Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Looking back at Captain America

I haven't bothered looking things up. This is just my personal recollections abut Cap in the comics.

The Silver Age of comics is usually defined as beginning when the Flash was created as a new character but inspired by the Golden Age version. He was followed by Green Lantern and some others. All of these were published by DC but Timely Comics decided to follow DC's lead. At the same time they changed their name to Marvel Comics.

Marvel's first creation, the Fantastic Four, included a Silver Age version of the Human Torch. By the third issue of the FF, the Sub-Mariner had been introduced but, in this case, it was the original character instead of a new version.

It didn't take Stan Lee long to test the waters for bringing back the third of Timely's big three heroes. Captain America made a guest appearance in the Human Torch's solo strip. As it turned out, it wasn't the real Cap, just an acrobat using Cap's identity to get close to a car that he wanted to steal.

The real Captain America finally appeared in Avengers #4 when the Sub-Mariner chanced on some Eskimos worshiping a figure frozen in ice. The Sub-Mariner threw a temper tantrum and tossed the figure into the ocean where it drifted south and began melting. It was found by the Avengers who were hunting the Sub-Mariner. The figure was, of course, Captain America, who had been in suspended animation until the heat of the Avengers' submarine thawed him out.

Cap joined the Avengers and became the leader a couple of years later when the founding members quit. Cap also received a solo strip, sharing Tales of Suspense with Iron Man.

Cap made a guest appearance in an early issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. This was also the first real appearance of his side-kick, Bucky. Stan Lee hated side-kicks so Bucky died in the same event that froze Cap.

When Cap first appeared, Iron Man added some gimmicks to his shield so that it returned automatically. He could even control its flight. This only lasted a couple of issues. Cap explained that he threw that stuff out because it ruined the shield's balance.

At first Cap struggled to find a direction. In his first few appearances he fought groups of criminals. This was followed by an origin issue and a return to WWII (complete with Bucky).

The strip returned to the present with Cap realizing that it was the anniversary of the Red Skull's death. Sure enough, some of the Skull's agents activated the Sleepers - three robots that were designed to destroy the world. Obviously, Cap stopped them.

It eventually turned out that the Skull had also been preserved in suspended animation. Just think of the irony if his Sleepers had succeeded in avenging his death when he hadn't actually died.

Cap began running into a SHIELD agent called Agent X who reminded him of his lost love, Peggy Carter. She eventually turned out to be Peggy's sister Sharon.

After Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD was canceled, the whole organization moved in with Cap for a while with Cap taking the unofficial role of special troubleshooter.

At one point Rick Jones became the new Bucky in a few issues done by Jim Steranko. Stan still didn't like teen side-kicks and dropped Rick as soon as he took over the writing again.

The Cosmic Cube began in Captain America. It was created by AIM (Advanced Idea Mechanics) but the Red Skull managed to get it a couple of times. The second time he used it to exchange bodies with Captain America. Then he watched Cap run from the police and some ex-Nazis who had a grudge against the Skull. Along the way Cap ran into Sam Wilson and convinced him to become a super hero - the Falcon. At first the Falcon was just an acrobat with a trained falcon but later his costume was redesigned so that he could fly.

The book became an official team-up between Cap and the Falcon. Sharon Carter was the unofficial third member of the partnership.

Stan finally left the comic for good. Steve Englehart took over and answered the burning question of who was the Captain America during the 1950s? (Actually, I think that Roy Thomas was the only one who really cared. Thomas spent years working out the exact chronology of who wore the Captain America costume when.) It turned out that the government used a new version of the Super Soldier Serum to create a new Captain America and Bucky during the 1950s. The serum was defective and they became irrational so the government put them in suspended animation until the 1970s.)

Englehart made some significant changes to the characters. At some point Cap's identity as Steve Rogers had become public so he adopted the identity of Roger Stevens and got a job with the NYCPD. He also gained mild super strength (Englehart insisted that he was returning Cap to his original levels).

The most significant event came when Cap and the Falcon foiled an attempt by President Nixon to take over the country. Cap resigned as Captain America and became the Nomad (the 1950s Bucky later took this role). There was a sub-plot with various people attempting to take Rogers's place as Captain America and failing. Eventually Steve Rogers returned to the role.

The Red Skull captured the Falcon and revealed that he was really "Snap Wilson", a petty criminal. The Skull had given Snap a new personality when he had the Cosmic Cube. Honestly, I'm not sure how this was resolved.

Jack Kirby returned to Marvel and took over Captain America as writer/artist. The Falcon was dropped along with the Snap Wilson plotline. Sharon Carter vanished (even though she was a Kirby creation) and Cap's strength returned to normal. Kirby didn't stay long.

In the late 1970s, writers were figuring out what made Captain America unique. In the Avengers, Jim Shooter defined him as the hero who would never give up. Other writers added that he was the one man who would fight for dreams. By the early 1980s, Cap had changed from an acrobat wrapped in a flag to a real symbol.

After a stint with writer J. M. Dematties which I didn't care for, Cap came into his own. Publication was increased from monthly to fifteen issues per year with biweekly issues during the Summer. This was a very productive time with writer Mark Gruenwald writing the comic from 1985-1995. DeMatties had killed off the Red Skull but Gruenwald brought him back in a body cloned from Steve Rogers. He also invented Crossbones, the Skull's principle agent (get it: Skull and Crossbones?).

Sharon Carter disappeared and was presumed dead so Cap began a relationship with Diamondback, a reformed criminal.

In one of the Summer story arches, some drugs bonded with Cap's blood, making him perpetually angry. The only cure was a complete blood transfusion. This meant that Cap tied at a normal rate.

In one plot that now seems trite, someone in the White House discovered that the government owned the trademark to "Captain America". They informed Cap that he would be answerable to them. Instead he resigned and began calling himself "The Captain" and carrying a silver shield provided by Tony Stark. A new Captain America was recruited. Eventually President Reagan found out what was going on and ordered the Captain America identity be returned to Steve Rogers. (In an issue of the Avengers, an alien erased all knowledge of Captain America's secret identity.)

Cap also lost his shield for a while. It dropped into the Atlantic.

Eventually his Super Soldier enhancements began to break down and Cap started to die. Tony Stark provided a version of his Iron Man armor to provide life support but Cap eventually died.

He got over it, of course and was reunited with Sharon Carter who was peeved that he forgot all about her for a decade. They fought the Red Skull who had gotten the Cosmic Cube for the third time.

This incarnation lasted five or six years before Cap died again. This time he was blown up. He returned, of course.

Marvel's cross-continuity event, the Civil War, starred Captain America as the leader of the forces that resisted registering with the government. At the end of the war he was killed again, this time by a brainwashed Sharon Carter.

For decades there were only a few constants in the Marvel Universe. The biggest one was that Bucky died. That was finally reversed. It turned out that he was saved by the USSR, given cyborg parts, and kept frozen until they needed him to kill someone. He became the new Captain America.

Steve Rogers was brought to life, yet again and currently heads SHIELD.

Friday, July 15, 2011

EReaders & the Future

I saw a column on ZDNEWS (which has since scrolled off) predicting that ebook readers (ereaders) may be available this year for Christmas but they will be gone by next year, displaced by tablets. I don't think so.

Tablets have a lot to offer readers. They have a larger, back-lit, color screen and they are not tied to any particular seller. I have read several books on an Android tablet.

But, tablets also have significant drawbacks. They are heavy, they don't work well in bright light, and, most important, they have limited battery life. After using my tablet for several hours to keep up on email and Facebook and for light browsing, by the end of the evening I had to make a choice - do some reading or charge my tablet. Even if your tablet gets ten hours of life, that will not last two evenings.

I suppose that I could use it with the charger plugged in. Or I could leave it plugged in overnight. I don't do that because I worry about shortening battery life by overcharging it. My phone loses some of its charge if it is plugged in too long so I expect my tablet to do that also.

So, neither device has a clear advantage over the other. Instead there are a series of trade-offs.

What really made me decide on getting an ereader was an upcoming vacation. We will have limited access to power and I expect to be reading outside part of the time. Those are conditions that really favor an ereader.

Since getting one I find that I appreciate the weight difference a lot. I like the look of the page on the tablet but the ease of handling is a bigger factor than I expected.

Another factor is price. Just a year and a half ago ereaders cost a few hundred dollars. Now you can get a Kindle, Nook or Kobo for less than $150. That's not quite an impulse purchase but it is cheap enough that you do not have to choose between a tablet and an ereader. You can get both.

And that is the biggest reason why dedicated devices will continue. It is the same reason that people are still buying iPods. They are cheap and convenient enough to justify on their own.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

More on Phone Spam

Yesterday I wrote about AirPush, an Android add-on that allows applications to send spam to the notification bar, even when you are not using the affected app. I consider this to be the worst kind of spam.

Someone commented on my post pointing out that AirPush has an opt-out function. So, does that absolve them?

Hell no. It would if the ads included a link to the opt-out. They do not. In fact, there is no clue to where they come from. It took me a few tries with Google to figure it out and I'm a lot better at this than most people.

Without a notification you first have to figure out that AirPush is to blame then you have to do further research to find out that there is an opt-out. If you go to their web site you have to enter as a developer and check the FAQs. That's a lot of digging.

I double-checked the app that carried AirPush. It actually includes three different products that push ads. It has a detailed explanation of why it needs different permissions but it never comes out and says that you will get spam notifications or that you can opt-out. Further, all of that was changed since I installed the app last year. A more ethical developer would have included the changes to the advertizing policy at the top along with instruction on how to opt out.

To summarize, there is a way to opt-out but no one volunteers it. You have to dig to find it. That is as bad as not offering an opt-out.

If AirPush wants to be ethical then their contract should require that the developer make it clear that spam will be delivered and how to opt out. Without that they are just another shady operation that should be shut down by Google.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Phone spam

What would you think if you installed a program on your PC and once or twice a day it popped up an ad, even if the program wasn't running? There are several possible terms, none of them complimentary.

That is what started happening with my phone several days ago. Once or twice a day I would see a star in the notification bar with a link to a questionable site. My first thought was that I had installed a new program that caused this. I tried uninstalling my most recent programs but that did not work. I also did a virus check of my phone but that didn't find anything, either.

Eventually I tracked it down thanks to some Googling and message boards. It turns out that there is a new player in the Android marketplace called AirPush. They make an add-on. A developer adds this to an existing app and it starts delivering ads. AirPush says that it can substantially increase a developer's income. That is because it separates the ad from the app so ads are delivered even when the app is not being used.

Now, I don't have any problem with a free app displaying an ad at the bottom when I use it. I figure that is no different from ads on broadcast TV. But, I really object when the ads appear when I am not using the app. This would be like having my TV turn itself on and showing an ad at random times.

Fortunately someone wrote a free app called AirPush Detector. This identifies any installed apps that use AirPush. With the help of that I determined that BloggerDroid was the culprit and removed it. It was a small loss - I installed it a year ago and only used it a few times.

BloggerDroid did not include AirPush when I installed it. That was added later and pushed out as an update. This is pretty sneaky since in made it nearly impossible to identify the offending app without AirPush Detector.

Until now I have strongly preferred Android over Apple because I don't like giving so much control of my technology over to as capricious a company as Apple. This may make me rethink my position. I don't like giving control of my phone over to Steve Jobs but I like AirPush even less.

With luck Google will come out with a policy forbidding this. If not, I can get a new phone next year.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Syfy has a new superhero show - Alphas.

The concept mixes elements of the X-Men, Heroes, and No Ordinary Family. You have "Alphas", people born with special abilities. Some of these have been gathered into a team to investigate special crimes. In the pilot, the crime being investigated involved other alphas and that may be the direction the show takes.

The Alphas themselves might as well be called mutants. They are born with special abilities although not on the level of the other shows. Also, many of the abilities have a built-in downside. The guy with super strength can only turn it on for a few minutes before harming himself. When the woman with super senses concentrates on one sense, she shuts down the others. In addition, they have some normal human failings. The strong guy is a former FBI agent and treats the others as amateurs.The hypnotist has few morals. The guy who can see the electromagnetic spectrum has all sorts of issues.

Not surprisingly, the leader of this group is a psychiatrist. Part of his pitch for new recruits is that he can help them adjust to the problems that come with their abilities.

There are a few problems with the science, especially with the guy who sees broadcasts but it is easy to ignore these and just go with it.

The show follows Eureka and Warehouse 13 but it has a much harder edge than either of those shows.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Nooking it up

I find that reading books on my tablet is easier than carrying a book around with me. The main problems are that the tablet is still a little large and heavy and the battery life. With a vacation coming up in a situation where I might have trouble charging, I decided that a dedicated reader might be a good idea.

At the same time, my wife decided to try a reader.

We went with different models of the Nook. I went for the new touch-screen version. It is small, light, and has great battery life. My wife wanted something that was lit instead of depending on ambient light so she got a Nook color. This is a stripped-down tablet.

We went with these because, at this time, Amazon does not have a Kindle to match either unit.

I found my Nook to be exactly what I expected. It is light-weight and still fairly easy to read although not as easy as my tablet. I charged it, loaded it with some books, and was off.

My wife's experience is not quite as good. She has never gotten along well with touch screen and we haven't finished configuring everything on her tablet.

I can say that the Nook Color seems fairly responsive even though it uses an older and slower chip than others. It is surprisingly light-weight and it is able to play video files, at least the ones provided by Barnes and Noble.

One of the selling points to me was the existence of a program that stripes books from Amazon of their DRM (Digital Rights Management). I tried this Sunday to be sure that it works. Keep in mind that I am only using this to load books that I purchased on alternate devices.

Surprise. On Monday, Amazon sent an update to the Kindle for PC program that stopped the program from stripping the DRM. Fortunately I had an easy fix - remove the updated program and re-install the earlier version. I also turned off the auto-update setting.

Even with this, it is complicated moving  a book from Kindle to Nook. First I have to download the book onto my PC. Then I have to copy it to a different directory and use a command-line function to remove the DRM. Then I use a program called Caliber to reformat the book in EPub. Finally, I copy this to my Nook. The whole process requires three programs and four directories. This is a strong incentive to make future purchases from Barnes and Noble instead of Amazon.