Friday, August 29, 2014

Recommended Crazy: Open Scroll Blog

I can appreciate a good lunatic. The work of people like Jack Chick, David Icke, and even more subtle, dignified crazies like Art Bell can be incredibly entertaining if you limit the dosage and approach them from the right mindset. A few years ago, I was introduced to The Open Scroll Blog, which might just be the Holy Grail of insanity. I don't read the blog regularly because I'm pretty sure the result would be similar to reading from the Necronomicon, but I keep it in my newsfeed and occasionally check in when I'm in the mood for some quality WTF. If you're familiar with the work of religious nut Texxe Marrs, who sees Satanic imagery in everything form Girl Scout merit badges to Yoda, you can think of Marrs as OSB lite. Where Marrs merely notes that Star Wars is occult indoctrination because Yoda's ears look like devil horns or whatever, the Open Scroll Blog people (the site lists two contributors) "decode" a vast, multi-layered universe of hidden meaning in even the simplest of things. For example, their decoding of Ke$ha's "Crazy Kids" video is a SEVEN-part series, and the blog entries aren't exactly short. It's a very dense crazy. What do they find when they decode these things? From what I can tell, mostly signs of the apocalypse, secret Illuminati symbols, and lots of magical buttsex. Check it out, but be sure to turn away if you hear Cthulhu stirring.

Important Note: If you feel the desire to comment on the blog, make sure you either have a penis or use a name that suggests you have a penis. From the sidebar of the site:
About Commenting 
With regard for 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and in the interest of honoring my Lord, comments posted by women or as gender anonymous will not be published. If you would like to communicate personally, email is preferred at gmail theopenscroll.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Top Five Charity List

If you want to take the Most Challenging Challenge That Will Ever Challenge You, but are having trouble coming up with a charity to support, here are the top five that I support when I get a chance:

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund 
The CBLDF provides legal assistance for comic creators, sellers, readers, and others those whose First Amendment rights are threatened. If you like swag in exchange for your donation, the CBLDF website has T-shirts featuring popular comic characters, signed comics, art, and lots more.

Rolling Jubilee
An outgrowth of the Occupy movement, Rolling Jubilee buys debt for pennies on the dollar, just like many banks and collection agencies do. Instead of trying to collect the debt, along with usurious fees, they forgive the debt.

Doctors Without Borders
Doctors Without Borders provides medical care to people in need all over the world. You often hear about them after major natural disasters (like the earthquake in Haiti a few years ago), but they operate year-round in areas affected by war, disease outbreaks, disasters, or just lack of health care.

American Red Cross
I'm going to assume you know about the Red Cross.

Your Local Food Bank
You'll have to look up the details yourself, but if you live in America, there's a food bank that serves people in your area, and they need donations of food or cash. If you're in my neck of the woods, it's Paducah Cooperative Ministries. If you also happen to be a comic fan or gamer, Crash Comics is a drop-off point. If you don't have time to pick up food donations, drop some cash (even if it's just the change you have left over after you buy your comics) in the fish tank by the register.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Most Challenging Challenge That Will Ever Challenge You

  1. Pick an organization you'd like to support. It's ok if you pick a cause that you really believe in, even if it doesn't have a viral marketing campaign. In fact, those organizations probably need help more than the ones who are getting donations from the viral campaign, even after accounting for the fact that only a tiny percentage of the people who participate in such campaigns actually donate. 
  2. Donate your time or money to the organization. Do it even if there's no hashtag, selfie, or special event to go along with it. After all, you're doing this to help others, not to stoke your ego, right? 
  3. Post to social media about why you think the organization is worth supporting. Provide a link for those who would also like to donate. The link provides people with a way to take ACTION, without which "awareness" is meaningless. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Talking Point That Was Missed About Robin Williams' Death

A few days after Robin Williams' suicide, I saw a mention that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. It was in a Facebook comment or tweet or something, so I took it as a possibly important fact and assumed I'd see it confirmed somewhere in my news feed sooner or later. Since I still hadn't seen any stories about the diagnosis, I did a Google search and found a story from CNN confirming it.

The fact that the story didn't show up in my news feed despite the hundreds of posts about Robin Williams I saw last week isn't really surprising. Especially online, our news sources tend to stick to their initial narratives (often along political lines) no matter what new information becomes available. Americans don't do nuance, even when it's potentially important nuance. The narrative is that Robin Williams was depressed, so depression is the topic of the day. Just to be clear, that's not a bad thing. If the number of suicides I've heard about just outside my circle of friends in the last few years is any indication, depression is killing a lot of people. If the flood of depression articles helped anyone, that's a good thing. I even think it would be cool if we could talk about suicide and depression when there's not a celebrity corpse to hang the story on, but there probably aren't any shares, likes, retweets, and (most importantly) links back to monetized pages for that.

Another thing that would be nice is if we could handle the brain overload of having more than one discussion come out of a particular news story. Based on statements from Williams' wife, depression was probably what ultimately caused him to take his own life, but what if the depression only pushed the schedule forward. What if he'd already decided to kill himself, and it was a rational decision? What if instead of Robin Williams, it was a celebrity without a history of depression and substance abuse (or even an abortion for those who think a fetal ghost haunted him to death)--and let's make it a celebrity who's not incredibly talented, just so it'll be a little less depressing. If Daniel Tosh* had killed himself and then we found out he had just been diagnosed with a debilitating disease, would that give us an opening to have a conversation about euthanasia?

Switching back to Williams in the interest of having a sympathetic lead, what if medically assisted suicide were an option that could have been openly discussed when he got the diagnosis? If planning suicide in response to a terminal illness were a valid and legal medical option instead of a crime and a sin that has to remain secret at all costs, maybe he would have discussed the option with his family and somehow that would have changed the outcome. Maybe they would have convinced him to take a Terry Pratchett approach and stick around until the disease became too much to handle. I know this sounds cynical, but with an "I'm dying and this will be my last movie" pitch, Robin Williams could get any movie he wanted to make funded. Maybe he could have made one last great film, or lent his celebrity to a new pair of young unknown filmmakers with a great movie up their sleeve, or put on the biggest Comic Relief ever, or just made us laugh.

Of course, maybe they couldn't have talked him out of it. Remember, he watched two friends--Christopher Reeve and Richard Pryor--suffer for years with debilitating medical conditions, so it's certainly conceivable that he wouldn't want to put himself or his family and friends through a similar ordeal. If that were the case, being able to discuss the possibility medically assisted suicide without stigma may have increased the chances of the decision being made by the man and not the disease. If he wanted to die rather than deal with the Parkinson's, euthanasia would have allowed him to say goodbye and to die painlessly surrounded by his loved ones. Instead, he had to die alone and probably in physical pain, hoping that the letter he left behind would be enough to make his family and friends understand his decision.

*I have no idea if Daniel Tosh has a history of depression or substance abuse, but he's definitely not incredibly talented.

That was depressing. Maybe this will help.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dark Dungeons Review

Cross-posted from The Death Cookie:

I feel like I need to start with some disclosures here. I first played Dungeons & Dragons in something like fourth grade and have been a gamer ever since. I’ve also been fascinated by Jack Chick for at least 20 years. I have a binder full of Chick comics I’ve collected over the years; I would like the whole collection, but I can’t bring myself to just order them because giving Chick Publications money (much less my address) seems…icky. I’ve read all the biographical information I’ve been able to find about Mr. Chick (which mostly consists of Daniel Raeburn’s excellent IMP issue about him). I’ve written articles about Jack Chick. I wrote an adventure that used the afterlife as imagined by Jack Chick as a starting point (Waxman’s Warriors). And have you ever thought that “The Death Cookie” was a weird name for a gaming website? That’s because we got it form a Chick tract. Long story, but if you ever catch Leighton and I together and have a Chick tract handy, we might treat you to/punish you with one of our dramatic readings. We’ve even got special voices for recurring characters like Giant Faceless Jesus and the snotty “His name’s not in the book, Lord!” Angel and everything.

In other words, I am the precise target audience for a Dark Dungeons movie, and that’s important. This is not a movie for a general audience. If you’ve played role-playing games or read Jack Chick’s work, you probably won’t hate it and might even get a few laughs out of it. To really appreciate this movie, though, you need at least some familiarity with both (the more the better). If you’ve never played D&D and have no idea who Jack Chick is, you’ll probably find Dark Dungeons utterly baffling. 

The movie makes a few changes, like making Marcie and Debbie college students rather than high school kids and giving one of the other players (Nitro) a minor role, but mostly sticks to the plot of the tract. It’s important to understand that Dark Dungeons is not, technically, a parody. Jack Chick gave producer JR Ralls the rights to make the film and he upheld his end of the bargain by making a faithful adaptation. Except for a few Easter eggs, pretty much everything in the movie that seems like comedy--the stylized “50s educational film” dialog; the delusional conspiracy theories; the willful ignorance about “RPGers” and “RPGing”; even the barely-repressed lesbian subtext--are all there in the original tract. Of course, any attempt to faithfully adapt Chick’s work is going to seem like parody, and I think the filmmakers were fully aware of that fact. 
Other than expanding the events of the comic panels out into full scenes and adding some framing and padding, the main addition to the plot concerns the activities of the cult who only appear as shadowy figures in the tract. This provides a sort of secret history for the tract, where we find out that the cult is orchestrating everything (even Marcie’s suicide) in order to summon a certain tentacley fellow whose inclusion was, if I’m not mistaken, one of the stretch goals of the Kickstarter campaign. The other major addition is a nod to Mazes & Monsters in which Debbie goes down into the steam tunnels to fight the monsters that she’s inadvertently released by playing the game instead of accepting Christ. 

When I first opened my copy of the DVD, I was a little disappointed to see that the movie’s runtime is only 40 minutes, but after watching it (twice), it’s just so spot-on that I’m not sure trying to stretch it to feature length would have added anything. The script is perfect. The acting, directing and other aspects of production fall somewhere in between slickly-produced amateur movie and low-budget indie flick. With the possible exception of the creature effects (which have their own charm for an 80s horror fan like me), nothing about the movie’s production is bad, it’s just obviously done on a limited budget.

The DVD extras are less impressive. In addition to the commentaries (which I haven’t watched yet), there are two features. One, “How to Make a Movie for $1000 (But Not Really)” is just Ralls sharing his extensive expertise (from making one movie) at length over high-speed clips of the filming. The other “A Lifelong Dream: The Making of Dark Dungeons” consists of interviews with nearly everyone involved in the film, right down to the craft services person, behind the scenes stuff, and a few random bits that don’t seem to serve any real purpose. There’s some interesting stuff there, but it’s so badly organized and separated by completely pointless clips that I lost interest pretty quickly and just left it on in the background while I worked on other things. It’s almost like they just burned all the files in the “maybe use for behind the scenes extra” folder onto the DVD in whatever order they were in on the hard drive. 

As I said at the beginning, this movie was made for a very specific audience, and for that audience it’s very close to perfect. If you’ve ever uttered the words “I don’t want to be Elfstar any more. I want to be Debbie!,” preferably at a table covered with rulebooks and funny dice, this movie is required viewing. The farther removed you are from that demographic, the less likely it is that you’ll like, or even understand, Dark Dungeons. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Disappearing American Myths

Since I haven't posted nearly as much Forteana on this blog as I originally intended (and since I'm trying to get into the habit of posting every day, even if it's just a link to a good story), check out Ken Summers' "Ohio's Helltown: Legends, Lies, and Lost Truths" over at the Who Forted? page.  Although the title suggests a basic info article about Helltown, and it does provide that, it's also kind of a meditation on the disappearance of spooky places:
Although Helltown and its stories are still such popular parts of the mythos that is Ohio paranormal lore, the blossoming Cuyahoga Valley National Park has nearly erased all trace of the original 1970s atmosphere. Journeys similar my own high school experience are no longer a possibility; abandoned structures and quiet, desolate roads have been replaced by park-owned restored buildings and the constant traffic of hikers and cyclists. Yet while many of us lament the vanishing of the iconically-spooky (and abundantly fictional) Helltown, there are still many long-forgotten mysteries, weird tales, and unexplained happenings hiding behind freshly-painted doors and picturesque barns to allow for an evolution from urban legend to historically-creepy haunting ground.
While summers talks a lot about the disappearance and change of the physical aspects of the place, I suspect part of the reason that these kinds of haunted places of (not-so-)urban legend is a matter of culture. They've always been spread by teenagers with cars and nothing to do. Since teenagers today have access to lots of boredom-preventing technology (and aren't as enamored with cars as American teenagers of past generations), the need to relieve boredom by driving down some remote backroad to investigate a story about some spook or weirdness just isn't there. They don't know what they're missing.

Dividends For All? Sounds Like Something Bucky Fuller Would Suggest

Financial journalist Peter Barnes has a new book out called With Liberty and Dividends For All: How To Save Our Middle Class When Jobs Don’t Pay Enough. Based on Alternet's Interview With Barnes, the basic proposal boils down to making corporations pay for their use of the commons (although Barnes doesn't use that phrasing). As the article mentions, Alaska has been doing this for years with oil royalties on state land in the form of its Permanent Fund, which nets every Alaskan about a grand a year. In some cases, this kind of dividend system would mean making companies pay for commonly-held resources that they've previously gotten for free, but less controversially it could be done by charging market rates when companies exploit federal resources. For example, when they drill for oil on federal land (right now they pay at least 4% less than they would to drill on land owned by most states, half of what Texas would charge them), or when they use federal land for grazing, like Cliven Bundy (Nevada would have charged him $15 per cow per month, rather than the $1.35 he "patriotically" cheated taxpayers out of). And that's without bringing such obvious revenue enhancers as cutting out corporate subsidies that don't actually do any good, getting rid of discounts for capital gains, or closing tax loopholes.

Although Barnes doesn't say it, putting enough of this money into the federal fund could allow for every American to have a guaranteed basic income without even raising taxes. Those who believe in voodoo will of course point out that these extra costs incurred on companies will cause increased unemployment, because employment is tied to how much money the boss has lying around, not demand. But even if 30+ years of actual policy hadn't proven that theory wrong, such job losses are only a problem if you believe that full employment is a good thing. One of the key problems is that in order to have a society where everyone works, you have to have enough jobs for everyone who wants to work. One of the questions that futurists and economist of the past saw on the horizon was the time when technology made full employment an impossibility. Most naively or optimistically assumed that the immense financial gains brought about by such technology (much of it the result of innovations from publicly-funded research)would provide the funding for a guaranteed basic income, making toil* a choice rather than a necessity. Although things like outsourcing and trade policies like NAFTA may have gotten us there prematurely, we've reached the point where full employment is simply not possible in this country, even if everyone wanted to work at McDonald's. Unfortunately, we haven't prepared for it in a way that prevents those for whom there are simply no jobs from suffering in poverty. Maybe Barnes' suggestions are a step in the right direction. It's just a shame they'll never be implemented since our government is controlled by the tiny handful of Americans who would actually lose something if we asked people to compensate the people for their use of the commons.

 *I'm using the Utah Phillips definition here of Work=what you do for yourself; Toil=what you do for somebody else. The handful of experiments into guaranteed basic income suggest that people will continue to work even when they don't have to toil.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Vice On Slacktivism

Vice has a pretty good article ("Dumping A Bucket of Ice On Your Head Does Not Make You A Philanthropist"). It's framed by the Ice Bucket Challenge videos that have been circulating, and traces several similar pieces of hashtag activism that went viral, including the one I still think best showcases how ill-informed most of these "activists" are, KONY 2012:
The point of the film was to “Stop Kony.” Nobody knew exactly what that vague directive meant, so instead of actually doing anything, people bought “action kits” that cost $30 and came with Kony 2012 posters and bracelets. The revenue from these kits was well into the millions, but Invisible Children never disclosed where that money went. The Lord’s Resistance Army still exists today, despite concerted efforts from the African Union to hunt them down; Joseph Kony is still at large. The efforts to capture him were, by the way, underway long before Kony 2012 was made. The film didn’t stop Kony, but it definitely did make him famous.
The Vice article points out some things that were wrong with the Kony 2012 campaign, including the fact that Kony had already been pushed out of Uganda. For some reason, though, they leave out some of the juiciest parts of the story. While they mention the question of where the "action kit" money went, they don't mention that there were questions about their financials even before that, and that even according to their own financial statements at the time, a lot of the money raised by Invisible Children went to salaries (they paid themselves $80K each), travel, and film-making expenses, mainly for the three people at the head of the group. A cynic might almost think Invisible Children was a Kickstarter for three aspiring filmmakers disguised as a charity. Vice also doesn't mention the creepy "White Man's Burden" vibe of some of their statements, or the fact that they advocate military intervention, which would involve supporting an equally nasty Ugandan government. But most importantly, at least from a perspective of sheer shaedenfreude, Vice totally leaves out the fact that Jason Russell, self-appointed savior of the Ugandan people (whether they wanted it or not), went on a naked masturbation spree a few months later. It even got a South Park (video below). After going through several other episodes of internet concern that inevitable faded away among cute cat pictures, Vice returns to the Ice Bucket Challenge with a pretty good summary of the problem with this kind of "activism":
So here we are, back at ever-contagious Ice Bucket Challenge. The videos mimic the format of neknominations (those awful dare-you-to-chug-a-beer videos) but claims that they're for a cause. Except that cause is only loosely related, if at all. Most of the videos don’t even mention ALS, let alone do anything to support ALS research. Take Martha Stewart’s video, which described the Ice Bucket Challenge as a “viral internet sensation that calls for a person to dump a bucket of icy water on his/her head, then extend the challenge to someone else.” That is, in effect, what this has become: an opportunity to show off your bikini body while doing something hilarious. Wait, what’s ALS? In case you didn’t take the time to Google ALS while you were waiting for all that ice to freeze, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a neurodegenerative disease that affects motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord. Over time, these neurons degenerate and die, which severely limits muscle movement. Because there is no cure for ALS, this eventually leads to full muscle paralysis, respiratory failure, and death. Only about 20 percent of people with ALS survive five years or more. If you want to make some fraction of a difference, consider donating to the ALS Association or volunteering your time with an ALS organization. And I mean, you can dump a bucket of ice water on your head if you really want—but don’t try to tell me that you’re doing it for charity.
And for those of you who want to claim that you're "raising awareness," I'd like to point out that the only time that awareness is useful is when it's something we're not already aware of. We've all known about Lou Gehrig's disease for about as long as we've known about Lou Gehrig, and unless we know someone who's got it, most of us know just as much about the disease as we know about Lou himself. And even if we'd never heard of ALS, merely being aware of it doesn't do dick about it unless we do something about it--donating to the ALS Association, for instance. And saying "I'm going to dump water on myself instead of donating" is almost an insult, especially when you're trying to pretend that by not donating you're going to somehow convince a bunch internet friends to donate a substantial chunk of cash($100) just because your randomly tagged them on Facebook--especially when they can get out of it by dumping water on themselves. Ultimately, the fact that there's a lot of Ice Bucket Challenge videos just proves that there are a lot of people who don't want to donate to ALS, especially when not donating and making a video gives them the chance to show just how concerned they are about whatever it was their video was going to solve. This video does exactly as much to help end ALS:

Friday, August 15, 2014

Buy My Book!

After not making any new posts for months, I'm posting an ad. Because I am shameless.

You know all about Son House and Muddy Waters, but have you ever heard of Eraserhead Morgan? Lester "Proudfoot" Jackson? Hootin' Jack Wilson? Probably not, because technically they never existed. The fact that they're imaginary does not mean that their stories aren't worth sharing. Obscure Early Bluesmen (Who Never Existed) helps to fill in the gaps left by music historians who refuse to acknowledge the important role played by fictional performers. Inside this book, you'll find accounts of seventeen entertainers who, had they existed, may very well have had some impact on modern music.

You can also get the Kindle edition here .