Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Money, money, money

On a personal note: I have word that my student loan is confirmed for some surely made-up some of money that couldn't possibly be a real number that I will have to pay back in 4 years or so. This means that I can actually be a student, and as an added bonus, pay rent. I hear that being a student is a lot harder when you're homeless.

Okay, I'm hard on Skepchick (and last time I criticized them I was a little bit hasty), but for real it's one of my favourite sites. Still, something Rebecca Watson said in her post asking people to please stop making calendars bothered me a little bit:

3. Sending women to large conferences isn’t that great of a cause. This is something that I’ve debated mentioning here, because I know Skepchick has continued to support scholarship funds like the very successful one Surly Amy has run, but one of the things that annoyed me about the Skepchick Calendars was handing over thousands and thousands of dollars every year to the JREF for tickets for women to go to The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas, and not really seeing much benefit in return. Yes, I got to meet some great women. Yes, we increased the total percentage of women in the audience at that one conference. Yes, the women I sent had a wonderful vacation in Vegas. But did they really learn anything? Did it help them feel more connected to the skeptical community? Did they go home and get involved in their local skeptical group? I have no idea. I asked many of them to write me an essay on how they benefited from the scholarship they got, and I don’t recall ever actually getting one.
What got me is what if I were one of the women who'd received such a scholarship, reading this paragraph. How would I feel?

At various points in my life, I've struggled financially. There have been times, both as a child and as an adult, that I've lived in a hotel and had no where else to go. The first few years after I joined rugby, I didn't have enough money to participate in the road trips, so the club paid my way. At times, different people have offered me favours and/or items that I otherwise would have had to do without. A friend got me a couch when she realized that I had no furniture. People bought me drinks when they knew I had no money. I've been the recipient of "charity" in various forms.

The worst thing about charity is the assumption that the person giving the charity -deserves- something in return. This isn't to say that I didn't feel gratitude, or that I would have loved to show my appreciation in some way. But being poor is hard. Everything about it is hard. It's basically one giant slog through worry: worry about rent, worry about bills, worry about food, worry about clothes, worry about transportation, worry about appearances, worry about heat, worry about cold, worry about people and/or animals who depend  on you.

When things are good, and I'm not worried about all of those things, I have the freedom to make a choice. You offer to pay for my dinner, and I can decide for myself if I can afford to pay you back next time, or if I can make you a card, or if I have the emotional energy to listen to you complain for two hours straight, and then I can refuse, or negotiate terms.

When things are bad, I can't negotiate. I don't have the brain power to assess the value of what's being given (because for you, $10, for me, it's a MEAL and a host of worries put off until tomorrow). I'm over a barrel. ANY expectation that I give something back is a type of coercion, because I'm not in a position to negotiate.

I'm making a hash of this post, because this sort of thing really, really gets to me. Ugh.


I can understand wanting to make the best use of your resources. I can understand wanting the feedback from where your resources went so that you can assess how effective they are.

But if you have a program in place meant to help people in financial need, you have to understand that by loading extra conditions and expectations along with the "gift" or scholarship, you're placing a greater burden on the people you're trying to help.

If I had been a recipient of a scholarship and saw a comment like Rebecca's, I would have felt ashamed. I would have felt the crushing weight of shame about my poverty. I would have felt anger that even after all this time, by accepting one trip to a conference, there are still expectations. I might have felt used.

The frustrating thing about this is that this point doesn't even have anything to do with calendars. Another frustrating thing is that I'm terrible at articulating my frustration here. I'm sure Rebecca didn't intend to hurt any of the people who received that scholarship, I'm sure she didn't intend to make financial hardship appear to be associated with ingratitude. But that's how it appeared to me.

I gotta go have myself a think.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution

I didn't make it to my 10 year high school reunion, but I imagine it would have been a lot like this movie: familiar faces, stilted dialogue, some really fun moments, and a lot of things that don't really make sense.

Resident Evil: Retribution starts us up seconds after the last film ended, with Alice (Milla Jovovich) having just rescued dozens of white-clothed humans from the Umbrella Corporation, on a boat in the middle of an ocean. Their happy ending clearly didn't last long, as we see - in slow-motion, time-reversed montage - the refugees come under fire first by airships and then Umbrella Corp commandos, led by Alice's one-time friend and current nemesis Jill Valentine. The attack knocks Alice overboard and we get one final image of her submerged body, silhouetted against the ocean's surface.

The first scene is an example of what to expect. It's beautiful and haunting on the one hand, but sometimes comes across as cliched on the other. I had a blast watching some of this film, but I really couldn't recommend it to anyone except other zombie/resident evil fans, and while it got my heart pumping now and then, I feel like the film had some missed opportunities to really feel like it was a satisfying zombie flick.

First, the good: Alice kicks ass. Jovovich inhabits the role perfectly, moving from action scene to quiet character moments fluidly. The film only truly comes alive when she's in action, especially in the earlier scenes where she's mostly unarmed and has to make do with whatever weapons she can scrounge up, like a heavy chain, perfect for bashing zombies in the face. Because of the central conceit of the film - that she is trapped in an underwater testing facility with different environments created to replicate places like Manhattan, Tokyo, and "suburbia" (where fans like me can watch the standard set-piece of civilians trying to escape a newly-unleashed zombie apocalypse) - we see Alice in a bunch of different scenarios so that the action doesn't really get too stale.

And it was fun to see some familiar faces, especially Michelle Rodriguez, who takes on a couple of different characters, including an anti-gun protestor, which leads to one of the few genuinely funny exchanges in the film. I wish Rodriguez had had more to do, because she was certainly one of my favourite parts of the first film.

Actually, aside from the obligatory "Alice is dressed in a medical napkin tied with string" scene, the best parts of this film belong to the women. The film passes the bechdel test early on, and while there is an all-male task force assigned to rescue Alice (why can't we see any of those guys in napkins?), Alice does quite well on her own, later having to rescue her would-be rescuers in a Moscow car-chase scene complete with James Bond-esque music, soviet zombies weilding rocket launchers and, oh yes, a giant "licker" monster who pursues them into the subway system.

If the movie were able to keep this manic pace going, it would have gotten a much better score from me, but unfortunately the weak paste that holds these awesome parts together is filled with wooden acting, leaden dialogue, and plotting that alternates between non-sensical and ripped off from other movies.

Alice is eventually stuck with "Becky", a young hearing-impaired girl who was Alice's daughter in one of Umbrella Corp's simulations, and while the kid who plays her (Aryana Engineer) isn't too annoying, the fact that she is simply meant to be to Alice what Newt was to Ripley in Aliens, is grating. At one point I fully expected to hear Alice growl "Get away from her, you bitch!" while she rescues the girl.

The movie suffers in the last half, too, because of it's slipshod plotting and characterisation. In the final fight scenes, there really isn't any reason to fear for Alice's safety, and there's no emotional resonance with the other characters. This sapped away the kinetic feel of the action, so that when we're supposed to feel most engaged in the outcome, I felt the opposite, I was just waiting for the fight to be over so we can move on to the next bit.

The door is wide open for a 6th installment, which I'll probably want to see. The character of Alice, as portrayed by Jovovich, is someone that I'd happily follow through the rabbit hole over and over again. At this point, the franchise has its established strengths and weaknesses, so if you've seen previous Resident Evil films, you know what to expect from Retribution and any further installments. I'm giving this film 2.5 severed thumbs out of 5 (I may be grading on a curve), and I'm definitely excited to return to the first 4 films over the next few weeks. Coming soon!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Evolution's Rainbow Part 1

I'm hoping to go see the new Resident Evil movie this weekend, so expect some sort of a review on it next week. I have to say that as a zombie franchise, it's done quite well for itself. I feel like the first movie still holds up as a great and interesting take on the zombie genre, and I'm looking forward to this fifth installment. It occurs to me that maybe sometime soon, I should do a full review-a-thon of the series...maybe I'll start that next week.

Today, though, I plan to conduct a blog-speriment...normally I just write about what I'm thinking and feeling, but I don't really get all rigorous and analytical, which means that when I'm in a debate I can end up appealing to emotion instead of cold hard facts, which means I tend to fail at pursuasion. So, in the spirit of being more ...er, reviewer-y? I'm going to review a science book as I read it! And I'm going to take notes! And be thorough!

My partner's mom takes notes when she reads nonfiction, and that blew my mind! It meant that she had a bunch of talking points handy when she wanted to discuss the subject (the book was "Civilization: The West and the Rest" which is sitting, neglected, on my bedside table because the author's bias is actively hostile toward my bias on the subject of cultural relativity, and so it hurts to read). I've never ever done this before: I barely even used my highlighter when reading textbooks for school, but it seems like a good habit to get into.

So, to start off my blog-speriment, I'm picking up a book that I read some time ago (is this cheating? It's my blogsperiment so I say No) and quite enjoyed, Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People by Joan Roughgarden (University of California Press, 2004). My impressions from the book the first time around were that the introduction and first chapter were a little challenging for me in that they seemed to bring in a lot of pseudo-scientific-sounding ideas and suggestions (an early "policy suggestion" is to erect a diversity monument on the West Coast of the US to mirror the Statue of Liberty, which seemed to come out of nowhere and seemed a little too crunchy-granola for my tastes), but that the section on biological diversity when it comes to gender was really eye-opening and seemed scientifically sound. Roughgarden is a biologist by trade and has (according to her intro and the blurb) previously worked on "textbooks, monographs, and symposium procedings" (as a non-scientist, only the first part of that holds any real meaning for me), so I trust her biological standings. The other two parts, on human biology and development and human cultural diversity, left a smaller impact on me the first time around, so we'll see how this goes.

I'm only a couple of chapters in, where Roughgarden is laying down the basic premises of the book. The first chapter deals with sexual and biological diversity as it's been seen in biology. She discusses two broad views in the scientific communities, one that's diversity affirming, the other diversity denying. Guess which view I'm partial to.

She takes aim at Darwin's theory of sexual selection, arguing that it is incomplete at best. Looking at the bulk of species on our planet, sexual reproduction is by far the most successful: most species reproduce sexually, and those animals that don't (excepting some of the simpler life-forms) tend to be the shorter branches on the evoltuionary tree. Reproducing sexually has some kind evolutionary benefit. The diversity denying side argues that sexual reproduction allows harmful mutations to be cancelled out, that sexual reproduction helps to stabilize a species' genetic make-up and reduce the number of mutations in the gene pool. Diversity affirming arguments say that sexual reproduction helps to increase diversity, by allowing variation to spread widely in a population, giving an advantage to some individuals in varying environments (which, welcome to Earth, our environments do indeed vary).

The second chapter gets down to defining sex and gender. Roughgarden is quick to adopt a biological definition of sex as being strictly related to gamete size. In species that produce different sizes of gametes (eg, egg and sperm), the larger gamete is female, the smaller is male. Even at this early stage in the book, it's becoming clear that diversity is the rule in biology, not the exception...while most sexually reproducing species produce two sizes of gametes, some animals (she uses a species of fruitfly as an example) produce more. In the case of fruitflies, there are three sizes of sperm, one gigantic (twenty times as long as the male fly itself), and two smaller, overlapping sizes. While males produce all three, it's theoretically possible that each sperm size could be made by only one type of male, which would mean a species with four sexes. Science! In general, though, sex seems to fall under a binary of large gametes vs small gametes.

Defining gender, though, is much more complicated. Despite our assumptions, gamete size tells us very little about how males and females actually look and behave. A lot of people tend to assume that males are bigger, that females gestate the young, that there are only two genders, that gender is static throughout the life of an organism etc, etc. But there is variation on all of these points. In fact, the idea that our ideas about gender are just "nature's way" falls woefully short in biology: nature uses all the ways nature can get.

The next few chapters deal with sex and bodies, and sex roles, followed by an overview of 2-gender and multiple gender families, so I'll write up a post about those next week...but first, I'll have a post about zombies!!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Atheism Plus, but no zombies (well, maybe a little zombies)

Two posts in a week! I must be CRAAAAZYYYYY!

I actually just wanted to gush a bit more about the new A+ community, and in particular the forums, which are an amazing resource for anyone interested in social justice. My views on this movement are changing as the group evolves, but already I'm learning new things about different groups and perspectives, and I expect to be challenged and to grow over the next few months and years. The response has been amazing, with (I've heard) 1000+ members joining in the last couple of weeks.

The story of how A+ came to be is a long and mostly horrific one, borne out of online misogyny, ignorance, and needless vitriol. I won't go into it in detail, but one of the greater wounds (if I can get dramatic for a second) has been the closing down of Blaghag, a blog written by Jen McCreight, the woman who inspired the whole A+ thing. Basically, she dared to have opinions on the internet while being a woman, and that is Simply Not Done, so in the face of thousands* of hateful comments, emails, tweets, and maybe psychic projections, she's chosen to opt for a bit of reflection and calming meditation (or whatever it is she does to relax....) instead of dealing with assholes on the internet.

But, hey, if I had to leave the internet to get some fricken peace, I could go out a lot worse than inspiring a rejuvenated movement interested in creating a safe space for atheists into social justice. I mean, can an exit get better than that?


Okay, so in the months and months where I was neglecting this blog, I actually consumed a TONNE of zombie stuff, so I presently have a lot of material I can cover without having to venture away from zombieness (which is my true love and passion, obviously). So one more review for y'all:

Survival of the Dead - I finally got around to seeing Romero's latest zombie flick. Now, unlike most of the fandom (from what I can see) I didn't mind Diary of the Dead. Yeah, the found footage thing is getting old, blah de blah, but the film was at least a passable modern day zombie flick with some genuine scares and laughs sprinkled throughout. Survival of the Dead, though....not so much.

Basically, after realizing what a horrible piece of drek it was, and after observing that the ratio of speaking men's roles to speaking women's roles was something like 7 to 1, I decided to play a game: would Survival of the Dead pass the Bechdel Test? I don't want to ruin the fun, so if you want to play, don't read the next paragraph.

So, does the movie pass? Well, if you're playing along at home, you'll have to wait until 1 hour and 14 minutes into the film to find out. Sort of. Because that is the time it takes for the two women with speaking roles (and they have names!) and who are not zombies to be in the same scene. Then....one of the women says something. A second later, the other woman says something that may or may not be a response to what the first woman said (they were in a crowd with lots of guys around). Then one of the women gets eaten. Fun!

Other than the amusement to be found with my game, there isn't much else to recommend the film. It doesn't have much to say about society, it doesn't add anything to the zombie genre, while some of the action might be okay, I generally found the film to be kinda lackluster. I think only Romero completists should even bother with this film, because there simply isn't much to recommend it. 1 severed thumb out of five.

*I haven't counted whether it's actually thousands. It may be hundreds. Frankly, 7 (plus or minus 2) hateful comments would be enough to get me to bail, so I think even one or two assholes on the internet is one or two too many.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Atheism Plus Zombies

As an atheist (I still haven't decided how militant I can/should be on that front), I'm pretty darn happy with this Atheism Plus thing. It's no secret to anyone who follows atheism on the intertubes that there have been some spectacular battles over such groundbreaking and controversial issues like cornering women in elevators and whether harrassment policies at conferences are a good thing or else an authoritarian nightmare that will undermine the very fabric of a free society. Furthermore, I've found some pretty unskeptical attitudes in some social justice movements that don't appeal to me, and have contributed to my arms-length distance from some of them. So, to have a group of atheist and skeptical people discussing issues of social justice is something that I will be following for some time.

That's all I'm going to say about that for now.

In zombie news, I've been reading a bunch of stuff lately, some good, some bad, some ugly.

The good:

Blackout by Mira Grant: The 3rd in her Newsflesh trilogy provided a very satisfying conclusion. When I reviewed the first book (Feed) I think I short-changed her on the score. At the time, I felt that the story built to its climax too slowly. That problem was corrected in the sequel, Deadline, and this third book as the action stayed fast-paced and riveting. The protagonists of the series, Shawn and Georgia, are very well-drawn and believable, and while maybe Grant could work a bit more on developing the secondary characters a little more, her focus on the first-person narrators doesn't hurt the story at all. I'm confident that this series is the best zombie lit that I'll read this year. I give it a 4.5 severed thumbs up (or whatever my scoring system is).

The bad:

Shakespeare Undead by Lori Handeland: Okay, so I'll be gentle with this book, because I don't think I'm the target audience. It's a pulpy supernatural romance between William Shakespeare (a two-thousand year old vampire) and his Dark Lady, Kate, who hunts zombies as a hobby while her merchant-noble husband is away in the New World. They fall passionately in love, then kill zombies, then are passionately in love some more, then kills more zombies, then there's an evil vampire and they fight him, the queen of England shows up and they save her, and then they fall in love some more, again, and then some. Part of what threw me was from the very start there's some vaguely heterosexist content where Shakespeare is drawn to Kate while she's disguised as a boy, and he agonizes forEVER about whether he's suddenly turned gay or not, not that there's anything wrong with that. What a friggin' RELIEF when he finds out that his true love isn't a boy but is actually a lady. It was a relief to me, too, because then I didn't have to read about how self-hating Shakespeare expected to become if he actually was gay or bi or whatever. Also, there's some casual racism in there, but whatevs, lighten up, right?

The other thing that bugged me was the plotting or pacing was so, so, SO bad. This book, in order for the zombie threat to actually become threatening, depends on its protagonists saying and doing stupid things (in general, making out) instead of trying to solve the problem. Basically, Will and Kate get attacked by zombies, then, instead of doing ANYTHING to find out about where the zombies are coming from, etc, they just make out and wonder if they should reveal their secrets (Kate is married, Will is Undead: can it ever work???). It's about 75% through the book that Shakespeare actually does anything other than react: he goes to a house and knocks on the door, and then is attacked by more zombies, and later (probably) makes out with Kate some more.

So, I'll say 1.5 severed thumbs out of 5. In this book's favour, the writing is readable, the book has a consistent breezy tone, and it plays with some interesting ideas. I'm not a pulp-romance reader, so maybe this book would be just the thing for someone wanting something light-weight and "fun"(?) for the beach or whatever. It irritated me to no end, but I can't say that I would like the time back that I spent on it.....unlike.....

The ugly:

Autumn: the city by David Moody: This is a lesson for me: any time a zombie novel says, on it's back cover blurb, "there's no flesh eating, no fast-moving corpses, no gore for gore's sake," I need to just WALK AWAY because they are NOT KIDDING. Oh, this book. This horrible, horrible book.

Okay, so, I haven't read the first book in the series (just called Autumn, maybe?), and there are a billion other books after this one. I am unlikely to read those. Basically, this book is a standard zombie apocalypse story, where survivors first experience zombie-onset trauma, then they gather together, then they fight amongst themselves to decide what to do. Except for the first half of the book, the dead people who become zombies? They just stand there. Later on, they reach for you and grab at you, which I can imagine is certainly unnerving, but from what I could see in this book, the zombies are not actually dangerous, except that they crowd and could (presumably) trample someone to death. If a zombie bites or scratches you, do you become a zombie? I don't know, because to my knowledge, no zombie ever bites or scratches anyone in the entire book. The first post-apocalypse death is a suicide when a woman jumps off a ledge because her baby died.

But the zombies in a zombie novel are only one part of the equation. I can see an argument for a really creepy story where the dead just kind of stand there and the survivors are creeped out by that. But if that's the story, I imagine it would depend heavily on the characters. So, how are the characters in this one? Ugh. I don't know. They're all so bland and boring and interchangeable, I ran into trouble later in the book when the cast expanded past "the guy" "the woman" and "the little kid". I kept mixing everyone up. Even the inter-character conflict was so muted and generally polite that when one guy decided to just go and get drunk in a bar to kill himself, I kinda just shrugged. Who was he again? I don't know. Why suicide? I guess he was sad? Sigh.

This book was BORING. I can't even be bothered to raise objections about sexism or whatever, because, really, nothing happened. Most of the world died instantly, some of those bodies started walking around, and the survivors just sit around and mope blandly for however many pages this book has. 0 (that's a zero) out of 5 severed thumbs. Both of the UNsevered thumbs are pointed down.


So, this was my "keep the blog alive!" post. I've been keeping things going at my sobriety blog, and I guess staying sober has been a big focus of my life lately. Now that I'm approaching one year of THAT, I'd like to expand my focus to include other interests, including this blog. We'll see how that goes.