Sunday, May 19, 2013

The truth about Islamophobia

I have a great deal of respect for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali woman who left Islam at the risk of her very life.  In fact, her commitment to speaking the truth and personal freedoms makes her one of my personal heroes.  If you haven't read her story, it's worth checking out, as are her books Infidel and Nomad.  However, just like pretty much everybody I respect, she has said at least one thing with which I must disagree.  I've seen her at least once say that there is no such thing as Islamophobia.

While one could argue that her greater point is that it's not a problem to the degree that some Muslims would have us believe, it's still far too broad of a statement to make without being challenged.  (Her exact words were that Islamophobia is a "myth".)

I'd say that it's very much a real thing.  The first bit of evidence was the poor guy who got shot shortly after 9/11, and even though it turned out that he was a Sikh, the point was that his attacker was trying to kill a Muslim.  Some more recent examples would be the anti-Sharia laws that are being introduced throughout the country, as though some folks don't think that the First Amendment is enough to do the trick in order to save us from some sort of Islamic theocracy.  On top of that, I have plenty of anecdotes where I've heard ignorant comments about them.  In one instance, a woman I know expressed her concern that she saw "an Iranian" in the hospital elevator.  Sure, you could say that maybe she's Iraniaphobic, but I think it falls under a greater umbrella of Islamophobia.  (Personally, I think that the chances were probably better that the guy was a doctor at that hospital than a terrorist, and the odds of him not even being Iranian are probably high as well.)

So, it definitely exists.  But now it's time to be real - if you assume that your Middle Eastern neighbors are likely to be Muslim terrorists, then you're Islamophobic.  If you think that we need to convert all Muslims to (insert your religion here) then you are as well.  If you're worried that your podunk town with three Muslims is going to become a mini caliphate, then congratulations, you're an Islamophobe.

It should be noted that you also qualify if you go around spreading false information about the religion.  You probably also meet the description if you get all up in arms about the horrific passages in the Koran while completely ignoring/excusing the equally horrific ones in your own holy book.

But you absolutely are NOT practicing Islamophobia if you criticize the beliefs of the religion or the practices of its followers.  In other words, you're not practicing a form of bigotry when you point out that one can make a Broadway hit out of a show that mocks Mormons, but if somebody makes a cartoon disparaging Mohammed, he's going to be in fear for his life.  That's not saying that every Muslim out there will kill you for making fun of his religion, but it's a simple fact that there are enough of them out there to have critics of Islam worried.

You're also not an Islamophobe if you point out that the Muslim world is centuries behind the times when it comes to the way women are treated, and any Muslim who says the laughably awful talking point that Islam gives women equality has got his head up his ass.  Yeah, I know, there are Muslims out there who do believe in full equality in the same way that I do.  I even know that some of them can point to passages in the Koran that supposedly supports their position.  But guess what?  In most places where Islam is the predominant religion, THEY'RE DOING IT WRONG.

It kind of reminds me of Christianity and slavery.  Christians will hem and haw and give you all sorts of reasons why slavery is against their religion, despite the fact that Christians practiced it for centuries and nowhere in their holy book is there a clear prohibition of it.  Yeah, most Christians will now condemn it, just as one day most Muslims may condemn the way that their women are treated nowadays, but you gotta admit in both cases, religion sure was easy to use as a convenient excuse for treating people horribly.

I believe that every Muslim has the same rights that I do.  They should be allowed to believe what they want to believe, and they have the right to speak up against things that they don't believe.  If a Muslim is to take issue with anything I'm saying, then that is his or her right, and a violent reprisal should not be the expectation if he/she uses that right.  I realize that there are Muslims out there who feel the same way as I do, but considering what's going on in Bangladesh, there are plenty out there who would want to see me rot in jail just for writing this blog entry.

Honestly, it doesn't do Muslims any favors when we pander to them and pretend like what's being done in the name of their religion isn't offensive to our sensibilities.  They should be able to handle it, especially for those who come to the United States and want to live in a free society.  The right to not be offended doesn't exist, and their beliefs must be subject to the same exchange of ideas as any other.

And let's not play the game of "Well, yeah, but what about all the violence done in the name of Christianity?" Of course, every screwed up thing done in the name of that religion should be condemned - whether it's the killing of abortion doctors, withholding medicine from their children, or lying to kids and telling them that Intelligent Design is a "theory" in the same sense that evolution is.  But the fact is that many of us feel much more comfortable criticizing those actions than we do the negative actions done in the name of Islam.  And let's face it, while many Christian apostates have a hard time, depending on what part of the world that they live in, the official punishment for them isn't death, and there aren't a significant number of them who advocate that.

But even if the Christian world was the mirror image of the Muslim world - so what?  Two wrongs make a right all of a sudden?  Do I have to condemn everything that's bad all at once when I say that it's wrong to assume that women need to cover themselves up so men don't rape them, for instance?

We need to feel free to criticize any and all beliefs, which isn't the same as criticizing a person's right to believe.  For me to say that you shouldn't be allowed to limit another person's freedom isn't somehow me trying to limit yours.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Thoughts on Digital Comics

I own the nook HD+, and with the recent software update, it's basically turned into an Android tablet with somewhat limited functionality.  The stuff that it can't do doesn't really bother me, because I can always use my phone for those things.  However, what interested me the most is the fact that I now can use it to access Comixology and Marvel Unlimited.  

I have only purchased a couple of digital comics before.  I bought Darwin Cooke's adaptation of Parker, and I also got the recent Marvel version of The Wizard of Oz.  They looked fine with my old nook tablet, but they looked much better with the HD+'s 9 inch screen.  Still, I didn't buy any new ones, even though Barnes and Noble increased their comic book catalog and started to include individual issues for sale. 

When it comes to most books, I have no problem reading them on an e-reader.  In fact, for the kinds of books where I'll just read them once and then never look at again, I prefer reading them that way.  I also like reading magazines like Time and National Geographic on my nook, as I don't have to deal with a stack of magazines that pile up in my bathroom.

With comics though?  I guess I'm a bit of a purist.  I figure that it would be nice to have access to an online catalog if I ever miss an issue.  For instance, I'm missing one issue of the series Planetary and I can't find a copy of it at a reasonable price anywhere, whereas on Comixology, I can find it for less than the original cover price.  While I prefer the physical books, I can live with an issue on my tablet.

I've tried reading some comics on my phone, where you need to utilize the "smart panel" technology.  For those who don't know, it essentially breaks up each comics page panel by panel, so you can get a better look at it and actually get the text large enough to be legible.  This involves a lot of shifting your phone around for panels that are optimal in vertical versus horizontal modes.  Personally, I find that annoying, and I don't like reading a comic book that way for the same reason I don't like watching movies in "full screen".  It's clearly not the artist's intent for you to view it that way.  There's a certain layout that's specific to comic books, and a good artist makes use of this layout.  When you break it up, you might be getting a good look at what's going on, but it feels like a different experience to me.

For me, the most promising thing is Marvel Unlimited.  Essentially, it's like a Netflix for Marvel's back issues.  For $10 a month, you have access to a very large selection of the publisher's catalog.  I signed up for this, and while I have a couple of issues with it, I'm really digging it.

The problems are as follows:  the pages don't fill up the screen of my nook.  I try zooming, but to no avail.  It's big enough to be legible, but I have to hold it up fairly close to my eyes.  It basically shrinks it down to "digest" size.  Also, while you're supposed to be able to reserve up to six comics for offline reading, that feature seems to be a bit buggy.  For some reason, I'm only able to download a three-page preview of each issue.  This isn't too horrible though, as I do most of my reading at home, where I'm connected to the wi-fi.  Sometimes I take it to work, and we have wi-fi there now as well, so this shouldn't be too much of an issue.  Lastly, you're not going to find any recent issues, as everything is at least six months old.

With that said, I still am pretty jazzed about this.  There are a lot of comics out there that I want to read, but I either don't have the money to get them all.  Plus, comics take up space, and sometimes I limit myself based on the simple fact that I don't want to take up any more room than I have to.  

Do I think that this is going to replace my regular trips to the comic book store?  Absolutely not.  There will always be books for which I want the physical copies.  If anything, this just means that I'm reading a lot more comics.  (I signed up for it a couple of days ago, and I've read about 12 of them - which means I'm getting more than my money's worth.)  There's a ton of stuff that I would most likely never buy unless I saw really cheap, but this way I get to check them out and see what's going on.  For instance, I don't think that I'll ever be a regular reader of Scarlet Spider, but I'm curious enough to know what's going on in that series for me to read it this way.

I guess the real question is whether I'll eventually run out of stuff that I want to read.  Will it be like Netflix which adds stuff at a faster rate than I can view them?  I guess that's what is nice about a monthly subscription.  Still, I'd like to see DC and some of the other comic book companies do something similar.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Movies! - "No prisoners! No prisoners!"

Way back in 2009, when I had a lot more time on my hands, I participated in "Movie a Day" which basically involved blogging every day, only the subject matter had to be a movie.  My inspiration was Roger Ebert's Great Movies.  In his series, it's not about giving a score to the movie or creating a list of "best movies".  It was all just about the great movies.  In my case, it was more about my favorite movies, as I'm not exactly going to call Predator 2 "great" even though I enjoy the hell out of it.

I also had a really good time participating in that little experiment, and I've been looking for the opportunity to do so again. While declaring that I'm going to write about a movie every day just isn't feasible right now, I think that I can promise myself to write about at least one movie every week or two.

Turns out that one of the movies that I had considered writing about back then was Lawrence of Arabia, but it just didn't make the cut.  The reason probably had to do with the fact that I probably appreciated it more than I actually liked it.  Don't misunderstand, I definitely enjoyed it, but I probably didn't get the same kick out of it that I did with a David Lean film that I did write about, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Just like Barack Obama's stance on gay marriage, my view of this film has evolved over time.  I first saw it when my mom bought the two-tape VHS "director's cut" for my dad.  (I almost called it two-disc.  Tape?  For a movie?  Huh?)  I remember being annoyed by the fact that the entire thing was letterboxed.  (Keep in mind that I was only 15 years old.  Trust me, I work with kids that age - they don't know anything.  Well, most of them don't.  I was one of the ones who didn't.)  I also remember enjoying the first few minutes where you see him riding a motorcycle only to crash to his death.  After that?  I was bored by it.  I was so bored, in fact, that I didn't even bother watching the second half when my parents watched it the next day.

Flash forward over a decade, and I went ahead and bought the DVD edition of the movie.  Why would I buy a movie that I had previously thought was boring?  Well, I was still young, but I was old enough to know that my 15 year old self didn't know squat.  My taste in movies was becoming more refined, and after the aforementioned The Bridge on the River Kwai quickly jumping up the list to one of my favorite movies of all time, I figured that I'd probably like the adventures of T.E. Lawrence a bit better.  Fortunately for me, I was right.

I avoid making lists of favorite movies, but while I'm not sure that it would crack my top 10, it would probably crack my top 50.  I really enjoyed the character development, the scenery, and all of the performances.  Still, something about the second half of the movie kind of dragged for me, which prevented it from being one of the first movies that I'd name if anybody would have ever asked me to list off my favorites.  I definitely got some good mileage out of that DVD though, as it was a movie that I probably watched at least once a year.

Flash forward once again to my 39th birthday, and my wonderful wife bought for me the Blu-Ray.  Not only did she get me that, but she got me the uber-special edition with the picture book, film frame, two extra discs (on top of the movie and standard bonus disc).  I had asked for it, but I was still pretty excited to get it anyway.

Now, I don't know if it was the quality of the Blu-Ray that did it, but I felt like I had my "magic viewing" of this film.  In many ways, it was like really seeing it for the first time.  Perhaps I was just in the right mood, but not enough can be said about how awesome this new edition is.  Simply putting a movie on Blu-Ray doesn't ensure that it's going to look good.  I've seen some where, in all honesty, I don't know if I would have known the difference between it and a DVD version.  (Maybe it would be different if I had a screen that was wider than 42".)  With some classic movies, I've been impressed with the transfer, but this was like a revelation.  The only other time where my expectations were so exceeded was when I watched the Blu-Ray of Jaws.

This is a movie that's known for its scenery, and while I must shamefully admit that I've missed a few opportunities to see special screenings of it in theaters, I have to say that I felt like I was there in that desert along with Lawrence and his army of Arabs.  I'm not even that technically inclined, but I was pretty engrossed in the bonus feature where they explained how they went about making this new transfer - and it should be clear that this is a new transfer.  It's not simply a high-def version of the old one.  I'm not smart enough to explain any further, but suffice it to say, you're getting something that required a lot of extra work.  It's so good-looking, that I'd easily use this as an example of how great high definition looks for somebody who still hasn't made the switch.

The great transfer aside, it really struck me what a great performance Peter O'Toole gives in this movie.  While you should't watch the movie for strict historical accuracy, the real Lawrence was a complicated guy, and O'Toole certainly gets that across.  He's a true iconoclast, who sees moments in his life where people both ignore and celebrate him.  He's a self-made man who's at war with himself.  And most interesting about him; he doesn't quite have himself figured out.  Just when he starts to get a handle on who he is; he starts to question whether he's doing the right thing.  It's quite the character arc, and if you don't feel satisfied with where it goes, it's probably because he doesn't either.

Like any good movie, there are a lot of great lines.  Lucky for me, my favorite bit, where Lawrence takes his young Arab assistant to the British Officer's quarters, is on Youtube.  Here's a man who's found his purpose in life, but he's not quite ready to deal with all the slaughter that comes with it.

Oh, and if I'm ever forced at gunpoint to list my top 10, it's definitely in the running now.

T.E. Lawrence: My friends, we have been foolish. Auda will not come to Aqaba. Not for money...
Auda abu Tayi: No.
T.E. Lawrence: ...for Feisal...
Auda abu Tayi: No!
T.E. Lawrence: ...nor to drive away the Turks. He will come... because it is his pleasure.
Auda abu Tayi: Thy mother mated with a scorpion.

T.E. Lawrence: It's my manner, sir.
General Murray: Your manner?
T.E. Lawrence: Yes. It looks insubordinate, but it isn't really.

General Allenby: I believe your name will be a household word when you'll have to go to the War Museum to find who Allenby was. You're the most extraordinary man I've ever met!
T.E. Lawrence: Leave me alone!
General Allenby: What?
T.E. Lawrence: Leave me alone!
General Allenby: Well, that's a feeble thing to say.
T.E. Lawrence: I know I'm not ordinary.
General Allenby: That's not what I'm saying...
T.E. Lawrence: All right! I'm extraordinary! What of it?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Fermenting is better in a Speidel

Man, ya gotta hand it to those Germans.  No, I'm not saying that only because I'm half of one myself; I'm talking about the fact that they know how to make some pretty darn good stuff.  To be more specific, I'm talking about the Speidel fermenter that I've used for my last couple of batches of beer.

Wanna know what's scary?  When a glass carboy breaks.  I've had it happen once before.  Lucky for me, it happened when I was outside and cleaning it, so there wasn't glass all over my house, and the only liquid that spilled was water.

After that, I went and bought one of the plastic carboys.  Those are nice because they're lighter and much, much harder to break.  The problem was the cleaning.  I have one of those angled brushes, and unlike with a glass carboy, the dried krausen that forms at the top wouldn't just brush away with a quick swish.  I had to really work it, and that no doubt resulted in the metal part starting to scrape the plastic.  Experienced homebrewers will know that if the plastic is scratched, that makes for a potential home for bacteria - which means you can get some pretty awful beer.

So, I went back to glass, and I've been extra careful ever since.  Still, there's that constant paranoia with glass.  What the hell am I gonna do if I drop the damn thing while walking it through the house and to the closet?  Five gallons of beer and tons of broken glass all over the place?  How many frikken' paper towels is that gonna take to clean?

Then Speidel came up with something brilliant - a plastic fermenter that's easy to clean.  Check out the image above.  Basically, you can unscrew the lid on top, reach your hand in, and wipe away any dried up mess with a soft sponge.  Another plus is that you don't have to siphon it into the bottling bucket like with a carboy.  That's not a major pain, but it's certainly easier to just turn a spigot and let it all pour into a bucket (using an attached hose, of course - don't want too much splashing!)

Other pluses include the handles and plenty of headspace.  It's a German company, so they go by liters.  That means that for my five-gallon batches, I have to use the 30L, which is 7.9 gallons.  (They have other sizes, from 12L to 120L.)

I've used it twice now, and the only drawback, as I've seen somebody else mention, is that you don't get to see your beer fermenting, which is kind of a fun thing to do, as it's tempting to scream: "It's alive!" whenever I do.  Maybe they can work on a version using clear plastic, but I'd say that all the pluses, especially if you're as paranoid as I am, far outweigh that one minus.

I figured that I'd write this little review because when I was considering buying one, I didn't see a whole lot of information out there on it.  Hopefully this review will help, and maybe I can figure out a way for MoreBeer to give me some kind of a discount for anybody who clicks this link and buys one from them.  Honestly, if I knew somebody who was just going to get started into homebrewing, I'd recommend that they go straight to the Speidel.

Iron Man 3 Review

I wrote my thoughts on the first Iron Man movie back when I did the "Movie-A-Day" challenge on this blog, and I praised it as one of the best superhero movies ever.  I still think that.  I never wrote about the second one, so let me just get it out of the way that while I was initially disappointed, I have since come to appreciate it more upon repeated viewings.  It doesn't transcend the genre like the fist one did, but it's a solid superhero story with good performances, fun dialogue, and some pretty sharp special effects.

I got a chance to see the third one today, and my overall impression is that while possibly better than the second, it's still not on par with the first, or with The Avengers if we want to include every film with that character.

How many "part 3" films don't feature a significant drop off in quality?  That could be a blog post unto itself.  More often than not, they seem to take a serious dive, especially when the second one was better than the first.  However, that trend may be reversing itself as screenwriters are figuring out how to write third parts that are more satisfying.  Toy Story 3 might be the best of the lot, and The Dark Knight Rises might be the weakest of Christopher Nolan's trilogy, but it's still head and shoulders above any of the Burton/Shumacher films.  If that had come out right after Batman and Robin, it would have seemed like the Citizen Kane of superhero movies.

With Iron Man 3, we don't get any majorly jarring shifts in tone or character that often plague a part 3.  There are some moments that don't quite work, including a relationship with a young boy that's all too convenient.  Don't get me wrong; it's not awful, but it didn't seem to come organically out of the script.  It felt a bit forced.

We do get a great villain, which is important.  I don't want to get to into it for the simple fact that I've never been a big enough of a fan of the comics to comment on how well The Mandarin was done, and I don't want to spoil any surprises.  Fans of the "Extremis" story will be mostly pleased, I think.  I happen to have read those, and while it doesn't play out exactly the same way, there is potential for more in any possible future films.

Even more important, we have a pretty good arc for the character.  The film rewards fans of the entire Marvel Universe franchise, as there are plenty of references to what happened in The Avengers without relying on them for comprehension's sake.  Basically, Tony Stark's predicament in the film is pretty believable, as dealing with advanced technology is one thing, discovering that there are gods and aliens who want to take over the planet is another.  It also ends with him in a good place, and they deftly leave the audience believing that this could be the last chapter, and yet, there could easily be more - which is precisely what you want with this sort of a thing.  If it's Robert Downey Jr.'s last shot as the character in a solo movie, it's a more respectable ending than poor Tobey Maguire's turn in the third Spider-Man.

The effects and action sequences are really good as well, and as with pretty much all of the Marvel movies, the CG is used appropriately and I never got distracted by it.  The scene where Iron Man has to rescue a bunch of people who fell out of an airplane is particularly impressive.

The supporting characters all get a chance to do something important, and Iron Patriot (formerly War Machine) gets a chance to be appropriately heroic and integral to the final victory.  It's tough to juggle all these characters, but they managed to pull it off.

I'll leave this with my Facebook status update that I wrote earlier, which tells the story of what happened during and after the film:

During the movie, some lady kept talking as though she was in her own living room. I finally turned around and shushed her.

After the film, while we were walking out, the lady got my attention. (Former students, imagine my voice in the tone you hear it when I'm shutting down some nonsense.)

LADY: Hey buddy, that was really rude how you shushed me.
ME: Oh, I'm being rude? Seriously? You were talking during the movie, and you're going to talk to me about being rude?
LADY: It wasn't necessary for you to shush me. It's very rude.
ME: Really? You're going to tell me about being rude when you're talking? Give me a break.
LADY: Give me a break.
ME: Thank you for repeating me.

We walked out, but when I got out of the bathroom, she was there, bugging Kirsti. She then doubled down on her ridiculousness.

LADY: Look, I wasn't even the one who was talking. The lady behind me was doing it, and it was bothering me, too.
ME: If you weren't talking, then I wasn't shushing you.
LADY: I only said two words.
ME: I thought you just said that you weren't talking! Which is it?

She then walked away in frustration. For the record, she had said much more than two words. It was just a two-word phrase that finally got me to tell her to shush.

I don't think that went the way she planned it in her head.

Don't mess with a guy who works with teenagers for a living, lady.