Monday, March 31, 2008

Go-go Ape

Dennis Stock, 1967, via Magnum.



Parric wheeled away as the moironteau spilled out of the gap. There were too many to outrun to the next gap--not with two wings struggling to keep the voilently fighting Flavius wrapped up and safe. He'd have to wait them out inside a dimensional pocket.

Quickly he Crafted a pocket ahead, a small one, unobtrusive and all but impossible to detect. The narrow opening flickered, a faint warping of light. An instant later, Parric was inside, curling tight and wrapping the pocket in on itself to close it off from the pursuers.

Parric breathed heavily, listening for sounds of pursuit even though he knew such things were impossible. He'd wrapped the dimensional pocket too tightly--not even stray photons were finding their way in to the hiding place. Parric grumbled to himself. He'd been more thoughtful with his earlier pocket, keeping it loose enough to afford easy observation of the external world. But he hadn't been pursued by a swarm of moironteau then, either, had he?

Flavius kicked then, a nasty jab right in Parric's recently-healed ribs. Parric squeezed roughly, as much to express his displeasure as to hamper Flavius' efforts to retrieve the dirk he always wore in his belt. A muffled stream of invective answered Parric's efforts.

The dimensional pocket abruptly lurched. Parric snapped alert, his antennae splayed wide. The pocket shuddered, sluffed sickeningly to one side, them snapped open.

Three moironteau stood at opposite angles, half their combined footheads gripping the edges of the dimensional pocket with row upon row of dagger-like teeth, pulling the haven apart. The fourth waited for the flushed quarry.

Parric sprang forward in an instant, throwing a hastily-Crafted prismatic distortion ahead of him. It wasn't well-Crafted, but it was enought to force the fourth moironteau to strike wildly as Parric shot past. The three released the edges of the dimensional pocket to pursue, and almost as an afterthought Parric reached back and nudged it forward. The pocket snapped closed over the fourth, it's massive footheads vanishing into a shimmering ripple of nothing.

It would take at least for the few moments for the moironteau to fight its way free of the pocket. But there were still three other monsters in pursuit. Parric located the next-closest gap and made for it.

Before he'd covered half the distance, a new moironteau emerged from the gap. And another. Parric veered away only to find more moironteau popping up all across the battlefield.

"Is every gap being guarded?" Parric sputtered in exasperation.

Nearly thirty monstrous moironteau churned across the battlefield, all converging on Parric. The strangling smoke thinned as the measured, disciplined gunfire faltered and dwindled to a the occasional random shot. The charging highlanders had long since broken and scattered in the face of these new, hellish scourges of war. The orderly English lines had collapsed into a chaotic mass panic. The powerful artillery batteries sat silent, abandoned. Cavalry horses spooked and fled, carrying their hapless riders along. The moironteau crushed and stomped their way through the overmatched soldiers, the toothy footheads flinging blood and body parts this way and that.

A handful of the moironteau clambered into the sky, angling to cut Parric off from above. Others moved to intercept his flight path, to block his escape even as others closed on him from behind and the sides.

Flavius began thrashing again, forcing Parric to dip dangerously close the ground before recovering a moment later. An English footman reacted too slowly, suffering a snapped neck as Parric's breast grazed him. Furious, Parric took advantage of the next several downsweeps of his wings to thump Flavius sharply.

"Do you rather I letting them killing you again? Do you?" Parric shouted. "They're wanting to killing both of us just as muchly right now."

Flavius bucked and cursed.

"Shutting you up is an impossibling," Parric said. "I'm not knowing which is worse fighting, you or them. Uh oh!"

He hadn't expected the moironteau to move so quickly, but it'd managed to block Parric's way. Parric banked away from it only to find another dangerously close. The noose had closed around him in an instant--Parric was surrounded. He wheeled in ever-tightening circles, searching in vain for a clear path through the slashing, flailing footheads. The moironteau climbing above him loomed ominously, ready to drop upon him at any moment. There were simply too many of them.

He'd sprung the trap, and it'd proven to be a good one. One lacking in finesse, perhaps, but effective nonetheless.

Parric retreated to the center of the circle, beginning a Crafting. He settled to the ground, ruffling his featherscales to give himself a swollen, bloated appearance.

The moironteau stopped abruptly, startled by the unexpected move. After a moment, when Parric made no further movement--save for the odd kick or twist from the still-captive Flavius--one of the moironteau took a tentative step foward. Then others followed, slowly, cautiously.

"You are owing me so big," Parric whispered to Flavius. Then he ripped out a beakful of featherscales and flung them into the sky.

Thirty Parrics abruptly scattered in the air, flying straight at the oncoming moironteau.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Pulp dreams dissipated

From today's paper, sad news about the death of the guy who perfected pen and ink nostalgia for imaginary corners of the twentieth century.

Dave Stevens, 52, Artist Who Created the Rocketeer, Dies

Published: March 30, 2008

Dave Stevens, the comic book artist and commercial illustrator who created the hero the Rocketeer and was famous for his ’50s-pinup-style renderings of women, died in Turlock, Calif., on March 10. He was 52.

The cause was complications from treatment for leukemia, said William Stout, a friend and colleague.

In 1982, Mr. Stevens created the Rocketeer as a backup feature in a Starslayer comic book published by Pacific Comics. Mr. Stout said that Mr. Stevens’s inspirations for the comic were a combination of his love of the 1930s, early aviation, the film-serial hero Commando Cody and Bettie Page, the 1950s pinup model, on whom he based the hero’s love interest, Betty.

“The Rocketeer was a throwback adventure story set in a pulp-informed 1930s about a down-on-his-luck pilot named Cliff Secord — with girl troubles, naturally — that finds a mysterious rocket pack,” wrote Tom Spurgeon, a comic book critic, on his Web site, Mr. Spurgeon wrote that the “Rocketeer proved to be one of the first sensations of the independent-comics movement.”

Mr. Stevens was born on July 29, 1955, in Lynwood, Calif. The future comic book professional “began, like all of us, as a fan,” said Mr. Stout, a production designer in the film industry.

As an amateur, Mr. Stevens would contribute drawings to the program book for the San Diego Comic Convention, now known as Comic-Con International. His first professional work came in 1975, as an assistant to the artist Russ Manning, whose pencils he inked on the daily and Sunday newspaper comic strip “Tarzan.” Mr. Stout had previously been working with Mr. Manning.

“He came up to me, as a fan, to show me the work he was doing for Russ,” Mr. Stout recalled. “I looked at his work and thought I’d never get my job with Russ back again. He was fantastic right from the start.”

In 1977, Mr. Stevens was hired by Hanna-Barbera to work on some of its animated shows, including a “Super Friends” and “Godzilla” series. In the 1980s, he branched out to storyboard work for films (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and videos (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”)

Then came the Rocketeer.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Really Alternative Cinema: Cryptocinematography

My friend Robert Hood, as well as being a hell of a writer, delights in reviewing zombie and giant monster movies so weird and obscure that hardened skeptics might doubt their very existence. Decide for yourself.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Seagulls and cyber-socialism

Via NYT, a bit of cultural archaeology on Chilean efforts during the Allende interregnum to use early 1970s mainframe technology to run a planned economy:

Before ’73 Coup, Chile Tried to Find the Right Software for Socialism

Published: March 28, 2008

The project, called Cybersyn, was the brainchild of A. Stafford Beer, a visionary Briton who employed his “cybernetic” concepts to help Mr. Allende find an alternative to the planned economies of Cuba and the Soviet Union. After the coup it became the subject of intense military scrutiny....

A Star Trek-like chair with controls in the armrests was a replica of those in a prototype operations room. Mr. Beer planned for the room to receive computer reports based on data flowing from telex machines connected to factories up and down this 2,700-mile-long country. Managers were to sit in seven of the contoured chairs and make critical decisions about the reports displayed on projection screens.

While the operations room never became fully operational, Cybersyn gained stature within the Allende government for helping to outmaneuver striking workers in October 1972. That helped planners realize — as the pioneers of the modern-day Internet did — that the communications network was more important than computing power, which Chile did not have much of, anyway. A single I.B.M. 360/50 mainframe, which had less storage capacity than most flash drives today, processed the factories’ data, with a Burroughs 3500 later filling in.

Cybersyn was born in July 1971 when Fernando Flores, then a 28-year-old government technocrat, sent a letter to Mr. Beer seeking his help in organizing Mr. Allende’s economy by applying cybernetic concepts. Mr. Beer was excited by the prospect of being able to test his ideas.

He wanted to use the telex communications system — a network of teletypewriters — to gather data from factories on variables like daily output, energy use and labor “in real time,” and then use a computer to filter out the important pieces of economic information the government needed to make decisions.

Mr. Beer set up teams of computer programmers in England and Chile, and began making regular trips to Santiago to direct the project. He was paid $500 a day while working in Chile, a sizable sum here at the time, said Raúl Espejo, who was Cybersyn’s operations director.

The Englishman became a mentor to the Chilean team, many of them in their 20s. On one visit he tried to inspire them by sharing Richard Bach’s “Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” the story of a seagull who follows his dream to master the art of flying against the wishes of the flock.

An imposing man with a long gray-flecked beard, Mr. Beer was a college dropout who challenged the young Chileans with tough questions. He shared his love for writing poetry and painting, and brought books and classical music from Europe. He smoked cigars and drank whiskey and wine constantly, “but was never losing his head,” Mr. Espejo said.

Alberto Fuguet needs to make this his next film project, mixing in strands of CQ and THX-1138.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Jesus, puppies and cyborgs

Among the endangered species not subject to federal protection are the old-school "straight" comic strips still appearing in local newspapers every day. Pursuing plot lines that in some cases wind back to the days before WWII, and sometimes written or drawn by professionals who reach back that far as well, they consistently deliver an accidental surreality sure to punch up your day, and often achieve a three-panel haiku more potent than any Roy Lichtenstein appropriation. Just a couple of thematically linked samplings from today's lineup,:

In Mary Worth, the Melrose Place of the blue-haired set, Mary recounts her childhood discovery of Jesus through the wholesome miracle of an intact family.

And in Mark Trail, the continuing saga of America's favorite Subgenius outdoors writer, Mark delivers a prize puppy to a little girl and awakens her from her post-divorce depression.

For a daily dose of commentary, check out The Comics Curmudgeon.

If that's not doing the trick for you this Thursday morning, maybe you need a little cyborg love.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Alternate history, Soviet history, American history

From CBS:

And today's Borowitz Report:

Hillary Says She ‘Misspoke’ About Wrestling Bin Laden
Was Greeting Students in Orlando, Clinton Admits

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who has been accused in recent days of padding her foreign policy resume while First Lady, admitted today that she may have exaggerated about an encounter she said she had with al-Qaeda terror mastermind Osama bin Laden in 1998.

In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Sen. Clinton told host Tim Russert, “I wrestled bin Laden in his cave in 1998 and had him pinned to the ground before the bastard got away.”

But a review of Sen. Clinton’s official White House schedule from that period revealed that the then-First Lady was nowhere in the vicinity of Mr. bin Laden on that day, but was instead greeting a group of honor roll students at Disney World in Orlando.

“I may have misspoke about what went on that particular day,” Sen. Clinton said today. “But it was a very busy time for me, what with having that knife-fight with Kim Jong-Il and all.”

Reporters peppered Sen. Clinton’s new press spokesman with questions about another purported exploit of hers, in which the senator claimed that she and a ragtag team of blue-collar drillers deflected an asteroid on a collision course with the Earth.

“Everything Hillary Clinton says is true,” said her new spokesman, the author James Frey.

Rumor: Also working with Mr. Frey is the author Harry Turtledove.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

For a three-hour tour

Turns out the M.P.s at Abu Ghraib gave this poor dude a nickname. Gilligan.

In this week's New Yorker, with the full text free online, Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris tell the story of Specialist Sabrina Harman, the unexpected photo-documentarist of what happened behind the walls of the prison.

The woman behind the camera at Abu Ghraib

'...The M.P.s on the M.I. cellblock never learned the prisoners’ names. Officially, they referred to their wards by their five-digit prison numbers, but the numbering system was confusing, and the numbers told you nothing about a person, which made them hard to remember. So the soldiers gave the prisoners nicknames based on their looks and their behavior. A prisoner who made a shank and tried to stab someone was Shank, and a prisoner who got hold of a razor blade and cut himself was called Slash. A prisoner who kept spraying himself and his cell with water and was always asking for a broom was Mr. Clean. A prisoner who repeatedly soaked his mattress with water was Swamp Thing.

'There was a man they called Smiley, and a man they called Froggy, and a man they called Piggy. There was a man with no fingers on one hand, only a thumb, who was called Thumby—not to be confused with the enormous man called the Claw or Dr. Claw, because one of his hands was frozen in a half-clenched curl. The man they called Santa Claus was also called Snowman. There was the man they called Taxi Driver, because he’d been arrested while driving a cab, and there was a gaunt man they called Gus, but nobody knew why that name had stuck, and he was also sometimes called Mr. Burns, after the scrawny villain on “The Simpsons.”

'The nicknames made the prisoners both more familiar and more like cartoon characters, which kept them comfortably unreal when it was time to mete out punishment. Hydrue Joyner took credit for many of the nicknames. “It was jail, but, you know, you can still laugh in jail,” he said. Javal Davis, who had spent six years in the Army, “expecting to learn a career field, get some benefits for college, get a step ahead of my peers, get discipline, become a man,” enjoyed gallows humor as much as the next guy. The problem was that when you spend your nights doing nasty things to people you’ve got to endure them yourself. Davis had violence in him, and he found that making life miserable for men toward whom he had no personal animus could work him into a mounting, generalized rage. But aggression could get you only so far before the depression caught up with it. There were many ways to torment a prisoner according to M.I.’s demands, and for the most part there was nothing funny about them.

'“Smells,” Davis said. “Put them in a cell where the toilet is blocked—backed up. It smells like urine and crap. That would drive you nuts.” And you could keep shifting a prisoner’s mealtimes, or simply withhold meals. The prisoners ate the same M.R.E.s that the guards ate, but you could deny them the spoon and all the fixings. “If you got Salisbury steak, they got the Salisbury steak, not the rice that comes with it, not the hot sauce, not the snack, not the juice—the Salisbury steak, and that’s it,” Davis said. “They were starving by the time they’d get ready to get interrogated.” At that point, he said, it would be: “O.K., we’ll give you more food if you talk.”

'And you could inflict pain. “You also had stress positions, and you escalated the stress positions,” Davis said. “Hand-cuffs behind their backs, high up, in very uncomfortable positions, or chained down. Then you had the submersion. You put the people in garbage cans, and you’d put ice in it, and water. Or stick them underneath the shower spigot naked. They’d be freezing.” It was a routine, he said: “Open a window while it was, like, forty degrees outside and watch them disappear into themselves . . . before they go into shock.”

'Javal Davis had joined the Reserve in 1997, when he was in college. He was impressed by the R.O.T.C. drill he saw: “saluting, about-face—that looked kind of sharp, the rank and file, the order and everything.” He thought it was both an honor and honorable to serve his country, and he was willing to die protecting its freedom. “Especially after 9/11,” he said. He was born and raised in Roselle, New Jersey, across New York Harbor from the World Trade towers; he had won trophies in state championships in the hundred-and-ten-metre high hurdle, and he hoped one day to be a Roselle policeman or a New Jersey state trooper. “And to see that happen on my own soil,” he said. “It turned it up a notch.”

'But after four or five nights of running the M.I. block of the Abu Ghraib hard site, Davis said, “I just wanted to go home.” He felt that what he did and saw there was wrong. “But it was reaffirmed and reassured through the leadership: We’re at war. This is Military Intelligence. This is what they do. And it’s just a job,” he said. “So, over time, you become numb to it, and it’s nothing. It just became the norm. You see it—that sucks. It sucks to be him. And that’s it. You move on.”

'Sabrina Harman also said she felt herself growing numb at Abu Ghraib, yet she kept being startled by her capacity to feel fresh shocks. “In the beginning,” she said, “you see somebody naked and you see underwear on their head and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty bad—I can’t believe I just saw that.’ And then you go to bed and you come back the next day and you see something worse. Well, it seems like the day before wasn’t so bad.”

'Harman was a runner on the night shift at the hard site, filling in where help was needed. “I really don’t remember the first day,” she said. “I remember the first day of working in Tier 1A and 1B. The first thing that I noticed was this guy—he had underwear on his head and he was handcuffed backwards to a window, and they were pretty much asking him questions. And then there was another guy who was fully dressed in another cell they were interrogating also, or I guess they had already interrogated. That’s the first time I started taking photos.” The prisoner with the underwear on his head was the one the M.P.s called Taxi Driver. He was naked, and the position he was in—his hands bound behind his back and raised higher than his shoulders, forcing him to bend forward with his head bowed and his weight suspended from his wrists—is known as a “Palestinian hanging,” because it is said to be used in Israeli prisons. Later that evening, Taxi Driver was moved to a bed, and Harman took another picture of him there. Then she saw another prisoner, lying on his bed fully dressed, and she photographed him, too.'

'...On the same night that she started shooting pictures at the hard site, Harman wrote home [to her wife]:


The days are long here, 12 hour shifts. The prison has been quiet for the past two nights. The night before that another IED went off. No one was killed but it destroyed another Hmvv.

None of our unit has been in the mix of the mortars or IEDs. Not yet. Im afraid to leave the prison to go south to use the phones, they plant those IEDs on the roads and set them off as you pass. The sound is unforgettable. . . .

The prisoners we have range from theft to murder of a US soldier. Until Redcross came we had prisoners the MI put in womens panties trying to get them to talk. Pretty funny but they say it was “cruel.” I don’t think so. No physical harm was done. We’ve even got Sadams sons body guard here. . . . Boy did he fail his job. It sucks working with the prisoners because they all have something wrong. We have people with rashes on their bodies and who-ever is in the cell with them start to get it. . . .

I spoke too soon, its 3am, there’s a firefight outside. Its never going to be calm here! We have guys with TB! That sucks cause we can catch that. Some have STDs. You name it. Its just dirty!

The food sucks. I live off cup o noodles, that’s my meals. The meals they serve are T-REX which is out of a box. If I do come home, boy am I going to eat!

'The next night, Harman was back on duty with Charles Graner on the M.I. cellblock, and she wrote again:

October 20, 03—12:29am


The lights went out in the prison so here we were in the dark—in the prison. I have watch of the 18 and younger boys. I hear, misses! Misses! I go downstairs and flash my light on this 16 year old sitting down with his sandal smacking ants. Now these ants are Iraqi ants, LARGE! So large they could carry the family dog away while giving you the finger! LARGE. And this poor boy is being attacked by hundreds. All the ants in the prison came to this one boys cell and decided to take over. All I could do was spray Lysol. The ants laughed at me and kept going. So here we were the boy on one side of the cell and me on the other in the dark with one small flashlight beating ants with our shoes. . . . Poor kids. Those ants even Im scared of.

So that was the start of my shift. They’ve been stripping “the fucked up” prisoners and handcuffing them to the bars. Its pretty sad. I get to laugh at them and throw corn at them. I kind of feel bad for these guys even if they are accused of killing US soldiers. We degrade them but we don’t hit and thats a plus even though Im sure they wish we’d kill them. They sleep one hour then we yell and wake them—make them stay up for one hour, then sleep one hour—then up etc. This goes on for 72 hours while we fuck with them. Most have been so scared they piss on themselves. Its sad. It’s a little worst than Basic training ie: being naked and handcuffed. . . .

But pictures were taken, you have to see them! A sandbag was put over their heads while it was soaked in hot sauce. Okay, that’s bad but these guys have info, we are trying to get them to talk, that’s all, we don’t do this to all prisoners, just the few we have which is about 30-40 not many.

The othernight at 3, when I wrote you, the firefight . . . 3 killed 6 injured—Iraqis. . . .

Its time to wake them again!!!

'And later that same day, on her next night shift, Harman wrote:

Oct 20, 03



Okay, I don’t like that anymore. At first it was funny but these people are going too far. I ended your letter last night because it was time to wake the MI prisoners and “mess with them” but it went too far even I can’t handle whats going on. I cant get it out of my head. I walk down stairs after blowing the whistle and beating on the cells with an asp to find “the taxicab driver” handcuffed backwards to his window naked with his underwear over his head and face. He looked like Jesus Christ. At first I had to laugh so I went on and grabbed the camera and took a picture. One of the guys took my asp and started “poking” at his dick. Again I thought, okay that’s funny then it hit me, that’s a form of molestation. You can’t do that. I took more pictures now to “record” what is going on. They started talking to this man and at first he was talking “I’m just a taxicab driver, I did nothing.” He claims he’d never try to hurt US soldiers that he picked up the wrong people. Then he stopped talking. They turned the lights out and slammed the door and left him there while they went down to cell #4. This man had been so fucked that when they grabbed his foot through the cell bars he began screaming and crying. After praying to Allah he moans a constant short Ah, Ah every few seconds for the rest of the night. I don’t know what they did to this guy. The first one remained handcuffed for maybe 1 ½-2 hours until he started yelling for Allah. So they went back in and handcuffed him to the top bunk on either side of the bed while he stood on the side. He was there for a little over an hour when he started yelling again for Allah. Not many people know this shit goes on. The only reason I want to be there is to get the pictures and prove that the US is not what they think. But I don’t know if I can take it mentally. What if that was me in their shoes. These people will be our future terrorist. Kelly, its awful and you know how fucked I am in the head. Both sides of me think its wrong. I thought I could handle anything. I was wrong.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Didn't see this one coming

You know how so much of the speculation and anticipation of the Cassini mission to Saturn focused on the possible methane oceans on Titan's surface? Looks like we might have set our sights too high. By about 62 miles, to be precise:
Cassini Spacecraft Finds Ocean May Exist Beneath Titan's Crust

PASADENA, Calif. - NASA's Cassini spacecraft has discovered evidence that points to the existence of an underground ocean of water and ammonia on Saturn's moon Titan. The findings made using radar measurements of Titan's rotation will appear in the March 21 issue of the journal Science.

"With its organic dunes, lakes, channels and mountains, Titan has one of the most varied, active and Earth-like surfaces in the solar system," said Ralph Lorenz, lead author of the paper and Cassini radar scientist at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., "Now we see changes in the way Titan rotates, giving us a window into Titan's interior beneath the surface."

Members of the mission's science team used Cassini's Synthetic Aperture Radar to collect imaging data during 19 separate passes over Titan between October 2005 and May 2007. The radar can see through Titan's dense, methane-rich atmospheric haze, detailing never-before-seen surface features and establishing their locations on the moon's surface.

Using data from the radar's early observations, the scientists and radar engineers established the locations of 50 unique landmarks on Titan's surface. They then searched for these same lakes, canyons and mountains in the reams of data returned by Cassini in its later flybys of Titan. They found prominent surface features had shifted from their expected positions by up to 19 miles. A systematic displacement of surface features would be difficult to explain unless the moon's icy crust was decoupled from its core by an internal ocean, making it easier for the crust to move.

"We believe that about 62 miles beneath the ice and organic-rich surface is an internal ocean of liquid water mixed with ammonia," said Bryan Stiles of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in, Pasadena, Calif. Stiles also is a contributing author to the paper.

Okay, that's fascinating just on the face of it. Because of temperature and chemical differences, this water-ice-ammonia ocean is functioning as an outer-system analog of the molten magma of the Earth's mantle, upon which the Earth's crust lies, thus allowing plate tectonics to occur. Albeit at a much faster rate than what we see terrestrially. Can you imagine the San Andreas fault slipping by as much as 19 miles over a 5 year period?

Of course, for us writers of speculative fiction, the potential presence of a sub-surface ocean conjures images of Europa and the inevitable speculation regarding extant life. And sure enough, a few graphs down comes the money shot:
"The combination of an organic-rich environment and liquid water is very appealing to astrobiologists," Lorenz said. "Further study of Titan's rotation will let us understand the watery interior better, and because the spin of the crust and the winds in the atmosphere are linked, we might see seasonal variation in the spin in the next few years."

Nifty. What's the over/under on the first appearance of a "subsurface Titan ocean" in the pages of Analog?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Uppity Problem

That's a good speech, especially for an actual politician. To have written himself.

The sudden proliferation of white talking heads expressing shock that anyone would tolerate a black preacher suggesting there is anything wrong with America is the best support for his view that preacher could ever have hoped for. With each utterance of solipsistic condescension, they further undermine the credibility of their own fantasy of a color-blind America. Perhaps this will represent some kind of birth pang toward that utopian aspiration, as we enter the century in which mixed race citizens (which, of course, we all really are, you know, unless we're from Iceland or something) are ascendant.

In the meantime, a science fictional proposal: that Lou Dobbs wake up as a negro, live that way for a year, and then wake up in his new home in a Chihuahuan pueblo, with the coyote calling his name.

See also: Wisconsin Reality Tour -- "Do you have to look like Lou Dobbs to have a voice in the immigration debate?"

Death to Tyrants?

Last year around this time, I wrote about the fascinating decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit construing the Second Amendment the the U.S. Constitution as essentially guaranteeing each citizen the right to keep and bear (as in, fully assembled and loaded, maybe next to the remote control) arms of the sort that would be used by contemporary members of the National Guard. This holding grounded in the Militia Power, in turn grounded in the natural law idea of the "right of revolt" against tyrannical governments.

"Jurisprudential Science Fiction," March 16, 2007.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case. Amazingly, they even talked about the right of revolt.

This is the first Second Amendment case the Supreme Court has taken since 1939. The pundits are tea-leaving that they are going to go all the way, baby. Start shopping for your military hardware now.

Now, how do we get the Court to tell us under what conditions we can actually use those arms in exercise of our implicit right to revolt?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reconsidering the '70s Jesus in an age of putative political messiahs

If you're in Southern California, be sure to check out the upcoming lecture by Mark "Shovelware" Dery:

In Case of Rapture, Car Will Be Driverless: Waiting for the End of the World in '70s Southern California

In this lecture, equal parts personal essay and cultural critique, Dery---now a godless leftist---takes us on a Proustian flashback to his days as a teenage fundie---a Jesus Freak caught up in the "born-again" religious fervor that swept Southern California in the '70s. Excavating the SoCal history of that mutant strain of ad-hoc Christianity that Harold Bloom calls "the American religion," he'll deliver a fire-and-brimstone critique of the paleoconservatism, flat-earth fundamentalism, and deep-dyed anti-intellectualism that have made San Diego, throughout much of its intellectual history, not only a theme-park mirage in the Desert of the Real ("America's Finest City") but a Mojave of the Mind.

At the same time, Dery attempts to consider the "situated knowledges" and "lived experiences" of that lost world through his 15-year-old eyes and through his cynical, unbelieving 48-year-old eyes---to cast a gimlet eye on the creepy cultism and gape-mouthed credulity of the 'Jesus People' movement and acknowledge the fact that it brought him closer to a transport of metanoiac rapture than anything since.

'No glossolalia for this boy, but I did have a few Theresa-of-Avila moments of spiritual ecstacy. One thing I really want to nail is the ineffable hippie sweetness of those lost times, exemplified by Ted "Jesus" Neeley's infinitely sad gaze in Jesus Christ Superstar, a far cry from the BATTLECRY/PASSION OF THE CHRIST right-wing pugnacity of the gen-whatever alt.Christianity of our moment...'


When: 11-6:15. NOTE: I go on at 5:00 PM. For further details, contact Nathan Leaman (619.886.8109).

Scripps Cottage
English and Comparative Literature
Arts and Letters 226
San Diego State University
5500 Campanile Drive | MC 6020
San Diego, California 92182-6020


(From the official website): "Sacred & Profane: Meditations on a World in Translation

Salman Rushdie once wrote, "human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions." In this interdisciplinary conference, we invite original works that explore the way we construct meaning out of historical, theoretical, and literary works.

Panels will include an interrogation of sacred texts, ranging from holy words to canonized works; the past as a sacred text; profane texts, which may challenge our definitions of literature as well as our tolerance for profanity; and issues involved in the process of translation, from one language to another or one time period to another. We invite submissions from visual artists that interpret or explore these topics."

P.S. -- On the subject of messiahs, check out Tom Tomorrow's sharper-than-usual cartoon yesterday about the current predicament, including a great Kurt Vonnegut quote: "There is a tragic flaw in our precious Constitution, and I don't know what can be done to fix it. This is it: Only nut cases want to be president."


NYT reports that the Pentagon is trying to implement the techniques of culture jammers in an effort to establish a new doctrine of reputational M.A.D. (i.e., Predator drones aren't working, so we might as well try to lob over some whuffie bombs):

U.S. Adapts Cold-War Idea to Fight Terrorists
Published: March 18, 2008

...After piecing together a more nuanced portrait of terrorist organizations, [U.S. counterterrorism officials] say there is reason to believe that a combination of efforts could in fact establish something akin to the posture of deterrence, the strategy that helped protect the United States from a Soviet nuclear attack during the cold war.

Interviews with more than two dozen senior officials involved in the effort provided the outlines of previously unreported missions to mute Al Qaeda’s message, turn the jihadi movement’s own weaknesses against it and illuminate Al Qaeda’s errors whenever possible.

A primary focus has become cyberspace, which is the global safe haven of terrorist networks. To counter efforts by terrorists to plot attacks, raise money and recruit new members on the Internet, the government has mounted a secret campaign to plant bogus e-mail messages and Web site postings, with the intent to sow confusion, dissent and distrust among militant organizations, officials confirm.

...over the six and a half years since the Sept. 11 attacks, many terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, have successfully evaded capture, and American officials say they now recognize that threats to kill terrorist leaders may never be enough to keep America safe.

So American officials have spent the last several years trying to identify other types of “territory” that extremists hold dear, and they say they believe that one important aspect may be the terrorists’ reputation and credibility with Muslims.

Under this theory, if the seeds of doubt can be planted in the mind of Al Qaeda’s strategic leadership that an attack would be viewed as a shameful murder of innocents — or, even more effectively, that it would be an embarrassing failure — then the order may not be given, according to this new analysis.

Senior officials acknowledge that it is difficult to prove what role these new tactics and strategies have played in thwarting plots or deterring Al Qaeda from attacking. Senior officials say there have been several successes using the new approaches, but many involve highly classified technical programs, including the cyberoperations, that they declined to detail.

Sunday, March 9, 2008


My father-in-law has died. There won't be an installment of MEMORY this week. Next week's pretty iffy as well. I'm just not in a place right now that allows for much writing.

Friday, March 7, 2008


Barry or Hillary?

Kwisatz Haderach or Bene Gesserit?

You be the judge.

(With acknowledgments to cynical dystopian Lawrence Person.)


In other news, check out Louis Bayard's amusing interoffice memo from the in-house counsel at Erewhon Publishing, "Attention, all you memoir fabulists," suggesting some liability-avoiding corrections to well-known autobiographical works, e.g.:

'"Speak, Memory" by Vladimir Nabokov

'The author loses his first butterfly at Vyra, Russia, finds it again 40 years later in Colorado. Average life span for a butterfly is 20 to 40 days. Suggest changing "butterfly" to "giant tortoise."'

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Cuban street finds its own uses

NYT: Cyber-Rebels in Cuba Defy State’s Limits

Published: March 6, 2008

HAVANA — A growing underground network of young people armed with computer memory sticks, digital cameras and clandestine Internet hookups has been mounting some challenges to the Cuban government in recent months, spreading news that the official state media try to suppress.


Yoani Sánchez, 32, and her husband, Reinaldo Escobar, 60, established Consenso desde Cuba, a Web site based in Germany. Ms. Sánchez has attracted a considerable following with her blog, Generación Y, in which she has artfully written gentle critiques of the government by describing her daily life in Cuba. Ms. Sánchez and her husband said they believed strongly in using their names with articles despite the possible political repercussions.

Because Ms. Sánchez, like most Cubans, can get online for only a few minutes at a time, she writes almost all her essays beforehand, then goes to the one Internet cafe, signs on, updates her Web site, copies some key pages that interest her and walks out with everything on a memory stick. Friends copy the information, and it passes from hand to hand. “It’s a solid underground,” she said. “The government cannot control the information.”


It is spread by readers like Ricardo, 28, a philosophy student at the University of Havana who sells memory sticks to other students. European friends buy blank flash drives, and others carry them into Cuba, where the drives available through normal channels are very expensive and scarce.

Like many young Cubans, Ricardo plays a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. He doubts that the government will ever let ordinary citizens have access to the Internet in their homes. “That’s far too dangerous,” he said. “Daddy State doesn’t want you to get informed, so it preventively keeps you from surfing.”

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

D & D & me

Gary Gygax is dead. Dig out your twelve-sided die and throw a roll in his honor.

Perhaps more than any other single person, we can credit Gygax as the revolutionary genius who liberated our daydreams, imaginations, and sense of wonder from the tyranny of copyright and the narrative Stonehenge of the idea of the author. A DIY dime-store deconstructionist who, with no more than a stubby pencil, white paper and a bag of dice, created an essentially simple system of play that empowered the transformation of each person's interior life into a never-ending narrative that plays out against the back of our foreheads more richly than any cinematic splendor.

Sometimes, of course, aided by 35mm hand-painted orcs and chaotic good half-elf warrior monks being tempted by a bluish flesh-toned succubus in the heart of a styrofoam dungeon labyrinth spread out across the dining table. Preferably from Ral Partha.

As a child of the Corn Belt, it gives me immense pleasure that this revolution of the mindscape was launched from a town in Wisconsin. Perhaps one has to have endured the topographic minimalism of more than a few Midwestern winters to appreciate what a victory it represented of imagination over consensus reality, to turn the confines of some old house with the wind chill battering the windows into an infinite world of mystery and adventure beyond the skills of any lone novelist.

I recall my own introduction to these secret realms as an adolescent boy in 1970s Des Moines. The woods behind my house led down to the floodplain of the Raccoon River and the old main street of West Des Moines, a galley of 19th century railroad town commercial storefronts now occupied by eclectic purveyors of specialty goods for which there was no real market. Not just the usual antique malls, but things like a model railroading emporium full of magnificent dioramas and a theatrical supply shop where 11-year-olds could buy awesomely horrific vinyl B-movie monster masks and 14-year-olds could buy fake beards and spirit gum in outrageously self-parodic efforts to look old enough to buy 3.2 beer.

Off to the side of one of these streets, through a little door and up a long dark flight of battered stairs nominally repaired with bent tin strips was a place called The Time Machine. It was operated by a magnificent fellow named Ivor Rogers, a prematurely Gandalfian college theater professor with a silver Van Dyke who filled out his old suits with big laughs and Porthosian vigor. Ivor sold three categories of stuff in the shop: comic books new and used, science fiction new and used (all the Kenneth Robeson-meets-James Bama you could fit in a room), and role playing games. For many of us, he showed us where to find the keys to our maturing imaginations.

Oftentimes when you arrived at The Time Machine, Ivor and one or more of his equally fascinating buddies would be playing a campaign on Ivor's desk, laughing in their Saturday afternoon noon zone of time suspended. Any open-minded visitors were gregariously invited along, and I ended up spending my Saturday nights in middle school spelunking rich dungeons with a more colorful collection of geeks than a city of Midwestern actuaries should have ever been able to sustain.

Ivor died before Gary Gygax, and his wondrous business and others like them that flourished in the cultural interregnum of the 70s died before the 80s were out.

A few years back I wrote an odd little story that does some of the work of expressing the feeling of the gifts these musty wizards produced from their government surplus file cabinets.

A Brief History of Negative Space

Part I

The campaign began on a cold Saturday morning in 1973 over grilled cheese sandwiches and dark coffee in the breakfast nook of a furnished apartment on Brattleboro Avenue, near the old university. As elusive phalanxes of snow battered the storm windows, a hundred phantom divisions waged weeks of low-tech nuclear combat across the tabletop plains of Bavaria and Czechoslovakia. From the kitchen window where they sat, the generals could see a small black dog staring at them knowingly from the alley.

Two hours and fifteen minutes into the game, upon the expiration of his seventh turn, Ted removed his glasses to wipe them slowly with the worn cotton of his flannel shirt. The world went out of focus, followed by Ted's mind. Passing over the northeastern reaches of the Alps while one of his light artillery battalions marched like a diesel-powered Hannibal through a pass between Salzburg and Berchtesgarden, Ted considered his insular apartment as an unlikely analog to the "Eagle's Nest" of A.H.

The apartment was a map room, a metaphoric repository, the attic outpost from which Ted charted the coastlines of his reality. It was the laboratory in which he executed the project whose manifesto he had abstracted over a year earlier:

To establish the tangibility of negative space through cartographic delineation of its contours. Negative space: the Gnostic vacuum left uncovered by the busy fossils of human expression. The infinite universe of thoughts not yet articulated, things not yet said. The space between musical notes, the void between cinematic frames.

Brought back by the insistent klang of the radiator and the murmured Wagnerian hum of his companion, Ted looked across the table. Phil was slowly twirling a pencil in his beard. Occasionally he would scrawl a calculation on the back of his notebook, postulating scenarios to reverse the precarious status of the 12th New Rhodesian heavy infantry entrenched west of Pilzen.

Rattled by Ted's abstracted glare, Phil shifted his regard to the medallion hanging from his opponent's neck, a cryptic mandala of ambiguous origins. Perhaps, Phil considered, this head shop artifact was the talisman that had enabled Ted's remarkable escape from the oppressive reality of the Department and its psychic environs.

As Phil scrutinized Ted's enigmatic demeanor, the Argentine marines penetrated the Occidental forces' southwestern emplacements around Ravensburg. The Canadian and Icelandic airborne divisions broke out across the Bavarian lowlands, swiftly taking Augsburg, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, and Ulm. Reinforced by neutron megatanks, they punched on toward the regional capital. But Phil's ingenious counterpunch to the west out of Innsbruck/Landshut cut off Ted's offensive vanguard (in less than two weeks—six movement turns, one strategic turn, about half an hour real time). Their nuclear batteries exhausted, the armies reached a stalemate amid the irradiated lakes south of Munich.


Leaving the board for the first time in three and a half hours, Ted got up to prepare a fresh pot of coffee. Standing at the small gas oven, he wandered into a movie still taped to the refrigerator and listened to the silent roar of the starship as it hurtled past a black sun.

The campaigns Ted waged across the kitchen table on Saturdays, and across his frontal lobe as he walked down Cottage Grove to the lunch counter for his daily meal, were not governed by "strategy," but by pure abstraction—the elaborate interplay of invisible armies of conception. The zones of battle arrayed around the breakfast nook in eight large leafs were devoid of boundaries, regulated by constantly evolving rules, host to campaigns without end whose purpose was not tactical but existential victory: to decode the hieroglyphic universes buried in the furrowed brow of the general.

Thus, Ted concluded, all games are solitaire. The real challenge became to develop a system of solitaire wherein he could both create a new cosmos and then explore it with his fictive minions as if it were entirely novel and uncharted. He wrestled with the problem for some time, unable to bear the aggravations of other people's dungeons. He tried the solitaire kits prepared by various professional game designers, and fiddled with his own prefabricated systems in which different rolls of the polyhedric dice led to different permutations of the world.

In time, those methods merged. Ted was able to establish a methodology of wargaming wherein the world created itself as the character/army roamed it. When the elfin monk Imrael trekked the broad circumference of the planet Qul, infinite hexagons of alien geography generated themselves before him as he re-imagined the continent. Subterranean catacombs staffed with uninvented monsters and littered with the flotsam of a million fantasy novels drew themselves out on reams of graph paper, as Imrael projected a fantastic construction crew of the mind before him. The self-perpetuating cities of the western coast populated their streets with extensive neighborhoods of non-player characters; each defined his or her own characteristics. As he looked around the room, Ted watched the planets materialize along innumerable vanishing points.


While the percolator bubbled, Phil lit a cigarette and took mental notes on the tandem blunders that had brought him so close to tactical oblivion.

Over coffee and a cleared game board, he and Ted broke silence to discuss possible topographical variations that would heighten the game's interest. They agreed on the establishment of new protocols to alter the landscape according to battle damage. In the future, Ted's hovercraft would land on beaches of glass.


Twilight asserted itself in time. The generals packed their cardboard armies away in neat stacks secured by orthodontic rubber bands, found their parkas, and traversed the deserted campus to catch an installment of the ongoing science fiction film festival. A double feature: Message from Tomorrow (malaise-ridden radio operator Tommy Kirk discovers troubling transmissions on an illegal wavelength) and Plutopia (a withered Keir Dullea as the lone occupant of an automated outpost on the ninth planet, biding the interminable years unto death after the homeworld has been decimated).

As lonely spacecraft rocketed lethargically toward the farthest star, Ted fingered his mutton chops ponderously and marked out the routes in colored chalk against the inside of his forehead.


Later, Ted stood at the front window and watched Phil pull away in his grey Volkswagen. Midnight ice revealed hexes newly manifested over the cracked asphalt. The familiar mongrel trotted across them, briefly illuminated by the headlights.

Exhausted, Ted sat in the armchair and drew on an elaborate homemade bong. Moog notes wandered out of the hi-fi and skipped slowly over the carpet, drowning the electric hum of the battered black-and-white Philco across the room. The otherwise soundless television was tuned to an apocalyptic late movie on translator channel 47. Plaster-of-Paris skyscrapers crumbled under a tidal wave compelled by lost gravity.

More here.

P.S. -- For the best tribute to Gary Gygax ever written, check out Paul La Farge's 2006 piece from the Believer, in which he and a buddy travel to Lake Geneva and manage to persuade the somewhat cranky master to lead them on a campaign.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008



English cannon fire ripped the air. The choking smoke roiled across the marshy field. The icy, stinging rain came down in fits and starts. A hundred highlanders--maybe more--lay dead on the sodden ground, their ranks naked and exposed to the withering fire of the English guns. The erratic fire from the handful of Scottish cannon offered little cover for their own, and little threat to the English. And still they stood their ground, neither charging nor retreating.

Parric watched, dumbfounded. He'd heard tales of the battle over and over again, but until this moment, he hadn't realized that this "Bonnie Prince Charlie" Flavius went on about had intentionally lost. But that was the only explanation for the carnage he was witnessing, unless... The possibility that these highlanders were afflicted with a type of mass insanity had never occurred to him before, either, but it did explain a great many things about Flavius.

Parric hovered high above the battlefield, hidden inside a dimensional pocket. Watching. Waiting. Already he'd located seventeen Nexial gaps within a five mile radius. Granted, six of those were deep within the crust of the planet below him, but when it came right down to it, a gap was a gap.

Parric scanned the massed highlanders again, trying to spot Flavius. Parric had arrived earlier this time, hopefully early enough to avoid the moironteau entirely. The downside was that he didn't actually know where Flavius would be at this point. Past experience had demonstrated that a mortally wounded, near-death Flavius invariably proved more docile and far less likely to engage in any chopping off of wings, not to mention other, more negative, behaviors.

Parric perked up. Some signal had gone out--the massed highlanders seemed to tense, them let out a thunderous roar as one. The din was deafening. In fits and starts, they began their charge.

Parric knew what happened next. Knew where Flavius was going, where he'd be. Cautiously, Parric extended his antennae.

No sign of the moironteau.

That didn't mean it wasn't out there, lying in wait like some interdimensional trap door spider, ready to spring its trap.

There was no time like the present. Besides, if he got Flavius now, he wouldn't have to bother Crafting his wounds back together.

Parric uncoiled, slipping out of his shelter. Immediately gravity noticed him, asserting its hold. Deliberately, almost casually, Parric spread his double pair of wings. They vanished in a blur of motion. A moment before he struck the ground, Parric leveled off and shot toward the charging highlanders.

He reached them in an instant, plunging through banks of smoke and darting this way and that to avoid collision with any number of wildly screaming men. Ahead, Parric spotted Flavius.

Flavius MacDuff was unmistakable in his mud-splattered kilt, his red-brown hair and beard bedraggled and forlorn. In one hand he waved his old, notched sword and in the other he held his shield. He charged with the rest of the Scots, fighting to keep his footing as those on his left crowded into his rank to avoid a bog of standing water.

Parric was on him in an instant. Flavius turned a split second before Parric reached him, his eyes going wide before he was plucked from the ground like the day's berry harvest.

Parric snatched Flavius with his hindmost wings, wrapping him up and holding him immobile. Flavius spewed forth a flood of unintelligible curses, muffled by the constraining wings. Flavius' sword, fortunately, was also immobilized by Parric's grip.

"Stop fighting me, you idiot," Parric muttered as Flavius' thrashing made his flightpath weave drunkenly. "You're not liking falling, I guarantee!"

Parric banked right, making for the nearest Nexial gap. He began to Craft a Wedging, then abandoned the effort. The gap was already blocked. Quickly he pulled up, breaking away from the gap just as the moironteau appeared from out of nowhere. The moironteau's teeth slashed the air where Parric had been a moment earlier.

The moironteau lunged after Parric, crushing the charging highlanders underfoot. The monstrous apparition proved too much for the haggard Scots--the left flank faltered, then scattered. The moironteau took no notice of the humans. Instead, it flung itself after Parric, four of its footheads straining forward, mouths gaping.

Unlike their first encounter, Parric was ready. A subtle flick of his antennae Crafted prismatic distortions over the moironteau's multitude of eyes.

The results were as instantaneous as they were spectacular. Suddenly faced with visual dissonance as each eye processed light forty, ninety or one hundred and eighty degrees off its normal focal plane, the legs caromed wildly trying to reconcile what it saw with reality. It tripped, tumbled and crashed violently into the bog.

Parric allowed himself a private smile. Knowicent's background on the moironteau had proven accurate, after all. With that many simple eyes, it didn't take much Crafting at all to upset the creature's complex visual processing.

"Taking that back to your master," Parric shouted.

Parric made for the next closest gap, in the heart of the English line. The foot soldiers stared dumbfounded as Parric shot past overhead, the officers anchored in place, open mouthed. Quickly Parric began Crafting a Wedging for the looming gap, when unexpectedly the gap opened on its own.

A moironteau launched itself through the opening. Then another. And another.


Monday, March 3, 2008

Twilight Zone: Vol. 4

The fourth volume of the Twilight Zone DVD set doesn't have many episodes fondly remembered as classics. Actually, it doesn't have any. They're all workmanlike efforts--solid and entertaining if a little silly in places--but nothing that stands the test of time to make others nod and say "Ah, yes. I remember that one. Great episode!" when mentioned in conversation. That's not to say there's a lack of talent here--in fact, the impressive acting lineup almost reads like a 1960s Who's Who.

The first episode here, "Mr. Dingle, the Strong" (season 2, 1961), is the type of absurd Twilight Zone shtick that The Simpsons loves to lampoon with such gusto. Burgess Meredith is back, as a nebbish vacuum cleaner salesman who's put-upon quite often by burly gambler and barfly Don Rickles. When a gloriously ludicrous two-headed alien arrives and arbitrarily gives Meredith super-strength as "an experiment" the results are pretty much what one would expect in a melodramatic morality play. The kicker comes in the form of additional aliens, who grant the pathetic Meredith super-intelligence, with predictable results.

"A Passage for Trumpet" (season 1, 1960) brings back Jack Klugman for another go-round, this time as an alcoholic trumpet player desperate for one last gig, or one last drink, whichever comes first. After being struck by a truck in a half-hearted suicide attempt, Klugman finds that nobody can see him, and assumes himself dead. That is, until he encounters another trumpet player who gives him something of a low-rent version of the "It's a Wonderful Life" treatment. Up until the end of this encounter, I expected it to turn into some sort of deal-with-the-devil riff. That's not exactly how things turned out. The final resolution fell somewhat flat, not worthy of the broad set-up, although Klugman did manage to give his character an air of convincing desperation.

"Two" (season 3, 1961) is an interesting episode, in that it was an ambitious post-apocalyptic tale about trying to rediscover one's inherent humanity after continuous war has killed it off. A young Charles Bronson is a soldier trying to survive in the abandoned ruins of a city, and a young (and brunette!) Elizabeth Montgomery is a soldier from the "other side" attempting the same thing. There's a quaint innocence running throughout this episode--a sort of "Ozzie and Harriet visit the apocalypse"--that couldn't possibly exist post-"Mad Max" or even post-"Saving Private Ryan." Bronson talks too much, Montgomery too little (although she does fire a mean laser rifle) and the viewer has to wonder how many cans of pre-cooked fried chicken one can reasonably expect to find in a post-apocalyptic ruin. But in the end, I can't help but root for those two crazy kids to make a go of it amid all the radiation mutants and killer robots no doubt lurking just outside of camera range: Hey, it's Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery, after all.

The final episode of the disc, "The Four of Us Are Dying" (season 1, 1960), is the one most resembling an episode of The X-Files (interestingly enough, since that show was so often compared to The Twilight Zone during its run). Ross Martin, best-known for his work as Artemus Gordon on The Wild, Wild West plays one persona of a man who can alter his looks at will to mimic any other human being. The X-Files episode "Small Potatoes," in particular, seems directly inspired by this one, in which a shape-shifting con artist assumes the identities of four other people for petty gain, and in the end, winds up dead for his efforts. The narrative is pretty linear, but there's little substance to the story. These measures of revenge and lives the main character assumes have little meaning for the viewer, because the backstory and connections are all missing. Were the setup fleshed out, perhaps, in some sort of surreal noir motion picture clocking in at 2 hours or so, that might make for compelling viewing. As it is, the half-hour format gives us just the conclusion without any of the setup that would make the viewers care one way or the other.