How to make an interesting movie about Superman

Superman – you know him, right? Super-powerful, super-nice guy. He’s so super it’s difficult to find villains who pose any challenge to him. He can’t be wasted on thugs and crooks; Superman stories tend to ratchet up to planet-threatening scale (even though a mugger or a rapist is just as big a threat to Lois as Lex Luthor could be).

In the most recent Superman flick Man Of Steel, the big guy wound up in a destructive world-saving fight before most Earthlings knew he existed. Here’s the trailer:

Not that a Superman movie could be realistic, but on the day when thousands of people die, most people just learning of his existence would need a play book to know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. The most likely reaction is that people would want him off our planet as soon as possible. Out-of-context, he is a terrifying character.

It was a really lousy movie – the fight scenes went on forever while the audience struggled to find some reason to care. But it wasn’t a total loss. Watching Man Of Steel gave me a chance to figure out how to make a Superman movie that would at least be interesting to me: by turning the lens on the people around him.

Look at the problem differently: Young Clark is not twice as strong, not five times as strong as most people, but thousands of times as strong. To him we are as fragile as rotten eggshells. His biggest problem isn’t keeping a secret identity, it’s learning how (and why) not to kill people. He needs a reason to value human life, and a literally inhuman level of self-control. Jonathan and Martha Kent must figure out how to raise this dangerous child. And that’s where you spend your first movie; he isn’t the star, his adoptive parents are.

Scene: Jonathan Kent is in the local hospital with three broken ribs. Toddler Clark (only beginning to gain strength) awakens from a bad dream and lashes out, knocking him into the hallway. To the doctor Jonathan explains that he was kicked by a horse in the barn, though the bruise mark on his chest looks more like the hand of a child. He’s a bit doped up as he and Martha discuss what to do.

You see the problem? The conflict? They can’t turn loose of this found-child, but they are in way, way over their heads. He’s only going to get stronger, and stronger, and stronger. They don’t know yet that he will be able to fly, or cut steel with heat rays from his eyes.  As the magnitude of their problem dawns on them, they acquire a new – and probably unwelcome – life mission.

There’s never any respite from raising Clark. It isn’t like they could leave him with a babysitter and go out to the movies. They couldn’t just hand him over to the government, which never saw a new phenomenon that it didn’t try to weaponize. No, they’re stuck with him.

How do you wake a super-child who is having a nightmare, or even a childish tantrum? How do you teach him to stand out? Be a “pretty good athlete”? Have compassion – he must have compassion – without trying to fix the whole world? How to be an honest person while living an enormous lie?

They can’t wait until he’s a teenager to tell him his true origins. Who’s to say (as Man Of Steel suggested) that someone equally powerful, but grown up, won’t come looking for him? He needs to know. They need him to know. They can’t raise him without his help. This is as “bootstraps” as it gets.

Jonathan and Martha are raising perhaps the most difficult child in the universe, while keeping that difficulty an absolute secret. Maybe there’s someone in the community they can confide in, but maybe not. Who can they trust? Joseph and Mary surely had less trouble raising Jesus (and I doubt the initials are accidental either).

In my Superman movie, a childless couple in Kansas pull off the most high-stakes, high-wire-without-a-net child raising in history. Pretending to be Clark Kent most of the time is the most difficult thing that Superman ever does. And the first few times Superman makes the news, it has to be in an unambiguously positive way. There can’t be any cities in ruins before the world knows that Superman is a good guy.

Maybe the second movie should be about The Daily Planet. Let the third movie be a catastrophic, world-threatening crisis. But my bet would be on the first two as worth watching.

NOTES:

  • Let’s assume the Kents have seen the Twilight Zone episode, It’s A Good Life.
  • I see that movie makers have decided it’s OK to do 9-11 style destruction scenes again. Think of how many movies in the last year have involved destroying big buildings with people in them – Superman, Pacific Rim, Star Trek, Transformers, probably others. A bit overdone, if you ask me.
  • Man Of Steel touched for a moment or two on the problem of Clark learning self-control, but it got lost in all the planet-threatening violence.
  • The very enjoyable TV series Smallville hinted at the problem of Clark, but really it was more like a teen-spirit version of the grown-up Superman. At least, the episodes I saw; we didn’t get that station very well.
  • Lance Mannion wrote an excellent series of reviews on Man Of Steel – all of them targeting deficiencies in the movie. Here’s a re-post of one with a list of all the others: But Superman Would Never Do That.

Security theater, nuclear holocaust edition

First, Gizmodo: For twenty years the nuclear launch code at US Minuteman silos was 00000000.

Many people will set super-easy passwords to the systems they control. No matter how high the stakes, in some part of their brains, they just can’t believe anyone would get in and do anything wrong. So the lesson is this: any system that depends on everyone involved understanding the stakes and acting accordingly and conscientiously… is doomed to be more insecure than any one person will know. Systems should be designed so that Pollyanna won’t blithely compromise them with naivete.

One commenter noted that all-zeroes is no more random than any other series. But effective hacking begins with sets and series before it goes random. Also it is far easier to remember and send by phone a launch code that is a set or a series.

Notes:

Personal and corporate secrets

Corporate secrets are usually for competitive advantage or to shape public opinion. These can include a hidden scandal or documents from the NSA (blurry line there). When individuals keep secrets for personal competitive advantage we call them treacherous. When they reveal scandalous corporate secrets for the public good, we call them traitorous. But most of the time people keep personal secrets in self-defense against finger-wagging moralists – who can be very vindictive, even oppressive in their exercise of personal or corporate power.

The Republican’s sudden concern for voting process integrity

When the Voting Rights Act was overturned this year, (on the basis that racism is a thing of the past and it just isn’t needed anymore) Republican-dominated states responded by reigning in early voting, and with a plethora of “Voter ID” laws. The ostensible reason was to stop all that voter fraud which their fevered imaginations told them must be the only possible reason for their electoral losses.

Actually, no. Even if the actual reason weren’t blindingly obvious, a couple unguarded statements have let us know the real reason was to prevent Democrats from voting. Don Yelton, North Carolina Republican official, admitted the reason for their voter ID law was to “kick the Democrat’s butt“. And Florida’s Jim Greer straight-up admitted voter suppression was the reason for their election law.

Of course, as Don Yelton says, the photo ID is “free”. All you have to do is provide proof of identity at the Department of Motor Vehicles and you’re all set. And what constitutes “proof”? Former speaker of the US House of Representatives Jim Wright did so, but was turned away. Only a certified copy of his birth certificate would suffice. Of course most people already have a driver’s license, for which they didn’t have to provide a birth certificate. So the law will mostly affect the elderly or the very poor. Or young urbanites who don’t drive.

College students are targeted in a different way. You may recall that 18-year-olds won the right to vote during the 1970’s. Somehow it just didn’t seem right to ship them off to the Vietnam war without giving them the chance to vote. (The 18-year war was almost over by then. There were people registering for the draft who were born the year the war started.) But now Republicans want to reel that back, and residency requirements make a good start. After all, when a student is away at college, what is his residence? Shouldn’t he return to his home town to vote? (I use the male pronoun here deliberately.)

Republicans aren’t thrilled with (overwhelmingly pro-choice) women voters either. The curious custom of a woman changing her name when she marries is an opportunity to nudge them aside at the polls, as Texas judge Sandra Watts found out.  It’s also a problem for people in nursing homes, who are disproportionately women. And who have a lifetime’s experience being told by men what their options are in all things reproductive.

This concern for electoral integrity is odd considering the push for electronic voting machines, which are far less secure than Las Vegas slot machines. How do you check information stored on a chip, when the company that programmed it says it’s a big secret how it works?

Attempts to cheat “the other side” out of voting are not new. Today’s Southern Republicans are yesteryear’s Democrats, who were welcomed into the Republican party after Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the… Voting Rights Act. The tactics then were underhanded and occasionally downright vicious, but the goal was the same: to keep poor people, women, and especially black people, from voting. As a nation, we often claim to be some kind of a beacon of democracy. I suppose, as long as the right “kind” of people do the voting.

  • Join me for discussion of this topic on G+
  • Important clarification: The endire Voting Rights Act was not struck down, but section 4 was.
  • The Daily Show on Voter ID laws
  • History teacher Ed Darrell: “No one questioned who he was. He just can’t vote with the ID he has. If Jim Wright can’t easily get an ID to vote, who can?” (Do you read Ed’s blog? Crikey, you should.)
  • In Texas you can show a concealed-carry permit to vote. Maybe all Democrats should go out and get concealed-carry permits. Think of it, Republicans! Nearly every black person over 18 possibly packing.

Build The Right Monument

Until things change, this is pretty much my last word on 9-11. (Re-posted from 2011 entry on my old blog)

Annual 9-11 monument on campus
Annual 9-11 monument on campus

Do you care what I was doing when I heard about the September 11 attacks? I won’t be offended if your answer is “No”. Among hundreds of millions of people, practically every activity you could possibly think of was in progress when the planes crashed.

But there will be a lot of memorial services, monuments dedicated, special newspaper sections printed, and somber editorials. Cable television will be smoking-hot with replays of 9-11. Millions of little plastic flags will be planted. My dentist even sent out a memorial email.

On 9-11, innocent people died, who had nothing to do with conflicts between Muslim extremists and US foreign policy. We have a human need to make sense of it all, if we can, and try to steer a course to a better world from that awful day. If we can.

Almost every incident of mass death attracts monuments because the human race has a powerful forgettery. We forget context, we forget (or never knew) how it looked for the other side. We can forget the whole damn thing with astonishing ease. Battle of Antietam? 23,000 Americans dead in a single day in an area barely 8 miles square? Few remember that, but we remember symbolic acts like Washington throwing a coin across the Potomac… which did not even really happen.

So how best to remember 9-11? How best to honor the dead and elevate the living? I have a modest proposal.

When we’re done with the bronze and marble and granite and limestone, build another monument in our global moral standing and our daily freedoms. When we arrest someone, citizen or not, on our soil or not, let’s set the global standard of human rights instead of trying to maneuver around it. When someone points a video camera at a policeman in uniform on a public street, let the rest of the world see that our authorities are not afraid of accountability. When we talk on the phone let’s be certain that no one is listening without getting a warrant. Let’s not hide censorship behind corporate welfare. Let’s stop crotch-feeling 8-year-olds in airports and calling it security.

Bush was right about one thing: our enemies DO hate our freedoms. But in exercising those freedoms we will discover friends we never knew we had. A blogger, a gay couple living openly without fear, a citizen asking pointed questions of a politician or a policeman, peaceful Christian and Muslim neighbors, are all in a way ambassadors for our country. Every exercise of rights sharpens the distinction between us and our enemies.

Let’s get back to declaring war as Congress’ job – and pay for our wars on the books in real time. Let’s never again be manipulated and goaded into a vastly disproportionate response. Let’s recognize false pretext to war as a criminal offense. A former president in jail would send a powerful message to our allies and enemies: we really do believe in justice. You can trust us.

We spend more on “defense” in this country than the next 19 countries combined, while scientific questions go unanswered. In 1969 the physicist Robert Wilson had to explain to Congress why we should spend money on a National Accelerator Laboratory “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another”, he said; “the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

In asymmetric warfare, the moral high ground truly is the defensible position: there is more power in trust than in any weapon. Battles and even wars might be won on the battlefield, but the future is won by the elapsed time between the last American shame and today’s date on the calendar. It is won by using our power to elevate others. It is won by our courage not to back down from our principles in search of an illusion of security. Our real strength isn’t anything that explodes; it’s something that only endures as long as we insist on it.

Let’s make it a flag worth waving. That would be a “monument” worthy of a day we really do need to remember.

9-11-signs

NOTES and updates:

  • In Hiroshima there is a monument that says, optimistically; “Please rest in peace. The mistake will not be repeated.” No mention of whether they meant Pearl Harbor or The Bomb. Or the oil embargo that led to Pearl Harbor? Or their expansionism that led to the embargo? Atrocity always has antecedents.
  • Luckily the cable news networks are going to be responsible and low-key about this. They’re going to mention it, in a “this day in history” sort of way, without endless “Man In The Street” interviews and egregious repetition of horrifying videos. They won’t run up ratings by making life miserable for people with PTSD. Which is a lot of people, given that two of the four attacks happened in one of the most populated spots on Earth.
  • (Sorry, that last link was satire. You know the networks will milk this anniversary for all it’s worth.)
  • Mike the Mad Biologist nails The Hardest Thing about remembering September 11, 2001
  • Stephanie Svan’s meditation on The Importance of Forgetting: “We do not always learn the right lessons from history”. And Dana Hunter’s on Why We Have To Remember: “A terrorist act cannot destroy a country. A country can only destroy itself.” If you only have time to read one, read both anyway.

Design and job creation: bicycle edition

It’s Labor Day, and I want to write about something I actually know about, so here’s a bicycle. I promise this does relate to labor issues so please bear with me.

Bike in a dumpster

Schwinn Varsity, circa 1975
Schwinn Varsity, circa 1975 – click to embiggen

I found it in a dumpster with its wheels still on but otherwise as shown at right. It is a Schwinn Varsity, around 38 years old, and it was in pretty rough condition. The back wheel was dented and out-of-round from being ridden quite some distance on a flat tire. All the bearings were out of adjustment and the grease had dried up years ago. It had loose spokes but none were broken, and the tires were rotted. The derailleurs were rusted and could barely move. Someone had replaced the old steel drop-handlebars with a nice aluminum upright bar but otherwise it was all-original.

Fixing

Still, it had potential so I towed it home* flat tires and all and set about putting it back in ridable condition. I cleaned all the dried-up grease out of the bearings with solvent, repacked them with fresh grease (I use boat-trailer bearing grease for its high stability and water resistance) and reassembled them. One characteristic of old Schwinn bikes is the massive bottom bracket crank bearings – even with no grease they seldom go bad. I replaced a couple pitted bearings** in the back wheel but the cones and cups were OK.

Schwinn Varsity, repaired and modified. Click to embiggen.
Schwinn Varsity, repaired and modified. Click to embiggen.

The rear wheel I bent back into shape using some bench-vise tricks and adjusted all the spokes. I removed the ancient Alvit derailleurs (more on those in a minute) and shortened the chain*** so the bike could be a 1-speed instead of a 10-speed. Scrounging my spare-parts buckets freely and adding a couple tires from Amazon I made it into a ridable bike again.

Bike industry

When this bike was made, the US bike industry was in rapid decline. And no wonder: lightweight, lively bikes were being imported from England, France, Italy, and Japan. Their frames were a super-strong (and therefore light and responsive) chrome-molybdenum steel alloy built with a complex technique of brazed lugs at the joints. For the most part they had Shimano, Suntour or Compagnolo gears and aluminum wheels and they were simply a joy to ride. US consumers had discovered that adults could enjoy bicycling.

This bike, on the other hand, was poorly designed. The frame was made of weak steel alloy, welded at the joints, which meant it had to be heavy and was unresponsive. The forks were made of a solid (!) piece of forged tempered steel, as was the crankset. Schwinn had never attempted to make a multi-speed gear system but their 3-speed bikes at least had a British Sturmey-archer hub. This model was accursed with a particularly heavy and primitive derailler system made for Schwinn by Alvit and stamped “Schwinn Approved”. The wheels were double-walled steel. The seat tube and even the gooseneck were steel. The gear shifters were attached to the gooseneck and forged out of spectacularly heavy… (you guessed it) steel. The thick vinyl seat was “Schwinn-approved” and labeled “Comfort Form” which should have been called “Ultimate Wedgie”.

Once properly adjusted (a considerable challenge where the Alvit deuraillers were concerned) it was ridable on level ground but hardly suitable for hills. Or corners, for the frame geometry needed improvement too. This was not something Schwinn’s factory workers could fix.

Workers and their limitation

The workers in the US factory where this bike was made did a superb job of realizing Schwinn’s design. You could not find better welds this side of aerospace. The paint was flawless and in this example has endured for almost 40 years. The bearings were precisely made in a US factory. The chrome plating was perfect. But despite the obvious pride the workers took in their product they could not build a better bike than Schwinn designed.

It wasn’t that Schwinn didn’t know a good bike when they saw one; the Schwinn Paramount line was equal to the finest of European bicycles (but other than the frame, used only European and Japanese components). But they applied exactly none of that knowledge to their consumer bikes. Schwinn executives couldn’t be arsed to give their excellent workers a better-designed bike to build. With the predictable result that eventually Schwinn closed the factory, and started sticking their name on Panasonic and Fuji bikes built in Japan. And those bikes weren’t bad at all, until Panasonic and Fuji realized they didn’t need Schwinn to sell their bikes in the US.

Other industries

This story coincides, coincidentally, with a similar decline of the US auto industry. And while there have been strides neither has fully recovered. (Before anyone says “Trek!” look at the stickers on some mid-range Trek frames. Only the expensive top-end ones are made in the US. The vast majority are made in Taiwan or China.)

Workers cannot build a better product than their companies design. Apple Computer advertises that their products are “Designed in California” – with the implication that it doesn’t matter where a thing is made if the design is good. And there’s some truth to that, as some Apple products are now beginning to be made in the US again. Car companies Honda, Toyota and others have had factories in the US for years, with the result that the “most American-made car” is actually the Toyota Camry. Start with a good design and a good worker can build a good product. Start with a lazy design and the best worker in the world can’t do much to improve it.

Design is a labor issue in the most fundamental way possible. In that, bad design results in closed factories. It is not the only cause of closed factories, but it’s definitely a cause.

Notes

  • Yes this story is a simplification – much has been written about the history of the Schwinn company, let alone bicycle design generally. I am focusing here on the fact that consumer products are built by workers, and what bad design means for that fact. I’ve linked the story on G+ if you feel like discussing or have corrections to offer.
  • * Towing one bicycle while riding another is one of those few activities that are actually easier than they look. Grasp the bicycle being towed by the gooseneck with one hand, and away you go.
  • ** Most of my spare parts are salvaged out of old bikes. It’s handy to have a micrometer around to be sure the bearing is the same size as the ones you’re replacing.
  • *** It rides fine, though I still need to add a chain tensioner. With the changes I’ve made it will be a reliable bike.

Don’t write that.

“Don’t talk about politics or religion on Facebook”

I’ve read a spate of articles lately offering rules for social media. Near the top of the lists are always admonitions to avoid political or contentious topics. We are told: “No one wants to see your political rant in their feed!” Occasionally this warning includes sports, or vacation pictures, or even pictures of grandkids.

Maybe this is true, which begs the question of exactly why social media exists. If your favorite subject irritates someone – even a lot of people – should you shut up? To avoid giving offense, should you confine your online expression to things that don’t matter to you?

Relax – you’re OK

To be clear, it’s fine if you want to “keep it light”. If you only like to post music videos and pictures of your pets, your kids, or your vacation that is perfectly OK. There’s no rule that says you have to “put it out there” or risk anything at all online. How heavy you want to be is entirely up to you.

A corollary is that when you see embarrassing pictures of some other person online, cut them some slack. Someone acting silly with a beer in their hand is not worth getting worked up over and it certainly isn’t worth a ding on their performance review.

…and so is that guy worked up about the environment

Some people are passionately interested in birdwatching. Some people are just interested in their grandkids. I grew up immersed in science and politics. My friends and my new friends know this. I’m pleased when others share my interests but if you don’t want to see my posts that’s fine.

What I have a difficult time accepting are online etiquette rules that insist on everyone being bland and inoffensive. Social media has begun to be a historical fulcrum of change. Entire governments have toppled on revolutions driven by Facebook or Twitter. US elections are influenced by people clicking “Share”. This is big news. It’s like living when the printing press was invented; information is democratized in a new way.

here are my social media etiquette rules:

  • Life is short, and if something really matters to you, it ought to be OK to say so. If you think the status quo is just great, fine – but if not, you have the right (and sometimes the responsibility) to speak up.
  • No one is forcing you to read my posts. A corollary is that no one is forcing me to read your posts either. Much resentment derives not from disagreement, but from perceived obligation. If you tell Facebook to show you fewer of my posts – or none at all – that is OK. As noted before, life is short, and I have other friends. I would appreciate an explanatory email, but that’s your choice.
  • Don’t troll. If you disagree with someone, you can say so in comments, giving a good reason and maybe a supporting link. That’s fine, but just one or two. When you’re on someone else’s thread, let them have the last word.
  • If it’s a chronic disagreement with another person, say what you want to say in your own space. You aren’t going to convert the other person to Jesus or socialism or Siracha sauce or whatever. But you might give the bystanders something to weigh in comparison.
  • It’s OK to delete another person’s comments on your feed. Social media is free, and you don’t owe them a platform.
  • Especially avoid arguing with friends or colleagues. There’s no way that story ends well. You have a whole internet full of jerks out there to make fun of – but please not the person in the cubicle next to yours.  I’ve occasionally told friends; “I’m not going to argue with you.” Perhaps not often enough.
  • Realize that what sounds uncontroversial to you might, to someone you know, even be offensive. So think twice before taking personal offense. Ask a question, maybe.

Social media can actually help you build meaning in your life, by engaging with society and history. It’s a chance to collaborate in imagining the future – a messy process.

Next post: how much personal information is too much?