Wednesday, November 28, 2012

'Walking Dead' Season 3 lives up to its promise

David Morrissey as The Governor on AMC's "The Walking Dead." (AP photo)

    A few months ago I wrote that I was looking forward to season three of AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” after a very disappointing season two stuck on Hershel’s farm (seriously, there was more drama and action in an average episode of Ozzie and Harriet) until some interesting things finally happened in the season finale.
     One of those things was the introduction of Michonne, who appeared wearing a mask (to conceal that they hadn’t picked an actress yet, or for protection? Never explained, though the mask disappeared), leading two armless, jawless walkers and wielding a katana (a type of samurai sword; no explanation on whether it was just a convenient weapon or if she has some Japanese heritage).
     Another was the discovery of The Prison, the soon-to-be new home of our band of survivors.
     In addition to following up on those events, the third season introduced The Governor, a dictatorial baddie who runs Woodbury, a community of survivors, and isn’t above killing other survivors for their supplies and/or if they don’t choose to join his community (though not everyone gets the option), and the return of Merle, a racist a-hole who was left handcuffed in a walker-overrun area, and then cut off his hand to escape (he now sports a large blade on that arm).
     Those are the big things, but I also like some smaller details, like the fact that they now acknowledge that ammunition is in short supply and is not an infinitely renewable resource; previously they fired weapons with mad abandon for the most part.
     I also appreciate that things are actually happening. Not to harp on it, but Hershel’s farm was one long, boring, repetitive slog, where the cast mostly sat around thinking they were secure from the fall of civilization brought about by the walker plague, and worried about their feelings. Really? Flesh-eating creatures, some people you used to know, are wandering about, the governments have collapsed, there's no manufacturing or agriculture and all you're worried about are your feelings? That’s a luxury they didn’t have.
     It’s also a luxury that the producers shouldn’t have had, but for some reason ratings actually went up for that season. Maybe they were benefiting from people discovering the first season on DVD and reruns. Maybe there were people like me hoping that things would get better, based on reports of the graphic novels upon which the series is based (though reportedly significant deviations in plot have occurred). Maybe I’m out of step and the second season was wonderfully magnificent in every way, the apex of entertainment, action and drama, a classic for the ages for which future generations will weep and praise like the works of Shakespeare. If so, I’ll still think season two was garbage, and that future generations are idiots on par with the cast of The Jersey Shore or Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
     Sunday, Dec. 2 is the “mid-season finale,” and a confrontation is coming. The forces of Woodbury are planning to attack the Prison, and the Prison dwellers are attempting to infiltrate Woodbury. Nothing will be resolved in this episode, of course, but the stage will be set for the second half of the season.
     I can’t wait.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Not-So-OK Corral

From Simon &
The Last Gunfight: The Real Story
of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral
and How It Changed the American West
By Jeff Guinn
(Simon & Schuster)

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
--The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

     Many films and books have been done on the subject of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Recent films include Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994), but there have been many more. There was even a Star Trek episode (Spectre of the Gun, 1968) in which aliens made Kirk, Spock and a couple of other crewmen relive the gunfight as the losers.
     Back when I was a teen, I recall stories about how the gunfight wasn’t really as black and white as it was presented, and that maybe the Earps and Doc Holliday weren’t the good guys in the altercation. So when I saw The Last Gunfight, I picked it up out of curiosity. I looked at the first page, describing how the night and morning before the gunfight, Ike Clanton got (and stayed) drunk and walked around telling everybody that he was going to get his gun and kill the Earps and Doc Holliday, but that Virgil Earp, a Tombstone marshal, didn’t pay it any mind. Such statements were made all the time.
     That was one of the moments when the gunfight could have been avoided, or at least postponed. The Last Gunfight then backtracks to tell the story of how Tombstone was founded, and the lives of the participants before the gunfight and all the events that led to and contributed to it. 
     Despite some one-star reviews on Amazon (mostly by people who felt from a cursory examination that the book is anti-Earp and so did not bother to read it), it’s a mostly even-handed book that seems fair to both sides. That it reveals some warts and blemishes on the Earps is apparently unacceptable to many. Still, while it may not live up to its grandiose subtitle, it places the confrontation in a political, historical and sociological context.
     The Last Gunfight reveals some surprising information about the old West, including that in Tombstone, Ariz., it wasn't permitted for citizens to carry guns around unless they had just arrived or were about to leave. The official reason for the Earps to approach Ike Clanton and his companions wasn’t that he had been threatening to kill some people, but that some of his friends were bearing arms.
     Fans of the gunfight already know that it didn’t actually take place at the O.K. Corral, but that was news to me. They probably also know that Wyatt Earp wasn’t a hired lawman at the time, but merely a deputized civilian who made his living in part from gambling. “Cowboys” wasn’t what ranchers called themselves, either, but rather a derogatory term for rustlers (although most of the rustling was across the border into Mexico, which was tolerated because the area needed the beef and Mexicans weren’t considered fully human); Ike Clanton and his companions were “cowboys.”
     Whether you believe the Earps acted heroically, merely appropriately, negligently or criminally, one thing is clear from this book: it wasn’t a classic Western shootout, just a police action that got out of hand. It was more akin to Rodney King than a duel.
     Ike Clanton, the man probably most responsible for precipitating the event by his drunken threats, wasn’t even armed at the time.
     One of the men the Earps shot and killed may not have been armed; at least, no gun was found at the scene. The Earps probably didn’t think they were going to do anything more violent than confiscate some guns.
     Instead, for whatever reason, a lot of shooting breaks out, and several people died. Later, Virgil Earp is maimed and Morgan Earp is killed, probably in retaliation, and Wyatt Earp goes on an extra-legal “vendetta ride” to kill (arrest doesn’t seem to have been a considered option) those he held responsible.
     All in all, there are few real heroes here, certainly not Wyatt (although Virgil and maybe Morgan come off better), who comes across as a frustrated, bitter man not above breaking or bending the law himself. Clanton and the cowboys don’t come off any better, though you could argue that at the time of the gunfight they weren’t doing anything to merit capital punishment.
     Some of the reviews of The Last Gunfight argue that there’s nothing new here if you’ve read other books about the O.K Corral. I haven’t, so I can’t judge, but I enjoyed this one.

Friday, November 23, 2012

China Mieville's wild worlds

Perdido Street Station and Un Lun Dun
By China Mieville
(Del Rey)

      The success of such tween series as Twilight, Hunger Games and Harry Potter (at least the latter books) has proven there's money to be made in the young adult market, especially with a science fiction or fantasy background. Many authors of non-tween lit have caught on and are writing their own. 
     One example you probably haven't found (but for which you should look) is China Mieville. The British author has been writing strange, complex  adult fantasy and weird fiction -- Embassytown, Kraken and The City and the City -- since at least 1999, but a few years ago cracked a young adult novel. He has just written a new one -- Railsea, which is sort of a fantasy take on Moby Dick (Mieville meets Melville) -- but instead I’m going to look at two of his older books: Perdido Street Station (2000), the first of several set in the fantasy world of Bas-Lag, where magic and steam technology mix, and Un Lun Dun (2007), a young adult novel set in UnLondon, a shadowy magical counterpart to the real world’s London, filled with people and things that fell through the cracks.

Original cover art for Perdido Street Station from

     Perdido was Mieville’s second published novel, and the second that I read. It also seems to be one of his most popular. I liked it better than anything I’d read recently except Windup Girl, and it had been sitting on my bookshelf for close to 10 years unread. (That sometimes happens when you buy as many books as I do; it’s not even a record.)
 Random House
     As I said above, it’s set in the fantasy world of bas-lag, specifically in and around the city of New Crobunzon, which was built amid the bones (in the rib cage) of an immense animal from long ago. It’s a land where magic (thaumaturgy) co-exists with industrial age tech, where monstrosities (some man-made) co-exist with humans.
     The plot revolves around Isaac, a sort of hermetic philosopher-scientist, who is approached by Yagharek, a garuda (a sort of winged man) who has lost his wings and wants Isaac to restore to him the power of flight (not necessarily with new wings). Yagharek doesn’t say how he lost his wings, but apparently it was for some crime in his native land. 
     While Isaac studies as many winged creatures as he can get his hands on (to figure out the best way to let Yagharek fly again), he purchases a cocoon containing a strange type of moth, and thus sets the book’s tragedy in motion. It grows into an immense moth-like humanoid creature that sucks people’s minds. Too much of the novel involves the quest to stop these creatures, actually, but the world and the creatures in this world are what make the book so enthralling.

     That's the main plot, but there other significant characters, including Lin -- Isaac’s lover, who is a khepri (a sort of red-skinned woman whose head is a giant beetle) and an artist (she secretes a substance that can be used for intricate sculptures) -- and the city of New Crobunzon itself.
      Eventually Yagharek’s crime is revealed, the threat of the moth men is arrested, and many people die. Everything does not end happily, although it ends less unhappily than it could have.

Cover image from Amazon UK, featuring illustration by China Mieville
     Un Lun Dun similarly explores another world, full of many strange creatures and people, though this one is tethered quite clearly to London. Zanna and Deeba, two young girls, begin noticing strange phenomena, and references to Zanna -- the pretty, blond, popular one -- as “the Shwazzy,” which leads to their entering Un London, a distorted reflection of the familiar city full of discarded items and people, beset by a smog monster (nothing like the one Godzilla faced in the 1970s) and defended by “unbrellas” (umbrellas from London that are damaged so they can no longer serve their original functions).  
Random House
      The Shwazzy is the chosen one (from the French choisir, meaning to choose), as revealed by a talking book, but in their first skirmish with the smog monster and his allies, Zanna is incapacitated. Then Deeba discovers that one of Un London’s so-called defenders is really aiding the smog creature, and she must step into the Shwazzy’s role despite the book’s prophecy being revealed as more or less hooey.
     Un Lun Dun is also a little on the long side (though not as long as some of the of the Harry Potter series), but full of inventive characters and critters. Mieville himself drew the many little drawings that pepper the book.
     Other characters include a half-ghost boy and a sentient and ambulatory milk carton.
     Mieville eschews the usual fantasy quest cliches. For example, when Deeba is told that they have to find seven objects to complete a quest, and then learning that each object is only needed to obtain the following object, she decides they should just go and get the seventh one right away. (That object isn't a sword or amulet either, but an Un Gun, a revolver that does different things depending upon what has been placed into its chambers (seeds, ants, etc.).

     Mieville's other books feature concepts such as two cities that overlap the same geography, but the inhabitants are trained not to perceive the others, and the disappearance of  a giant squid from a museum which sparks an apocalypse.

     Mieville's not for all tastes, he's worth checking out if you're looking for inventive, dark urban fantasy.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why pundits never admit they were wrong

The Signal and the Noise: 
Why So Many Predictions 
Fail -- but Some Don't
By Nate Silver
(Penguin Press)

      I haven't actually read Nate Silver's book (it seems to be too weighted to people familiar not only with statistics or polling but also gambling and sports), but I'm using it as a nail on which to hang a post about how wrong some pundits were about the presidential election, and how almost none of them have had the guts to admit it; many made excuses for why they were wrong that had nothing to do with their powers of analysis and prediction.
     (One notable exception was Dick Morris, who admitted that he made some faulty assumptions. Newt Gingrich on Monday made a similar admission, writing repeatedly that “We were wrong.”)
     Conservative pundit Ann Coulter will only concede that it's hard to unseat a sitting president, that there was nothing the Republican Party could have done differently to win (tell that to Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush). It's not that Romney was weak, or an Etch-A-Sketch or just unlikeable. It's not that the Republican Party alienated large swathes of women and Latinos. It was just the incumbency. 
     Things got so bad that even on fiercely partisan Fox News (if you believe that Fox is “fair and balanced,” we can't even start a conversation), they had to rub Karl Rove's nose in the truth when he challenged their conclusion that Obama had won Ohio.
     Fox anchor Megyn Kelly -- not one of the channel’s token moderates or liberals -- asked Karl Rove, when he insisted Romney still might win Ohio, “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?”
     I heard this soundbite on Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where Stewart (perhaps unfairly) interpreted the question as, “Are you lying to us or lying to yourself?” 
     Nate Silver enters the picture because he accurately predicted the presidential election results (in the sense that he correctly identified in which states Obama would win and in which Romney would win), and because he was the guest that night on The Daily Show and the night before on The Colbert Report.
     OK, Rove had skin in the game -- $300 million by some accounts -- and he wasn't just a pundit but a political activist. He couldn't really be counted on to give a dispassionate and evidence-based evaluation of Obama's chances. What of actual pundits, people who are paid for their reasoned, expert analysis but aren't actively campaigning for one candidate or another? In his book Silver points out that these pundits -- left and right -- are rarely if ever called on their failures. He gives the example of PBS's The McLaughlin Group, which ends each show with rapid-fire “Predictions” by its panel. The week before Obama's landslide win over McCain, two of the conservative pundits called it for McCain, one of the liberals said it was too close to call and only the other liberal correctly predicted Obama's victory. Silver notes that no one was called on their failures  the following week.
     This year both McLaughlin and This Week with George Stephanopolus similarly featured predictions that were way off, this time by the conservatives alone. On McLaughlin, again, they were not called on it, and on This Week none of the original panelists returned to face the obvious question of how they could be so very wrong.
     For example, on This Week, George F. Will -- a conservative but one who has been very critical of the Republicans at times -- predicted a huge Romney win with 321 electoral votes. (On McLaughlin, Pat Buchanan joked -- I think -- that Romney would get something in the 400s.) His reasoning: there was a proposal to ban gay marriage on the Minnesota ballot, and therefore evangelicals would come out in sufficient numbers to give Romney a victory. This argument made little sense at the time, since Minnesota has only a few electoral votes and by itself could not possibly tip the election to Romney by such a large margin. (It makes even less sense now that Romney failed to win Minnesota and the proposal was defeated.)
     Earlier in the election cycle, Will was more evenhanded, at times almost dismissive of the entire Republican presidential pack, but maybe he felt he had to become a cheerleader in the end to maintain his conservative credentials. How could he have gone from expecting a tight race to believing Romney would win not in a squeaker but in a landslide? Obama's margin was even greater than he predicted for Romney.
     Will writes two columns a week for the Washington Post, but in neither for the week after the election did he explain his reasoning better or why he was wrong. (I pick on Will rather than Buchanan because Buchanan is clearly clowning when he predicts such a large win; Will seemed dead serious.)
     Silver refers to two types of pundits: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs' predictions get worse the more information they have, while foxes get better. (The concept is drawn from Isaiah Berlin's "The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History," which in turn took its avatars from a Greek fragment attributed to Archilochus: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.)
     (It may also be related to the Aesop's fable of the fox and the cat, wherein the fox boasts it has a whole bag full of tricks while the cat says he has only one, namely to run up a tree and hide. When  they encounter some hounds, the cat escapes, but the fox cannot settle on one trick and is eaten. The moral, as my father told it to me, was that "It's better to have one trick if it's a good one.") 
     Silver writes that “(hedgehogs are) type A personalities who believe in Big Ideas – in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society. Think Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious. Or Malcolm Gladwell and the ‘tipping point’.”  
     “(Foxes are) “scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion.  If hedgehogs are hunters, always looking out for the big kill, then foxes are gatherers.”

     Based on this election's predictions, Will and many other conservatives are hedgehogs, as guilty of engaging in the “math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better” as Karl Rove, and with less excuse. It will be interesting to see if they or the Republican Party (as well as the Democratic hedgehogs and foxes) as a whole learn anything by 2016.

Reading Monty Python's Flying Circus

AP photo

Monty Python's Flying Circus: 
Complete and Annotated ... All the Bits
Edited by Luke Dempsey
(Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers)

The Complete Monty Python's 
Flying Circus: All the Words (2 vols.)
Written and conceived by Graham Chapman, 
John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, 
Terry Jones and Michael Palin

     I’m a big fan of the TV program Monty Python’s Flying Circus and of the comedy troupe of the same name. I own the complete series on DVD (as well as most of their comedy records, films and ancillary books), but even with a remote control in hand it’s easy to miss some of the dialogue (especially with the laugh track, live or canned as the case may be). I’m also a book nut. So, way back in 1989, I purchased a two-volume work titled The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus: All the Words, which is exactly what the title suggests: the scripts (or perhaps a transcription) of every episode of the show, including lines deleted by fussy censors. It also contains an index, so if I want to read (or watch) a particular skit, I can easily determine in which episode it occurs.
     One drawback of the book is that Terry Gilliam’s animation links are almost completely absent. Also, the books are paperbacks (although I bought it as a boxed set, so it has held up pretty well through the years).
     Now there is a new, hardcover alternative: Monty Python's Flying Circus: Complete and Annotated ... All the Bits. I like hardcover books, I like annotations, and the format allows for color pictures which allow the Terry Gilliam animations to be excerpted as well.
     “Every script is thoroughly annotated with notes that cover the plethora of cultural, historical, and topical references touched upon in each sketch. Sidebars and commentary throughout include profiles of the principles -- Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, and John Cleese -- and interviews with the cast and crew; fascinating facts about technical concerns, set design, and shooting locations; insider stores from on and off the set, including arguments, accidents, and practical jokes; goofs and gaffes; and much more. Also included are thousands of stills and artwork from the shows.” 
     Of course, I already have the first book(s) – which are still in print, by the way -- so, is All the Bits worth the upgrade?
     Alas, no, for several reasons: 
     One, the cost: All the Bits sells for $50 list, although you can probably find it for less this holiday season. All the Words isn't a lot less at $39.90 list, so the new book may be more attractive if you don't own the old one. For me, there's not enough new content to justify the purchase.  
     Second, it’s cumbersome, the size of a phone book. I don’t think you could comfortably read it in bed, maybe not even one’s lap. All the Words is more portable. 
    Third, there are strange colored borders around photos, with annotations in coordinated colored text and colored footnote numbers in the text. 
     By contrast, All the Words is just plain text, with a few photos inserted in the center of the book. It’s designed not to be hip or eye-catching, but for clarity and ease of use. Call me crazy, but that’s all I need or want from the book.
      Fourth, most of the annotations are of mundane matters, such as a difference between the attire in the script and what was worn during filming, or describing what line was drowned out by laughter, or telling us how iconic a bit is. Not exactly essential reading. 
     If you don't already have All the Words, take a look at All the Bits. It might be worth it to you. Meanwhile I'll wait and see if it's remaindered and shows up in the Daedalus Books catalog or at a Barnes and Noble store; I might consider it then for the “annotations.” Until then, I'll stick with All the Words. (Now, which episode has the Mr. Hilter sketch …)