About DBreitenbeck

David Breitenbeck is a professional freelance writer currently living in Southeast Michigan.

Flotsam: A Hodgepodge Ending in Lovecraft

1. I try to hunt up simple, straightforward points where ideas make contact with reality in order to judge their truth or falseness. Preferably reality I can see for myself, or which is at least clear and concrete enough to be resistant to rhetoric.

For instance, a question that occurred to me this week: has anyone ever successfully bred a given species to the point where the new breed is unable to sire fertile offspring with the original branch, but can sire fertile offspring in its own, new branch?

If yes, then natural selection is a viable way to bring about new species, at least in principle. If no, then it isn’t and the theory of natural-selection driven macro-evolution is simply false whatever else may be said of it.

I would legitimately like to know which is the case, though I strongly suspect that if this had ever happened, the newly-created species would be as famous and talked about as Dolly the sheep. Still, I’m not well-versed in scientific literature, so it might be so.

2. Another example: What is the Earth’s climate *supposed* to be like at the moment, and how did you determine this?

3. Something occurred to me the other day:

You have a wheelchair-bound old man who, through cunning, high-position, and unscrupulousness takes advantage of the desperation and fear of people facing hard times in order to seize control of more and more of the community and ultimately re-make it in his own image. While those fighting against him use local institutions, relationships, and entrepreneurial spirit to prove they don’t need his ‘help’.

Is Mr. Potter a caricature of FDR?!

(Seriously, I highly doubt it, though both Capra and Stewart were conservatives. Especially since Potter being in a wheelchair was only due to the arthritis-stricken Lionel Barrymore being cast in the role. Still, I can’t help finding the parallels amusing)

4. Something to keep in mind when discussing how and why a given piece of work appeals to someone or doesn’t, why it’s popular or not, is that there are two sides of the equation: the content of the work and state of the audience. It’s a question of harmonizing the composition of the work with the composition of the reader / viewer: almost like getting medicine right, where you have to make sure the chemical composition of the medicine interacts with the chemical composition of the body in such a way that it will do what it’s supposed to do in most cases (though it will almost certainly not interact the same way in all cases, because everyone has different factors going into their bodily composition, which is why we have government-mandated legal shields rigorous long-term testing).

Anyway, whether a given story ‘hits a note’ with people is dependent, in part, on what the people themselves bring to the table. Something to keep in mind while writing: what kind of person would this story appeal to? What ‘elements’ are your trying to react with in a person?

5. This is also why some stories are gigantic hits when they first come out and then fade to obscurity or become punchlines later on. Their success was not due primarily to whatever merits they have as stories, but due to the surrounding cultural or social factors present in the audience. The Billy Jack films are a good example of this, becoming massive hits at the time by tapping in the youth zeitgeist of the moment, while now they’re almost forgotten because that particular geist ist abgefahren.

I think you can tell what this means for much of today’s film woke, even those that make money.

6. I think I’ve said this at some point, but any list of the greatest American writers that does not include H.P. Lovecraft is immediately suspect. Not just for his drippingly-rich prose and titanic imagination, but also just in terms of sheer influence. When you look at science-fiction horror stories that have had any kind of impact, you can see Lovecraft’s fingerprints everywhere (Alien, the works of John Carpenter, Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead, Half-Life, etc.).

The only branch of that particular tree that really evades it (sometimes) would be cyber-horror, like The Terminator (though it would not at all surprise me to find a Lovecraftian ancestor there as well). Lovecraft’s general approach is “some ancient, almost-forgotten nightmare is uncovered in the modern, scientific world, exposing an entirely new and horrible understanding of reality”. ‘Cyber-horror’ is more “we’ve created something brand new…and it’s far worse than anything that’s come before.” Past-focused versus future focused.

7. I’ve even heard rumors – though I haven’t yet been able to confirm it – that Prof. Tolkien himself was an admirer of Lovecraft’s work, and that his influence even found its way into Middle Earth: e.g. the ‘nameless things’ that gnaw the Earth in the deep places, of which Gandalf will ‘bring back no word of them to darken the light of day.’ Creatures like Shelob and Ungoliant also have a Lovecraftian tone to them, in their weird, ancient, utterly destructive and almost otherworldly nature.

I would like to find out for sure whether it’s true or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me much.

A Quick Short

Once upon a time there was an old farmer named Zechariah Flint. He grew all kinds of things, but his specialty was cabbages. He won prizes at all the fairs for his beautiful cabbages, and they were his pride and joy.

Well, one year, just a few days before he was due to harvest the cabbages to take to the fair, Old Zechariah notices that something’s been eating them. Obviously he was pretty darn upset about that, so he set out some traps in the hope of catching whatever it was. But no matter how many snares he set, more and more of the cabbages were getting eaten.

With only three days left before the fair, he was getting furious. At this rate, his next door neighbor, Joe Sloman might beat him out for the blue ribbon, and he just couldn’t stand Joe Sloman! So that night he got out his gun and sat up by the garden to see if he could catch the thief.

Right about the first crack of dawn, a big fat rabbit comes hopping along right into his garden and goes straight for the cabbages. Zechariah smiled triumphantly, raised his gun, and said “Say your prayers, varmint!”

The rabbit saw him, and realizing it couldn’t get away it sat back on its haunches and put its paws in the air in surrender.

“Spare me, sir!” cried the rabbit. “What have I done that you want to go and murder me?”

“’T’ain’t murder,” said Zechariah. “You’re a thief! You’re the one that’s been eatin’ my cabbages.”

“Oh, are these your cabbages?” asked the rabbit. “I’m sorry, I had no idea! I thought they were abandoned, see, and free to all hungry creatures. I apologize sincerely for my mistake.”

“You ‘spect me to believe that?” sneered Zechariah, aiming down the gun.

“Perhaps I could offer you something in payment for the cabbages?” said the rabbit. “I can, you know, if you will but spare my life.”

Now, Zechariah didn’t really think the rabbit had anything to offer, but he was curious and lowered his gun a little.

“That so?” he said. “Now, what can you offer?”

“I know that you men love gold, yes?” said the rabbit.

“Aye, that we do,” said Zechariah

“Well, as you know, we rabbits live in holes in the ground. My own burrow is some ways away, beyond that field. I happened to be digging a nice new den not two days back when I hit into a big wooden chest. I peeked inside, and what do I find but piles and piles of shiny gold coins! I think someone must have buried it there long ago and forgotten all about it. If you won’t shoot me, I’ll tell you exactly where to find it.”

Now the old farmer was interested. He had a decent living, but not so decent that he’d care to pass up a whole chest of gold if it were really there for the taking. He lowered his gun even further.

“You telling the truth, varmint?” he said.

“As I live and breathe,” said the rabbit. “And as I hope to go on doing so.”

Zechariah thought a moment, then said, “All right, varmint. If you tell me where this here treasure is, and swear to me that you’ll never touch my cabbages again, then I’ll let you go.”

“Oh, thank you good sir, thank you!” said the rabbit. “I will tell you what to do. On the other side of yonder hill is a field. In the field there is a chestnut tree. If you dig about the roots on the west side of that tree, you will find that treasure. Though I warn you, it is down fairly deep.”

“All right,” said the farmer. “But remember, treasure or no treasure, I’ll shoot you down if I catch you prowling around here again!”

“After today, I swear to you sir that you will never see me again!” said the rabbit.

So Zechariah saw the thief off of his land, then went and fetched his spade and set off to follow the rabbit’s direction. He climbed the hill, found the meadow, and saw the chestnut tree, just as the rabbit had said. Now very excited, he set to work digging about the west side of the tree. It was hard work, since the tree had large and extensive roots. More than once his old heart gave a leap as he thought he’d found it at last, only to discover that it was only yet another tree root that had to be cleared.

He dug all morning and on into afternoon, fearful to leave the spot now that he’d begun. Joe Sloman might happen by, see what was up, and get the gold before him after he’d gone and done all that work.

But finally, as the sun was going down and he’d dug a hole near ten feet deep and almost as wide and fair uprooted the whole tree, the old farmer had to face the fact that he’d been tricked. There was nothing here but tree roots and the remnant of an abandoned rabbit burrow.

Fuming and swearing to get even with the rabbit, he limped back over the hill to his farm. Only then, as he came in sight of his garden, he realized that the rabbit had at least been telling the truth about one thing: after today, neither he nor any other rabbits would be coming by.

For, while Zechariah had been off digging all day, the rabbit had gone and fetched all his brothers and sisters and nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles and cousins down to the fourth degree – rabbits have large families, as you know – and they’d descended on old Zechariah’s garden and carried off not only every head of his prized cabbage, but every single vegetable he possessed, down to the last string bean.

So, just as the old liar had promised, Zechariah never saw him again. And obviously he wasn’t able to bring any of his prized cabbages to the fair that year. But what rankled him most of all was the fact that Joe Sloman took home a blue ribbon with a freshly-caught brace of the fattest rabbits anyone had ever seen.

A Disappointing Ending

I finished Cowboy Bebop this weekend, and, I have to say, I was really disappointed by the ending. I won’t say what happens, except that’s it’s ambiguous and the writer has explicitly said that he wants people to make their own minds about it.

Well, I can do that. In fact, I might end up writing a fan-fic about it, because I felt so unsatisfied (though dang, this would be an intimidating tale to try my hand at). But that’s not really the point.

A story is a real, concrete thing. What is contained in the story is the sum total of its existence (with the arguable exception of supplemental material by the creator: e.g. Jane Austen’s letters detailing what happened to the characters in her books). I can write my own addition to it, but that will never be a real part of the story. At best, it’ll be a ‘might have been’, or a satisfying piece of work in its own right that can be imagined to connect to the original. But the ending we get is the end of the real story of Cowboy Bebop.

And, well, I didn’t like how it ended. It’s not so much the ambiguity as the fact that it just felt incomplete. What I thought were the most interesting and engrossing story threads were left largely unresolved and most of the cast doesn’t even take part in the climax. After all these characters had been through together, and after all I’d been through with them, I wanted something more. I wanted them to have some kind of closure, to bring their stories through to the end, or at least to feel that the progress I’d been watching them make had reached a point of completion. In a word, it didn’t feel to me like the story was over; it felt like it needed another chapter, or even a whole other season to really bring things home.

Granted, it’s deliberately meant to be an unconventional show, but again, that’s beside the point. Conventional or not, the question is whether it’s satisfying, emotionally fitting, aesthetically pleasing, and so on. Whether a story beat works or not is a completely separate question from how conventional or expected it is (I could give a well-known example of a writer who makes this mistake all the time, but it would be a travesty to even mention him in the same breath as Bebop).

It rankles even more because I loved just about everything about the show except the ending. Knowing now what it all leads to is going take some of the joy out of the experience. I just really don’t want to leave these characters there.

Friday Flotsam: Thoughts on ‘No Way Home’

1. It being New Year’s Eve, I suppose standard practice would be to give some kind of a retrospective of the year gone by or speculations of the one to come. But we have more important things to talk about today; namely Spider-Man!

I’d thought I was done with the MCU, but the word-of-mouth on No Way Home was so good that I couldn’t resist checking it out. And, well, add my mouth to the word, because yeah, it is really good. I think, on reflection, that I’d still rank Spider-Man 2 above it as the best live-action Spidey flick, but this is a pretty clear second-placer (though, full disclosure, I haven’t seen Far From Home or the two Amazing Spider-Man films…which kind of renders the above meaningless, as that’s nearly half the candidates right there. All I’ll say is that I haven’t seen anyone saying anything that would challenge it).

So, there will be some spoilers, but not really anything you didn’t see in the trailers.

2. I don’t want to go into the plot too much; the short version here is that a plot device courtesy of Dr. Strange brings several classic Spider-Man villains into the MCU from other universes, not to mention two alternate versions of Peter Parker: Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. Meaning that we have all three live-action Spider-Mans working together against five classic bad guys.

But the thing that makes the film work is the fact that they don’t just trot these characters out for cheap nostalgia. The writers clearly took the time to sit down and consider where each character is in his respective journey, what he wants, and why he is the way he is. The result is that they actually manage to build on the returning characters, bringing out new dimensions and reaching new conclusions. To put it another way, these aren’t just fan-baiting props trotted out to make the audience squeal (e.g. most of the stuff in the Star Wars sequels), the writers treat them as actual characters with arcs and motivations.

3. The one exception is, unfortunately, my personal favorite Spidey rogue, Sandman. He has some good moments, but his motivations and actions really don’t make sense by the end of the film: he has no reason whatever to side with the villains given his history and motives (which the film alludes to). Of course, if Sandman were on the heroes’s side, the baddies wouldn’t stand a chance, but it’s still something the writers are clearly hoping you’ll just go with.

4. On the other hand, Willem Dafoe knocks it out of the park as the Green Goblin, reminding us that, no it’s not just nostalgia talking: he really was and is that good in the role. If anything, he’s even more vile, dangerous, and downright frightening than he was before, and he recaptures the creepy ambiguity of the split personality as if he’d played the role yesterday. Plus he features in some of the most restrained, yet brutal fights in the MCU between him and Peter (apparently still doing many of his own stunts).

Alfred Molina likewise is just as good as ever as Doctor Octopus, every bit as commanding, arrogant, and yet tragic as he was before (there’s a downright beautiful moment between him and Tobey Maguire near the end). Again, like Dafoe it really feels as though he stepped straight from the earlier film into this one.

Props also to Jamie Foxx as Electro. I remember when I found out he was cast in the role way back when I was interested; he’s a very good actor and I thought he’d be a great fit (an instance of race swapping where it doesn’t really matter). But from all I can tell, he unfortunately wasn’t given much to work with. Here, though, he really goes to town in the role: power hungry and with a definitely dangerous edge even when he seems to be calm and helpful. And, of course, I’m delighted they worked in the character’s trademark ‘star-shaped head of electricity’ image.

5. But good as it is to see the baddies again, the real story is the three Peters. Tobey Maguire is, of course, the oldest and in many ways the most important of the three, and he comes across as definitely a more mature, wiser Peter than when we saw him last. Andrew Garfield, meanwhile, almost steals the whole show as a Peter still haunted by his failure to save Gwen Stacey, but also the one who seems most excited to be meeting the others (“I always wanted brothers,” he says at one point, which is kind of perfect). Though he also has his share of fun moments, like when he reluctantly proves his identity upon first joining the cast.

(Garfield is so good, in fact, that he does the impossible: he makes me want to see the Amazing Spider-Man films)

These three actors have spectacular chemistry, and their interactions all feel pitch-perfect as they support one another, compare notes, share hard-earned wisdom, and so on. Each one of them contributes something, some unique experience or perspective. And again, the story actually develops on builds on their characters from the previous films, especially Garfield, who gets a wonderful redemptive moment in the final act, bringing some closure to his character. Though, fittingly, the biggest moment of ‘what it means to be Spider-Man’ goes to Tobey Maguire.

That’s another thing, I love how positive the film is regarding its cast. There’s no effort to tear down one or another of the three Peters or to take pot-shots at earlier versions of the story. The three men get along well, like each other, and appreciate each other. Even a brief, reactionary fight between Maguire and Garfield when they first meet is both very quick and ends with mutual respect and admiration rather than insults. It all feels, well, very nice.

(Oh, and I very much appreciated it that, though Kirsten Dunst doesn’t appear, Maguire’s Peter confirms that yes, they got their happy ever after and made it work. See, that’s what we want when a hero returns to the screen after a long absence: to know that all his struggles and adventures were not in vain after all).

In a word, the returning cast are treated as people, real characters with motivations and histories, not just walk-on fan-bait.

6. Besides all that, it’s just a really good Spider-Man story; one that really gets the core of the character as a normal man trying to balance his great power and responsibility, who is a hero because it’s the right thing to do and who doesn’t receive any reward for it. Tom Holland, I feel, really grows into the role here, being forced to make real sacrifices and come to terms with real consequences as he struggles to do the right thing.

It also gracefully corrects course on some of the baggage of the previous films (well, Homecoming at least: again, haven’t see the other one). As in, MJ and Ned actually act like human beings and are legitimately likable this time around! Both the romance and the three-way friendship actually worked and I found myself genuinely invested in them! I still don’t like the race and name swapping on Mary Jane at all, but they work with what they have and they made the lemonade!

7. There are some other problems with regards to how the whole multiverse concept works and the rules of who goes through and why, not to mention some, ah, timing issues regarding the villains (can’t say more without spoilers). Oh, and I thought the after credits scenes were a missed opportunity (though the first one is admittedly funny).

But my biggest concern is just that this is going to be the next gimmick; pulling older, beloved versions of franchises into new ones in order to shore up viewership. It’s well done here, but I’d hate to see it become a standardized gimmick the way the MCU crossover cameos did. Expanding the crossover and nostalgia train ever further outwards until everything interacts with everything else.

There is also something I felt just seeing the trailers: that sense of admitted defeat. As if the current overseers of the franchise were throwing up their hands and saying ‘yeah, we can’t do it. We can’t make characters the way that Sam Raimi or even Marc Webb did. We just need to use what was built before in order to make our version work.’ Like the natives in ‘King Kong’, dependent on the wall that they could never have built themselves, but can only maintain.

8. Well, that’s a topic for another day. For now, I’m going to focus on the positive: I actually went to the theater to see a new movie and enjoyed myself again. It really did feel like, for those two and a half hours (which went by remarkably fast, by the way), I was back in the days of Sam Raimi, or even the early days of the MCU; just happy to be entertained by the creativity, hard work, and good will before me on the screen. Contrary to the title, it felt a little like coming home again.

It felt good.

You know, I’m not so sure that this wasn’t a suitable piece for New Years. It makes me think that at least some of what’s ahead might actually be as good as what has been.

Happy New Year, everyone.

Christmas

No flotsam this week. Instead here’s the poem ‘Christmas’ by Sir John Betjeman:

The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.

The holly in the windy hedge
And round the Manor House the yew
Will soon be stripped to deck the ledge,
The altar, font and arch and pew,
So that the villagers can say
‘The church looks nice’ on Christmas Day.

Provincial Public Houses blaze,
Corporation tramcars clang,
On lighted tenements I gaze,
Where paper decorations hang,
And bunting in the red Town Hall
Says ‘Merry Christmas to you all’.

And London shops on Christmas Eve
Are strung with silver bells and flowers
As hurrying clerks the City leave
To pigeon-haunted classic towers,
And marbled clouds go scudding by
The many-steepled London sky.

And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s hearts are glad.
And Christmas-morning bells say ‘Come!’
Even to shining ones who dwell
Safe in the Dorchester Hotel.

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

Talking Bitcoin at ‘The Everyman’

My latest Everyman article went up last week (I was on vacation visiting relatives so missed sharing it ‘out of the box’). This one delves into the topic of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency in general.

The short version is that I think paying actual money for meaningless bits of data that only have value because people expect it to rise in value in the future and which is constantly run back-and-forth across the internet is a really, really bad idea.

Apart from the security and centralization issues (of which admittedly I’ve only scratched the surface), and assuming the points I mentioned were or have been corrected or accounted for, it really wouldn’t matter. For in my estimation there is a much more important problem I see with cryptocurrencies, and that is that it is simply a meaningless strings of data that has no value apart from the fact that people expect it to rise in value. In short, it is a 100% speculation market, the bubble of all bubbles.

Now, the answer may come back “well paper money doesn’t have value either.” But, in fact, it does. The value of fiat currency lies in the fact that it is backed by the State. If I acquire a genuine five-dollar bill, the State guarantees and legally enforces that it will always and everywhere be worth five dollars. The value of the five dollars comes from the fact that any seller under the authority of the issuing government is legally required to accept it as five dollars (things get a lot more complicated when you ask “and what is five dollars worth?” but that’s a tale for another day).

However, the entire point of cryptocurrency is that no one is backing it. It is worth only what someone is willing to pay for it. Thus, something like bitcoin only exists relative to actual currency; its value is expressed in terms of being worth so many dollars only because there is someone who is willing to trade that many dollars of backed currency for that many bits of un-backed crypto (or pseudo) currency.

Say I sell a portion of bitcoin to someone for a hundred dollars. If he has any sense, he will only buy it if he expects that it will either be worth more than a hundred dollars in the future or that he can trade it for something that is worth at least a hundred dollars. In short, he expects at least that much value from bitcoin, and the only reason anyone would trade him something for that bitcoin is if they think they can get at least that value in backed currency. In either case, the backed currency is still the standard by which bitcoin is judged.

This means that bitcoin will never be a viable currency in its own right, but will always exist relative to backed currency because the backed currency has a guaranteed value and bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies does not. This also means that bitcoin doesn’t work as a hedge against inflation, which are usually things like bonds or works of art that always retain roughly the same level of inherent or guaranteed value regardless of the state of the currency.

However, when it comes to bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, its value keeps changing based on speculation and based on how much backed currency someone thinks he can get for it. If the backed currency loses its value, then so will the amount of bitcoin you expect to be able to get it with, even assuming the bitcoin market doesn’t crash in the meantime. Thus a Monet’s monetary value rises and falls with inflation because people will always want the Monet to roughly the same degree. Nobody wants the bitcoin except for the chance to exchange it for a certain amount of backed currency.

Read the rest here. Then go pick up some tulip bulbs.