06 April 2014

The perfect franchise

One cannot help but notice that the mediasphere has become filled with sequels, remakes, reboots, and adaptations of old classics. It's tempting to lament the failure of originality, but the fetish for originality is actually a modern phenomenon; for most of human history, storytelling has been story re-telling, and I have a great love of an old story re-told well. Some of the greatest writers of all time — Shakespeare, Homer, the Jawhist, Murasaki Shikibu — were mostly re-tellers.

Like it or not, we seem to be stuck with it. For a host of reasons, media companies want franchises they can milk for years of sequels, prequels, spin-offs, and crossovers. It makes things easier to create and easier to sell. A strong entry in a franchise doesn't just sell itself, it sells the franchise as a whole.

The advantages are not only crassly commercial but artistic, as a franchise can build something real and interesting: consider how the Jason Bourne movies with Matt Damon were able to do some surprisingly interesting things with their interlocking narrative.

A while back I had a realization about what makes these things successful. Let's do a little thought experiment into what would make the perfect franchise.

A known quantity

It's best if the franchise is already known to people. It saves a lot of trouble marketing the material if people have already heard of it and have some positive associations with it.

Example: Tarzan. Everybody's heard of him and knows his basic story. Bring him onstage, and people are already bought in.

All kinds of fans

Ideally, you want a franchise that most people vaguely know and like, many people know well and like a lot, and a few people know intimately and love passionately. Each of element of the fandom provides its own benefits to the material. The not-quite-fans give you the advantages of being a known quantity, providing a bit of a head start in selling the material. The casual fans give you the advantage of a minimum baseline of audience: unless you really screw up, they can be counted on to show up to buy in. The hardcore fans are a mixed blessing: they can be fickle, but if you do a bit of work to please them they will work hard to generate buzz for you ... and buy up all the directors' cuts and collectibles and ancillary materials you can invent.

Example: Star Trek. Just about everybody has seen a bit of Trek, and most people have at least a little soft spot for it. Plus there's a big body of people who grew up on it and have a lot of affection for it and will give any new Trek offering a try ... and there's a core fandom that is notoriously enthusiastic.

Multi-media opportunities

Ideally, you don't want just a series of movies or just a TV show. You want to be able to make movies and a TV show and books and comics and video games and on and on.

Example: Star Wars, which has even been adapted to radio.

A range of possible scales

If you want to go multi-media, that means that you want to be able to make big blockbuster movies with lots of big budget razzle-dazzle or cheaply-produced television shows.

Example: Dracula can be done as a simple play enacted on a single set, or an elaborate costume drama with spectacular special effects.

Merchandizing opportunities

Indeed, you don't just want stories in various media, you want to be able to sell stuff: toys and t-shirts and jewelry and mouse pads and Hallowe'en costumes and collectable Pez dispensers and on and on.

Example: Batman. You can sell the Batsymbol on anything.

Age range

Ideally you want something that doesn't just give you variants that appeal to either children or adults, but that actually gets you both at once.

Example: The Muppets. Their multi-layered appeal reaches little kids and bigger kids and adults ... and adults are now drawn in not just by their goofy charm but also by nostalgia.

Strong characters

You want a franchise anchored by characters which have a strong presence as characters ... in part because you want them to have a life beyond the actors who play them. Ideally you want a built-in ensemble of several characters.

Example: Robin Hood. Any dashing, handsome actor can play him. (Heck, these days you could cast an actress as Robin Hood and it would be even better. Somebody should get on that, actually.) And he comes with a whole supporting cast of cool and familiar characters, including some great villains.

Appealing roles for actors

For those movies and TV shows, you want good actors to take the roles, which makes it help if the roles are ones that actors want to play.

Example: James Bond. Who doesn't want to play him ... or better yet, to ham it up as a Bond villain? Plus there are legions of sexy actresses — both good actors or just good-looking ones — who will line up to boost their careers or have some fun with a role.

Appealing material for backstage creators

Material that writers and artists and directors love have an inherent advantage in attracting the talent to make the next entry in the franchise a success.

Example: Star Wars again. The world is full of filmmakers, animators, sculptors, painters, and countless other artists who were inspired to take up their art by seeing Star Wars as kids, and would kill to get a chance to contribute to it as adults.

A tested framework

Re-telling a familiar story gives you the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of other tellings, borrowing from those experiments into what worked and what didn't.

Example: Superman. There have been 75 years of writers trying all kinds of crazy stuff with Superman. We know a lot about what you can and cannot do with a Superman story.

A range of possible stories

Many franchises are committed to a single tone, but some franchises are a big stage on which there's the opportunity to tell all kinds of stories.

Example: Star Trek again. Part of what was crafty about the original series was that each week the show went to a new planet that could be anything, making it possible to deliver a horror story about a monster one week, a military drama about submarine warfare the next, a political allegory the next. The original series even included a comedy about Chicago gangsters.

A big backlog

It helps if you have a lot of material already done in one medium that you can adapt to another medium.

Example: Tolkien. When Peter Jackson went to adapt The Lord of the Rings to film, the biggest challenge was trimming it down to a trilogy of long films. And when it came time to go back to the well, it was easy to create another overstuffed trilogy. And there's plenty more where that came from.

A big, interesting universe

Setting can be as much a character as the characters; a sufficiently interesting setting can in fact be more interesting than the story itself. Experiencing and exploring a setting can be a driver in and of itself, and creates a lot of opportunities for fun ancillary stuff in the franchise.

Example: Harry Potter. The Hogwarts School alone is a treasure trove of an interesting setting, but the Harry Potter world as a whole is expansive and delightful, with magic to learn about, creatures to encounter, and endless interesting people, places, and institutions.

I'm going somewhere with this.

The examples of franchises I've pointed to all have some of those virtues, but of course none have all of them. James Bond is fun and actor-friendly and offers a lot of opportunity for spectacle, but there's a narrow range of kinds of stories to tell. Star Trek lets you tell a lot of stories, and has a great relationship with fans, but frankly other than Spock and Data, the characters are not that interesting. Robin Hood gives you a great ensemble of characters, and there are literally centuries of retellings refining how to use them so we really know what works, but the Robin Hood universe is small, and there's only so many stories to tell.

But there's one franchise that has it all. Plus a couple of magic ingredients.

Which is why Marvel Studios is poised for world conquest.

Magic ingredient #1: Superheroes

I read a screenwriter saying once that Hollywood had figured out that love stories are the cheese topping of storytelling. You can take almost anything and make it better by stirring in a love story. Cowboys & romance. Spies & romance. Corporate intrigue & romance.

It turns out that superheroes are the same way. Tired of those old WWII movies? Mix in Captain America and all those old tropes are fresh and fun again! Never want to see another movie about a middle-aged guy wrestling with his mortality and his drinking problem? You do if he's also Iron Man! Bored of brothers fighting each other over who will inherit the throne? Give one of 'em a red cape and a magic hammer!

Superheroes are silly, but they're fun, and they go with anything. Which brings us to ....

Magic ingredient #2: The Marvel Universe

Everything that Marvel publishes takes place in the same universe. They've been publishing dozens of comics a month for decades, making it the biggest fictional universe ever created, with more named characters than Balzac and more stories than anyone could read in a lifetime. When I was a teenager, they took their in-house index that they used to keep track and started publishing an encyclopedia that ran to well over a thousand entries.

Along the way they've figured out how to make a gonzo everything-including-the-kitchen-sink sensibility work. The Avengers film — in which you have a Norse god, Howard Hughes in a flying robot suit, a spy femme fatale, Robin Hood in sunglasses, a WWII soldier, and Dr. Jeckll transformed into a big green version of Mr. Hyde fight off an alien invasion — is only scratching the surface of what the Marvel sensibility can do. There are sorcerers fighting off demons from Hell, vast empires of space aliens at war with each other, vampires and vampire hunters, cowboys and detectives and mad scientists, giant monsters from deep beneath the Earth, secret kingdoms in every corner of the globe, powerful cosmic entities from before time meddling in human evolution, and much, much more. And you can mix them together to make all kinds of wacky cocktails: when I was a teenager the X-Men fought off a goblin invasion of New York City with a little help from the Ghostbusters.

It's goofy and fun and a huge canvas, and now they've built the brand to bring it all before a general audience. How many people saw the trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy with its jokey style, weird space aliens, and a gun-toting raccoon and thought what the heck? ... and then saw the Marvel logo and thought, “Okay, maybe that sounds like fun”? The only other folks who have earned that kind of trust with strange ideas is Pixar ... and they don't have a vast back-catalogue of stories to tell that they've already tried.

So when I saw the other day that Marvel Studios has plans for a decade's worth of movie releases, I was not at all surprised. It's been evident for a while that they are playing a very long game.

30 March 2014

Don't panic

At this moment, one of the communities in which I have an investment is going through a wrenching conversation on the internet about some awful news. Long-unspoken troubles are being voiced, old wounds are being re-opened, and hard questions are being asked, and there's anger and pain all around.

Commenting on it, Crystal Blanton made a plea for patience and compassion that any community would do well to remember when the internet firestorm comes.

I have seen people acting out their pain, and their past, all over the internet after this news came out. We see this all the time in other ways, I was just really hoping not to see it in the […] community. I know that we are a microcosm of the macro society that we live in, but I was hoping we would be able to bypass some of the pain that we project outward when we are holding so much pain inside.

I find that when incidents like this happen in society it can be a catalyst to tear one another apart, or a bridge that we use in order to learn. The reality is that we need to to work through the pain and challenges so that we can build a future that works for us all. The […] community is no different than the struggles within the macro of society, and the work required takes just as much time and effort to effect change.

After coming home the other day, I wrote a facebook status about things I feel it is important for us to remember while we are going through this road from shock to healing, and then to action. I will re-post what I wrote, in hopes that it is something that will help us all in these moments.

“So…. while we are all dealing with this whole crazy stuff that we were alerted to today, I want to ask for a couple things from all my […] folk. At least to consider.

  • Let us be gentle with each other. We are not the enemy here….
  • When people are in a state of shock, we don’t always process things clearly in the moment.
  • When people feel betrayed, the response is often anger or sadness coupled with anger.
  • Those closest to said person […] are going through their own process to reconcile who they thought they knew and what they are being told. This is a hard process, and sometimes can sound like being an apologist…. but isn’t exactly.
  • Let’s be careful not to assume anyone is an apologist…. this shit is confusing.
  • Many, many, many people are triggered by this. When we are triggered, we often react instead of respond.
  • So many people are hurt when things like this happen. Varying degrees of hurt…. and all hurt is important.
  • Mudslinging covers up what is underneath. This isn’t the time to mud-sling… this is a time to be gentle with one another.
  • We all miscommunicate, speak before thinking, react before filtering sometimes. It is a chance to be understanding and to be understood.
  • Community counts when the shit hits the fan, not just when it is all roses.
  • We don’t all have to think the same…. it is not a reason to bring in the machete.
  • Did I mention to be gentle with each other?

Holding space for all the grieving, triggering, confusion, and chaos might make it workable for us to recover. We just have to learn to be present in the hardest of times, when we are all trying to make sense of things that do not make sense. We all deserve the chance to do that.

Donna Haraway on duality

One of my favorite paragraphs ever. From A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.

The evidence is building of a need for a theory of “difference” whose geometries, paradigms, and logics break out of binaries, dialectics, and nature/culture models of any kind. Otherwise, threes will always reduce to twos, which quickly become lonely ones in the vanguard. And no one learns to count to four. These things matter politically.

26 March 2014

Free speech

Ellen Willis on how free speech can be rough on the oppressed, but also liberating.

Symbolic expression, however forceful, leaves a space between communicator and recipient, a space for contesting, fighting back with one’s own words and images, organizing to oppose whatever action the abhorred speech may incite. Though speech may, and often does, support the structure of domination, whether by lending aid and comfort to the powerful or frightening and discouraging their targets, in leaving room for opposition it falls short of enforcing submission. For this reason the unrestrained clash of ideas, emotions, visions provides a relatively safe model — one workable even in a society marked by serious imbalances of power — of how to handle social conflict, with its attendant fear, anger, and urges to repress, through argument, persuasion, and negotiation (or at worst grim forbearance) rather than coercion. In the annals of human history, even this modest exercise in freedom is a revolutionary development; for the radical democrat it prefigures the extension of freedom to other areas of social life.

Hat tip to Corey Robin for the find.

25 March 2014


I have been joking that Darren Aronofsky's forthcoming film Noah is a film for which I may be the only audience. I'm ethnically Jewish, a former atheist, and a Modern Pagan, with a fascination with the whole range of religions and myth. I love the Torah stories, though I read them with an idiosyncratic cocktail of Jewish, Pagan, literary, and comparative-myth sensibilities. I'm also a cinephile with a taste for eccentric films about mythic stories and religious experience: The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Baraka, Jesus of Montreal, and so forth; I'm the kind of guy who asks “why would you make the Illiad without the gods and Achilles and Patroclus as Just Good Friends? (a.k.a. Troy)” On top of that, I'm a bit of a fan of Darren Aronofsky: I've seen all of his films in the theaters during their original runs (including π!) and though I think one has to admit that his work is as interesting for its flaws as for the way it works, he and I seem to be cut from similar cloth and so I like his filmmaking sensibility.

One of the challenges in thinking about the stories of the Bible is how the stories are woven so deeply into our culture that we have a hard time seeing them with fresh eyes. But we have many different versions of these stories living in our collective imagination. When I spent some time hanging around with Evangelical Christians in college, back when I was an atheist, I was struck by the Bible storybooks they gave to their kids, which were so radically different from austere Jewish Bible storybooks I had grown up with. And even if you're not a religious person, there's a kind of pop Bible of our shared culture, with cartoon versions of Adam & Eve with the apple, Noah in his big boat with giraffe heads sticking out a window, and so forth.

When I read the stories of the Torah, there's an aspect they present of being the stories of Iron Age desert people retelling the stories of their Bronze Age ancestors, set in a world of shepherds and rivalrous tribes and weary travelers stopping at wells and terrifying angels and so forth. But to see it, you have to look past the parts of the stories we are prone to retell and focus more on the forgotten weird details. There's not just the Tree Of Knowledge in Eden, there's the Tree Of Life. There's not just Lot's wife, there's his daughters. There's not just Noah's dove, there's also his raven. I love that stuff. And Aronofsky has talked a lot about including as much of it as he can in Noah.

That Biblical world — grubby and strange and rich in mystery, but still alive with recognizable human passion — is fascinating to me, and most Biblical movies are too reverential and tidy to show it to us. I'm excited to see Aronofsky's attempt to depict it, and what themes it can convey.

19 March 2014


They use mind control. They kidnap children to be trained as janissaries. They support a galactic hegemonic order which includes slavery. They lie to their students. When their best friends are dismembered and on fire by their hand, they do not deliver the mercy blow.

They even use their telekinetic powers to cheat at dice.

And as for Yoda's alleged “wisdom”, has he ever been known to say anything that wasn't a lie, or bad judgment, or both?

10 March 2014


For future reference: that comic strip explaining the spurious origins of the “research” supposedly demonstrating that the measles vaccine causes autism.

08 March 2014

The Secret Of Comedy

Tweets from @dys_morphia last night:

Saw “Talkies” at the basement of Lost Weekend Video tonight, a mix of stand up and sketch comedy, really fucking good.
Some of the pieces were better than others, as is always the case.
At their best the sketch pieces were transcendent. I mean they took their concept, explored it, pushed it to it's edge, and went past it.
Commitment was the word of the day. Commitment to the comedic concept, to the awkward moment, to social critique, to being fully present.
This is what I was talking yesterday about with what The Pizza Underground lacked.
The Pizza Underground
a Brief Review

1st you may have heard that the PU sing Velvet Underground songs but about pizza.

Not really true.
The Pizza Underground sing song medlies of Velvet Underground songs but about pizza.
So if you go in, like me, hoping to hear a full version of one of the songs they tantalizingly use in their online promos, you won't.
Perhaps pizza is not a rich enough thematic element to sustain through the length of an entire VU song.
Which is fair enough. I don't really want to hear a true to length 17 minute pizza based Parody of Sister Ray. But why not Venus in Furs?
The Pizza Underground didn't try to go beyond verisimilitude, humor, and fan service. It is just a technically able parody band.
I know I sound a bit like a hater, but any art done all the way, pushed to its edges, can transcend its form. Even a VU pizza themed band.
This Velvet Underground pizza themed novelty band does not transcend its form. I wasn't really expecting it to, but I always have hope.
This is what I was talking yesterday about with what The Pizza Underground lacked.
My favorite pieces were Scott Vermeer's “Sensuous Jazz” and the Imaginary Radio's brother reconciliation piece.
Both pieces dealt with authority, masculine vulnerability, uncomfortable sexual interactions, and heteronormative expectations.
Obviously without those actual words, but that's what was happening. I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt and my stomach hurt.
This is how comedy can be when it's good. This is why I have little patience for comedy that relies on bigoted tropes to be funny.
Comedy can tear apart reality and spill its strange guts then paint jokes on the wall with its rainbow blood.

The thing about commitment reminds me of a story.

I took my mother to see Teatro Zinzani, which is a terrific circus arts dinner theatre thing we have in San Francisco.

There was a bit where the “chef” came out and did a clown act with food. He's throwing eggs and knives around, et cetera, dressed like a chef. He takes whole loaves of Wonder bread and squishes them into balls and juggles them. He juggles raw cornish game hens, their wings wiggling comically.

For the end of the act, he asks if anyone in the audience can juggle. Of course some poor guy gets volunteered by the other folks at his table. So the chef teaches him how to juggle raw chickens. This is going to lead to an understanding of the Secret Of Comedy, he promises. To make it extra funny, you bounce the chicken off your forehead. Wiggle wiggle wiggle go the wings and legs. Everybody is laughing. Then the chef teaches the volunteer how to make a Wonder bread ball. Then he breaks out some tubs of butter and they scoop out big balls of butter and juggle those. Then they're juggling all three: chicken, butter, bread.

The chef gets them bouncing the chicken off their foreheads when the chicken is in the air. He says that they are now ready to reveal the Secret Of Comedy. He throws the bread, whoosh. He throws the butter, glop. He throws the chicken, wiggle-bounce-wiggle. Whoosh, glop, wiggle-bounce-wiggle, whoosh, glop, wiggle-bounce-wiggle, whoosh, glop, wiggle-bounce-wiggle, whoosh ...

glop “Are you” wiggle-bounce-wiggle “ready to” whoosh “learn the” glop “secret of” wiggle-bounce-wiggle “comedy?” whoosh “Yes!” glop-splat!

The chef “accidentally” bounces the ball of butter off of his forehead. It doesn't bounce, it just sticks there.

“Commitment,” says the chef. The audience is whooping and laughing.

The volunteer doesn't do it. The audience boos. The chef gives the volunteer a look. The audience laughs. The volunteer still doesn't do it. The audience boos. The chef shrugs in disappointment. The audience laughs. The voluteer puts down the bread, butter, and chicken. The audience boos. The chef says, again, “Commitment.” The audience laughs.

Lesson learned.

05 March 2014

Litany for a consultant

Written for a colleague sweating work left undone.

The scope of the project is never more than what you can do in the time available.

If you deliver a perfect document free of typos, you have prioritized the use of your time incorrectly.

The scope of a project is equal to what you can do in the time the client paid for. You offered them a more comprehensive project; the client chose not to buy that project.

Part of the profession is knowing which problems aren't worth taking the time it would take to fix them.

The scope of the project is not what the client needs, it's what the client bought. You already told them what they need.

Things will go wrong whatever you do. Skill is choosing which problems are best to risk.

The client counts on your sense of professionalism to get you to do more work than they paid for. Don't fall in love with the john.

Always tell the client the truth. When they don't want you to tell them the truth, remind them that telling them the truth they don't want to hear is what they pay you to do.

That includes telling the truth about what they chose to buy from you.

The scope of the project is equal to the best you can do in the time you agreed to.

02 March 2014

Media representation, racism, and competence

Arthur Chu, the guy who got flak on the internet for being too good at the TV game show Jeopardy!, has some astute words about the logic of racist media representation:

That said, stereotypes aren’t so much about people totally projecting things that completely aren’t there but about people having a framework with which they interpret things that actually are there. It’s not that racism causes people to see (for example) belligerent teenage boys where there are none, but that a white belligerent teenage boy is just seen as himself while a black belligerent teenage boy is part of a pattern, a script, and when people blindly follow the scripts in their head that leads to discrimination and prejudice.

So yeah, it is a fact, I think, that I was a bit off-putting in my Jeopardy! appearance — hyper-focused on the game, had an intense stare, clicked madly on the buzzer, spat out answers super-fast, wasn’t too charming in the interviews, etc.

But this may have taken root in people’s heads because I’m an Asian and the “Asian mastermind” is a meme in people’s heads that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Look, we all know that there’s a trope in the movies where someone of a minority race is flattened out into just being “good at X” and that the white protagonist is the one we root for because unlike the guy who’s just “good at X” the protagonist has human depth, human relationships, a human point of view — and this somehow makes him more worthy of success than the antagonist who seems to exist just to be good at X.

So we root for Rocky against black guys who, by all appearances, really are better boxers than he is, because unlike them Rocky isn’t JUST a boxer, he has a girlfriend, he has hopes, he has dreams, etc. This comes up over and over again in movies where the athletic black competitor is set up as the “heel” — look at the black chick in Million Dollar Baby and how much we’re pushed to hate her. Look at all this “Great White Hope” stuff, historically, with Joe Louis.

So is it any surprise that this trope comes into play with Asians? That the Asian character in the movie is the robotic, heartless, genius mastermind who is only pure intellect and whom we’re crying out to be defeated by some white guy who may not be as brainy but has more pluck, more heart, more humanity? It’s not just Flash Gordon vs. Ming the Merciless, it’s stuff like how in the pilot episode of Girls Hannah gets fired in favor of an overachieving Asian girl who’s genuinely better at her job than she is (the Asian girl knows Photoshop and she doesn’t) and we’re supposed to sympathize with Hannah.

Okay, here’s one more comment from the Internet that kind of encapsulates it. The kind of un-self-awareness of what someone is saying when they say they’d prefer I not win because I try too hard at the game, work too hard at it, care too much about it, and that they’d prefer that a “likable average Joe” win.

This is disturbing because it amounts to basically an attack on competence, a desire to bust people who work very hard and have very strong natural gifts down in favor of “likable average Joes” — and it’s disturbing because the subtext is frequently that to be “likable” and “average” you have to have other traits that are comforting and appealing to an “average Joe” audience, like white skin and an American accent.

01 March 2014

A vocabulary of the political spectrum

As someone with a weakness for political discussion, I am often frustrated by people who have a very confused vocabulary for talking about the range of political views from left to right. The classic error is conservatives who refer to President Obama as a “radical leftist”. But such sloppy rhetoric is nearly as common from liberals, and perhaps even more common among eccentrics who like to style themselves as off the conventional spectrum altogether.

I will grant that language for describing the political spectrum is necessarily a bit mushy, in large part because the spectrum itself is a blunt tool for organizing categories of political thought. One dimension is of course insufficient to describe the universe of possible political stances. But the left-right axis has its uses and turns up in discussions all of the time, so if we are going to use it we should get as much clarity in it as we can.

In this post don't want dig into defining the the difference between left and right. That is a big subject which many people have examined thoughtfully and at length. I have a collection of links to my favorite pieces doing that (including one of my own).

Instead, I want to look at the language for talking about where in the range one might place a person's philosophy. What makes the difference between moderates and radicals? Between the hard right and the far right? Between liberals and leftists? These distinctions have an inherent slipperiness, but people I regard as sophisticated use them in a pretty consistent way, and I'd like to explain it so I can refer to it in other discussions. I'll reference specific examples from American politics, but I think this language is applicable enough in other contexts as well.

Moderates are people committed to one side or the other, but not perfectly consistently, such that they support some policies from the other side. In principle, politicians tend to be moderates (though at the moment in Congress, the Republican Party has driven out a lot of its moderates, and moderates look a little thin in the Democratic Party ranks too). A liberal who opposes gun control or a conservative who opposes the war on drugs may be described as a moderate. These days, conservatives further to the right like to describe moderate conservatives as RINOs (“Republicans in name only”), while liberals further to the left call moderate liberals “Blue Dog Democrats”. Occasionally one may also hear “liberal Republican” and “conservative Democrat”, to refer to people's place on the mini-spectrum within the party.

The wing, as in “the ‘left wing’ of the Democratic Party”, are people who are fully committed to the philosophy of their axis and believe that our existing institutions are the right place to focus their political energies. They want to win elections so that government can implement their policies without needing to compromise significantly with the other side. On the right, these folks are often referred to as “movement conservatives”, on the left, these folks are generally just called “liberals”.

The hard left and right believe in participating in conventional political institutions (like elections, government, and the two major parties) but also believe in the importance of working within those institutions to change the institutions themselves if their philosophy is to be fully enacted. Someone on the hard right may want a dramatic re-interpretation of the First Amendment, or even a new Constitutional Amendment, to recognize that the United States is a Christian nation. Someone on the hard left may want a Constitutional Amendment to counter the Citizens United decision on free speech and corporate campaign donations, or to dismantle most of the military-industrial complex. On the right, this includes the “Tea Party”, “religious right”, some(*) “libertarians”, and some “movement conservatives”. On the left, these folks are generally called “progressives”.

Radicals believe that it is almost pointless to engage within conventional political institutions, that the only meaningful political action is revolutionary change to the institutions themselves. This reflects the of the word “radical”, which literally means “striking at the root”. Someone on the radical left may want to dismantle capitalism. Someone on the radical right may want to dismantle the Federal government's power over the States and dramatically strengthen the independence of county government. On the left, these folks are generally called “leftists”. On the right, these folks may be “Christian Dominionists”, some “libertarians”, “Patriots” or “Three Percenters”, and so forth.

The extremists of the far left and right are radicals whose philosophies are eccentric enough that the hard left and right completely reject them. A progressive may be sympathetic to a radical leftist who thinks that we should put an end to the legal fiction of limited liability corporations, allowing only worker-owned collectives ... but will be horrified by the far left Maoist who says that we should murder the plutocrats in their beds and declare a dictatorship of the proletariat. A person in the Christian Right may be sympathetic to the radical Dominionist who says that only Christians should be permitted to hold public office ... but will be horrified by the Klansman who says that we should put Jews, Muslims, and atheists to death. This departure from the ordinary discourses of liberalism and conservatism means that it can be hard to place these folks on the left/right axis.

*: Since I know it will come up, a quick word about libertarians, who commonly argue that they don't belong on the left-right axis at all. Many libertarians hold that libertarianism is a peer to liberalism and conservatism, and others protest the common presumption that libertarianism is a species of conservatism by pointing to the left-libertarian tradition. These folks have a point, though I think that generally libertarians protest too much ... a question which is more complex than I want to get into in this post. But I think my mentions of libertarians above are fair in that many folks who call themselves “libertarians” can be identified unmistakably as a species of conservatives.

27 February 2014

Nutrition information label

So today designers have been looking at FDA nutrition information labels. The FDA have proposed an improvement of the existing label:

Not too shabby. But like a lot of people, I like to think about the proportions between carbs, protein, and fat I'm getting in what I eat. Figuring that out requires math, since a gram of protein or carbohydrate has four calories, but a gram of fat has nine. So it would be nice to also show that:

I also snipped off the “Nutrition Facts” caption at the top because, duh.

But having started tinkering, I was annoyed by a common bad information design pattern: the captions for the different nutrients are displayed stronger than the amounts. That's the opposite of what you want: the emphasis should be on the data. Once I succumbed to the temptation to reverse that, I got a little carried away.

I tried to make the “Calories” header do double duty for the total and the column I've added on the right, but that could use some more finesse. Maybe this needs more than fifteen minutes' experimentation.

25 February 2014

A crackpot theory about crackpot theories

One of my whiskey rants when talking about Weird Stuff is how I suspect that the aliens which supposedly crashed near Roswell, New Mexico were probably an invention of US Air Force disinformation as a kind of “false bottom” concealing the real secret of the crash of one of Project Mogul's experimental spy balloons. If folks found evidence of the cover-up of Project Mogul, the trail would lead them first to “evidence” of space aliens, thereby leading would-be investigators to either dismiss the story or follow the wrong story and discredit themselves.

Since this is at least plausible, one might go on to suspect that UFO conspiracy culture as a whole could be an example of what the CIA used to call a “Mighty Wurlitzer”: a self-sustaining ecosystem of propaganda organs which, once built up, generates its own material but can also be used to inject propaganda ideas into a society. The spooks don't need to control everything in the media, as the truly paranoid would imagine; they just need to water the garden a little and plant a few invasive species.

I've stumbled across a blog post with a similar thesis, grounded in that amazing article from Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations which has been making the rounds. Greenwald publishes slides from a presentation used by the Government Communications Headquarters, UK's equivalent to the NSA, talking about the dirty tricks they use to manipulate online communities.

And now we get to the really freaky stuff. I honestly was not expecting to see this ...

Why do UFO images appear in a GCHQ document about deception, magic tricks and social control? Obviously, the people who put this document together do not believe in aliens. This ain't about that. This presentation is about the manipulation of large numbers of people. It's about deception.


I'd give a lot to know the context. Just what did the presenter say about the preceding flying saucer photographs? How do they tie into the theme of control?

My suggestion: Ufology, unimportant in and of itself, is a testing ground for deception tactics. If those tactics prove effective in that arena, they may be imported into the “real” world and put to serious use.


24 February 2014

Lady Gaga and the Posthuman Groteque

I am reminded again of this unforgettable reflection on what Lady Gaga means. Note that it is from 2009.

While the rest of the world spirals into economic degradation, environmental pestilence and complete systems failure of ALL of the old world models, Lady Gaga reigns above the flames. Pay attention to the lesson: Lady Gaga is the ONLY person prospering in this cultural climate. Therefore she has done something RIGHT. She is the necessary evolutionary adaptation to our times and THIS is why people are disturbed by her: This is what we must all become.

23 February 2014

The difference between taking offense and being insulted

Someone may find something you say offensive. You may think they were wrong to take offense.

You may have good reasons to think that they are wrong. They may have misinterpreted the plain meaning of what you meant. It happens. They may be informed by an assumption that is factually wrong. It happens. They may have assumed that you were informed by something you didn't know. It happens. There's other reasons why someone may be wrong to be offended.

Many people try to just dismiss anyone taking offense at what they've said by trying to “clarify”. That's shenanigans, but it does not mean that opening a dialogue about whether a comment was rightly offensive is necessarily wrong. If there truly was a misunderstanding, correcting it makes the world a better place.

But if you knew that people would take offense — even wrongly — then you have deliberately chosen to offend them. The term for this is an “insult”.

One might rightly debate whether the comment was offensive in such a situation. But there is no question that the comment was an insult.