Unsafe in any station

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of the 1700s political recommendation that “The only security which we can have that men will be honest, is to make it their interest to be honest; and the best defence which we can have against their being knaves, is to make it terrible to them to be knaves. As there are many men wicked in some stations, who would be innocent in others; the best way is to make wickedness unsafe in any station.”

This is difficult to do. As Paul Campos points out, Donald Trump is “grotesquely unqualified, intellectually, emotionally, ethically, financially, aesthetically, and in every other way anyone can possibly think of to hold the most important single position in the system,” but he made it. Partly because people were willing to let him forge ahead, spew bullshit and ultimately to attempt a coup. Pointing out the king is naked isn’t much use when a significant part of the population will keep lying and insisting he does so have clothes.

In business, Elizabeth Holmes and the Sackler family ignored regulations, pushed bad products — and yet somehow neither regulators nor investors took any action. Three Arrows successfully bullshitted lots of investors. At a more trivial level, the University of Nebraska would have paid its unsuccessful head football coach $7.5 million less in separation money if they’d fired him after Oct. 1. They fired him this month, thereby blowing $7.5 million in funding. Mississippi funneled welfare money to ex-football star Brett Favre to help him build a college volleyball stadium.

So how do we make things unsafe in any station? In any station? Let’s take government. Campos has frequently pointed out how ineffective the Constitution is at safeguarding are rights if the government ignores them, and how the courts having the final say in what’s constitutional or legal isn’t working out too well with the Federalist Society staffing the courts. But if we let the legislature have the final say, that’s hardly a guarantee of good policy.

Having good people in office is a step in the right direction — but as that initial quote points out, men who appear innocent in some stations may become wicked in others. Power, as Robert Caro said, doesn’t corrupt as much as it reveals, and we may not know how bad they’ll be until they have power to abuse (Trump, obviously, made it clear up front).

Enforcing the law against the powerful is a big part of it. At least we’re seeing some of the 1/6 terrorists held to justice. A judge in Alaska just ruled that an Oath Keeper isn’t legally fit for public office because the group supports the overthrow of the United States. Central Park Karen just lost a lawsuit over her employer firing her. And the furor over the Mississippi welfare/volleyball case may yet produce some justice (we’ll see).

But the investigation into Trump stealing classified documents may not produce any results. Despite the absurdity of Trump claiming he has the power to declassify documents just by thinking about them, there’s a strong resistance to prosecuting someone who used to be president. Even though he deserves it. WaPo columnist Jason Willick, for example, argues Biden should pardon Trump. Um, no. Let’s have one standard of justice for rich and poor alike. And more generally, the media should not stand by passively when one side provably lies.

Protest, getting involved, running for office and supporting good people (to the extent we can tell) who run is part of it. Letting our reps and senators know what we support is another. So is accepting it’s a never-ending battle: as someone once said, if slavery were revived tomorrow morning, by tomorrow night we’d have people driving around with trucks loaded with chains, hoping to make money. It shouldn’t be that way, but apparently it is.

Pushing “radical” ideas until they become mainstream is a big part of it too.

“Unsafe at any station” is also a constantly shifting target. The rules keep changing so our approaches have to change too. The Citizens United decision made it much easier for rich people to pour money into political races; that changes the political landscape. The Supreme Court possibly neutralizing the ability of state courts to restrict gerrymandering would be a very bad change; if it’s impossible for a party to lose, they have nothing at risk. There’s never going to be one simple playbook that covers every situation.

I have no brilliant conclusion here, just sort of assembling some thoughts.

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Questionable Minds and Victorian pseudo-science

One of the things that fascinates me about the Victorians is the way they combined major scientific and technological breakthroughs with crackpot pseudoscience.Not that they saw it this way themselves, of course. The theories they embraced seemed just as rational and scientific as evolution, which was one of those breakthroughs. For example, criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso developed a theory that criminals were atavistic throwbacks to a lower level of evolution — i.e., black or Native American. Savages with minds too primitive to grasp the principles of law that came relatively easily to white dudes. Science historian Stephen Jay Gould wrote (I forget in which of his books) that this had a real impact on criminal sentencing: obviously a superior man who, say, killed his wife in a fit of jealousy shouldn’t be sentenced the same way as a career criminal who killed routinely.

Cynthia Eagle Russett’s Sexual Science shows how Victorian scientists studying gender differences though they were being perfectly rational in exploring the roots of women’s inferiority. Was it their smaller brains? Their immaturity (obviously the lack of beards showed women were like immature men)? The way reproduction drained energy from their brains? The fatal flaw in all their theories was that they started from the assumption women were self-evidently less intelligent than men; that assumption warped all their supposedly objective science (I get into this and later sexual-difference theories a lot in Undead Sexist Cliches).

Victorians believed in spiritualism, phrenology, aether and that masturbation could reduce you to idiocy (draining too much bodily energy to think). They believed in a variety of psychic powers loosely classed as “mesmerism,” as Alison Winter details in her book Mesmerism.

Mesmeric theories are the ones most relevant to Questionable Minds, though by the time the novel begins, they’re looked on as crude, clumsy efforts to tap vril, the psychic energy that fuels mentalists’ powers. Lombroso comes up when someone describes Edward Hyde (yes, the Mr. Hyde) as looking like one of Lombroso’s evolutionary throwbacks. And Theosophy founder Helena Blavatsky helped work out the current system for developing mental powers (as I posted about before) — so perhaps her mysticism isn’t as much mumb0-jumbo as in our world.

If/when I write the sequel (let’s see how well this book does), it’ll be interesting to explore more of the Victorians’ odd beliefs.

#SFWApro. Covers by Samantha Collins (top) and Kemp Ward (bottom).

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Reading for fun? Awful!

In an essay on fantasy, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” Ursula LeGuin argued that beautiful writing was essential to fantasy: if you could fit the dialog into a contemporary conversation, it wasn’t really fantasy.

This struck me as a kind of arbitrary rule but apparently AS Byatt expressed a similar view writing about Harry Potter, that fantasy should be “numinous” and Rowling isn’t — her readers are just too clueless to get it. Doris Egan replies that there’s a long tradition of non-numinous fantasy: “These books don’t make you fall to your knees — you’re having too much fun to do that.” And that’s perfectly fine.

M.A. Kropp quotes an even more restrictive view she encountered online, that reading fiction is bad. If you’re not reading to learn, not reading to enrich your mind, you’re just stuffing your brain with junk food. This, again, is a view I’ve encountered forms of before: Joanna Russ once wrote that reading for pleasure (as opposed to Serious Works like her own that tackle Serious Issues) was no different from taking drugs, a way to escape reality (Alan Moore has made similar complaints). This is why I will probably never read anything by Russ.

The idea that people are reading The Wrong Books has a long history. In 19th century England, as literacy became more widespread, there were worries about the working class reading lurid penny dreadfuls instead of uplifting art. In the 1950s, the book Cycle of Outrage says, Clever People Who Talk Loudly In Restaurants worried that American teens (and adults too) were turning to fluffy popular entertainment instead of embracing social realist fiction.

The same view of what makes Good Y/A continued for most of the last centuries. I read many times that teens don’t want fun reading — they’re serious truth-seekers who read to understand life! Which as one book on how school kills the urge to read said, is why the award-winning children and teen books are always Serious and nobody recommends popular favorites like Nancy Drew. As late as 2000 I read an article explaining the Oz books were crap because Baum didn’t discuss serious moral issues like C.S. Lewis did.

As the author of a book on Oz, needless to say I disagree. And my teenage tastes obviously weren’t those of a serious truth-seeker. Just look below (contrary to that one argument above, there’s a lot more to the best Conan than just machismo).That Frank Frazetta cover reminds me specfic has some of the same debates. SF fans who dislike fantasy have spilled a fair amount of ink explaining fantasy fiction is crap (in contrast, as Charles DeLint says, fantasy readers who don’t like SF simply don’t read it). It’s testosterone-laden Conan knockoffs for adolescent boys. It’s gauzy princesses-and-unicorns stuff for girls who don’t wat to deal with all that icky STEM stuff in SF. It doesn’t have carefully thought out scientific rules. Spider Robinson sneered that he’d be interested when someone comes up with a spell that can explain the heart’s loneliness (does he imagine technology can do that?).

A lot of this reminds me of HL Mencken’s definition of a Puritan as a person terrified that someone, somewhere, is having fun. I will never believe there’s anything wrong with wanting to read for pleasure or entertainment. It may not elevate our minds — though entertainment and art can coexist comfortably — but that’s okay. Whatever the appeal of popular fiction, it’s been appealing for a very long time. I don’t think it’s a flaw in our species.

To paraphrase activist Emma Goldman — who was told dancing was incompatible with fighting for political change — don’t join the revolution if it won’t let you dance. Or read.

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Apparently I’m Donald Trump’s pokemon now

Well, the subject line of his latest fundraising email began with “”I chose you.”

Not that I give him money, but a couple of months back I somehow got on a Republican mailing list. This one last week was the best yet:

“Your MAGA status is unmatched.

Because of your notable MAGA standing, I have very exciting news to share with you –

You have officially reached Great MAGA King Status.

It doesn’t surprise me that you have reached Great MAGA King Status, given you’ve always been one of my most loyal Patriots and have helped me Make. America. Great. Again.

To secure your official status as a Great MAGA King, you must follow the link below by 11:59 PM tonight, and you’ll automatically claim this exclusive opportunity. 
Fraser, I need you to understand that I only offer this to the best of the best. This is the highest honor for any supporter.
I find it hard to imagine anyone responds to such bullshit (“Whoa! I’m a Great MAGA King!”). Then again, it reminds me of the way various groups such as the Masons, the Klan and such (no, I’m not equating the Freemasons to the KKK) used to use a lot of pomp and circumstance in their initiation rituals and when someone rose through the ranks. People like ritual, titles, all of that (see this discussion of the power of Trump rallies). Of course, simply getting an email saying I’m a Great MAGA King isn’t exactly ritual, but who knows? It sure beats Ivanka begging me to buy Jared’s new book.
In other Republican news:

Tucker Carlson’s all in on violence against gays. Because that’s all this talk of sexualizing children is about. He’s also convinced military vaccine mandates are about driving out men with high testosterone.

I think describing DeSantis as a one-man Donald Trump tribute band says it all. A shitty, vicious tribute band. Who lies that the American Revolution was when people started questioning slavery (Quakers did it well before 1776. The Founders didn’t listen). Meanwhile, one of his cabinet members is outraged credit card companies might track suspicious gun purchases.

The Arizona Repub nominee for Secretary of State says it’s impossible for Biden to win Arizona legitimately. Multiple Repub candidates around the country refuse to say they’ll accept defeat. I guess we won’t have to wait until  2024 to see if our country can resist the fascist creep.

Speaking of Arizona, anti-abortion Senate candidate Blake Masters says Trump should fire generals for being too left-wing, then replace them with Trump loyalists.

According to anti-gay Southern Baptist theocrat Al Mohler, real Christians vote Republican. He forgets Southern Baptists stopped being the voice of morality a long time ago.

The fifth circuit appellate court says websites have no right to moderate content. This is good for Republicans. More here.

You may remember the case of the football coach fired for praying with students and the Supreme Court’s decree the school district has to rehire him. He wasn’t fired and he doesn’t want the job — too busy being the Great MAGA King.

A Trump cultist pleads guilty for threatening DC Comics (Superman’s son is bi) and Merriam-Webster for definitions of woman and girl that discuss gender identity.

Slimeball Fox hosts discuss how to get rid of the homeless. Fellow slimeball Fox host Tucker Carlson now claims Nixon was an innocent man destroyed by the deep state.

Republican Joni Ernst is shocked, shocked, that unemployment is so low businesses are raising pay to get workers.

“f it weren’t for people like Mark Burnett, or the bankers at Deutsche Bank, or Mitch McConnell, or Vladimir Putin, I don’t think Donald would’ve gotten as far as he’s gotten. ”

Josh Hawley goes full theocrat. I doubt it was a big step. Oh, and he’s gone from arguing for traditional gender roles to claiming there’s only one gender.

Some people who spread the lie the election was stolen are now social influencers.

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Books and graphic novels about trouble-making teens

A SH*TLOAD OF CRAZY POWERS: The Frost Files 4 by Jackson Ford has series hero Teagan Frost (genetically engineered for TK by mad scientist parents, now working for a black ops West Coast operation) narrowly survive an encounter with her metahuman siblings, a side effect of which is losing her powers. That proves really unfortunate as the senator who signs off on the operation’s budget insists on having her s his bodyguard during a West Coast visit — and wouldn’t you know, they wind up at the epicenter of a terrorist attack?

This is competent, and some of the plot twists were completely unexpected. It didn’t grab me, though, as I expected more powers, less straight action thriller. And Frost’s superior Tanner is a stock hardcase character, like DC’s Amanda Waller without the characterization she had in Suicide Squad.

SHE COULD FLY by Christopher Cantwell and Martin Morazzo focuses on a mental patient obsessed with a mysterious woman flying over her city. Unfortunately I have zero patience with “freaky thing happens, oh look, it’s the delusional person’s unreliable narration” and Cantwell is having a ball indulging in it. I sent it back to the library after finishing the first chapter.

SPIDER-GWEN: Most Wanted? by Jason Latour and Robbie Rodriguez has Gwen Stacey struggling to keep up her life as Spider-Woman with having both Kingpin henchman Matt Murdock (it’s a parallel world) and her father Captain Stacey determined to hunt her down. And can she balance her superhero life with her role as drummer for the Mary Janes rock group (alongside MJ, Betty Brant and Gloria Grant)? This is pleasant but doesn’t break much fresh ground (admittedly most comics don’t) and the rhythym of the dialog is too familiar, the bantering style I keep seeing in lots of comics

LIVEWIRE: Fugitive by Vita Ayala and Raul Allen is a less satisfying Valiant Universe teen hero. A Psiot with control of technology and electricity, Livewire spends way too much time in the middle of the book  debating Needs of the Many with another Psiot, and the fact she once shut down the world’s entire electrical grid (hence being targeted by the powers that be) should have been mentioned soonner than it was.

NANCY DREW/HARDY BOYS: The Big Lie made me wonder if it would be about Trump’s election claims but no. Instead this has Nancy, Frank and Joe reunite years after they played teen detective games during summer vacation (I really hate they erase the teen detective stuff where the CW Nancy Drew embraces it). Now, it’s serious: someone murdered the Hardy Boys’ dad, Nancy’s discovered her dad is nont the person she thinks and these innocent childhood figures are All Dark And Gritty It’s Soooo Noir CAN YOU STAND IT? I could stand it but I wasn’t blown away by it.

JANE AUSTEN: Her Heart Did Whisper by Manuel Santoni is a look at Young Jane, how she became a writer and the possibility of a lost love in her younger days. Like most of this week’s reviews, I liked it but I didn’t love it.

#SFWApro. Cover by Rodriguez, all rights remain with current holder.

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BFFs in a Couple Of Movies

MORBIUS (2022) stars Jared Leto as Marvel’s “Living Vampire,” a scientist whose radical experiments to cure himself and BFF Milo (Matt Smith) of a disabling blood disease has a few side effects such as turning them into vampires when they don’t get enough synthetic blood and apparently giving Morbius the power to command vampire bats (the cure was somehow based on vampire bats, which was not the case in the MU). Worse, Milo relishes his new power and sets out to recruit the more ethical Morbius to prey upon humanity rather help it.

As Camestros Felapton says, this would have been a lot better if the guys had switched roles. Smith embraces the melodramatic absurdity while Leto approaches it as if he were in a serious scientific drama like Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. That was a bad choice by Leto. There are other problems, such as Morbius not even trying to use a blood bank as an alternative to people, but a big one for me is that vampires are simply too common now for this to have any interest: Milo and Morbius might as well be Lacroix and Nicholas from Forever Knight. Tyrese Gibson plays Simon Stroud, a character from the original Bronze Age series, but he’s no more interesting here. Michael Keaton appears at the end in some seeding for a sequel (if one occurs).  “I am reborn — I am the resurrection.”

The buddies in LET’S SWITCH (1975) are magazine editor Barbara Feldon and suburban housewife Barbara Eden, who in frustration at their lives decide to switch places for a week while their respective boyfriend and husband are out of town. They assume this will be a cakewalk — Eden’s had some journalism training and Feldon being a housewife can’t be that hard — but of course everything goes horribly wrong, leaving them happy to switch back. Much as I like both leads, this is bland and unsatisfying, and surprisingly doesn’t fix any of the problems they’ve caused for each other. With Penny Marshall as Feldon’s dour assistant and Dick Schaal as her artist boyfriend. “I’m going to tell you something only a few close friends and the DA know.”

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The law of Proteus: all things change

When I started October, one of my goals was to push my daily output up to six hours of writing from 5.5. Not a huge increase, but an extra 2.5 hours a week isn’t anything to sneeze at.

I’m a little surprised that it worked: I’ve been able to keep up work at that pace, taking breaks so that I don’t fry my mind before work ends for the day. Though the distraction such as dragging Snowdrop to the vet

mean I’ve wound up putting in less total time each week than I normally do. Still, putting in six hours a day in October — far fewer events scheduled — should produce good results.

But as I’ve mentioned before, when you’re living with other people, time management is never smooth. As TYG’s job became increasingly demanding the past couple of years, she’s been getting up earlier — easier to get stuff done when nobody at work is awake to demand help — and going to be earlier. Now she’s in a job which is much less of a pressure cooker. She’s staying awake later and getting up later. Having adjusted to her early cycle, I’m now having to adjust back.

Well, not “have” to. But I like going to bed with her and snuggling, and so I’m staying up later. As I can’t get my body to get up much later — that’s always been a weakness of mine — I sometimes wind up shortchanged on sleep. Then, because TYG’s rising later, we take the dogs out later (dawn shifting later in the morning plays a role in that too) which pushes the time to start work later in the morning.

The best solution would be to start work in the stretch between me finishing breakfast and the dogs coming down. That’s hard to make myself do because I have no idea how much time I’ll have and it’s difficult to start something knowing I might have to cut it short at any second. That may be what it takes, though. I’ll give it a shot next week.

Workwise, this was a routine week. A bunch of articles of Leaf, another of those accounting articles — and my client absolutely gushing about how much they liked last week’s article. That’s always nice. Oh, and I got a request to do an advance review for Questionable Minds so I sent that out Tuesday. Now I just hope they like it …#SFWApro. Cover by Samantha Collins, all rights remain with current holder.

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A cat, a tortoise and an opossum walk into a bar …

Just some random animal photos from recent weeks. First, Snowdrop, snug in his planter.

Then we have this guy whom I helped across the road. Though TYG told me afterwards that they prefer being lifted from under their belly rather than by the shell. I didn’t know.And then we have Pogo II or III (I’m not sure, but they don’t live long) feasting off leftover cat food.#SFWApro.

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News from the world of business, property and money

First some good news: while community activists have struggled to reform the police, insurers for PDs and cities are imposing changes.

Abbott Laboratories has faced multiple allegations of selling tainted baby formula. Here’s how their lawyers protect them from scandal.

Are you ready for fast-food restaurants that are exclusively drive-through?

As a reporter in Florida I covered multiple conflicts involving beachfront owners vs. tourists. Colorado’s facing the same thing.

“More than anything, they have succumbed to a mindset where “winning” means earning enough money to insulate themselves from the damage they are creating by earning money in that way. It’s as if they want to build a car that goes fast enough to escape from its own exhaust.” — a look at how billionaires have decided rather than avert the apocalypse, they’ll just save themselves.

A cash infusion for Trump’s Truth Social network may be falling through.

“They were clearly pumping their prowess as a crypto hedge fund after they already knew they were in trouble.” No surprise given their guiding investment principle apparently didn’t go beyond “cryptocurrency will go up for years!”

When turnover becomes high, it’s always someone’s first day at work.

“But it turns out that running a publicly traded company, with its attendant fiduciary duties, analyst calls and slog of quarterly earnings, is a far cry from the hustle and thrill of start-up life.” Which is why so many Silicon Valley stars are riding off into the sunset.

Republicans think corporate America should fight harder against efforts to reduce climate change.

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Writing, censorship, reading and watching: assorted links

“The fear of having your show or movie deleted on an executive’s whim — a growing reality for many, including Katai — is compounded by the fact that in the post-DVD digital age, viewers may never be able to access the shows again. Showrunners might not even have physical copies of their own work. And that’s not the only downside for creators.”

I agree with Paul Campos: if reporter Maggie Haberman knew Trump refused to leave office before it happened but held back the information for her new book, that’s bad and probably unethical journalism.

The WaPo bends over backwards to show the new owner of Politico is politically deeper than bog-standard Trump dude (“Do we all want to get together for an hour in the morning on November 3 and pray that Donald Trump will again become President of the United States of America?”). Similarly the magazine Evie pretends that being anti-feminist is edgy rather than spouting Undead Sexist Cliches (“Evie has long stressed the notion that women should only engage in “feminine” exercise, discouraging lifting heavy weights, and written about why women shouldn’t, in its words, ‘work out like men.'”).

“Censorship is the desperate rear-guard action of a movement that has already lost the fight for hearts and minds.” Which doesn’t mean it can’t do a lot of damage, as noted at the link.

A high school newspaper published a Gay Pride issue so the administrators shuttered the journalism program.

An OAN host thinks Nazi book burnings are a role model for America.

I’ve often wondered about the number of urban fantasies that treat the Catholic Church as the thin holy line between us and the forces of darkness (and rarely cover the church’s documented dark side). An article on Catholics in horror films looks at how the same dynamic happens in horror films, and how the church in real life uses its standing to perpetuate abuse.

Marvel editor Tom Brevoort on watching creative people work when they’re supremely gifted.

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