On Voting

The comic strip Dullard, er, I mean, Mallard Fillmore, is at it again, trying to convince people not to vote.

Now, while I don’t agree with this, I don’t go the other way either. Indeed, I hate it when someone says something like “If you don’t vote then you have no right to complain,” which in one pithy comment helps set the cause of free speech back 250 years. This attitude isn’t helpful, either. While I believe people should vote, I also feel people have the right not to vote, while still having the right to complain about the outcome.

Here are some arguments to try to encourage people to vote:

  1. Voting helps keep politicans more honest. I think nothing would frighten the politicians more than if voter turnout went up by 50%. Especially if a lot of disaffected fringe voters who don’t support either major party were to show up.
  2. Going to vote is fun! Well, I think so, anyway. But then, voting for me just involves a plasant 10-minute walk to my polling place and (usually) a short wait in line. Your mileage may vary.
  3. You might be able to shake up the system! If you hate the major party candidates, go vote for some minor party candidate. They might not win, but you might help their party establish a footing in your area. If everyone who doesn’t like their major party candidates went to vote for a minor party candidate, that would be pretty neat. It would certainly make politics more interesting, which given the shape their in probably wouldn’t be a bad thing.
  4. You can send a message. I hate referenda, propositions, ballot initiatives, or whatever they’re called in your state. I tend to vote against them because I feel they’re an abdication of responsibility by the government. I vote for representatives to act, not to send things back to me to vote on later. Occasionally I vote for one, but the bar is set very high. I want to vote against the others to help send the message that ballot initiatives suck and I work against them just on principle. (You could make the same argument about bond measures, with the additional factor that bond measures are a way of sidestepping the tax system.)
  5. If you didn’t know who your Congresscritter was until election season, maybe the problem doesn’t lie on your end. Maybe it’s time to elect someone who will be a little more, um, useful.

While I would be happy to see the Democrats take control of Congress by Wednesday, I would be even happier if voter turnout vastly exceeded the expectations of the politicians, media and analysts. That would be really, really cool.

The Prestige

After thoroughly enjoying The Illusionist, I was interested to see The Prestige, which also features turn-of-the-century magicians. I expected it to be a less-stylish film, with flashier special effects and more of a thriller than a character drama. While I was right, that understates the film’s quality considerably: It’s quite a good film.

The film opens in 1899 with Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) witnessing the death-by-drowning of his rival magician, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) during a perfoormance gone awry, followed by Borden being jailed for Angier’s murder, likely to be executed. In prison, Borden reads Angier’s diary from the last ten years, in which Angier in turn writes about decoding one of Borden’s journals.

The film centers around the rivalry between the two men. When they were young and both employed by the same magician, Angier’s wife (Piper Perabo) drowned during an act, for which Angier blamed Borden for tying her with the wrong knot. Borden sets himself up as a solo act after meeting his wife, Sarah (Rebecca Hall), but loses most of two fingers when Angier sabotages his bullet-catching act. Angier starts his own career working with their mentor, Cutter (Michael Caine), and his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson), but his own early career is sabotaged by Borden.

Borden’s career takes off when he unveils a fantastic crowd-pleaser called The Transported Man, in which he enters one cabinet on stage and emerges from another one across the stage just a second later. Angier is desperate to copy this trick. Cutter is certain that Borden is using a double, but Angier is sure it’s the same man. Olivia agrees with Angier, since she’s seen that Angier is missing two fingers at both ends of the trick.

Angier sends Olivia to Borden to spy on him, and she produces Borden’s coded journal. Decoding it, the journal sends Angier to America to seek out Nikolas Tesla (David Bowie) who he is convinced will yield the secret of Borden’s trick. This sets in motion the events that lead to the story’s tragic ending, which is layered with several surprises.

The Prestige was co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest. Nolan was also the man behind Memento – another very cool film – as well as Batman Begins, and he continues to entertain with his latest clever and engaging film.

The story of personal hatred and professional jealousy is very well done, and is mixed with Borden’s up-and-down relationship with Sarah, and his love for their daughter Jess (Samantha Mahurin). Although the film has the unavoidable sense of foreboding (given that it opens with Angier’s drowning), the feeling of watching these two men at the edge of a new scientific age, both of whom are dedicated to their professions, keeps alive the feeling that if only they’d give up their rivalry they’d both be the better for it.

The acting is first-rate. Bale and Jackman are both quite good, but they’re overshadowed by Caine’s fine performance as the man watching the drama from the wings, and especially by Bowie’s intense performance of obsession and self-control as Tesla. Johanssen is, well, not bad, but not great either; Hall’s role as Sarah has more meat to it, so she comes out with the stronger performance.

The underlying theme of the film is about tricks and secrets. One of the refrains in the dialogue is “Are you watching closely?” The film opens with this line, throwing down the gauntlet that there’s something funny going on here and challenging us to figure out what it is. The meat and potatoes of a magic act is a trick, fooling the audience into thinking they’re seeing something other than they are. But no trick is as successful as one backed by a deep secret, something the audience can’t suspect is working in the act. Both Borden and Angier are playing games with more than one level of secrets. Everything is revealed by the end, and although I figured some of it out ahead of time, some of it still managed to surprise me.

Although it has strong character elements, The Prestige is not the character drama that The Illusionist is, and I didn’t think it was quite as good a film. But it’s still very good, and if you enjoyed Nolan’s earlier films, you’ll like this one too.

Related Links:

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so stop reading here if you don’t want the film’s secrets spoiled for you.

Continue reading “The Prestige”

And Sometimes, I Play Poker

On our trip to Las Vegas last January, I started playing poker, and have played it from time to time since then. In California, poker and other card games are legal, and the Bay Area features several card rooms. I play low-limit Texas Hold ‘Em, being not quite confident enough to try some of the spread limit games that go up to $100 or $200 around here.

At this point I would characterize myself as a “mediocre” poker player. I am not a winning player, but I play a tight game which keeps me from losing a lot. I actually feel I should loosen up my game a little bit more than I do. On the other hand, I watch people playing a loose game win some huge pots, and then steadily lose them over the next couple of hours. Mostly I envy their confidence, and I’m continually trying to remind myself that the money doesn’t matter to me. (And at these limits, it doesn’t, really. I’ve lost less at poker this year than one can spend on a new iPod.)

Last night I went out to Bay 101 for the first time in a while to play. Bay 101 is clean, spacious, has plenty of parking, and is always busy. (Right now it looks like their non-poker room is being renovated.) I was lucky to get there just as a new 3/6 table opened up, so I had no wait, compared to the 30-to-60 minute wait I usually have. This was the first time I’ve sat at a table as it was starting, so I learned that the players at a new table draw cards and high card starts as the dealer – the most advantageous position. I drew the high card (the Jack of Spades), which was a nice treat.

The table was loose, tending to be passive before the flop, and moderately aggressive after the flop, by which I mean: People who connected with the flop would bet, and other people would fold unless they had good draws. One player who would bet regularly with both good hands and nothing at all, and he won some hands both ways, but also lost quite a bit.

I had a pretty mediocre night. It seemed like when I played a hand, it usually didn’t go anywhere. Only once did I fold after the flop and then regret it, when my pair of 7s on the flop turned into trips on the turn. That was annoying, but since I had only second pair on the flop and was facing quite a bit of betting with few outs, I was annoyed but didn’t feel I’d played it badly. Being annoyed in those circumstances is one of those things I have to work on.

I had one really good hand: I was dealt a pair of Jacks, and everyone bet the limit before the flop. The flop came three undercards, with some straight possibilities. The turn and river left a board something like 3-5-5-8-8, and the guy on my right was betting into it, so I was obviously pretty concerned that someone had a full house. But Slansky says you shouldn’t fold a big pot if you think you might have the best hand, and I wasnt convinced anyone was playing a 5 or an 8. So I called, and I won! Go me!
I finished the night down money, mainly because of one hand where I lost a bundle due to a combination of bad luck and judgment. My feeling is that I still need to play more aggressively, and also perhaps that I need to play a little more loosely, especially when I’m at a table full of calling stations.

One weird thing about poker is that one session isn’t really enough to get good results or bad results due to your play; the variation in cards is too high. So I can have a losing session and feel like I was just unlucky, as opposed to playing poorly. But I can have a few hands where I feel I played really well. This is rather different from most other games I play. Overall I think I’ve played enough hands to know I’m not a good player. But I might yet improve. It’s a hard game to master, though. And I haven’t even played any no limit poker yet (which I’ll probably reserve for when I play tournaments, because playing no limit with my own money is a little too scary for me right now!).

This Week’s Haul

  • 52 #26 (DC)
  • Ex Machina #24 (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Fantastic Four: The End #1 (Marvel)
  • Mouse Guard #5 (Archaia Studios Press)

The cover feature of 52 – featuring the Black Marvel Family – is pretty dull. More interesting is John Henry Irons confronting his daughter – who now works as part of Lex Luthor’s science-built superhero team – on a talk show. Boy, I hope she gets her comeuppance before this is over.

Ex Machina doesn’t get the press that writer Brian K. Vaughn’s other book, Y The Last Man, does, but I gave up on Y a long time ago, while Ex Machina still keeps me interested. It doesn’t hurt that it’s drawn by Tony Harris, a terrific artist who also drew the first half of James Robinson’s Starman. The premise is that a man gains the ability to talk to machines, has a brief career as the world’s only superhero, and after saving one of the World Trade Towers on 9/11 is elected Mayor of New York City. The book is part science fiction, part horror, and part political drama. Unfortunately that doesn’t leave a lot of room for deep character drama, but it’s still a good book, if a little on the slow side.

Alan Davis writes and draws Fantastic Four: The End, so you know it looks nice. Davis’ stock-in-trade as a writer is the conspiracy storyline, where the heroes have to untangle a web of villainout planning. Unfortunately I find this gets a little repetitive, and it looks like this series will be in much the same vein as his Superboy’s Legion or his two JLA: The Nail series, which means it should be enjoyable, but may not be very memorable.

I reviewed Mouse Guard on Four Color Comics back in June, and it’s nearly done. Clean artwork with a straightforward and fun story. I guess it’s been selling pretty well, and that’s good to hear.

One Full Month

I launched Fascination Place a month ago today. So far, so good, I think! As you can tell from my posting rate, I’m enjoying writing for the new format.

It’s hard to be certain, but I think I left behind about half of my readership from Gazing Into The Abyss when I moved. I suspect a big chunk is due to setting up a syndication account at LiveJournal for the site since I didn’t want to have to keep manually posting over there whenever I updated, and many readers over there haven’t subscribed to the feed for one reason or another (possibly because they happened to miss the posts I’ve made there announcing the syndication account).

Anyway, hopefully continued regular updating will eventually pull in some new readers, and perhaps bring back some of the ones I’ve lost.

I really like WordPress (the blogging software I’m using), and there haven’t been many tweaks I’ve had to make to my layout (other than trying to make it look better in Internet Explorer 6). The next hurdle will be upgrading to WordPress 2.0.5 – my first upgrade of the installation. Hopefully it will be straightforward.

One thing I’m considering adding is a “Recent Comments” section in the right-hand sidebar, like what J.D. has at Folded Space. Apparently his readers really like it.

What do you think of the journal, now that I’ve mostly worked the kinks out? Is there anything you really like, or really don’t like?

MBTA System Maps

At Felicitas Publica, some articles about changes to the MBTA subway system in Boston over the last 40 years:

The New England Transportation Site has some historical system maps, as well. And the Wikipedia entry on the T looks jam-packed with information as well.

The Images of America series of books (which I enjoy a lot) has a couple of volumes on urban rail lines in Boston: Boston in Motion (I think I might own this one), Trolleys Under the Hub and Boston’s Blue Line.

The Cost of Comic Books

Scott Marshall quotes an interview with comics artist Evan Dorkin regarding the price of comic books today:

The average price of a comic book in the US is around $3. Do you think, regarding the production and distribution system, that it is too expensive? What are the sales like nowadays in the US?

Sales are pretty depressing based on what they used to sell. I think a book that sells 100,000 these days is a blockbuster, and books were getting cancelled in the early 70’s that sold 250,000. Books regularly sold in the millions in the heyday of the 50’s. On a less depressing note, for all those sales, the older creators received no credit, little or no recognition from the readers, no royalties, no participation in licensing, no return of their artwork, few opportunities to get TV or illustration work because of their comics, etc. And they were often ripped off and exploited beyond belief. We sell far less, but we get far more out of it in some ways, and our creations are our own if we want them to be. Sales-wise it’s a car wreck, but creatively it’s a golden age right now. Some people talk about the “golden age” and the good old days of comics, but I don’t know if I’d trade places with the old-timers, despite the discrepancy in sales.

My feeling about the rising cost of comics is as follows:

It’s frequently overlooked that in the early 1980s the comic book industry moved away from using cheap printing processes on cheap paper and started using spiffy printing and coloring processes on high-quality paper (sometimes very high-quality paper). While computers have helped mitigate the costs of the production and printing process, the cost of paper is still quite high compared to what was being used 30 years ago. (I think the paper industry went through a period of shortage about 15 years ago, and that pushed prices up even higher. I’m not sure of the details, though.)

And of course there’s inflation. Inflation calculators such as this one show that what cost 50 cents in 1980 would cost $1.27 in 2005. While this is a broad generalization, my recollection is that the paper industry also experienced higher inflation than the general market in the 80s and 90s. So I think the combination of more expensive paper and inflation account for the vast majority of the rising price of comics from 1980 to today. (Creator recognition may also be a factor, but I’d place it behind these two.)

Here’s a good way to compare apples to apples: Consider a hardcover graphic novel’s cost and the cost of a hardcover novel with a similar number of pages. In general, they are competitive, in the $22-$30 range. The graphic novel is usually somewhat more expensive, but I think that is primarily due to being printed in color rather than in black-and-white. For instance, consider the comic collection Avengers Assemble Volume 1, which is 384 pages for $29.99 (retail), vs. Alastair Reynolds’ novel Pushing Ice, which is 464 pages for $25.95. The pages in the former are larger, too (which means it required more paper-per-page to print).

I think cost is a significant factor in declining comics sales, because so many people think that “comics are for kids” and should therefore be competitive with the cost of a candy bar, and those who are more open-minded often remember when comics were really quite cheap and don’t understand why they’re so much more expensive today.

Comic books are still cheap entertainment, but they’re not completely-disposable impulse purchases as they once were. And that’s because everyone – publishers, editors, creators and the core consumer base – wanted better production values, and got them.

Doctor Who: One Versus Two

I’ve seen the first four episodes of the second season of Doctor Who, and I’ve noticed that they each resemble an early episode from the first season:

  1. The first episode of each season involves an invasion of Earth by some improbable aliens (“Rose” vs. “The Christmas Invasion”).
  2. The second episode of each season takes place in humanity’s far future and features a number of unusual aliens (“The End of the World” vs. “New Earth”).
  3. The third episode of each season takes place in the 19th century and involves a classic horror element (“The Unquiet Dead” vs. “Tooth and Claw”).
  4. The sixth episode of the first season and the fourth episode of the second season features the return of well-known figures from the original Doctor Who series (“Dalek” vs. “School Reunion”).

On top of this, both series feature a recurring background element (“Bad Wolf” vs. Torchwood, the latter I guess laying the groundwork for the spin-off series). Hopefully Torchwood will have a more rewarding climax than Bad Wolf did.

Is this correlation just coincidence, I wonder?