. The court entirely ignored what really mattered: the platform competition between Amazon and Apple. 
The court sharply restricted from the trial any evidence about Amazon, including its retaliatory practices against publishers who challenged its pricing. In 2010 Amazon deleted the buy option for Macmillan’s e-books and print books. More recently Amazon delayed shipment of Hachette’s books. The court also did not consider the publishers’ desire to increase e-book prices to protect their core print book business. 
In short, the court’s evidentiary rulings concealed the economic motivations driving the industry. All that mattered to Judge Cote was that the publishers’ new agency agreements meant that Amazon had to offer their e-books at non-subsidized, higher prices. 
This is not sensible antitrust policy. Apple attempted to enhance competition, not restrain it—and the court’s decision protects Amazon’s 90% market share in e-book competition.
During oral arguments, two of the three judges appeared sympathetic with Apple’s point of view, one even noting that the trial judge agreed that Apple’s conduct was legal as a general matter, and, therefore, the question of whether the company’s conduct in this instance harmed competition should have been judged under the fairly difficult-to-prove rule-of-reason standard, rather than a more truncated analysis. From a piece in the New Yorker:
On Monday, comments from the appellate judges in New York—especially Judge Dennis Jacobs—suggested that they might be more receptive than Cote to Apple’s line of reasoning. According to Agence France-Presse, Jacobs said, “What we’re talking about is a new entrant who is breaking the hold of a market by a monopolist who is maintaining its hold by what is arguably predatory pricing.”
It remains to be seen whether the reading of the panel’s views is correct, and whether they vacate the decision entirely or remand it back to the district court with instructions to use a different legal standard, but that was a pretty good start for Apple.

Monday, December 15, 2014

(In)civility

People talk about how the anonymity of the Internet permits and possibly encourages some to be uncivil, and that’s true enough. But a related phenomenon is that the Internet encourages social interaction among the like-minded, and the resulting group-think sometimes promotes the kind of discourse that would never happen in a more heterogeneous group.

To wit: author John Scalzi (@scalzi) on Twitter: "As far as I can tell, the Breitbart site is by, and for, people who have drunk lead paint smoothies every single day of their lives."

Now, I don’t read Breitbart religiously, but people do link to it and I’ve seen some good stuff there. Out of curiosity, wondering what might have set off Mr. Scalzi, I looked at the site just now, and here are the top stories:
  • “Oprah Defends Sony Exec Over Racist Comments - But Slammed [L.A. Clippers owner] Sterling"
  • “Police: 3 Dead, Including Gunman, in Sydney Siege"
  • “Aussie Comedian: See? Gun Control Works"
  • “Immigration Activists Bash Boehner at L.A. Amnesty Conference"
(I’m not sure if I should have included Greg Outfield’s “Gutcheck: Why Sony Should Scare You,” so let’s make it five pieces.)

I didn’t bother to read any of the stories. The headlines pretty much speak for themselves. Breitbart is a conservative site, so it’s no surprise the pieces have a conservative slant.

By comparison, let’s look at the first four stories at Daily Kos:
  • “David Koch: ‘I’m a social liberal’"
  • “Lima climate talks: Optimism going in, skepticism coming out"
  • “Vivek Murthy confirmed as Surgeon General"
  • “Fox & Friends uses Australia hostage-taking to justify American torture program"
Seems like a pretty liberal slant. The piece on Koch, for example, notes that he says he’s conservative on economic matters and a social liberal, whereupon the author editorializes
Before you actually seek to take him up on the "social liberal" part, note that he continued by saying "as long as it doesn't interfere with the machinations of Plutus, god of wealth and king of all domains."
Hmm, I’m pretty sure Koch did not actually say those words in quotation marks.

I’m still not sure what Mr. Scalzi was upset about, but I will bet he wouldn’t make the remark he did on Twitter in a general audience - say, to book buyers in Cleveland. On Twitter, however, he felt that this was a perfectly acceptable remark.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Apple, Ebooks, and Antitrust

Interesting article on the Forbes web site the other day about the impending oral arguments at the Circuit Court, which is hearing Apple’s appeal of its price-fixing conviction.

I’m not involved with the case in any way, but I have personal interest in Apple and ebooks and professional interest in competition policy, so I’ve been following the case with some interest. What I never understood was how a conspiracy by publishers translated into price-fixing by Apple. What’s funny about the Forbes piece is that the article, while correctly saying that Apple probably has an uphill battle at the appeals court, points out via a series of parenthetical comments many of the problems with the case.
Apple was breaking into a market then dominated by Amazon, which had an 80% to 90% market share - monopoly power in almost anyone’s book.
While it’s true that market power isn’t a necessary condition for finding a price-fixing violation, it’s pretty odd to think that the entrant into a market dominated by a firm with substantial market power would be interested in elevating prices. What’s unusual here is that Apple, in trying to create its ebooks business, is a middleman and needs to attract attention from both buyers and sellers of books. Buyers of books want lower prices, all else equal, while sellers prefer higher prices - and Apple’s inducement to the major publishers was that they could better control pricing through Apple’s agency model rather than Amazon’s wholesaler model. But Apple is pretty much indifferent to higher book prices. Yes, Apple takes a 30% cut and therefore benefits from higher prices, but not by much compared with its margins on selling additional hardware.
(Notwithstanding the price rise in key categories of books, prices fell overall, its expert testified.)
Seems like a problem for a price-fixing case generally.
Judge Cote later found that when [Apple’s Eddie] Cue showed up at those first meetings [with the CEO of the major publishers], he immediately plunged his company into a price-fixing cabal. ‘Apple's entry into the conspiracy had to start somewhere,' she wrote, 'and the evidence is that it started at those initial meetings in New York City.'
That sounds good, but then we have:
"To prove collusion, the government showed (above) that the publisher CEOs phoned each other while negotiating their contracts with Apple. It couldnít prove, however, that Apple knew of these calls."
Hmm, that’s a problem.

Regarding the agency model:
(Judge Cote acknowledged that negotiating from a standard contract was ordinarily lawful.)
and
(Cote acknowledged that the agency model was lawful.)
In order to ensure that Apple wouldn’t be at a price disadvantage relative to Amazon,
...Cue decided to propose tiers of price caps, tied to the suggested hardback list prices. (Judge Cote acknowledged that price tiers and caps were lawful.)
Finally, regarding the most-favored nations clause that Apple negotiated,
It gave Apple the right to match the price at which any new-release ebook was being sold by another retailer. (Cote acknowledged that MFNs are ordinarily legal.)
And this is, in antitrust expert Herbert Hovenkamp’s works, “an uphill battle” for Apple? He’s probably right, but this case should never have gone against Apple in the first place.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Doctor Who, "Death in Heaven"

I hope everyone has awakened from their post-Thanksgiving stupors, as this turned out to be a long one.

Picking up from the previous week's cliffhanger - Missy is the Master! The dead are being resurrected as Cybermen! Clara is about to be "deleted" by a trio of Cybermen! - Season 8 wraps up not only the story line started in "Dark Water" but also puts the finishing touches on several season-long themes. Well, mostly. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I've watched the episode twice now, and I still am not sure how much I like it. Some parts are very good indeed, some parts wrap up story lines in a satisfying way, while other parts are... not my cup of tea.

Long Spoiler-Filled Plot Recap Section


Picking up where "Dark Water" left off, Clara is menaced by several Cybermen. She tries to convince them that she should be spared, claiming that she is the Doctor, regenerated into perky Jenna Coleman's body. From there we cut to the title, which, befitting her claimed identity, lists Coleman's name above Peter Capaldi's and shows her eyebrows instead of his. Subtle but effective.

Outside St. Paul's, Osgood (from UNIT) and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart arrive with a number of UNIT soldiers, ready to take on the Cybermen, who evade UNIT by flying away, Iron Man-style. The roof of St. Paul's opens and more Cybermen leave, ready to "pollinate" the world with nano-particles that will create new Cybermen out of dead bodies plus the consciousness, now stored in the Nethersphere, of those bodies. UNIT sedates Missy and, oddly, the Doctor. The two are taken aboard a plane - Missy as a prisoner and the Doctor, now conscious, as President of Earth in order to deal with the Cybermen threat.

In the Nethersphere, with Danny, Seb, and the young Afghan boy Danny killed, Seb explains that they will be returning to their bodies - with a bit of an "upgrade." On Earth, the nanoparticle "rain" falls on a graveyard and in a funeral home, where Danny's body lies. Back in St. Paul's, a rogue Cyberman - Danny - arrives. Clara, not knowing his identity and still trying to save her life, says, "I'm an incredible liar. Ask anyone." Cyber-Danny replies, "Correct," then blasts the other Cybermen and knocks her out.

Missy claims she knows Gallifrey's location. Missy kills Osgood and flying Cybermen bring down the plane. Kate is blown out of the plane's cargo door. As the plane explodes, the Doctor falls, inserting the TARDIS key into the falling TARDIS - cue the James Bond music.

Clara comes to in a cemetery (why?) with Cybermen breaking out of the ground but not attacking anyone. She tells her rescuer that the Doctor is her best friend, the one persokn she'd never lie to - at which point Cyber-Danny removes his faceplate, revealing his identity to her.

Clara calls the Doctor on the TARDIS telephone - Danny wants his emotions removed, but can't activate the emotional inhibitor on his chest by himself. The Doctor implores her not to do it, as Danny will then be a full Cyberman and kill Clara. The Doctor arrives and wants to know Missy's plan, but Cyber-Danny can't tap into the hive mind without activating his emotional inhibitor. Clara zaps it with the sonic screwdriver. As Danny promised, he is able to resist Cyber control and doesn't attack Clara.

Missy arrives a la Mary Poppins, floating from the sky with an opened umbrella. She gives the Doctor her "gift" - control of the Cybermen, "an indestructible army to rage across the universe." She observes, "Give a good man firepower and he'll never run out of people to kill." She tells him, "I need you to know we're not so different. I need my friend back." Although he considers her offer, as he believes he needs the Cybermen to burn away the nanoparticle storm, he ultimately rejects it, telling Missy, "I am not a good man. I am not a bad man... I'm an idiot with a box."

The Doctor gives the control device to Cyber-Danny - who tells the newly-converted Cybermen now under his command that "Today is not a good day," but that as soldiers their promise to civilians is that they will sleep safely tonight. The Cybermen fly to the nanoparticle cloud and self-destruct, destroying the particles.

Missy tells the Doctor the coordinates of Gallifrey, assuring him that she's not lying this time.

Clara tries to kill Missy, but the Doctor, concerned what Clara will become if she resorts to cold-blooded murder, says he'll do it himself if that's what it will take to save Clara. Instead, Missy is zapped by a Cyberman, who then indicates to the Doctor and Clara the still-alive Kate. The Cyberman is clearly the late Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart - hey, if you can't save your own kid, what's the point of being a Cyberman? - and acknowledges the Doctor's salute before flying off.

Danny, somehow back in the Nethersphere (we presume - though it's not clear how this happened), has found a way to send one person back to the land of the living. Clara expects him, but instead he sends the Afghan child, telling Clara to find his parents - this was a promise he had to keep.
The Doctor takes the TARDIS to the coordinates Missy gave him, but finds no Gallifrey - she lied again. In a rage, he whomps the TARDIS console.

Clara and the Doctor meet, and the Doctor believes Danny sent himself back to Earth. She lies and agrees with him, saying that the two are together, and he lies that he found Gallifrey, and that this is it for them. She asks him to hug, and he relents. She asks him why he doesn't like hugs, to which he replies, "Never trust a hug. It's just a way to hide your face" - as both look devastated.

The credits roll, but are interrupted by Santa's arrival at the TARDIS. Santa says, "It can't end like this," leading to a guess that clara's story will continue in the Christmas episode.

It's All About Control


If there's one theme threading its way through the entire season, it's about control. At the start of the season, Clara has a neatly compartmentalized life: there's the part where she is a school teacher and lives a normal life, and there's the part where she travels with the Doctor. As she says at one point, he's one of her hobbies. As the season unfolds, that neat compartmentalization unravels, and in an effort to maintain her relationship with Danny separate from her travels with the Doctor, she increasingly lies to him, to the Doctor, and, ultimately, to herself about what she's doing and why. Clara's unwillingness - even inability - to stop her adventures with the Doctor, even when they endanger her relationship with Danny, reflects a loss of her control over her life.

At the same time, the ongoing tug-of-war between Danny and the Doctor also reflects the question of control. Danny, the soldier, views the Doctor as an officer, one of those responsible for getting ordinary soldiers into predicaments without fully understanding the costs of doing so. The Doctor, always one to enjoy being in control of situations, found himself having to or choosing to relinquish control multiple times during the season. In "Flatline," he was unable to leave the TARDIS for most of the episode, and had to rely on Clara, while in "Kill the Moon" he chose to leave at a crucial time, insisting that the three humans had to make the decision whether to kill the creature about to hatch.

Control plays a big role in "Death in Heaven" as well. Missy's scheme involves creating an army of Cybermen capable of dominating any planet, and then gives control over this army to the Doctor in an effort to... well, what, exactly? By taking control of the Cybermen, the Doctor would be acknowledging that he and Missy are not so different. While the Master's schemes involve using power for his own Machavelian ends, the Doctor also uses other people to further his plans. Although those plans involve saving people and generally trying to do right, at some level the difference between the Doctor and Missy is more one of judgment than anything fundamental. When the Doctor gives up the device that controls the Cybermen, he's rejecting Missy's equating the two of them. He even thanks her, saying he's not a good man, not a bad man, just an idiot with a box who tries to do the right thing. (Of course, turning the Cybermen over to Danny, who then uses this force to save the planet only at the cost of destroying all the Cybermen, including himself, might suggest that both Danny and Missy were correct: the "officer" used his soldiers as cannon fodder once again.)

A few other examples: Danny tells Clara he wants to activate his emotional inhibitor, but can't do it himself, giving her control over him. At the very end of the episode, when he can send one person back through the Nethersphere - sadly, with no explanation of why that might be possible, save that earlier we apparently saw Missy travel to and from the Nethersphere - he chooses to send the Afghani boy he killed, rather than resurrecting himself, a last act of self-sacrifice that re-establishes his control over his destiny.

Should We Care More About Zany Plots or Emotional Resonance?


Season finales in Doctor Who seem to suffer more than other episodes in plot logic. The audience is carried along from one whiz-bang moment to the next, and it's not until one stops and thinks about it that one realizes how crazy is the internal logic. Missy seems to go through a lot of effort to make a point. The connection between the Nethersphere and the real world is never clear - why would an uploaded mind feel pain from a physical body, and how is that mind restored to a body that no longer exists as living flesh? Even allowing that Cybermen can create others of their kind, how would they be able to do so via nanoparticles, much less "seed" those particles so that the decayed bodies of humans somehow grow Cyber-armor and pop out of their graves? Et cetera.

But the enjoyment of Doctor Who isn't about rigorous plots any more than it was about special effects back in the days of the classic series. It's about stories, and emotions, and relationships, and the success of an episode, or of a story arc, depends on how deftly writers draw the characters, how the actors bring those characters to life, and how the audience reacts emotionally to the character interplay and development. By those standards, the season finale was a success. I'm not convinced that making Missy the Master was necessary or wise; I think I would have preferred that Missy be a new character, even if her plot was the same. Still, Michelle Gomez made a wonderful and, yes, bananas Master.

One thing I thought worked superbly was the ending. As Erika Ensign of the Verity! podcast remarked, throughout the season Clara lies for her own benefit: to keep Danny from knowing about her adventures with the Doctor, to keep the Doctor from know she's lied to Danny, to keep the Cybermen from killing her, and so on. Yet in the end, in the scene in the restaurant, both Clara and the Doctor lie to one another out of selflessness.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Distractions Along the Way

I’ve been meaning to write up my summary of and reactions to the Doctor Who series finale, but I haven’t quite managed it yet. First I wanted to see the episode a second time, then I wanted to hear commentary on it, then I was procrastinating. It’ll come in good time, I suppose.

In the meanwhile, I’ve been spending far too much time playing Doctor Who Legacy on the iPad. I don’t play many games, and those I do tend to be fairly simple ones, like solitaire, but this one has captured my interest.

The game doesn’t have much to do with Doctor Who. Oh, sure, it has characters that resemble those on the show - Doctors, companions, villains, monsters, good guys, aliens - heck, even the Third Doctor’s Whomobile - and something of a story line, but it’s really Dungeons & Dragons crossed with Bejeweled. Create a team - a Doctor and five allies - and match colored gems in order to generate hit points on enemies. Kill enough enemies before your team runs out of health and you win the level. Repeat. A lot. Over time, other characters and “time fragments” drop, and you level up characters by spending time fragments. The game’s currency is the crystal: sometimes these drop as you play the game, or you can buy them. Either way, you can spend crystals on leveling up characters, buying enhancements to the team (increasing hit points, or increasing resistance to damage, for example), or buying characters. In theory, you can play the game indefinitely without spending a cent, though buying as few as 6 crystals for a few bucks unlocks the “Fan Area,” with access to additional levels and some other perks.

The interesting bit involves tactics within levels and your overall strategy for leveling up characters with different skills in order to form successful teams for the harder levels. For example, some of the enemies might “poison” the team, delivering multiple rounds of damage even after the enemy has been destroyed. Having a team member who can “cure” the poison becomes a necessity.

I’ve managed to complete the first two “seasons” of the game, along with some of the extra material, but the Expert levels are still baffling to me. The enemies have such firepower and other abilities, such as locking gems into place, or “stunning” the entire team (so gem combinations have no effect) for one or more turns, that even advanced teams are wiped out in only a few turns. Well, that’s what keeps it interesting, I suppose.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

In Defense of Gendered Pronouns

In some circles, gendered pronouns have fallen out of fashion. Oh, the debate rages on about exactly *how* to replace them - use a hybrid word, like s/he? use the grammatically-incorrect plural pronoun to replace the singular (“I admired their shoes”)? create an entirely new word? - but, the feeling goes, asserting gender through a pronoun is somehow déclassé.

As best as I can tell, this trend is based on two concerns: one, the very modern concept that gender identity is fluid, and thus no one pronoun necessarily captures an individual’s essence; and two, gender carries with it assumptions about a person that may be unwarranted in any particular situation. Fair enough.

Yet the solution is not to blur or even erase gender lines. First of all, it’s a little silly. Whether describing a real or a fictional person, gender is an important and obvious identifying characteristic. Fine, a small fraction of the population feels that its outward sexual characteristics do not accurately reflect its true gender, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Second, vive la difference. Men and women don’t just look different, or have different equipment for use in the bedroom; they often behave differently, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but in a world that claims to celebrate diversity it’s peculiar to attempt to quash gender differences. I’m reminded of the Ursula K. Le Guin novel The Lathe of Heaven, in which the protagonist’s mental powers allow him to reshape reality, so he tries to use that power to benefit humanity. By eliminating race, however, he finds that he no longer has a connection with the woman he loves. Whoops.

This is not to say that emphasizing gender is always appropriate. After the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court decision, some commentators observed that the male justices voted one way and the female justices the other way, suggesting that gender overrode judicial wisdom. This was an ugly slur toward all the justices and such sentiments should never have passed editorial muster. But the solution to such things is not to eliminate mentions of gender, but to gently correct these misguided souls.

Long live gendered pronouns!

Friday, November 7, 2014

Doctor Who, "Dark Water"

“Dark Water” is the first part of the season-ending two-part story, and, as such, reviewing it without having seen the remainder would be silly. Instead, I’ll put down a few reactions. We’ll see if they need to be revised come this Saturday.

Lengthy Plot Summary, Filled with Spoilers

When the episode opens, Clara is on the phone with Danny, telling him that there are things she needs to say, not all of them good, but that she loves him - all the while looking at a series of Post-It notes affixed to bookshelves in her apartment. (Most of the notes deal with her adventures with the Doctor. Others, such as “Three months,” are more obscure.*) Suddenly, his end goes silent. A woman picks up and tells Clara that Danny has been hit by a car and killed. As openers go, that one was a doozy.

In her grief-stricken state, Clara hatches a plan that we see unfold: she enters the TARDIS, asks the Doctor to take her to see a volcano, steals all his TARDIS keys,** then, when he wakes up outside the TARDIS, she demands he bring Danny back, throwing one key after another into the lava, which apparently destroys TARDIS keys, every time he says no.*** He won’t budge, she goes through with her threat… only to find that the Doctor had outwitted her and the scene is her dream state. What follows is one of my favorite scenes of the season:
Clara: "What now? Doctor, what do we do now, you and me?"
The Doctor: "Go to Hell."
Clara, after a lengthy pause: "Fair enough. Absolutely fair enough.” She turns to leave the TARDIS.
The Doctor: “Clara? You asked me what we’re going to do. We’re going to Hell. Or wherever it is people go when they die…. Wherever it is, we’re going there and find Danny. And, if there’s any way possible, we’re going to bring him home."
Clara: “You’re going to help me?"
The Doctor: “Well, why wouldn’t I help you?"
Clara: “‘Cause of what I just did."
The Doctor: “You betrayed me. Betrayed my trust, betrayed our friendship, betrayed everything I stand for. You let me down!"
Clara: “Then why are you helping me?"
The Doctor: “Why? Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?"
Despite the Doctor’s apparent indifferent to Clara, occasionally bordering on outright cruelty, over the course of the season, this exchange lays bare his true relationship with her.

The Doctor insists Clara use the telepathic circuits in the TARDIS again, as she did in “Listen,” to take the ship wherever the pair is most likely to find Danny. They land in a mausoleum, filled with skeletons sitting in water - the “dark water” of the title, able to show only organic matter. They meet Missy, who tells them that the bodies have “exoskeletons” that are invisible.

Meanwhile, Danny awakes in the Nethersphere, being processed by Seb, who tells him that he’s dead but that he still maintains a connection with his body. He feels cold because his body is being stored in a cold place, but once he’s cremated… Seb asks Danny if he ever killed anyone as a soldier, then tells Danny he has a visitor. We see a flashback in which Danny’s unit is under fire in Afghanistan, and Danny clears a house using his automatic weapon. Danny’s visitor is a young Afghani boy, whom Danny presumably shot, and Danny apologizes to the boy. Seb provides Danny with an iPad (“You have iPads here?” Seb replies, “We have Steve Jobs.”) and they receive a call from Clara. The Doctor insists that Clara be skeptical, “even if it breaks your heart,” and determine whether it’s really Danny to whom she is talking.

Having missed all the signs - the logo for the 3W Corporation bears more than a passing resemblance to the Cyberman eye-with-tear-drop, and the reference to an “exoskeleton” on the corpses in the dark water might have given up the game - the Doctor only belatedly sees the Cybermen for what they are. And despite having had his hand on Missy’s heart - or, in this case, hearts - he apparently doesn’t make the connection that she is a Time Lady (“I’m old-fashioned.”). As he exits the mausoleum, he finds himself on the steps to St. Paul’s church, in the middle of London, as the Cybermen start marching out (hearkening back to the classic Doctor Who story, “The Invasion”). Missy then gives her Big Reveal to the Doctor: Missy is short for Mistress which is the female version of the Master.

Random Thoughts

From our first scene with Missy, in “Deep Breath,” people speculated that she was the Master, regenerated into female form. Others dismissed that as preposterous. Well, we see who’s laughing now.

That said, did we really need to bring back the Master? And the Cybermen? The whole idea of the Nethersphere was intriguing on its own. Surely someone could have stumbled across Gallifreyan technology, the way the Master used the Matrix, to construct the Nethersphere. The concept of an afterlife (of a sort) in which the mind is still connected to what the physical body feels is very creepy. The Master seems unnecessary.

I’ve seen some commentary suggesting difficulty accepting a female Master. The concept of Time Lords switching genders in regeneration doesn’t bother me particularly, though one has to wonder how the Doctor managed thirteen blokes in a row, and the Master even more than that (as he had run through his regenerations back in the classic series) without a single female regeneration. The new series has dropped a few hints that this is possible, but it still seems… unusual.

Because some people can’t be satisfied, though, the ladies on the Verity! podcast took the opportunity of the Master’s new body both to reiterate their belief that a female Doctor is inevitable at some point and to carp that we haven’t seen a “Doctor of color.” Come on, ladies, Gallifrey seems to be a pretty pasty society. What would produce black Time Lords? Fine, be politically correct about it if you wish, it seems to me you’re retconning the whole idea of changing genders and introducing the whole idea of different Gallifreyan races just to fit some modern conception of what a television show should look like.

Changing topics entirely, it was pretty brave to kill off Danny before the credits, and in such a banal way. Of course, Doctor Who being what it is, we’ll have to wait until the end credits roll next week to see if he stays dead. Nonetheless, this season has really been about two people, the Doctor and Clara, both discovering things about themselves, and to me it’s made for a number of top-notch episodes.

------------

* Someone on Twitter advanced the hypothesis that this means Clara is pregnant. If so, it would be yet another example of how television people apparently have no concept of birth control. They turn up unexpectedly pregnant whenever the plot so demands. Please, TV characters in the 21st century, act as though it is the 21st century and take care of this problem.

** Eagle-eyed Twitter user Sean Blythe (@OmitWords) noted that the book in which the Doctor keeps one of his TARDIS keys is The Time-Traveler’s Wife. Hilarious.

*** We’ve apparently completely forgotten about the Doctor’s ability to open the TARDIS with a snap of his fingers. Also, given the powers the TARDIS has an her proprietary interest in the Doctor, do we really think he needs a key? But read on.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Doctor Who, "In the Forest of the Night"

We’re heading into the final stretch of the season, with only the two-part finale to go after this episode. (Very sad.) Then the long, miserable stretch from Nov. 8 to Christmas with no new Doctor Who episode. (Also very sad.) In the meanwhile, however, we have “In the Forest of the Night” to contend with.

Trying to reach London, the Doctor opens the TARDIS doors to find himself in a forest. A young girl, Maebh, in a red coat knocks on the door and asks for help, and the TARDIS assures the Doctor that he has landed in central London. Meanwhile, Clara and Danny are chaperoning young Coal Hill School students - the “gifted and talented” group, though that’s clearly a euphemism - in an overnight stay at the Natural History Museum. The next morning they open the museum doors to find the same forest. When they realize that Maebh is not with them, they set out to search for her. Naturally, they encounter the Doctor.

With the gang all together, the Doctor tries to understand what caused the forest to appear so suddenly. After a few false starts, and a small chat with the forest, he correctly deduces that a huge solar flare is about to occur, which would wipe out life on Earth. The mystical forest, however, which is impervious to fire, has provided a protective cover for the planet, just as it has done on previous occasions. The children join the Doctor in the TARDIS to send a message across the planet not to harm the trees - in London, the authorities are about to use an exfoliant after the controlled burn failed - and the day is saved.

This episode is clearly in the “fairy tale” classification of Doctor Who stories, from the little girl in the red coat, lost in the forest (Little Red Riding Hood), to her later dropping objects in the forest to lay out a trail (Hansel and Gretel), to the use of the forest as a dark, mysterious, mystical place (any number of fairy tales). Sometimes that works - I thought it worked in “Time of the Doctor” - and sometimes it doesn’t. “In the Forest of the Night” was a less-successful example, in part because having small children on screen for most of the episode is a sure-fire way to kill a story (see “Nightmare in Silver,” “Fear Her,” and “Kill the Moon” while Courtney is on screen), in part because of the heavy-handed environmental message (“trees are our friends, so don’t hurt our friends”), and in part because of the absurd sappy ending tacked onto the episode (Maebh’s missing sister turns up out of the blue at the end).

When Danny, Clara, and the children find the Doctor, Clara has an odd trust that the Doctor will simply figure out what’s going on and solve the problem. She seemed out of character in that scene. Later in the episode, Clara seems all too eager to abandon her charges and go with the Doctor, until Danny reminds her that she has a responsibility for the children’s safety. That scene is no doubt meant to illustrate how traveling with the Doctor has changed Clara - she enjoys and even needs the adventure, while Danny is content to be a math teacher - but seemed odd. Even odder was the scene when the Doctor believes he can’t stop the solar flare from destroying life on Earth. He says he can’t save humanity, but he can save the Coal Hill School children, along with Clara and Danny. Clara rejects that idea, saying that the children would be sad if their parents all died and they didn’t, and thus, in her belief at least, she condemns the children to die. Seems like an unusual choice, to say the least.

The episode did have some good moments. Echoing “Kill the Moon,” the Doctor tells Clara, “This is my world too. I walk your earth, I breathe your air,” and, in contrast with the earlier episode, he doesn’t abandon humanity. When Clara rejects leaving in the TARDIS, and the Doctor doesn’t understand why, she says, “Don’t make me say it. I don’t want to be the last of my kind,” having seen what that has done to the Doctor. And in a comical moment, the Doctor and Clara peek out of the door of the TARDIS as the solar flare engulfs the Earth, after the Doctor has worked out that the forest will save the planet. Looking down at Earth, he tells her, “I hope I’m right. Be slightly awkward if the world was destroyed at this point."

The episode is by no means bad, much less unwatchable. Capaldi’s Doctor and Coleman’s Clara Oswald are always a joy to watch, and seeing the Doctor puzzle out the situation was fun. In a weak season, this would have been a better-than-average episode. In what’s been an amazing season so far, however, the episode falls a little short by comparison.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Doctor Who, "Flatline"

We're racing toward the end of Series 8. "Flatline" is a comic gem that is also scary, and it does double-duty by advancing some of the themes we've seen so far this season.

As the Doctor attempts to get Clara back home at the same time she started (presumably so Danny won't notice that she's still traveling with the Doctor), the TARDIS winds up over a hundred miles off-target. Worse, the exterior dimensions have shrunk. Clara and the Doctor squeeze out and he squeezes back in to investigate what happened while she looks for clues in the area. When the TARDIS shrinks yet again and the Doctor realizes that he's trapped inside, with only his hand able to reach out of the small doorway, he gives Clara the sonic screwdriver and his psychic paper. "Does this mean I'm you now?" she asks impishly. She places the tiny TARDIS in her handbag, communicating with the Doctor through an earpiece (that also allows him to see through her eyes).

Clara meets Rigsy, a graffiti sprayer on a community service assignment to whitewash his handiwork. Rigsy helps Clara, showing her the house where one of the locals disappeared. The two are menaced by something that comes out of the walls. The two, along with the rest of Rigsy's crew, retreat to the subway tunnels, attempting to stay alive while the Doctor tries to understand the menace. He deduces that these are creatures from a two-dimensional world, trying to infiltrate our three-dimensional one. The timely arrival of a train in the tunnel allows Rigsy and Clara to attempt to ram the creatures. While unsuccessful, this gives the Doctor time to power the TARDIS and devise a plan to send the creatures back to their universe.

The episode is very funny, with both sight gags (the tiny TARDIS; the Doctor's hand emerging from the small doorway to hand Clara various items; the Doctor using his hand to move the TARDIS with his fingers, a la Cousin Itt, in order to get the TARDIS off the railroad tracks) and stinging lines. Early on, as Rigsy asks Clara who she is, she responds: "I'm the Doctor. Doctor Oswald." Rigsy replies, "What are you a doctor of?" The Doctor (in Clara's earpiece): "Of lies." Clara: "I don't know exactly. I think I pick the title just to sound important." The Doctor: "Why, 'Doctor Oswald,' you are hilarious." Later on, as Clara and Rigsy run from the house, the Doctor says to Clara: "You really throw your companions off the deep end, don't you?" At another point, Clara tells Danny "I'm helping him [Rigsy] find his auntie." The Doctor replies in Clara's ear: "Nice. Technically not a lie."

The episode brings together several themes:

* Clara emulates the Doctor. The Doctor sees how he sounds. For example, late in the episode, Clara suggests using a train to ram the monsters. The conductor says there’s a dead-man switch and someone is needed to hold the handle. Rigsy jumps into the cab and starts to move the train forward. He tells Clara he knows he will die in the attempt. Clara responds by placing her hair band on the switch, locking it place. “I really liked that headband,” she tells him, “but I suppose I’ll just take it. And every time I look at it I’ll remember the hero that died to save it.” Although that effort failed, Clara has a flash of inspiration that will restore power to the TARDIS: she has Rigsy spray-paint a door onto a poster, tricking the creatures into using their energy in an effort to open the “door” that doesn’t exist.

* Clara continues to learn how to lie. She talks to Danny on the phone while trying to avoid being killed and makes no mention of being with the Doctor or being in danger. She uses the psychic paper to pretend she's with MI-5 and, of course, pretends to be the Doctor.

* Clara learns what it's like to be the Doctor - in particular, the difficult decisions and tradeoffs that he makes. At the end of the episode, Clara says to the Doctor, "Just say it: I was a good Doctor." The Doctor responds, "You were an exceptional Doctor. Goodness had nothing to do with it."

* Clara learns to embrace her abilities as a leader.
Unlike Clara's reaction to being abandoned by the Doctor and being forced to make an important decision in "Kill the Moon," here she understands and even embraces her role as the one in charge during the Doctor's absence. At one point she muses, "Doctor? What would you do now? No. What will I do now?"

In all, another exceptional episode.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Doctor Who, "Mummy on the Orient Express"

(I was out of town for over a week, missing both “Mummy” and “Flatline,” which is why this is later than usual. I wrote it not having seen “Flatline.”)

It’s “one last trip” for Clara in the TARDIS, and the Doctor takes her to the Orient Express - in space. Unsurprisingly, the trip turns deadly when, one by one, the passengers and crew die at the hand of a mummy only the condemned can see, exactly 66 seconds before his or her death. With Clara trapped in a storeroom, the Doctor tries to rally other passengers to determine what the mummy is and how to defeat it, using each victim as an opportunity to learn more.

The episode provided the chance for the cast to appear in 1920s period costume. Clara is cute in a flapper dress. The Doctor takes a cigarette case out of his coat pocket, opens the case, and slides it to a gentleman… only to reveal Jelly Babies strapped in the case. Very cute. Sure, we’ve seen the “historical model of transportation in space” bit before, with the Titanic in “Voyage of the Damned,” and we’ve seen 1920s costume in “The Unicorn and the Wasp,” and we’ve seen murderous mummies before in “Pyramids of Mars,” but combining these elements with the cranky Twelfth Doctor was a delight. The revelation that the mummy is actually a soldier with defective gear from a long-ended war fits in with the season-long arc of the Doctor’s dislike for soldiers (including Danny Pink).

We also see Clara’s character continue to develop, and in a surprising way. During the episode, the Doctor asks that she lie to Masie, a passenger, to induce her to come to the Doctor’s makeshift lab. While Clara appears very uncomfortable doing so, by the end of the episode she has become far more comfortable lying. After she talks with Danny - who asks her if she’s had her last trip and has left the Doctor for good - she first lies to Danny, saying she has, and then lies to the Doctor, saying that Danny is fine with her continuing to travel in the TARDIS. One suspects those lies will boomerang back to Clara later in the season.

The Doctor also changes a bit, explaining to Clara at the end that he didn’t know if he could save Masie and was unwilling to give her false hope. While we see his practical side - the Doctor would dispassionately use as many deaths as necessary to understand and stop the mummy - we also get a hint that he still cares about saving lives.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Doctor Who, "Kill the Moon"

In this week’s episode, still on Earth, Clara is chiding the Doctor for not telling 15-year-old Courtney - “Disruptive Influence,” who created her own “spillage” in the TARDIS last week - that she’s “special.” Exasperated, the Doctor abruptly takes Clara and Courtney to the moon, circa 2049. The three discover that the moon has much higher gravity than it should, and that three astronauts in a U.S. Space Shuttle have arrived with 100 nuclear bombs to destroy the moon before the higher gravity wreaks havoc on Earth.

After two of the astronauts are killed by spider-like creatures that the Doctor determines are very large bacteria (in a hilarious scene, Courtney uses anti-bacterial spray on one, stopping it in its tracks), and the Doctor uncovers amniotic fluid in a crevasse, he concludes that the moon is actually incubating a huge creature that is about to hatch. If the moon fractures when the creature hatches chunks of the moon could fall on Earth with devastating consequences. If they detonate the bombs, they will kill the creature, which may be the only one of its kind. As the surviving American astronaut and Clara debate what they should do, and ask the Doctor his plan, the Doctor tells them that it’s their planet and their decision to make, then leaves in the TARDIS.

At the last moment, Clara stops the detonation sequence, allowing the creature to hatch. The Doctor returns, takes all three to Earth, where they watch the creature fly off and the shell harmlessly disintegrate into the atmosphere. Later, in the TARDIS, Clara is furious with the Doctor for abandoning them and allowing them to come so close to making the wrong decision. She tells him not to return and storms out, later comforted by Danny.

Where to start in thinking about this one? The science is more of a mess than usual, so one has to simply go with the narrative flow and not consider the details too much. (For example, how much extra mass would be necessary to create an Earth-like gravity on the moon? Wouldn’t someone have noticed this well before 2049? Don’t bacteria need an atmosphere to survive?) I was more bothered by the Doctor once again taking a child into the TARDIS and into danger. Didn’t the Eleventh Doctor learn (in “Nightmare in Silver”) that no good ever comes of this? And as amusing as Courtney has been in small doses, she can’t carry an episode, and merely comes across like an immature brat, unwilling to stay and help, sulking in the TARDIS, and unable to keep from touching things.

When deciding what to do about the creature, Clara finds a way to poll humanity, which firmly wants the crew to detonate the nuclear bombs and save Earth. Instead, Clara, having asked the question in the first place, ignores their desires and stops the detonation. On instinct? Surely she knows better than any human other than the Doctor’s former companions how dangerous the universe can be. But, of course, in the context of the story her decision is the “right” one.

The Doctor surely knew about much of what would transpire - otherwise, his choice of this moment in 2049 to take Courtney is too much of a coincidence. We can infer that his purposes were twofold: first, to not merely tell Courtney that she’s special but to allow her to do something special; and, second, to give to Clara control over the outcome, trusting that Clara would do the right thing and, in so doing, help propel humanity to the stars.

Did this work? In the context of the episode, the first one did - Courtney seems happier with herself - while the second one didn’t - Clara is very angry with the Doctor. But this is backward: Courtney didn’t actually do anything special, she was merely an observer to an historic moment. (And no one will believe her if she tells them.) Conversely, Clara actually did make the decision with the Doctor nowhere around. For better or worse, she chose the outcome. Yet she complained to the Doctor that he was patronizing her. I don’t see that.

In sum, this was a difficult episode, and not an entirely successful one, although I liked the themes contained in it. I look forward to reading/hearing some of the other commentary on the episode. (I try to write these based only on my reactions to the episode.) One point that keeps coming back to me over the course of this season is that this is a very adult season of Doctor Who, in part because the Twelfth Doctor isn’t an easy person to like, in part because Clara has some difficult parts of her personality, but in large part because of the issues and interpersonal conflicts that keep arising. Doctor Who for adults might not always be easy viewing, but it’s proving to be very interesting viewing.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Outlasted Another Neighbor

My latest neighbor appears to have departed. People come and go in Second Life; that’s nothing new. But I continue to wonder about what drives some folk to invest time (over three months), energy (finding and siting at least two houses), and money (rent on a not-insubstantial parcel), only to abandon it.

Mayfair 10 2 2014 001
Yup, an empty parcel

At this point, though, I’m not surprised. Then again, there are days when I wonder why I hang on to my place.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Doctor Who, "The Caretaker"

Series 8 is turning out to be one of the best, if not the best, of the new series of Doctor Who, and “The Caretaker” earned its place in this season’s episodes. I didn’t care for the episode particularly, but only because its predecessors are that good; in contrast, “The Caretaker” seems a little more ordinary, with at least one plot element that doesn’t ring true; I’ll get to that in a bit.

The opening montage is brilliant: Clara and the Doctor are seen in several adventures, and after each she returns to a date with Danny Pink. But Danny isn’t blind to Clara’s condition after each of these adventures: after one she is sunburned, while after another she’s wet and smelling of fish. This sets up the premise of the episode well. Clara’s life with the Doctor can no longer be kept separate from her relationship with Danny.

The Doctor appears at Coal Hill School as the caretaker - a maintenance man - much to Clara’s chagrin. He needs to pass as human for a few days in order to catch a monster. (Shades of “The Lodger”!) The monster in this episode, a battle machine from another time and place that the Doctor must remove before it destroys Earth, is incidental to the plot, merely a MacGuffin here.

When the Doctor finally meets Danny, who is introduced as someone mechanically competent because he is an ex-soldier, the Doctor’s prejudice against the military rears itself, and he immediately takes a dislike to Danny. The Doctor can’t believe that Danny is a math teacher, insisting that he must each Physical Education. Instead, the Doctor believes that the History teacher, who bears a passing resemblance to the Eleventh Doctor (complete with bow tie!), is Clara’s boyfriend, despite obvious clues (including graffiti that reads “Ozzie loves the squaddie”).

When the inevitable happens, and Danny disrupts the Doctor’s efforts to send the monster through time, he realizes that Clara and the Doctor know one another and that Clara has been lying to him about their relationship. In a comical moment, Danny assumes that Clara is an alien, sputtering “I thought you said you were from Blackpool!"

The Doctor’s dislike of soldiers comes to the fore in this episode. He tells Clara, “You’ve explained me to him. You haven’t explained him to me.” But Danny turns it around on him, accusing him off being an “officer,” and goads the Doctor until he orders Danny to leave the TARDIS, barking the command just like an officer. Inevitably, we also see that sometimes a soldier is necessary to save the day, and the Doctor grudgingly accepts Clara’s relationship with Danny.

The episode is filled with clever lines and wonderful moments with Capaldi’s alien Doctor. (At one point he asks a girl if her name really is “disruptive influence.”) Clara is comically caught between her men, trying to maintain her Earth-bound relationship with Danny while trying to help the Doctor and keep her relationship with the Doctor a secret from Danny, and failing with both men. However, the thing that never clicked for me was the Clara/Danny relationship. Several episodes ago, when the two were meeting awkwardly for the first time, or having their disastrous first date, it was easy to believe that the two were starting out as a couple, getting to know one another. In “The Caretaker,” we’re supposed to believe that the two are well into their relationship, time having passed on Earth since they first met, yet the couple still seems very much at the beginning of a relationship. When Clara blurts out “Because I love him” to the Doctor in front of Danny, it seems forced.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Beyond the Rim

An update from my mid-May post in which I confessed to starting to watch Babylon 5. I made it through: five seasons and 111 episodes of Babylon 5, from the pilot/prequel “The Gathering” to “Sleeping in Light." I enjoyed the series immensely. The overall story arc(s) of the Shadow war, the Narn-Centauri war, and the tensions between Earth’s fascist regime and Babylon 5 (and the alien races) were all interesting. Contained within those longer plots were smaller story lines and a great deal of character development. To paraphrase The Incomparable podcast devoted to the series, in Babylon 5 actions have consequences for the characters as well as the story, and actions often lead to characters reassessing their views. Consistent with that, no major character is purely good or evil; shades of gray abound. Even the “big bad,” the Shadows, turn out to be something less than the embodiment of evil that we initially think they are, and the “angels,” the Vorlons, have their own agenda and, indeed, don’t speak with one voice.

As I had been warned, Season 5 itself was a bit of a mixed bag. When the series was threatened with cancellation after Season 4, creator and writer J. Michael Straczynski wrapped up the conflict with Earth at the end of Season 4, leading to the lack of a big story arc in Season 5 when the show was ultimately picked up. As a result, Season 5 has some minor story lines (the conflict with the telepaths, issues with the Centauri, attempts to hold the Alliance together) and a lot of filler, including, it seemed to me, the last three episodes.

That problem aside, I thought the series worked much better than any of the Star Trek series, all of which had a fairly static universe through which the main characters traveled, but no actions were ever truly consequential – partly the result of self-contained episodes written by a host of writers, rather than the series-long story arc of B5, written primarily by Strazinski.

As a completist, I bought the movies and the short-lived spin-off series Crusade. While I don’t have high expectations for either, I’ll give them a shot.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Doctor Who, "Time Heist"

After the creepy “Listen,” one might expect lighter fare for this week’s episode, and a title like “Time Heist” doesn’t do anything to dissuade one from that view. A sendup of bank robbery caper films such as The Lavender Hill Mob and Ocean’s Eleven (and the music seemed to have a hint of Mission: Impossible at one point), the Doctor and Clara find themselves inside the most impregnable bank in the universe - think of it as an interstellar Gringott’s - with two strangers. They’re all on a mission for “the Architect,” the mysterious mastermind of the operation. Yet all four have had portions of their memories wiped (by the memory worms we saw in “The Snowmen”) so they can’t remember how they got there, or why they would agree to participate in the mad scheme.

We get just a hint of the Clara/Danny relationship - the Doctor once again lands the TARDIS in Clara’s bedroom, and she’s about to go for dinner with Danny (she’s really wearing that on a date?), but for the most part the episode was firmly focused on the adventure.

I guessed the identity of the Architect fairly early, the monster had an unfortunate resemblance to the Minotaur from “The Horns of Nimon,” and the ending had more than a passing similarity to that of “Hide.” Quibbles aside, though, the episode was quite a romp, with a plot that twists time around until my head hurts (I think the plot created a paradox). I quite liked the fact that the two fellow robbers were bribed to be there with the thing that “mattered most” to each, and Capaldi was once again masterful.

This season is shaping up to be one of the best. Let’s hope that continues next week.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Doctor Who, "Listen"

(Hard to do this one without spoilers, so warning, massive spoilers below.)

The fourth episode of the season, “Listen,” written by showrunner Steven Moffat , is an unusual affair, very creepy, partly slapstick, and assuredly timey-wimey. I’m not yet sure what I think about it. At times, the episode seemed a little disjointed – perhaps intentionally so? At other times, we get more of the Clara-Danny Pink relationship and even some insight into the Doctor’s character, in addition to a plot that feeds off the childhood fear of something under the bed.

The episode starts with the Doctor musing to himself: what if there’s something so good at hiding that it only manifests itself when it wants to, something that is always with you, and that it’s the prickling you feel at the back of your neck, or the sensation that there’s something under the bed, ready to grab you by the ankle when you set your feet on the floor? We then cut to Clara and Danny, out on a date that quickly becomes disastrous. Clara storms out and returns home, only to find her way into her bedroom partially blocked by the TARDIS. The Doctor plugs Clara into the TARDIS’s telepathic circuits to move along Clara’s time line, but Clara is still thinking about her date and they arrive in Danny’s past, where young Mr. Pink encounters something underneath the blankets. From there, the Doctor returns Clara to the restaurant, where she tries to salvage the date, but once again things go wrong, culminating in the entrance of a man in a space suit. He turns out to be Danny’s great-grandson, an errant time traveler stranded at the end of the universe until the TARDIS rescues him. As if that weren’t enough, Clara’s next effort to use the telepathic circuits leads to a barn, presumably on Gallifrey, where Clara comforts a frightened boy – the Doctor as a child? – telling him that his fear isn’t a weakness but a strength.

There was a great deal to like about the episode, from the apparently star-crossed relationship between Clara and Danny – his inadvertent double entendres (“We can move straight to extras”) were particularly funny – to the realization that the barn with the young Doctor is the same barn that the War Doctor used for the Moment, to Clara telling the young Doctor that “fear is a superpower,” which the Doctor then echoes to young Danny. The episode had a number of straight-out funny moments, including the Doctor’s “bedtime story” to young Danny: “Once upon a time…goodnight,” as the Doctor touches Danny on the forehead, causing him to fall asleep instantly. The Doctor explains to Clara that the TARDIS is in the bedroom “In case you came home with your date,” as though the bedroom wouldn’t be in use in such a situation. And I loved the use of the toy soldier: in young Danny’s room, Clara uses toy soldiers to “protect” Danny from any monsters under the bed. When Danny observes that the one Clara designates as the leader is broken, and carries no gun, Clara replies that he’s obviously the leader, as he’s “so brave he doesn’t need a gun,” while later in the episode Clara gives the same toy soldier to the young Doctor.

I’m not a huge fan of the continual insults the Doctor heaps on Clara. (“You’ve taken your makeup off.” “No I haven’t.” “You must have missed a spot.”) I know this Doctor is more alien, less in touch with the social niceties that humans observe, but after a while it just sounds cruel.

My biggest problem with the episode is that there’s no real payoff to the main plot. The monsters under the bed aren’t real and, in fact, the dream that everyone has about monsters under the bed may just have been the result of the Doctor’s experience as a child.

Every piece I’ve read or podcast I’ve listened to about this season has commented on what an outstanding job Peter Capaldi has done in his role, and how, given a meatier role, Jenna Coleman has had a chance to shine, and I agree. Capaldi’s Doctor is curmudgeonly and funny, often simultaneously, and his conflicted nature – “Am I a good man?” – brings a welcome bit of soul-searching to the part. He has a much healthier contempt for humans (to wit: this episode’s line about “puny brains”) than his predecessor.  I thought Coleman, freed from the need to be the Impossible Girl and the endless banter with Eleven, has been outstanding this season.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Doctor Who, "Robot of Sherwood"

(Huh. Looks like I wrote this and forgot to post it. Oops.)

A dazzling but very meta episode, “Robot of Sherwood” turns the usual Doctor Who historical inside-out and meditates on what it means to be a hero.

The Doctor asks Clara where she wants to go, and Clara decides she wants to meet Robin Hood. Although the Doctor is adamant that Robin is a fictional character, he sets the TARDIS for Nottingham in 1190, whereupon they meet… Robin Hood and his band of outlaws. Eventually the group meets the evil Sheriff of Nottingham, whose henchmen turn out to be… well, the title says it, doesn’t it? Robin, Clara, and the Doctor are taken to a dungeon, whereupon the two men engage in a hilarious game of one-upmanship until Clara shushes them both. Naturally, there are escapes, evil plans, aliens, and derring-do, along with a casual insertion of this season’s story arc, the Promised Land.

The Doctor “deduces” that Robin must also be a robot, part of the Sheriff’s scheme to use the peasant population as slave labor in order to give the captives hope. The Sheriff points out how silly that idea is, so Robin must be real. Or is he? The episode never resolves that with any certainty. But Robin seems content when the Doctor tells him that only the legend, and not the man, is known to the future, and Robin points out how similar he and the Doctor are, both men trying to do the right thing in difficult circumstances. This is part of an ongoing theme to the season - this incarnation of the Doctor doubts himself and questions whether he really is a force for good. As Clara did in the previous episode, here Robin says it’s the intent and attempt that makes the hero, not necessarily the outcome.

The episode is very light-hearted, from the bantering between Robin and the Doctor (and their constant efforts to belittle the other) to the archery match between Robin and the Sheriff (and, ultimately, the Doctor) - at one point the Doctor’s arrow caroms off a chest plate and onto the target. Clara has less to do in this episode than in the first two, serving mainly as the damsel in distress for Robin and as potential consort material for the Sheriff. And the resolution of the main plot seemed a little…thin even for the usual Doctor Who hand-waving. Nonetheless, it was a fun episode, and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun, especially for Time Lords who have, in the past, occasionally taken themselves a bit too seriously.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

One Slightly Confused Rabbit

No, the title isn’t a metaphor. I came home from work, went to retrieve the trash can from the bottom of the driveway, only to see something start to cross the driveway. At first I thought it might be a chipmunk, but as I got closer I could see it was a baby rabbit.

2014 09 15 Baby bunny

(I tried getting some other object in the picture to show the size of the rabbit, but couldn’t manage it.)

The confused thing would run/hop a few steps, then stop, and finally came to what seemed like a permanent halt in the middle of the driveway. This didn’t seem like such a safe place, as two other houses share the driveway, so I tried to shoo the creature to the grass on one side or the other. No dice. I ended up grabbing a pair of outdoor gloves, picking him(?) up, and depositing the wriggling rabbit on the grass. Whereupon he made his way back to the driveway again. Okay, fine. I picked him up and moved him to the other side of the driveway, where he wandered about for a bit.

I went back inside, firmly refusing to think that a rabbit that size would make a nice snack for the hawks in the area...

Friday, September 12, 2014

Farewell to Macworld

I was working up to writing about something else - my approach to writing is akin to turning around the Queen Mary II; nothing happens quickly - when I saw the news that Macworld had discontinued its print edition and laid off much of its editorial staff. It's certainly a sad time for the talented people there who are looking for work, several of whom had just returned from a final hurrah at Apple's unveiling of the iPhone 6 and Apple Watch. It's also something of a sad time for me. I subscribed to Macworld years ago, when I had the original Macintosh, and re-subscribed in 2010 or so when I finally ditched my Windows PC for a MacBook. The magazine's sibling, PC World, discontinued its print edition some months back, and at the time I wondered if Macworld's print days were numbered. 

But here's the thing: much as I am happy to get a lot of my information from the Internet, which can provide news faster and cheaper than can print, I like magazines. They're the thing you can turn to sitting on the sofa with ten minutes to kill. You can refer back to them. You can use them in Internet dead zones, like much of the underground portion of the DC Metro. They're easy to stuff into a bag and carry for just such an emergency, and short articles mean not having to remember where you are in the plot, unlike carrying an emergency novel. I subscribe to a half-dozen magazines, and I used to buy a lot of single issues on the newsstand if something caught my eye. Not only are there fewer places to buy magazines these days, but the selection at, say, Barnes & Noble continually shrinks. Some hang on because a computer monitor doesn't do justice to the pictures: Scotland, and its siblingWhisky, are basically porn for Scottish scenery and booze, and wouldn't be the same in an on-line edition.

At any rate, print magazines seem to be a dying breed, and we're worse off for it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

New York City and the 9/11 Museum

Over Labor Day weekend I made one of my periodic pilgrimages to New York City. Although Fountain Pen Hospital is closed on weekends and holidays, and Art Brown’s is now closed permanently, I found other things to occupy my find beyond frittering away money on more pens.

One purpose of the trip was to visit the 9/11 Museum, located near the site of the World Trade Center towers and close to the Freedom Tower - or, as I like to call it, The Finger.

2014 08 30 Freedom Tower
The Finger, er, Freedom Tower

On the actual footprint of the towers stands the 9/11 memorial, an elegant pair of waterfalls.

2014 08 30 WTC Memorial
The 9/11 memorial

The museum is built into what was once the PATH station for the WTC site, and lies almost entirely underground. A good bit of the space is devoted to how the WTC towers were built, using cutting-edge construction techniques, including the first self-elevating cranes. The remainder of the space is dedicated to the events of September 11, 2001 and to the victims of the two terrorist attacks on the towers (the other was the bombing in 1993, which claimed six lives and injured over a thousand more). It’s a somber reminder of the evil in the world.

2014 08 30 9 11 Museum retaining wall
Retaining wall

2014 08 30 9 11 Museum antenna
Antenna

2014 08 30 9 11 Museum trident
One of the steel tridents from the facade of the building

2014 08 31 Central Park formal garden
Flowers in the Central Park formal garden, off 104th St.

2014 08 31 Sin Will Find You Out
Sin Will Find You Out

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Doctor Who, "Into the Dalek"

The second episode of the season starts with a bang - a fighter spaceship destroyed by Daleks, as the Doctor rescues one of the two occupants a moment beforehand. Before you know it, the Doctor has agreed to be miniaturized and sent inside a damaged Dalek. Shades of “Fantastic Voyage”! Meanwhile, Clara is introduced to and immediately hits on Danny Pink, a new teacher at the Coal Hill school and a former soldier.

There’s a lot going on in the episode, from the Doctor’s question to Clara: “Am I a good man?” to the efforts of the miniaturized crew first to repair the Dalek and then to convince the Dalek that it need not seek only to exterminate life. Add to that the budding romance between Clara and Danny, a brief reappearance of Missy and “heaven” from the previous episode, the Doctor’s unhappiness with soldiers (and, implicitly, how that will affect his reaction to Danny), and what goodness means in a universe filled with morally gray choices, and one can see that no episode can possibly do justice to everything.

What gives way in “Into the Dalek” is the plot. Doctor Who gets away with a great deal of faux science through appeals to jargon and offhanded witty remarks. That works when the rest of the plot is solid, but here the jargon and witty remarks merely underscore the Ghost in the Machine nature of the story: our tiny heroes climb upward through the Dalek casing, to the cerebral cortex, where Clara pushes some buttons that - presto! - reveal suppressed memories and the Doctor talks to the Dalek as though the latter is an errant schoolboy. Things don’t work out as planned, but work out well enough that there will be an episode next week.

That’s not to say there weren’t some excellent moments in the episode. Danny initially rejects Clara’s offer of a date, and we see his after-the-fact response that he realizes he should have made - only to find that Clara has been listening all along. “How much of that have you heard?” he asks. “More than you would like,” she replies, a grin on her face. At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor carries two coffees - which turn out to be the coffees that he went to fetch in Glasgow at the end of “Deep Breath,” only it’s now three weeks later for Clara. He continues to make rude remarks about Clara’s appearance, but cares enough that he returns her to the school only 30 seconds after she left - in time for Danny to wonder how she changed clothes that quickly.

An interesting, if not entirely successful, sophomore outing for the Twelfth Doctor.

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

Antietam

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.

2014 07 19 11 01 26
Maryland memorial

2014 07 19 11 02 07
Dunker Church

2014 07 19 11 44 26
Burnside’s Bridge

2014 07 19 11 45 24
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.