Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Reading comics, and some comics I read

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They MeanSo I decided to read the book Reading Comics, by Douglas Wolk, and inspired by that decided to read a couple of comics. First of all lets look at the book. I'm not really a comic book reader, and so this book gave a good background on what types of comics there are, the differences between them. It was fairly focused in scope on comics with a narrative, so no single panel cartoons or anything, from the west (so no manga). The book was well written, and I plowed though it quite quickly. One of the main things it tries to do is to make people read comics as a form of literature, or fine art, some strange cross between movies and books. It defends this pretty well, pointing out that comics seem to be unfairly judged by the equivalent of the romance-novel serials that make huge amounts of money for book publishers, but that so one really would try to defend the artistic value of, rather than the best that comics have to offer.

There are two types of comics according to this book: Art comics and mainstream (or superhero) comics. The label art comics has to do with the goal of being a work of rather than a signifier of quality, one of the surprising things about this book is that the author goes through a lot of trouble to defend superhero comics, even though there are a lot of very bad mainstream comics. Apparently the watershed decade in comics was the 80s: art comics first appeared and superhero comics sort of grew up since they started selling to a more mature, more stable audience (and some good writers were allowed more freedom).

The book concludes with a series of discussions about different comics, chosen for their discussion value, rather tan just quality. I'm going to talk about a couple that I read below, but the main thing I got out of the discussed comics is the huge level of diversity in comics, and that I probably am more interested in art comics, since most mainstream comics require a huge amount of background, and I hate starting in the middle of a story. I would have to start with the originals from the 40s, or stick only to new characters and settings (which is what I plan to do), or else go crazy.

One thing I thought was funny was the author was discussing how superhero comics are usually a metaphor for some sort of larger struggle or moral dilemma, and he seemed unsure what wonder woman was a metaphor for: it' obviously female domination: what with the rope and everything.

So I recommend the book to comics newbies like me, but I don't know how people who already are into comics will feel about it.

So I read two comics, both discussed in the book, after reading the book. Both I had heard about before and wanted to read, and both are held up as top superhero and art comics respectively. These comics are Watchmen written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, and Fun Home by Alison Bechtel.

WatchmenWatchmen is really well put together, you can tell by reading it, even without having much in the way of other comics to compare with. I'm not going to discuss much of the plot or the setting, since one of the joys of the comic is discovering how the setting and characters are tied together. It has multiple intertwined storylines, moral ambiguity, and an interesting, mostly plausible, backstory. The only thing I didn't like is the ending, which I felt like was a "Philosophy 101" moral dilemma that did not seem natural. I just hope the upcoming movie doesn't suck.

Fun Home: A Family TragicomicFun Home also approaches ambiguity, but rather than grand moral dilemmas, it's more an ambiguity about identity. It's basically about her father who died in 1980 shortly after she came out as a lesbian. The ambiguity is everywhere and fully acknowledged: her father had sex with young men, but it's unknown whether he was truly gay or just bi or some sort of other label. He died being hit by a truck, but was he distracted when he jumped in front of it, or was it suicide? There is a lot to this comic, and it's extremely "literary", not just for comic book geeks, but since it's full of literary allusions, those best able to appreciate the comic may be literature geeks. Highly recommended. I also like Alison Bechtel's running comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For", which is currently on hiatus, even though I can't look all the way to the beginning.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Creating a fantasy world: Fleshing out the concept

So when we last looked at this unnamed fantasy world we had decided that there would be 2 forms of magic: an old form, and a new form. The central conflict of this setting will be between these two concepts so they need a good bit of thought.

Since the new magic is supposed to be analogous to the emergence of science during the enlightenment, it would follow that the new magic should be based on formalism, math and laws. Since the new magic is well... new, it follows that it should be mostly undeveloped, with a lot not understood. On the other hand, in order for the conflict to be one worth worrying about new and old magic should be able to compete, so there has to be some advantage to the new magic. It makes sense from the central analogy again that the main advantage would be repeatability and universality: new magic is just another physical principle that can be manipulated by anyone who understands it. Thus it's much easier to train someone to be a new mage, but they are much less powerful.

Now if the new magic is all about repeatability and formalism, then old magic should be about tradition, but what are these traditions? It's not that the old mages were pure empiricists, just knowing that when you chant these tree words and wave a wand you make a fireball, rather they had their own ideas about how magic works, they just are much less formal, and rooted in tradition, religion, and mysticism. Now since there are as many traditions as there are societies, I'm going to focus on one region that for now we'll call "the west". The western tradition of magic is going to be modeled on medieval Catholicism, and is basically based on the idea that by sacrificing to the god of the western religion you can get miracles on demand. This leads to the idea of what sort of sacrifices could be made. These could be anything from material goods to personal health, to abstract things like your conscious humanity, and obviously the bigger the sacrifice the bigger the magical effect.

[as a side note, if I wanted to make this into a game (a tabletop RPG perhaps) it would make sense to spell out the different sacrifices possible, and possibly have different groups that specialize in different types of sacrifice]

Now we can start to put together the theory of new magic: there is invisible flows of mana all around us, and these flows are affected by the human mind. Things that people value become saturated with mana, and can be released by destroying the thing of value. New magic has found a way to store these flows of magic artificially, providing a good supply of low-level magic, but they cannot get the densities of mana that the old magic can, and this artificially stored mana is not as easy to control as "natural" mana. This means that most new magic ends up being more like engineering than magic as usually thought of, however it is magic not science, and has a whole other set of rules.

Next time I'll talk about politics and such of the new magic vs. old magic dynamic.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

2 Reviews: The Oxford book of modern science writing and Microcosm

So I went down to visit family in Maryland this weekend and since I was not driving I did a lot of reading. I finished The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins, and read from start to finish Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer. I'll give my thoughts about them in turn.

The Oxford Book of Modern Science WritingThe Oxford Book was a collection of essays and excerpts of essays by various scientists on various aspects of science. The conceit of the book is that it is by scientists only, no science journalists. The book basically covers a lot of things, from explanations of various theories to what is "beauty" in science. It starts focused on empirical facts and very biology heavy, and moves to more abstract parts and gets more and more physics
based (most of the philosophizing is by physicists). The book has good parts, but I felt that it was very uneven, both in the level of interestingness of the topics and the quality of the writing. It might be good for someone who is interested, but does not know much science, maybe a teenager if they are good at reading, but I felt that I mostly knew what was being said already, and the parts that I didn't know were not developed enough for me. Overall I think it succeeded at what an anthology of science writing by scientists aimed at the general public should be, but that I am not the target audience.

Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life Microcosm on the other hand was just the thing for me. I love to learn about biology, despite not being a biologist, and Carl Zimmer is the master of writing for the lay audience (which I am in biology). This book is about E. Coli and how it has been used in science, as the model organism for molecular biology and biotech. One thing it stresses is the similarity between E. Coli and macroscopic life such as ourselves. For example E. Coli has a surprisingly active social life: it forms biofilms which are very complicated structures of E. Coli that live on. There are also wars between strains of E. Coli. There is a section talking about the ethics of biotechnology at the end of the book that I think everyone should read, as it pretty succinctly brings up the points people should be debating, in a debate that is often not about facts (for either side). A very good book, I heartily recomend it. The only problem is that I wish that it was longer.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Scienceblogs goes sizzle crazy

apparently there's a new movie out called sizzle by Randy Olson. I wonder if anybody's talking about it...

Creating a fantasy world: Part 1

Something I would like to do on a regular basis (at least once a week) is publicly create a fantasy world and describe how I go about it. It's something I've been doing since at least high school (probably middle school) with increasing levels of sophistication. I take an idea, think about it for a while, and then start writing stuff down in a notebook, this time I'll write it down here. I often end up thinking of an idea for a story in the world, or perhaps some rules that could be used to make it into a game. I would create small homebrew RPGs to play with my friends. Most were pretty mediocre, but some were good (I remember two in particular: one called Gutter Runner, which was basically a cyberpunk distopia, and another called Demon Lords, which was heavily influenced by the game Myth: the Fallen Lords, and had elements of a (magical) distopia as well). Those had very simple rules and back stories, and the main reason that those were so popular is that I actually finished them. Making a whole game is lot of work for one person who's not being paid for it.

The first part of creating a fantasy world is to come up with a premise. One that I've been kicking around for a while is one set in a magical version of the enlightenment. Basically in the real world there was a rediscovery of ancient knowledge (called the Renaissance), that led to the development of totally new ways of thinking. This makes the whole period really interesting, and underdeveloped as a source of fantasy. Just about the only book I can think of set in that period is Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. I want to make the old technology -> magic translation. So magic is undergoing a change, from one way of thinking to another, specifically from an older way of thinking about things (the analogy to the natural philosophy of the greeks and such) to a newer way (analogous to early science). I'll leave it there for now, more posts on this in the near future.

Cybotron lyrics

One band that is hugely influential, but still relatively unknown is Cybotron, an early 80s techno band from Detroit(two people, one one electronics, one on guitar).The sound is pretty awesome, though the electronics are very old. Their album Clear is really good (and the only thing I have of theirs, apparently they broke up after it). Anyways the lyrics of some of the songs I found especially interesting, but had a hard time looking them up, so I listened and wrote them down as I listened. They may not be perfect, but I'm confidant that they are accurate for the most part. I only did this for two songs: "Industrial Lies" and "The Line". Perfect 80's dystopia songs:

Industrial Lies:

My conservative reactionary friend,
the ends done justify the means you understand,
you take the butter from the table by a gun,
you think the status quo will be there when you're done,
you buy the missile, buy the laser, buy the tank,
evict the widow, put the money in the bank,
you do it all in the name of economics: economics, economics, economics.

Well, it's just industrial lies,
hidden behind your eyes.
Well, it's just industrial lies
hidden behind your eyes

take what you want, leave the rest behind
take what you want, leave the rest behind

The Line:

Got out of bed, with no where to go
as I comb my hair, I didn't know
what I would do today to pass the time
as I left the house, I left hope behind
as I hit the street, no sun greeted me
no smiles on the faces of the people I meet

here's the ride step inside, plenty of time to make the line

Life is a line, take a number.
Just one big line, that's all it is.
Life is a line, just take a number.
Just one big line, that's all it is.

Life... is a line.
Life... is a line, just one big line.

Life is a line, take a number.
Just one big line, that's all it is.
Life is a line, just take a number.
Just one big line, I tell it like it is.

Life is... a line.
Life.. the line.

Life is a line, take a number.
Life is a line, that's all it is.
Life is a line, take a number.
Life is a line, take your place.

The end of the line if you please.
I go into town to the eagles nest,
I vanish in with all the rest
I got into line, and waited to see
what the bureaucrat would do with me.
Then his ice cold eyes foretold my fate
I knew I had arrived an hour late:

"What's that you say?
No jobs today?
I see you next time right here in the line."

Life is a line, take a number.
Life is a line, take your place.
Life is a line, just take a number.
Life is a line, take your place.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Thoughts on essentialism

Most of the time on the internet (or at least the parts I visit) if someone is talking about essentialism it's gender essentialism. I'm not going to talk about that specifically, but rather I'll talk about an essay by Ernst Mayr on essentialism that I read in the Oxford book of Modern Science Writing.

So what is essentialism? It goes back to the ancient greeks, especially their geometers who made a lot of progress by recognizing when two dissimilar looking things are really the same thing: for example all triangles are really triangles, even if they have different angles or lengths of sides. A triangle is not a rectangle, you can't have something that is part rectangle, part triangle. This is undeniably true in math, but Plato expanded the idea out to everything: everything is just a reflection of an "ideal". In this way of thinking not only were all triangles totally separate from rectangles, but all birds were totally separate from all reptiles, and it was just part of their natures that could not be changed.

Mayr in the essay argues that this held back biology, because everyone was thinking essentially, when biology is nothing like that. I don't know if this is particularly true, many people seemed willing to give up essentialism in biology once there was good evidence against essentialism (the fossil record and such). My point here isn't to argue with Mayr, but rather to jump off and talk about what it would mean if life was essentialist, and I'm going to talk about particle physics, because all fundamental particles really are identical.

Now once you have things that are really, truly, identical like fundamental particles you start running into all sorts of problems. The first one is how do you tell them apart. If they are identical and they get close to each other and you look away when they would hit each other (or not) how do you tell which is which? It is possible in principle in classical physics because every particle has a unique trajectory, and you can (at least in principle) predict it, and use that to tell them apart. Basically you can tell them apart my their positions in space and time. This becomes impossible in quantum mechanics because the particles do not have distinct positions, but rather wave functions. Basically there are two ways of dealing with this problem: the particles can either not ever get near each other (physicsts call these types of particles fermions), or they can bunch up into one particle (these are bosons). The reason we don't see these sorts of things happening is that everything we ever encounter in everyday life is made up of incredibly large number of particles.

What does this have to do with life? Other than illustrating why we would not expect essentalist explanations of incredibly complex things like life (even the simplest bacteria are impossible to simulate based on physics), it shows the problems with essentialism if you really start thinking about it: if everything is only a reflection of an ideal, then where do the differences between similar things come from?

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Google scoops second life for free

So I hear that google is making a 3d chat room that's free and embeddable in web pages. Sounds pretty cool, but I've always preferred text myself. Also it's not for linux right now, so I can't use it on my typical OS.

The problem with trying to get a 3d environment for chatting is that it uses a lot of resources and many people enjoy chatting while doing other things. If you aren't paying full attention to the environment then you don't get much benefit from the 3dness. I'm sure that google will do a good job with it (as usual), but I'll wait until it's more mature to say whether it looks like something I would want to use or not. In any case I think having a full 3d environment just for chat is a bit of overkill, it seems like I should be doing something (like killing monsters) if I'm going to pull out the 3d.

Monday, July 7, 2008


I love to cook. Today I cooked chicken in a pot for the first time. I got the recipe from The Best International Recipe. I like that series of cookbooks because they let you know why they give the instructions in the book, which helps you improvise. Want to see pics? sure you do:

Doesn't it look tasty? I served it with roasted fingerling potatoes and some veggies cooked by my friend Kristin.

Review: Blogger In Draft

So Google has a new version of Blogger that they're rolling out called Blogger in Draft. I've been using it for this blog and I have to say it works pretty well. I haven't had any trouble with it, and the site looks good.

One of the new features is the ability to drag and drop images into the new post editor. Let me try that out...

It seems to work, and it's easy to resize the image, but it's awkward to place. It's not as good as a good word processor, but it works well enough for simple images placement, and it automatically links to the image source. One thing I don't know how to do is how to get this drag and drop between tabs in firefox. I have to open a new window.

Overall I'm pretty happy with Blogger in Draft. I'm sure by the time it replaces the regular blogger (probably in like 2010 knowing google) it will have all the bugs worked out.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Gayin it up

So for as long as there have been gay people, man has wondered why that is. More recently people have been wondering what causes gayness, a gene, the environment, eating too many popsicles? Well according to the most recent dear science podcast it's probably a gene (at least in men). Go listen, it's short and sweet, but sums up the various possibilities and what the current thinking is on the topic.

One thing that was touched on briefly was the possibility of "curing" gayness, but was dismissed as impossible for the foreseeable future. This is the sort of situation where science fiction becomes handy, it lets people discuss these sorts of issues long before they become possible. My opinion is that some people probably would want their children cured (once possible), but that the risks would probably be too much for most parents. It would probably be ethical (since altering embryos is already fine in e.g. IVF), but for parents that want to have a child I doubt many are going to want to abort or have a good risk of spontaneous abortion because of a raised chance of having a gay child (note that it could only be a raised chance, or else we would have already have found it, this is my problem with most Gattica style genetic dystopias: genetics is mostly chance). However this would depend on the culture: if the trends continue and people become more and more accepting of gays then I would think that my scenario is the most likely (especially since there might still be the chance for grandchildren as more gay couples adopt), however if there is some big backlash then they might view gayness as on par with real genetic diseases.

And I'm sorry lesbians, no one knows why you are gay. Or why women's sexuality seems to be more flexible than male sexuality (which is a topic for another post someday).

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Nature Vs. PLoS

Apparently Nature wrote an article about the Public Library of Science that revealed that it isn't too profitable. Some bloggers have taken issue with this and come to the defence of PLoS. I've got to agree with the bloggers on this, but let's make my critisism perfectly clear. Besides the fact that PLoS hasn't made much money (which is irrellevant to the quality of the journal) the main critism seems to be (and I say seems to be because I don't have subscription to Nature) that PLoS only reviews for good methodology and not for importance. I think this is a good thing. The advantage of online journals is that you can publish a lot of stuff really cheaply, and since the authors pay to publish in PLoS there is no reason for them to not publish everything that's methodologically correct. How are readers supposed to find the good articles? There is a commenting and raking system that I think should do at least as good a job as the editors of Nature in deciding what is important (or at least interesting).

The problem with the existing, closed access model for science journals is that besides costing libraries insane amounts they are inherently seperated from the public. Everyone knows about how bad most science journalism is, PLoS gives the public a chance to look at the sausage being made, and hopefully this will lead to both a better public understanding of science, and better science journalism.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Yes, I played D&D before it was cool

So there is a 4th edition of D&D now. I do not own it, but I've seen it, and looked it over. I do not approve. Firstly, there is no need for a new edition of D&D. There is nothing in the book that I could see (without an in depth look over every rule) that could not have made this just a new campaign setting: they changed up the races, alignments, and classes. The core mechanics are the same. This is in stark contrast to the 2nd -> 3rd edition transition where the rules were totally revamped (and needed to be). Let's look at all of these categories, shall we?
  • Races: so they got rid of the Gnomes and replaced them with dragon guys, elves-only-more-so, and Tieflings. Fair enough, and Tieflings are awesome (but this is really a sign that they should bring back plainscape). Point 4E
  • Alignments: they made the already simple alignment system even more stupidly simple. Do they want to remove the ability for people to play anti-heroes or have morally ambiguous campaigns without using house rules? No more chaotic good, there is only good and lawful good, no more lawful evil, only evil and chaotic evil. And the only neutral alignment there is is just neutral. I am generally in favor of changes to the alignment system, but making it even more stupidly simple is not the right solution. Point 3E.
  • Classes (and their abilities): This is where I must rage. First the easy stuff, they changed up the classes, but not the core ones. That's fine, I'm not the happiest with their new ones, but they aren't bad. My main problem comes from the fact that they essentially eliminated magic. There is no magic, only abilities (which all classes gain at the same speed) some of which are labeled as "magical". This, I submit is stupid. Point no one, everybody loses.
So why did they make these changes? It looks to me like they are trying to ride the MMORPG wave, and so are making the ability progressions and such more like World of Warcraft, which is a good game, but a WoW RPG already exists. No need to sully the good name of D&D with a cheap knock off of something that was probably greatly inspiried by D&D in the first place. What I would like to see would be not this reworking of core D&D, but more campaign settings: Plainscape and Dark sun have only fan ports of the settings, imagine how cool it would be if they remade plainscape and really supported it. It would be awesome, but alas they would rather imitate Blizzard (which makes uniformly great stuff, but the needs of computer games and pen and paper games are different).


Lots of people these days seem to get fantasy and reality mixed up. I'm going to set them right. Mainly by talking about both reality and fantastic subjects (such as sci-fi, fantasy, science fantasy, etc.) and keeping the two subjects separate. So what is reality? That's a question I'll leave to the philosophers for now (maybe I'll get to it when I have nothing else to talk about), but we have a handy method for finding what is real and what isn't: it's called science. This isn't intended to be a science or religion blog, but I'll talk about both probably.

As for Fantasy, I'm talking about a wide variety of things here: science fiction is intended to be scientifically plausible (to varying degrees), fantasy throws all the rules of our world out the window and imagines a new set of rules (good fantasy makes sure to have set rules in the world, bad fantasy makes stuff up as it goes along, magic becomes deus ex machina), and science fantasy is the fun hybrid of the two. Star Trek is science fiction, Star Wars is science fantasy, and lord of the rings is fantasy.

Who am I? As of this writing I am an unemployed recent physics grad from drexel university with an unwholesome interest in strange other possible worlds (as well as a totally wholesome interest in how the world really works).