Friday, November 14, 2014

Girlpants and Gasoline now available in print!

Girlpants and Gasoline is now available in print!

That's my personal shop page which allows you to order a copy all for yourself! An Amazon page should be automatically listed in a few days for those of you who get free Prime shipping (I think it'll work but we'll see), just know that Amazon takes twice as much of your money if you order through their page as opposed to mine. (But hey, Prime shipping is a godsend).

That said, I will be ordering copies myself if you wish to buy a signed copy!

So if you want a copy in person or to give me cash directly (best royalties for me!) I'll have some available myself shortly, and will be stocking some in my local Barnes & Noble for the holiday season.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

'Girlpants and Gasoline' Reviewed by Phi Beta Kappa!

Phi Beta Kappa's newsletter The Key Reporter reviewed my book Girlpants and Gasoline!

Zucker’s observations hit the mark precisely.…Girlpants and Gasoline sheds light on our collective (self-)consciousness."

Makes me think all those years of collegiate honors are finally paying off. I'm getting all teary.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

U2 LITERALLY Cannot Give Away Their New Album

Let's just discuss this for one minute and then we can let it fade away as we live our actual lives.

Apple, with the introduction of iOS 8 and the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus revealed that all iTunes users would be treated to a free digital album download of U2's newest release "Songs of Innocence."

Except instead of a download available, the way iTunes functions meant the album magically appeared in every user's library with the little cloud icon meaning "download me." Being someone who works in tech support, I can imagine many older users becoming concerned that they unwittingly paid for the album. A portion of these users, however, are actually young enough to still like U2, so the concern might be more pleasant surprise than financial confusion.

The bad press here is that users found this intrusive. Many people forget that, as far as digital media sales are concerned, most state and federal laws view your "purchases" of digital content as a license to rent for the duration of your life. With the recent exception of Delaware and campaigns by Bruce Willis of all people, distributors are within their rights to close your accounts and delete your content when you croak. Other side of the coin: this means Apple technically has the ability to add content to your library at will, regardless of payment. That should make people happy, right?

Well, no, because you just did a 'nice' thing that reminded people that
  1. they don't have agency over their own (digital) lives in this sugared corporate delusion they've swallowed, and 
  2. nothing free is ever particularly good.
That's really the crux of this argument. Id you gave people a free something they liked, even somewhat intrusively, the thought was still nice. Barnes & Noble recently released a new Nook cobranded with Samsung and offers "$200 of free content" with each device. Yeah, it's a few interchanging books and a choice of any record-club-style magazine subscriptions, but the most engaging content is curated television programs: currently Veep, Orphan Black, and Hannibal first episodes. Orphan Black is a major thing right now. People love it. They are glad to have it, even if they wouldn't have bought it or resent the lack of choice. Some people will delete it, sure, but most people just see it as a free sample for signing up rather than an intrusion of their personal, private possessions.

Apple didn't do that.

Apple, regardless of taste or willingness, gave every user a free copy of something that hadn't existed before that day, and no one had seen coming. People were shocked that Beyoncé could record and entire album without news of it leaking to the media.

No one is surprised that U2 could record and entire album without anyone caring.

So yes, people were annoyed. And yes, many people dislike U2, or at least they don't care enough to want their album. Is that really deserving of the negative media attention, though? Apple had to go out of their way to release an opt-out website just for people who found highlighting and deleting the album from their libraries too difficult.

Let me repeat that: Apple paid for hosting a website expressly for signing into your iTunes account to click a button to permanently delete "Songs of Innocence" from your iTunes, when it is possible to simply click on the tracks and hit the "delete" key. Same effect. Exponentially less time. Apple still gave an option for people who felt that that process didn't adequately describe their distaste for the cancerous, nigh contagious tracks. Heaven forbid they contaminate their cursors by clicking on the vile things.

I remember reading an article when iOS 6 came out with the much-hated Maps app that suggested a failure on Apples part spurred Google to create a free stand-alone Google Maps app for iOS that was even better than its Android counterpart as a sort of "screw you" to Apple, who had innitially demanded the built-in Maps app, originally powered by Google, be given the same updates as Android without charging a heavy premium. Apple took the hit in the press, but got exactly what it wanted. One could be forgiven for imagining a Cupertino West Wing-like backroom deal between Tim Cook and some P.R. engineers about purposefully looking a fool if it got their pet project funded.

This was not one of those moments.

Let's for a moment ignore the "3 million downloads" in however many days Apple says U2 received. We have to. Digital download sales for this album will never be accurate. Between automatic downloads of purchased content and confused users clicking, hell even people in-the-know listening once before they delete it, every copy that wasn't paid for is worthless to sales reporting. It's a media hype. U2 gave away an album for free. That's what happened. And still nobody wants to own it.

I honestly cannot think of a relevant sentence to form about U2 that isn't directly tied to a joke from South Park, "I Love You, Man," or Bo Burnham stand-up. Congratulations on becoming both musically and culturally irrelevant, and pissing off the general public in the process.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

How Big is the 'Game of Thrones' World?

Okay, to begin, let's get this out of the way: George Martin is a little bit of a coy dick about the planetary mechanics of his fictional universe. Which is actually fair, considering the more information he gives us, the less magic exists in his world.

I don't mean that in a literary way, I mean if we get more than even a reasonable sense of scale, we can actually determine to size of The World, and from that extrapolate its approximate mass and gravity (how dragons can sustain flight, maximum likely biped height, the strength of an executioner's swinging arm, the physical effects of non-congenital dwarfism, etc). Worse, with a little heliocentric tinkering, we could determine the planet's probable distance from a yellow sun to be in the 'Goldilocks Zone' of habitability and possible eccentricity of orbit and tilt, thus giving us a predictable seasonal cycle, what is essentially the giant looming doom on the horizon of the whole series.

Thus, it's pretty reasonable that Mr. Martin doesn't want us science-y types mucking around in his playpen.


Click for embiggening.
Here's a map I just pieced together from the most recent official map release (free posters at Barnes and Noble locations) and a previous map derived from the Lands of Ice and Fire book that included distance scale. It is the most detailed map to date, though clearly cuts out large chunks of land in the Southern and South-Eastern regions. Additionally, there are tall tales of lands of eternal summer and without death in the distant West. Based on the similarity to Tolkein's work, I'm going to assume this land is full of elves and demigods. Since most people discount these stories, we should probably assume that they are 100% a real place. Martin has also said, at various times, that this planet is round (spherical is the implication), and about the same size as Earth or possibly a little bigger. Sothoryos, the lush continent at bottom center is described as being roughly akin to Africa in that it is jungle and historically unexplored by the people of the North. Ulthos, to the far South-East, is almost completely unknown except it is also covered in dense jungle.

Now what then can we glean from this image?

Well firstly, as a sense of scale, the image at hand, based on the scale from its predecessor, is just shy of being 8,700 miles across. This is fairly important.

The Earth's equator is just shy of 25,000 mi in circumference. We're tempted by the layout of the map to assume the centerline runs through The World's equator, but historically this wasn't the case on Earth until the mid 16th century. More often, Jerusalem or another politically important center was used as the center of a map, often eclipsing any rational scale or sense of distances.

Heinrich Bünting's map of the world, 1581.
He also drew Europe as a person whose head pointed West. Because yep.

Moreover, if we consider the climateology described by Martin and the map, only Northern Westeros seems to maintain an arctic climate. (In fact this is a major part of the nation's history and folklore, concerning the White Walkers and whatever else lives beyond The Wall in the Lands of Always Winter.) Importantly, at the bottom of our map we find only tropical climes. Not only is the map missing a large portion of The World latitudinally, it's missing ITS ENTIRE SOUTHERN HEMISPHERE.

I'll say that again. We currently have a map of verifiably less than half the planet. That is a problem.


"But!" I say! We can fix this! for we now know some important facts:
  1. The distances involved are fairly accurate, as they pertain to a well-traveled set of lands in the center of the map.
  2. These lands are, very approximately, halfway between the tropical regions and the arctic ones.
  3. The circumference of a sphere at any latitude is its equatorial circumference times the cosine of the latitude. (Apparently.)
Earth, for example, is just about 24,900 miles at the equator. Let's call it an even 24k to compensate for oblation of the sphere and just to make our lives a little easier. The Earth's circumference at the 42nd parallel, which New York resides along, would be:
cos(42) • 24000 = roughly 17,800 miles.
 So The World of Ice and Fire, then, at approximately the same latitude it would seem, would be:
cos(42) • X = 8,700
Solving for X would give us a planet only 11,700 miles in circumference. That would make it about 15% smaller than Mars, which already has gravity approximately 1/3 Earth norm. If this were the case, not only could dragons easily fly through even a thin atmosphere, but White Walkers could grow to enormous heights. Also, rain, snow, and the swinging of an axe towards the neck of anyone House Stark wouldn't really function as they do.

Conclusion: Not only are we missing the ENTIRE BOTTOM HALF OF THE GLOBE, we are ALSO MISSING A QUARTER MORE UP TOP.

Now, let me run into rampant speculation, and say that what follows are numbers I am only guessing at, grossly approximated for a perfect, spherical planet, and I actually have no idea if the math I'm doing is even remotely close enough to provide us any meaningful data about this fake World, but I have an idea and I haven't yet seen the Internet regurgitate anything remotely similar, so I'm calling this as my show from here on out.

If we do accept this as a spherical planet, although none really are, we could theoretically switch our orientation and calculate the circumference of The World at a longitudinal point!

The HEIGHT of our given map is approximately 5,700 miles. Let's round up to an even 6,000 to bring our map 'down' to the probable equator, and then double that for the Southern hemisphere. That gives us a vertical circumference at any Meridian of approximately 12,000 miles, or roughly the same as Earth! (Obviously the extent of the tropical zone is approximated, as is the exact distance from the Lands of Always Winter to The World's North Pole.)

So with these calculations, and matching what information George Martin has released to the public on the topic, we can see that The World really is about the same size as the Earth, possibly a little smaller or larger depending on how much we fudge the exact measurements and what is essentially Medieval cartography.

And that means The World really looks like this:

Which is stupid. It should be black and cloudy, like in Warcraft I & II for Windows 95 and 98.

Here's what that looks like, way cooler:

We've got a lot of map to fill in. For my money, I'm putting an ancient Middle Earth on the other side of the globe, possibly upside-down à la Douglas Adams' "Mostly Harmless" since it is said the Sun first rose in the West before Varda decided it should rise opposite, and let's go with Conan's Hyborian Age on the other side of the Northern hemisphere, so that their "snow apes," driven from their homelands to the far North of the remnants of the continent of Thuria by the now Neolithic humans who they then came to loathe, can be related to White Walkers.

Boom. I just saved space by putting 3 fantasy novels and a Douglas Adams sequel on a single planet.

"Now bring me that horizon." (Five.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

"Event Television" is the Death Knell of Network TV

Certain shows have been good for television as a medium in the last few years. Complex storytelling, compelling antiheroes, and gray morality have turned water cooler talk away from Desperate Housewives to "I can't believe Walt fucking [SPOILERED] [CHARACTER]." (Alright, that's essentially the same conversation when you remove the verbs, but suffice it to say that a high-maintenance cosmetic surgery addict is fairly distinct from a meth-cooking recovering cancer patient with a Napoleon complex.)

"Event Television" is being touted a lot right now. It's not a new idea, but it's the first time an old format has spurred so many producers to attempt to make money by creating grand, intricate shows that–frankly–cost a hell of a lot of money to produce.

Let us be clear: it is wonderful that networks are shilling out crazy amounts of cash to put together smart scripts, talented actors, and vision-filled producers and directors, and effectively giving them creative license to do what they think works best for the show. All of those things foster creativity and a generally better story. This is good.

 Let us also be clear: this is a complete fad.

Networks are always looking for their keystone programming, they're just more willing to take risks with their investments now that other networks have proven the format. That format? Early film reel serials. Self-contained stories with a designed beginning, middle, and end, fluffed up in the middle of each installment with some odd complication that extends the plot out and requires a steady viewing of the complete material for total understanding, but could otherwise be shown to a complete stranger at any point and give a reasonable account of the series' tone at large, preferably drawing them in to start from the beginning. Really, there's two target demographics working together who would normally compete here: Networks are now considering Netflix when they make a show.

Admittedly, that's something a a gross generalization. A more nuanced explanation might be that Networks have discovered a way to draw readers into live-airing programming (more developed storytelling) while simultaneously drawing back former viewers who have "cut the chord" with cable in favor of online streaming services for only a select few shows (format your show in easy-to-binge plot chunks for the Netflix addicts). Ideally, they seek to draw the latter group back into the former, and return a few precious commercial ad dollars.

The plan is a good one. Certainly serial dramas have not done well on television previously, at least on the whole. Sit-Coms and episodic dramas do better in syndication, as a single episode will be unlikely to contain much character or plot development for the overall series. Even fans of cult classic shows like Twin Peaks or The X-Files which skewed early towards long-form plots are hard-pressed to argue that the one-off episodes didn't tend toward being far better than later "wrap-it-all-up" episodes.

Much of this can be blamed on a lack of funding, or Network meddling ruining a great, masterfully arranged concept (Firefly being the quintessence to many viewers). And, to be honest, a serial format wasn't really a proven concept. Miniseries traditionally wouldn't do well. For every Roots their were Doctor Who made-for-TV movies that had been downgraded from series orders. And for every Who there were about 17 single-cam "I Love Lucy" and Honeymooners knock-offs which could be made for far less money.

Maybe we can call this period the Age of the Serials. Franchises are more powerful than ever in the entertainment world. I've long enjoyed photographing the movie posters at my local theater and commenting with "Sequel … sequel … remake … sequel of a remake … based off a TV show …" etc., etc. But these isn't the mere "Halloween: Part 5" franchises anymore. Now we're dealing with two-to-three movies a year coming out of Marvel studios, each its own franchise or potential franchise, crossing over every three years with a massive billion dollar event film, new Spider-Man and associated spin-offs from SONY, DC Comics and Warner Bros. trying to replicate that success with a new Superman, Batman, and Justice League shared universe, FOX adopting comic book time travel to link rebooted universes into a massive conglomerate for X-Men, and freaking STAR WARS getting produced into an even bigger Death Star of a warship. All of these movies I will pay upwards of $18 to see in theaters, possibly with popcorn, by the end of next year.

Now, nerds have always been more amiable to serialized stories. It's where we come from, generally speaking. The trick Networks have played is to convince average, well-rounded people to become as fanatical about one particular show as rabid nerds can be about Star Wars. I've seen people reading Game of Thrones who had previously seriously doubted had the capacity to read. Those are 700 pages tomes, filled to bursting with obscure, Old English spellings and fanciful, fictitious languages. Characters fight with swords and dragons, but spend 90% of their time engaging in courtly intrigue and sharp wit. People are buying these kinds of books because they "Really liked the first three seasons."

So what was the trick, if not simply making a better product? It's this: these Networks are still dying.

HBO GO was crashed by the sheer number of people attempting to stream the Game of Thrones premier through the network's app. The majority of these people do not pay any money to HBO, but rather know someone who was willing or foolish enough to fork over their password. These people, actual HBO subscribers, could watch the premier live on their TVs. This means that nearly all of the people watching through the app one hour after broadcast were not actually paying HBO anything. They were stealing. So many of them that it outstripped the service's ability to function.

Or perhaps we pick a different delivery method. FX Network bills American Horror Story as an "anthology series," each season being a self-contained story akin to a long-format Twilight Zone. Each season is 12-13 episodes, amassing equal airtime, about 75% of that actual story. These shows are watched once, and then nothing. Perhaps some DVD sales. But they are talked about seemingly forever, but mostly only in anticipation of the next episode or iteration.

There are always a few viewers who will subscribe to a Network or service just to watch their one new favorite series, but these are not life-time consumers. They are month-to-month and you can't maintain a vast corporation around that when 99% of your other programming is turned on in the background of a Kraft Dinner. Networks are going to hemorrhage money from their cheap shows while 1% of their lineup makes a majority of the profits, but those shows continue to cost drastically more to produce in the first place. The logical solution seems to be to produce fewer shows with higher quality, and allow for more reruns and syndication in their 24-hour broadcast cycles.

But there's the kick: not one viewer cares. They want to see their show, and they want to be able to gorge on it. So for the time being, Networks make their best shows drawn-out and riddled with suspense, so much so that  we end up watching flawed characters make flawed decisions on ever more increasingly grand scales, becoming cartoonish villains and caricatures of their initial selves. Jack Bauer has had the worst 192 hours a human being can endure. Walter White became Lex Luthor, and then Bryan Cranston narrowly lost that exact role to the kid from "The Social Network." Don Draper is in desperate need of a psychologist and a liver transplant, Rick Grimes and his son Carl have pretty obviously turned into mad sociopaths out of necessity, and I honestly don't know if the apparently endless Stark lineage can survive a planned seven-book run. The stakes keep getting higher, every commercial or credits run comes with bated breath, and viewers wait interminably for another episode to air, as if it were the only thing worth discussing since Tony Soprano (maybe) died.

Meanwhile, I'm done. Many, many, people, nerds and hipsters and Pre-K teachers among them, are bailing on watching live programming. A lot of people I know are using DVR to at least watch a show on their own work schedule or skip through the commercials, while many others simply stream online. Lamenting that Netflix can't upload a season until the home release is also available? Here's a neat trick: try Googling "Watch [NAME OF SHOW] online," and see what pops up. Legality issues aside, everything you've ever wanted to watch even the slightest is available to view on the Internet for free. It's not even hard, and in most cases, once the file is uploaded, there's nothing illegal about watching the thing that's already there. (Downloading and uploading, mind you, are still outlandishly punishable copyright offenses.)

Instantaneous gratification culture is killing Network Television, and I couldn't care less. I'm more excited to see what existing and new companies do when they realize it'll be more profitable to create one exceptional franchise with a reasonable pace and release it in complete installments all together (Hint hint: Arrested Development) than to cling desperately to failing media and schedules, begging Seth McFarlane to drop one more morsel on their plate. Even George Lucas and Spielberg discussed the future of the movie industry in similar terms, telling Empire magazine last year to expect fewer, bigger-budget movies and lots of small indie films, with ticket prices correlated directly to that cost, and playing in theaters for up to years at a time.

I would love to see 17 television stations and a TV that's mostly streaming apps à la carte.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Harry Potter - Education, Population, and Socioeconomics

As quaint as they find Muggle society, Witches and Wizards in Harry Potter seem to have a very peculiar culture of their own. After watching the films and some exhaustive online research, I find myself asking a few fundamental questions. Generally, my roommate has silenced these queries with "Oh my god shut up its just a movie you're ruining it for me," but she's not here right now, so ha!


Christmas is still celebrated, granted in its most secular aspects but still the modern form, yet what are miracles in a world of magic? Excepting resurrection, which is achieved only through the legendary resurrection stone or the blackest magic of horcruxes, every miracle traditionally attributed to Christ is taught to the average third-year. Water to wine, levitation, aparating food. These are straight-forward. (Apparently food cannot be created, only moved. This is one of magic's few fundamental restrictions, so maybe Jesus was simply an epic chef?)

There is an afterlife. Whether you've personally seen it and talked to your dead relatives and headmaster aside, ghosts are a common sight during lunch period. This … has got to put a damper on the bible and organized religion in general. If nothing else, it should codify it somehow. In the wizarding world, has the public knowledge of existence after this mortal realm simply anesthetized the more fanciful aspects of religious fervor from our hearts? Are there no Jews, no Muslims, Buddhists, or Sumerian worshipers? Since Hogwarts was founded half a millennium before the breakaway of the Anglican church, I'm going to assume they were originally Catholic at best, if not outright Pagan and animists. Perhaps they simply adopted the trappings of Christmas out of English cultural camouflage.


Which brings us to Wizard-Muggle interaction.

Apparently, the upper echelons of the Muggle world are aware of and work with the wizarding community, but it should be universally recognized that with their own history, technologies, cultures, government, and penal systems, the magical world remains completely autonomous from its mundane counterpart.

According to my roommate, a subplot from the books which never made it to screen involved Mr. Weasely's hobbyist fascination with Mundy technology, outfitting a car with levitating ability and accruing a collection of batteries. According to her, magic and muggle devices do not play well together. Sure. Fine. Don't cross the streams. I got you.

However at what point did wizard give up on technology and become complacent? Steam engines and rail cars certainly caught on for long-distance mass transport, but fireplaces, toilets, brooms, and just general aparating seem the de facto methods of transport for small groups. Streetlights are usable, but not common to the magical realms. It would not be unreasonable to say a eternally burning candle is more efficient, but this raises so many conservation of energy questions I'd like to set it aside for a moment.

At what point did wizards stop developing better equipment for daily life? The only innovations seem to be in the scope of brooms, candies and jokes, and odd personal tinkering. Culture itself seems to have stalled out some time in the early 20th century, fashion-wise, and earlier still in regards to non-magical items of utility. Perhaps we're only missing a larger picture, missing the long and varied history of magical computational tools and dictating devices. The movies do take place from 1990-1997, mind you. It's unreasonable to assume Hermione would have brought a MacBook along with her cat.

Perhaps the complete lack of awareness to modern Muggle technology and society is indicative of how we ourselves remain predominantly unaware of customs and standards in even nearby foreign nations. Is it better, then, to consider Wizarding Britain a country unto itself, occupying overlapping though quietly ceded territory with the U.K. proper?

Money, Economics, and Government:

All these items come together in a disastrous head: How the hell do Hogwarts and the wizarding community even function?

Hogwarts as a school was founded in the year 990, by the four most prominent and talented magicians of their era, somewhere in Scotland. This predates England as a unified kingdom in any semblance, and thus establishes it as a separate, non-governmental entity.

Jumping to modern usage, Hogwarts prepares all students for their O.W.L. examinations, a government-approved standardized test for budding wizards roughly akin to a combination of the SATs and a drivers test. The Ministry of Magic maintains a close relationship with the school, but it is officially a private institution.

Since only the philosopher's stone–at very, very great cost mind you–can actually create gold, actual work must go into creating the wealth by which Hogwarts is kept functioning. Wizarding families have varying economic classes, and Harry Potter himself is of no small fortune, a capitalist economy, albeit mitigated by the ability to essentially create most objects given the right materials, talent, and time–so, life–is evident. Three types of currency are also noted, exemplifying this system: 29 bronze Knuts to a silver Sickle, 17 Sickles to a gold galleon. (It's like the Imperial system on crack.) So who pays students' tuition?

It should be recognized that Hogwarts admits students very oddly. They are granted placement, and though expected to procure their own supplies, tuition, room and board, even transportation costs seem to be gifted by scholarship. It is a huge honor to be accepted to Hogwarts.

And yet every Weasley for three generations, ass-poor, has been admitted, up to four at a time. That's not fiscal prudence, that's legacy. A possible theory is that, due to its prolific nature, Hogwarts has, over a full millennium of scholarship, amassed an insane fortune from endowments, invested it wisely, and uses the proceeds to pay the way for every student who walks through its doors, likely with a not small government subsidy for adhering to O.W.L. guidelines (which they likely developed, mind you).

While other countries' schools are mentioned (never in the New World, mind you; it's quite curious American wizards never had anything to say or intervene about with the whole 'dark lord starting an ethnic cleansing' thing), Hogwarts appears to be the only Magical school in the whole of the UK. Unless they're homeschooled, every British child of hocus-pocus blood goes through those doors. These numbers cannot possibly add up, at least at face value. We know there are at least several thousand adult magic users in London's magical shopping districts alone. We've seen international Quidditch matches attended by the tens of thousands, with thirteen professional teams in England and seven different newspapers reporting on their seasons.

Or, just maybe, there is simply a wizarding version of public school, and once again we have simply viewed the lives of incredibly lucky or incredibly wealthy, predominantly white kids in high school, with a dash of alluding to racism and a whole lot of elitist class bullshit just like every other British story of the last 60 years.

But perhaps not.


How many students are there, really? J.K. Rowling initially claimed there to be about a thousand students at Hogwarts, though later revised this to about 600 as she had only written around 40 characters in Harry's year. The internet seems to have settled on three-hundred. My roommate, though I can find no mention of this number, insists there are 50 students admitted to each house, each year. That's 200 students per grade, with 7 years of schooling between them. Rounding up for error–assuming fifty is an approximate average, that's at most only 1500 undergrads at any given moment. Roughly a small community college. So somewhere between 300 and 1500 is our answer.

According to, in 2012 there were 10,466,700 schoolchildren in the whole of the UK, roughly 18.7% its total population. The population in 1998 was roughly 50 million in total, so assuming relatively stable matriculating rates over the last 16 years, that would provide Harry Potter's United Kingdom just about 9.35 million children on the high end. Comparing these two figures, we arrive at a Wizarding student, and therefore total population that is approximately 1.6% of the total British commonwealth (about 800,000 in 1998 and just about 900,000 today). On the low end, that leaves us only 1600 wizards in 1998. Spread out over the whole of the United Kingdom, this number is, at face value, insubstantial to maintain the communities seen, so the larger of the two is more likely.

That said, Hogsmeade, the closest town to Hogwarts for many miles, is the only all-wizard village in all of Scotland. What we see in London is Diagon Alley, a single street crammed full of every magical shop imaginable, and the only openly magical thoroughfare in London. While there may only be upwards of 40 or 50 shops, since we know magicians can play with spatial relations, both of people and objects, it is entirely possible that this community is displaced from the natural world to some degree, squished into less volume than it appears, or that the entryway to the Alley is in fact merely a gateway through which one is 'adjusted' to a new, more fitting, width.

The short of it is, there is a sizeable Wizard community in England–albeit a sliver minority in the total human population–and the vast majority of these magic users must go without formal education. They must take vocational training, go into family businesses, or otherwise become menial laborers. There seem to be no repercussions for dropping out after passing the O.W.L.s, as two of the Weasley clan did, though doing so before passing the follow-up N.E.W.T.s would prevent a student from landing government  and private sector jobs in certain fields.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Filial Piety: Max Goof, Stevo, and Reconciling Individualism with Parental Values

So the other day, I was naked with a finger wedged deep in my ear and snacking on rice cakes soaked in soy sauce while balancing on one foot on a pyramid of delicate china cups and saucers, and I thought to myself, 'Oh my God, I've become my father!'" - Bob Roth

'Do we inevitably become our parents?' It's a question that plagues my dreams at night, somewhat less frequently than the zombie apocalypse but drastically more terrifying. I'm at least prepared for the zombie apocalypse. I own large knives, I can theoretically use a firearm, I am learning to ride a motorcycle (towards and away from explosions), and frankly I'm prepared to die a meaningless death because I don't have the stamina or cajones to survive the fall of civilization. I'm barely prepared to survive the fall of my wireless coverage.
What I'm certainly not prepared for is giving up my humanities degree and becoming a project manager for a huge, multinational telecommunications company. That's what my parents ended up doing. Three bachelors and two masters degrees between the two of them. And what was my father's choice career advice? “Be a stock broker. Work your butt off for fifteen years and retire by forty.” Sage wisdom from a Philosophy/Psych major.
Yet is it natural, after asserting our independence and striking out on our own, to return to the traditions and behaviors on which we were raised? In exploring this notion we have to examine values of both parent and child, and I can think of no more entertaining and accessible way to do this than through the lenses of two films vastly separated in genre and audience, but closely related by the theme at hand: 1999's SLC Punk! and Walt Disney Pictures' 1995 “Goof Troop” spinoff, A Goofy Movie.

Within A Goofy Movie there are two father-son relationships: predominantly Goofy and Max, but also that of their next door neighbors, Goofy's time-honored foil Pete and his son P.J. (Pete Jr.). While Goofy is a caring and loving father, Pete is the martinet, keeping his son in line through fear and discipline, prescribing an endless series of chores throughout their vacation, which exclusively serve either Pete Sr.'s personal extravagances or to reinforce his supremacy. In giving Goofy parenting advice, he refers to this as “Keep[ing] them under your thumb.” P.J. stands at attention before his father, comes when called to perform tasks, but otherwise avoids spending time with his father, in private company going so far as to openly resent it. Pete's strict mode of parenting does not create the same kind or strength of bond that Goofy and Max develop throughout the picture. Contrarily, Pete doesn't even give his son a personal name, instead bequeathing P.J. his own name in attempt to forcibly mold his offspring into that same identity.

Quite similarly, in SLC Punk! we are introduced to protagonist Stevo's father, who–representing a traditional upbringing–encourages Stevo to go to law school and finish his education, particularly the very college and law school he himself intended. His seemingly lax attitude and post-graduation recommendation of “and then do whatever” is counteracted by the on-its-face ridiculous notion to first “try it for four years and if you don't like it, quit.” Stevo's parents duet an advisory call-and-response: “Be free,” “Be practical,” “Go to Harvard,” “But have fun,” “Be an individual,” but he should get a haircut. Politely and honestly, Stevo begins to criticize his parents for abandoning the “Cultural Mecca” of their former home in New York City and with it the ideals of the 1960s, exchanging them for a white picket fence lifestyle in Salt Lake City, Utah. He later calls his father a hypocrite for being Jewish yet driving a German Porsche, for applying to Harvard Law School under Stevo's name and, more seriously, for getting divorcing Stevo's mother, saying “Y'know, you gave up a good thing in my mother, Sir.” Though he admits to “just busting his balls,” Stevo's disagreements with his father's values are sincere.

The major problem with the question “Do we become our parents?” is it inherently holds a bias towards the child's perspective. That is, it assumes becoming like one's parents is of necessity a bad thing: losing aspects of one's personal identity, becoming subservient and filling assigned roles is a loss of both freedom and self for an individual and (partially) a psychological death. It is an imposition few children appreciate as they grow into adulthood.
But rather than accept this value judgement, we should first examine the values of our parents. If, like 98 percent of children in the United States, a child is not abused, his parents can't have been too morally reprehensible. Likewise, if a child lives in the suburbs like roughly half the U.S. population as judged by the 2006 census, she probably does not have much to rebel against other than being as drearily average as P.J. or Stevo's families.
While these are certainly certain parents not to use as role models, that is not to say becoming like one's parents is universally a poor life. Max Goof shares equally with P.J. and Stevo an apprehension becoming anything like his father, or at least fearful of acquiring the genetic and personal traits he has grown to view as embarrassing, unhip or otherwise unenlightened. The film opens, in fact, with a nightmare sequence in which Max's idyllic pastoral plane is morphs into a grove of thorns as he frightens away his love interest, Roxanne, by undergoing a werewolf-like transformation into his own buck-toothed and clumsy, HYUCK!-ing father.
Throughout the movie, though, Goofy's values are not so terrible. Much the opposite, he prides himself on leniency and understanding of his son's feelings, preferring over Pete's rules and harshness family togetherness and traditions like father-son vacations and the family's secret fly fishing “perfect cast.” Excepting perhaps his father's taste in music, Max's greatest issue with Goofy is not his ideals or even his clumsiness, but rather that he feels smothered under his father's constant and frequently embarrassing presence in Max's personal. This, Max feels, hinders his development and growth as an individual and so he comes to view Goofy's ideals, though wholesome, as an imposition of parental will as antagonizing as Pete's.

The issue at hand is really a value judgement placing a child's accrued morals and experience over those impressed upon him by his parents earlier in life. Learning that our parents might be in possession of values not openly hostile to our own, perhaps even well-conceived and tested by decades of experience beyond our own, the question takes a different shape: “Are our values, if different, really any better than those of our parents?” If our values are no better than those of our parents, even in line with theirs, what can be said of our growth as individuals?
Max Goof feels like a nobody in his high school, at worst a loser to be picked on, at best fading into the background. However he also believes that he does have some innate coolness. If he can do something outlandish and cool he would win the heart of Roxanne.1 The act he chooses is to interrupt a school assembly with a pyrotechnic-laden lip syncing performance while dressed as Powerline, his world's most popular pop star among children his age. Quite literally, Max abandon's his own identity and adopted a preexisting, sauve, well-liked persona which is at once rebellion against the role of his father's son and conformist in regards to his peers, which does manage to impress the latter at the expense of the former.
This is of course the impetus for story's main conflict, wherein Goofy attempts to “save” his son's soul from a life of delinquency while Max tries to maintain his own independence and coolness. Yet Max maintains a relatively stable moral framework, managing to enjoy time alone with his father away from social constraints. When Max alters his father's road map to culminate not in a father-son fishing vacation, but at Powerline's rock concert in L.A., it is for him a devastatingly conflicted choice, but one he feels necessary to preserve his identity from crushed under being his father's will. It is an open deception of his father, something Max is not at all comfortable with and its exposure opens an emotional rift between the two.3

SLC Punk! features a protagonist much more openly dislikable by mainstream society. A punk rocker and anarchist in 1985 Utah, Stevo's values are frequently directly opposed to the ordered society to which his parents belong, often seeking it's partial or total dismantlement. He rebuffs his parents' advice for living a normal collegiate life, calling them hypocrites for leaving a societal hub of counterculture, for exchanging their ideals for high-salary jobs and expensive cars, for rejecting through the dissolution of their marriage even the very notion that true love can conquer all. In one of the film's most quotable moments Stevo asserts his contrarian lifestyle: “I am the future of this great nation! … I love you guys, don't get me wrong … but for the first time in my life I can say 'Fuck you!'”
When asked by his father why he even bothered to major in pre-law at community college, Stevo replies, “I studied law because I wanted to learn how completely full of shit your life's ambition really is.” Yet Stevo's actions undercut his mission statement of no-rules rule. The very fact that he did attend college is evidence of this and, as his father points out, even if he achieved success by cheating for four straight years, Stevo cared enough about grades and his status in society to desire and receive high marks in all his classes. Becoming conscious of this duality, he thinks to himself:
My dad was right about one thing. Why'd I do so well in school? I didn't want to. I mean, I tried. I tried not to give a shit. I knew it was all bullshit and they were trying to mold me into cannon fodder for their wars. And I knew that meaning lie elsewhere, but somehow I studied. Somehow I got the grades and now somehow I was accepted to a fucking Ivy League school–the last place on the planet for a guy like me. I mean I wouldn't even go there unless it was to set it on fire.

Stevo further muses that when he actively takes part in fighting the local rednecks he is partaking in a hierarchal system that is in essence a scaled-down version of war, creating the same Us versus Them mentality underpinning nationalism, colonialism and the irrational, self-propagating discourse surrounding Edward Said's “The Other.” He recognizes that this is a system very similar to the one he rejects as being antithetical to his anarchist doctrine, admitting he can offer no explanation for this. While actively engaged in a fight he concedes, “Everything has a system, even me. I was following nature; nature is order and order is the system.”

So what happens if a child's alternative value systems collapses?
In Max's case the act of duplicity he was already feeling guilty about is discovered, resulting in an impassioned argument with his father, wherein Max argues that his negative actions come about only in trying to distance himself from his father and grow as a person. Their argument grows so heated that they begin to ignore the physical world around them that the two, along with their car, tumble over a cliff and into a rolling river. Surrounded by water and cut off from any other 'human' influence, Max and Goofy are forced to deal with each other directly:
Goofy: You even lied to me.
Max: I had to! You were ruining my life!
Goofy: I was only tryin' to take my boy fishin', okay?
Max: I'm not your little boy anymore, Dad! I've grown up now! I've got my own life!
Goofy: I know that! I just want to be part of it!

It is at this Max realizes distancing himself from his father is causing as much turmoil in their relationship as Goofy's attempts to forcibly bridge the divide. Father and son then come to a mutual understanding via a stirring musical number we shall address shortly.
Stevo, however, is a bit older. Having graduated from college and now living outside his parents' homes, we get to see his alternative values play out in the larger world. Out with his casual girlfriend Sandy, Stevo runs into a fellow punk from high school named Sean, who has since accidentally overdosed on acid and, thinking his mother to literally be a Satanic monster, attempted to murder her with a kitchen knife. Following a brief incarceration in a psychiatric facility, Sean is now panhandling on the street, “FUCK YOU” scrawled across his torn clothes and incapable of the basic human interaction necessary to support himself. Sandy's immediate advice, to which Stevo readily agrees? “You should get a job.”4 When faced with real hardship, the punks' first instinct is not to thrash the system and take what they need to survive by force, but to accede to that system's structure.
Seeing what can happen to people close to him who follow his same anarchistic doctrine to the extreme, Stevo muses:
“I couldn't even look at the guy. I felt a pain in my stomach. I couldn't take it so I turned my back, just like everybody else … It really fucked me up. Not Sean, but turning my back. Ignoring the truth. So what'd I do? I dropped acid with Sandy in Highland Park as to further ignore the truth.”

Stevo openly admits to running away from the harsher elements of his lifestyle, implying that he might be cognizant of his desire for some of the protections offered by an ordered society. As Stevo's personal relationships begin to crumble, he sarcastically mouths off to his best friend and roommate Bob for falling in love and considering marriage and a family and running a business. “You're a poseur,” Stevo says. “Only poseurs fall in love with girls. You're a poseur.” While he quickly reneges, the thought has been vocalized. Stevo cannot reconcile his own desires with his current lifestyle.
The final death of Stevo's ideology comes with the untimely loss of Bob, at which Stevo expresses denial, grief, guilt, anger and bargaining all in the space of about ninety seconds. He insists, “Only poseur's die,” but this is a clear fallacy in his belief structure and an argument that cannot resurrect Bob. As realization dawns over Stevo, he laments that he has lost his last real friend, muttering simply, “Oh man. Oh jeeze. Oh my God. I wasn't ready for this. I wasn't ready.” It may be quick, but in this short line of dialogue Stevo has completely discarded anarchism, invoking first Man, then in minced-oath Jesus Christ, then finally God.
Stevo's penance as the prodigal son of family and tradition is to shave his perpetually blue, spiky hair down to a Spartan buzz cut for Bob's funeral and don in place of his usual t-shirts and razor blades a mournful, black suit. “If the guy I was then met the guy I am now,” Steve says, “He'd beat the shit out of me.” In the final voiceover he openly repudiates his former values and agrees to return to traditional society5:
So there it was. I was gonna go to Harvard, be a lawyer and play the goddam system … I was my old man. He knew….We were certain that the world was gonna end, but when it didn't I had to do something, so fuck it. That was me: a troublemaker of the future … You can do a lot more damage in the system than from outside of it … I was nothing more than a goddam trendy-ass poseur.

Though Stevo is pushed through only the most begrudging reconciliation with traditional family values, Max comes to terms with his father in a much happier, prototypically Disney fashion. Following their shouting match atop the barely-floating car drifting down river, Max and Goofy sing a duet through which they learn to respect and even admire each other's differences. Max chimes in regarding his father, “Though he seems intoxicated/He's just highly animated,” to which Goofy reciprocates with, “Your moodiness is now and then bewilderin'/And your values may be–so to speak–askew.” Max concedes that his father acts only out of love and he will honor that, while Goofy agrees to respect his son's emotional space and allow him to experience parts of life on his own. Newly reconciled, Max and Goofy have an (assumedly) cherished heart-to-heart between scenes in which Max catches his father up on his teenage angst and the Powerline predicament. Goofy then decides that the only appropriate way to end their ordeal is to get Max onstage at the Powerline concert in L.A. as promised, thereby negating his son's lie to Roxanne and getting Max some sweet, sweet dog lovin'.6
However, before Max can gain any real reward from this new acceptance and openness with his father, he must first be tested to see if he is deserving of his father's boon. Max needs a trial-by-fire. Or waterfall. A trial-by-waterfall. That works too. They're already floating downstream through a canyon, after all. Goofy cements his place as a good father by getting Max to (relative) safety fairly quickly, but Max has to find a way to save his father from tumbling over the falls. With only a fishing poll and tea set floating nearby, Max saves his father by correctly executing the family's secret “perfect cast,” despite how ridiculous it makes him look in the process. The adoption of family tradition over 'looking cool' firmly plants Max's morality back in traditional Disney soil. Alive and safe the loving father-and-son duo can now go break into a stadium, sneak on stage, ruin tens of thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment and then utilize the perfect cast as an original dance step, bridging old and new generations in mutually destructive and illegal havoc broadcast over national television.

In denouement, Max reveals to the disturbingly nubile Roxanne7 that he does not in fact know Powerline, whereby she informs him that she was instantly attracted to not his faux-suaveness or his looks, but to his hereditary HYUK, the very laughter Max had feared, loathed and attempted to hide from her. This happy Disney ending validates Max's choice of family tradition over contrariness for its own sake, whereas SLC Punk! takes the darker approach of effectively punishing Stevo's reluctance to accept his own parents' values. Though Disney understandably portrays this choice as thoughtful and worthy of praise, and though SLC Punk! rather callously defines parents' values as being akin to the 'lesser of two evils,' both convey the solid warning that values which are old and not well understood by some does not make them necessarily wrong in the long-term. More often than not these values endure because they are things we too will come to believe in time, when we better understand the world and are not immediately terrified of possibly, maybe, slightly, even remotely becoming even a smidge like our parents. But Zeus help me if I turn out anything like my father.
1A small sampling of appropriately aged heterosexual middle-class males seems to indicate that Roxanne is by far one of the most common cartoon characters to give little boys funny feelings for the first time. To my knowledge, however, none of these participants have actually engaged in romantic relationships with real dogs.2
2Sub-footnote: Yes, everyone in the Goof Troop universe is a
Goofy's “raucous laugh” predates his screen debut, but he was in his first appearance credited as “Doofy Dawg.” You see that “W” in “dawg?” Yeah, Walt Disney was a real O.G., son. Word.
3A rift that can only be closed with a car-rafting musical duet.
4Officially the third most parental saying in the English language, right after, “When are you getting a haircut,” and “Ask your mother.”
5So long as he can cause trouble by pissing off judges as a lawyer.
6Remember: they're dogs. Still. This hasn't changed in the last four footnotes.
7Seriously? What's up with that? I haven't been this confused since Clueless. (Paul Rudd is just too awesome. Every man bro-crushes on Paul Rudd.)