Friday, July 20, 2012

Life imitates art - the Batman shootings

A major sub-plot in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns is the idea that costumed heroes inspire costumed villains. In the backstory to the series, the government put pressure on the superheroes to retire. The exception was Superman who took direction from the President and kept a low profile.

Then a violent gang took over Gotham City and Batman returned to straighten things out.

The prediction was accurate. Two-Face and the Joker returned and began killing people. The Joker in particular returned because Batman did.

At the end of the series Batman faked his own death and went underground, leading former members of the gang in the fight against crime. The war would go on but the day of the costumes was over.

At the premier of The Dark Knight Rises, a gunman dressed in black with body armor and a gas mask entered a theater through the emergency exit, threw a canister of tear gas, then began firing into the audience. A dozen were killed and dozens more were injured including small children.

It is possible, maybe even likely, that the gunman was inspired by the Joker's random acts of violence in The Dark Knight.

The Heath Ledger Joker was unique among superhero villains. Usually they are bigger than life. Lex Luthor keeps trying to conquer the world, or at least destroy several states. Tim Burton's Joker was already part of organized crime. Catwoman didn't kill anyone except a villain who was trying to kill her. Even Liam Neeson's character in Batman Begins was part of a secret organization and the Scarecrow was a psychiatrist with some unusual pharmaceuticals.

In contrast to most other comic book inspired movies, Heath Ledger's character worked alone and was mainly interested in death and destruction for its own sake, especially if it revealed the worst side of humanity.

Last night's shooter was not directly inspired by the Joker. He hid his identity and wore armor that was more reminiscent to Batman than the Joker. Still, the idea of shooting a bunch of people at random as they waited to see a Batman movie would appeal to the character.

So, did The Dark Knight go so deep into human nature that it inspired a mass shooting? Or was the shooter just someone who was mad at the world and chose a movie audience as a convenient target? Hopefully more information will be forthcoming.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Time Keeping

We got a new clock alarm a few days ago. You don't even have to set the time. Just plug it in and it finds the time.

That got me remembering how clocks used to be. Electric clocks that plug into wall sockets have always been acurate (within my lifetime). The power company carefully maintains 60 cycle per second alternating current. An electric clock based on that will always keep good time.

I remember a news report after a blizzard in the late 1970s that warned that, due to increased power demands, the power company had allowed the cycles per second to slip by a few seconds but they would make up the extra seconds later that week.

Of course you had to set your electric clock to the right time in the first place. Radio and TV stations would give the exact time regularly or you could call the phone company. Most phone companies had a time and temperature number using some early automatic equipment and prerecorded messages.

Once you were out of the house you were on your own as far as time went.

Watches were common. There were no battery-powered watches. They all ran off of a mainspring that had to be wound.

I still have my father's watch. My mother gave it to him before I was born. It was an expensive, high-end timepiece. It was self-winding which meant that it used an internal weight and the wearer's arm movements to wind the watch. If you didn't move your arm enough the watch would wind down (although you could wind it manually). There has been a revival of self-winding watches in the last few years. They are not made as well as my father's. Undoubtedly they cost a lot less, also.

As watches from the 1950s go, this one is quite accurate. It does have to be adjusted every few days.

Timex used to have a line of kids watches. These were cheaply made and not very accurate. Typically one of these had to be adjusted daily. I remember having one that was off by around 10 minutes a day. These watches didn't last long, either. The mainspring or some other vital part would break within a year.

Larger clocks were more accurate. A lot of alarm clocks had to be wound daily but kept decent time.

The worst clocks were in cars. When a car's engine is running it is charging the battery and produces around 13.5 volts. When the engine is off the battery is discharging at around 12 volts. Electric clocks were just electric motors and the higher the voltage the faster they run. car makers tried to estimate how much time a car would be running and designed clocks based on that average. For most people this resulted in clocks that were off by several minutes per day. Even high-end cars had this problem.

In the 1970s watches based on cheap, accurate working became available. Suddenly everyone could afford an accurate watch and timekeeping was never the same.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Mulan and the Princesses

My daughter pointed out that, unlike other Disney princesses, Mulan has both parents. Since the plot centers around her trying to bring honor to her father, I forgot about the mother.

The funny thing here is that Mulan may be marketed as an official Disney princess, she is not a princess. She is the daughter of a noble. She doesn't even become a princess by marriage. So she doesn't break the mold by having both parents.

An irony here is that Mulan is the closest of the Disney princesses to Brave's Merida. Both are tom-boys and at the beginning of both movies the girl is tidied up and stuffed into an uncomfortable dress in order to impress potential suitors. Both of them have trouble with a stray hair, also. Both of them are also accomplished warriors with their own warhorses.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Brave - is Merida a Disney Princess?

Pixar's first dozen movies featured male characters. Most of them were non-human males but even WALL-E had a male personality compared with EVE. Their 13th, Brave has a female lead, the Princess Merida. Her mother is also a major character.

This movie has gotten a lot of criticism. Some people have dismissed it as just another Disney princess.

Originally Disney had six "official" princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine with Pocahontas, and Mulan as unofficial princesses. Later the last two were added to the official role along with the latest creations,Tiana, and Rapunzel.

Right off the bat, Merida is disqualified from being a typical Disney princess. She has too many parents. Of all of the official princesses, only Aurora has both parents and neither parent plays a role in her story. The others are missing one or both parents*.

Merida has both parents and has a normal relationship with both of them. He father is kind and indulgent. He is the one who gave her her bow and arrows and taught her to shoot. Presumably he also gave her the war horse. Her relationship with her mother is strained but familiar to anyone who has raised a daughter.

Merida is also lacking a handsome suitor. She does have the sons of the three clans competing for her hand but the first is skinny with a big nose, the second is incomprehensible, and the third is, well... the third choice of this trio.

Finally, Merida is lacking anyone who actually wishes her harm. Belle and Jasmine have unattractive suitors forcing themselves on the respective princess. Most of the others have someone who is actively trying to kill her (there is a giant bear but he seems to hate everyone).

All of that said, there are some similarities: She is a princess and, like most Disney princesses, she is fairly young (at 14 she is the youngest). There is an element of the supernatural including a woodworker/witch. Finally, she does have some intelligent animal companions.

The biggest difference between Merida and the Disney princesses is that she is a totally original creation. All of the others were pilfered from myth or literature.

* Rapunzel's parents are both still alive but she didn't know this. She was raised by a woman claiming to be er mother.