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Would Captain America Approve of Punching Nazis? (YES)

[ 134 ] February 6, 2017 |

Displaying captain america punching featured.png

At the risk of starting up this debate again, here is another essay about how our politics and our comic books are bleeding into one another…

As would surprise absolutely no one who’s followed my People’s History of the Marvel Universe series, I’m a strong believer in the idea that our pop culture is both influenced by our political culture and can have a strong influence on that political culture. Thus, it’s a major problem when the author of both of Marvel’s current Captain America comics gets all pearls-clutchy about whether it’s ok to punch Nazis.

would-cap-approve-of-punching-nazis-1(credit to Shop5)

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GM-Blogging #4: Masks of Nyarlathotep – Bad Luck at Ju-Ju House

[ 22 ] January 24, 2017 |

Hey folks! As you know from last time, I’m blogging my Call of Cthulhu campaign, because at least in Call of Cthulhu the mad idiot gods have the decency to stay “beyond angled space.”

When we last left off, our intrepid investigators got their hands on some unpleasant books formerly belonging to the estate of Roger Carlyle, Esq. and started down the inveitable downward spiral of psychological entropy that is the Cthulhu Mythos Book Club…

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Columbia Copying North Carolina Republican Tactics

[ 48 ] December 20, 2016 |

In yet another case of “unsurprising but disgusting,” Columbia University responded to the 1602 to 623 vote of its graduate students to unionize by trying to throw out the vote:

The battle over whether graduate students at universities can unionize entered a new phase on Friday, when Columbia University filed a challenge with the National Labor Relations Board over the recent vote by its graduate assistants to unionize.

Columbia said that tactics like voter coercion may have tipped the balance in favor of the union and that the N.L.R.B. should invalidate the vote.

At a rally at the Morningside Heights campus in Manhattan on Monday, students said the university was trying to drag out the fight, possibly until President-elect Donald J. Trump could appoint new members to the labor board, tipping the balance in a direction more likely to favor Columbia.

The “tactics” Columbia’s management are pointing to? According to management:

  • Union leafleters were too close to the polling place!…which as an experienced union organizer I highly doubt was actually the case given that those distances are very clearly demarcated and you can talk to anyone coming and going without any need to step over a chalk line. Even if it was the case, a difference of a few feet didn’t change anyone’s votes.
  • Union leafleters had cameras outside the building!…which somehow terrified people into voting for the union, despite the fact that the secret ballots were cast inside the building and the cameras in question couldn’t see through walls.
  • The NLRB didn’t mandate employer or government IDs in order to vote! Wow, that sounds familiar.
  • The NRLB wanted a different observer from the employer to be present at one poling place!
  • One ballot location wasn’t open long enough and didn’t have enough challenge ballot envelopes!

Needless to say, this is all extremely small ball, and given the 72% to 28% outcome did not affect the outcome in the slightest. But that doesn’t matter, because as with what happened in North Carolina, the point here is to throw up any pretext for doubt long enough to delay matters so that the election isn’t certified before Trump can appoint his minions to the NRLB and reverse the ruling that gave Columbia students the right to vote. Which is exactly what Columbia did last time: Columbia graduate students got the right to organize back in 2000, but Columbia appealed and delayed so that the election wouldn’t happen until 2004, when George W. Bush’s NRLB reversed the ruling of the Clinton NLRB, at which point Columbia chained up the ballot boxes so that those votes could never be counted.

Two things can be learned from this: first, that supposedly liberal elite institutions have a lot to gain from a Trump presidency and won’t be shy in taking advantage of any opportunity; second, we can no longer allow Democratic presidents to delay granting the right to organize until they’re practically out the door and their regulatory decisions can be overruled by the next administration.

A Gang of Thieves: Not a Metaphor

[ 133 ] December 19, 2016 |

In my former career as a freelance policy analyst, I did a good deal of research on our nation’s Unemployment Insurance system, which convinced me entirely that the major flaws in our UI system that make it incapable of serving as a true automatic stabilizer stems from the role of state government in the program. Thus, it does not surprise me in the least that:

“A Michigan government agency wrongly accused individuals in at least 20,000 cases of fraudulently seeking unemployment payments, according to a review by the state.

The review released this week found that an automated system had erroneously accused claimants in 93% of cases – a rate that stunned even lawyers suing the state over the computer system and faulty fraud claims.

“It’s literally balancing the books on the backs of Michigan’s poorest and jobless,” attorney David Blanchard, who is pursuing a class action in federal court on behalf of several claimants, told the Guardian on Friday… (Guardian US)

I would go further than David Blanchard: this is a crime. The state of Michigan has committed an act of grand larceny against tens of thousands of workers, and the Justice Department should be prosecuting right now. (Incidentally, the phone number for the Detroit office of the U.S Attorney is (313) 226-9100. Give them a call, why don’t you?)

Here’s how they pulled off the con…

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GM-Blogging #3: Masks of Nyarlathotep – Book Party at Erica Carlyle’s

[ 19 ] December 5, 2016 |

Hey folks! As I said last time, I’ll be doing some blogging of my ongoing Call of Cthulhu campaign to counter-balance the existential dread of real life with some fictional existential dread!

When last we left off, the party had received a mysterious telegram from an old friend, selecting them for an investigative team exploring the mysterious fate of the Carlyle Expedition…

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An Unusual Twist in the Trump-Appoints-Mnuchin Story

[ 53 ] November 30, 2016 |

Image result for bvs

As you may have heard, it looks like Donald Trump has picked Steven Mnuchin to be his candidate for Secretary of the Treasury. As they should, Democrats have seized on this news, because Mnuchin is an ex-Goldman Sachs hedge funder, and is moreover implicated in the foreclosure crisis from his time at OneWest Financial. What’s interesting about this pick is that Mnuchin is also a movie producer (yet another reason why Trump’s neo-Nazi supporters are crying foul…) which makes him part of my little world of politics-meets-pop-culture. And not just any movie producer; here is a list of some of the films that he’s been responsible for:

  • X-Men: The Last Stand.
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
  • Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
  • Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
  • Suicide Squad. 

In other words, he’s not just a corrupt plutocrat who’s been put in charge of much of the Federal government’s financial regulatory apparatus, he’s also responsible for the worst super-hero films ever, the “sullen ground” against which Marvel’s “bright metal…show[s] more goodly and attract more eyes.” If this is his private-sector experience, it doesn’t bode well for the future of America’s economic policy.

Now, to be fair, he was also involved with X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the Lego Movie, and Mad Max: Fury Road, so it’s not all bad. On the other hand, given that he was also involved with Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, Predators, Prometheus, and The Legend of Tarzan, I’m going to chalk those up to a stopped clock being right twice a day and conclude that this guy generally has a losing track record.

So one small silver lining if this guy survives the confirmation hearings is that superhero movies might get better on average…

 

Bigger on the Inside

[ 27 ] November 23, 2016 |

My friend Scott Eric Kaufman has passed away. Scott was a brilliant writer, a deeply compassionate man, an incredibly caring friend, someone whose boundless confidence in my ability got me through a lot of setbacks and dry spells, and one of the few people I’ve met who saw and thought about the world so much like I did that he could anticipate what I was going to think about something and vice-versa. I miss him terribly; I want to ask him what he thinks about this TV show or that movie, to draw courage from his righteous indignation at the unrighteous, to tell him about my day-to-day victories and celebrate in his.

Ever since I came across his writing on Acephalous and Lawyers, Guns, and Money, I have always thought of Scott as someone with an enormous capacity for enduring the absurd and improbable curveball that life was constantly throwing at him, and then turning it around with his unique gift for ironic and self-deprecating wit. In my mind, he was like a silent film comedian, forever triumphing over adversity by the end of the reel through some clever trick. Somehow, I thought this would be the same, and it comes as a shock that it isn’t – Scott would have called it bad writing.

My deepest regret is that, despite having talked for dozens of hours in front of microphones and webcams, that we never got to meet in person. We tried several times, but every time some bizarre turn of events would upend our plans: we were going to meet in Santa Barbara, but something went wrong with a car; we were supposed to meet up in London or New York and a volcano exploded. The closest we got was me getting to New Orleans, but life intervened and we weren’t able to meet up. At the time, it was both frustrating and funny, getting momentarily caught up in Scott’s vortex of improbability. It isn’t funny now.

In an attempt to do something productive with how I’m feeling right now, I’m planning to put together a book of Scott’s best work, from LG&M and Acephalous (and possibly from other sites as well depending on IP issues) with help from people in the community. So please use this thread to suggest favorite pieces of his that you would include in the project.

GM-Blogging #2: Masks of Nyarlathotep – Jackson Elias

[ 33 ] November 8, 2016 |

Hey folks! As I said last time, I’ll be doing some blogging of my ongoing Call of Cthulhu campaign to counter-balance our election-related anxiety (just a few more hours!). So let’s meet our team of doomed adventurers:

  • Rabbi Guiseppe “Joey Irons” Ferro – WWI vet, locksmith, rum-runner. Italian Catholic who converted to Judaism and was ordained as a Rabbi. Which is helpful, since Rabbis (like other clergy) get an exemption from Prohibition Laws for “sacramental” wine. Not a made man, but a useful associate.
  • Killian Digby – the other half of the “walks into a bar” gang, Killian handles the more technical side of the business, while Joey does the actual talking to people. Killian’s good with machines and has lots of contacts in the underworld, but is incredibly socially awkward and off-putting.
  • Arthur Cameron, Naval Intelligence – representing the other side of the law, Cameron is a lawyer, served in the U.S navy in WWI, then transferred into Naval Intelligence after the war. Works the China desk.
  • Doctor Professor Wendy Danger – with multiple degrees in anthropology, archaelogy, psychology, and medicine, MD/PhD Wendy Danger is one of the University of Chicago’s most distinguished scholars. A student of James George Frazer (he of the Golden Bough) and Sigmund Freud, Danger is on sabattical in NYC. Oh, and served in some classified capacity in the African Theater of the Great War…
  • Sheik Horus, Magister Magician and Mentallist – an “Egyptian” (by way of the Mississippi, hey it’s still a Delta!) stage magician and occultist. Very stealthy and a dab hand with a throwing knife.
  • Ricardo Fuentes, Veteran of the French Foreign Legion – a veteran of the Great War, has spent time since the war working as a guard on archaelogical expeditions, doing some “protection” work in various places. I’m not saying he’s a gun-runner, but he’s not not a gun-runner!
  • Professor Thistlebottom – historian, linguist, noted pacifist.

The team gets together on New Year’s Eve of 1924, the year that saw the death of Lenin and the rise of Stalin, Kemal Attaturk abolishing the caliphate, Hitler jailed for the Beer Hall Putsch, the founding of MGM, J. Edgar Hoover appointed as head of the Bureau of Investigation, the Leopold and Loeb case, the passage of Federal immigration restriction, the first trans-Atlantic fax, the invention of the Caesar salad, the end of the American occupation of the Dominican Republic, the defeat of a badly divided Democratic Party at the hands of Cal Coolidge, the first Macy’s Day Parade, and Edwin Hubble’s announcement that there are galaxies outside the Milky Way…

What does 1925 have in store?

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Thoughts on Doctor Strange

[ 130 ] November 6, 2016 |

I saw Doctor Strange last night. And as I said on Twitter, while it might not be the best Marvel movie ever, it may have come closest to feeling like the original comic come to life, overflowing with the trippy visuals, corny but evocative mysticism, and just a dash of problematic orientalism that pretty much characterized Steve Ditko’s original run in Strange Tales.

For a more thorough and spoilery discussion, see below the cut:

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GM-Blogging #1: Introducing Masks of Nyarlathotep

[ 74 ] November 4, 2016 |

In an effort to distract myself (and you) from election-related anxiety, I am jumping back into table-top roleplaying games as a Game Master (the referee and main storyteller, for those of you who are new to this) for the first time since 2012. And for my first campaign, I’ve decided to run one of my favorite adventures, Call of Cthulhu’s (a horror RPG set in the works of H.P Lovecraft) Masks of Nyarlathotep and do a bit of blogging about it.

The first session is scheduled for this Sunday evening, which means there’s no gameplay stuff to report. However, I can talk a bit about the prep work I’ve done to get everything ready to go for my doomed team of investigators.

Masks of Nyarlathotep is a beloved adventure; despite the fact that it was published in 1984, it still wins polls taken today for “best RPG adventure ever.” So what makes this adventure stand out? To me, there are several main things that this adventure does really well:

  1. It does a great job of balancing mystery and investigation, adventure, combat, horror, all the things that people want from a game set in H.P Lovecraft’s universe. Not coincidentally, it also delivers a lot of different playtypes for people with different tastes – if you like combat, you’re going to get combat, if you like solving mysteries, there’s lots of that, if you like roleplaying in the Jazz Age, there’s lots of that.
  2. It is a genuine sandbox game in ways that a lot of RPGs have never quite managed to pull off – after the initial chapter in New York, players can decide where in the world they want to go, whether it’s London, Shanghai, Cairo, Kenya, or Australia, and do the adventure in any order they want to. As a result, no two games of Masks are the same.
  3. Despite being a sandbox game, there is a really engaging overarching plot that connects all the different points in the map, engages the players and makes them want to solve the mystery, and has some really amazing setpieces that (if you as the DM can successfully guide the party a bit) will blow your players’ minds.

Because Masks is so beloved, it also means that creators and fans have been improving it for almost as long as I’ve been alive. The game has gone through four editions, the most recent one from 2010. There is an amazing fan-made Companion that offers a whole bunch of supplemental content that you can use to smooth over a few rough patches or throw experienced players a curveball. If the DM is willing to put in the prep work, you can make this adventure really special.

So what have I done to prepare?

(If you’re playing in my game, DO NOT READ below the cut…)

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Donald Trump’s 1995 Tax Returns Leaked…from Trump Tower

[ 247 ] October 1, 2016 |

The call was coming from inside the house!

In what is both a good bit of journalism and a great twist in the psychodrama of the 2016 elections, the New York Times got its hands on three pages of Donald Trump’s taxes in 1995. Here’s what they found:

Donald J. Trump declared a $916 million loss on his 1995 income tax returns, a tax deduction so substantial it could have allowed him to legally avoid paying any federal income taxes for up to 18 years, records obtained by The New York Times show…

Mr. Trump had once revealed to casino regulators that he had paid no federal income taxes in the late 1970s…

So the “highly successful businessman” (according to Trump spokesmen) lost a billion dollars through “mismanagement of three Atlantic City casinos, his ill-fated foray into the airline business and his ill-timed purchase of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan,” and used it to cancel out his taxes for decades, while “ordinary investors in the new company, meanwhile, saw the value of their shares plunge to 17 cents from $35.50, while scores of contractors went unpaid for work on Mr. Trump’s casinos and casino bondholders received pennies on the dollar.”

Two more highlights from the article. First, the Trump campaign’s…interesting take on the story:

“Mr. Trump is a highly-skilled businessman who has a fiduciary responsibility to his business, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required,” the statement said. “That being said, Mr. Trump has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes, sales and excise taxes, real estate taxes, city taxes, state taxes, employee taxes and federal taxes.”

The statement continued: “Mr. Trump knows the tax code far better than anyone who has ever run for President and he is the only one that knows how to fix it.”

Separately, a lawyer for Mr. Trump, Marc E. Kasowitz, emailed a letter to The Times arguing that publication of the records is illegal because Mr. Trump has not authorized the disclosure of any of his tax returns. Mr. Kasowitz threatened “prompt initiation of appropriate legal action.”

Now that’s what I call a winning message: our boss is a successful businessman who lost a billion dollars, he totally paid all the other taxes, because he’s a tax cheat he knows how to fix the tax code, and if you publish this, we’ll sue you.

Second, my favorite detail of the piece:

“The three documents arrived by mail at The Times with a postmark indicating they had been sent from New York City. The return address claimed the envelope had been sent from Trump Tower.”

So who’s the mole inside Trump Tower? My money’s on Melania!

Happy Kirby Day!

[ 46 ] August 28, 2016 |

Image result for jack kirby characters

As my colleague Elana reminded me, today marks the 99th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby, the most influential comic book artist and writer of all time, and someone who should be remembered as one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century period.

So in honor of his birthday, I’m going to link to the essays I’ve written that feature his work:

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