Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Internet Radio: Volume 2

This one flies off the rails a bit.  More indie rock.  The next one will be more eclectic probably.  Eventually I'll just put up random songs that probably shouldn't be in a playlist together.

Buke and Gass is a really neat example of a band that invented their own instruments.  On the other hand, Sleigh Bells are a band I am completely ambivalent to except for the song I posted.

Volume 2: Cartoon Faces

1.  Supertoys- Autolux
2.  Scissors- Liars
3.  Medulla Oblongata- Buke and Gass
4.  In Media Res- Los Campesinos!
5.  Daisy- Fang Island
6.  Twin Peaks- Surfer Blood
7.  Rill Rill- Sleigh Bells
8.  Brian Eno- MGMT

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In which I rant about comic books

If you've looked at this blog for over 5 minutes, you'll know that I'm a fan of comic books.  I say comic books because I think saying "graphic novels" or "sequential art" sort of undermines the whole endeavor by implying that there is something inferior about comics that requires them to be dressed up to allow for public consumption.  Note that when I say comic book I don't mean exclusively superhero comics.  Contrary to popular opinion (and I'm including most comic fans in this) there is a huge variety of comics out there.  To paraphrase Scott McCloud, comics are a medium not a genre.

1.  Comics are (mostly) terrible
The impetus for this rant comes from a letter written by Kurt Busiek, a popular comic writer for both Marvel and D.C. Comics, about the state of the mainstream comic industry.  Though I disagree with the specifics of the letter (particularly the critique of Jonathon Hickman), it got me thinking about my relationship with mainstream comics.

My approach to comics has always, in some sense been academic, I first read Watchmen and V for Vendetta because of their reputation (this was before either was made into a movie) and I started reading Maus because of its literary status, not because of its status as a comic book.  I was never one to wait outside my lcs (local comic shop, obviously) for the latest issue of Spiderman or whatever, nor did have I ever particularly cared when a favorite character is killed off in a giant comic event.  With that said, I have been actively reading comics, thinking about comics, and writing about comics for a number of years now.

Writing it all out like that makes me sound more pretentious than I intend, but I think its important to know my perspective before you read what I say next.  Stated simply, I think the vast majority of comics are terrible.  Though there is some interesting storytelling here and there, I think the majority of comics are compiled from a boring story written over even worse artwork.  I don't mean to be particular harsh on comic artists.  However, comics are a visual medium, so (for me at least) bad art tends to ruin the experience more than bad writing (unless said bad writing comes from someone like Jeph Loeb).

2.  Comic fans are (almost entirely) terrible.
So I happen to think that most comics are boring and poorly drawn... so what?  In a very real sense my opinion doesn't, and shouldn't, matter.  I don't really buy comics month to month.  If I'm interested in a story I'll either wait for the collected edition, borrow it from a friend, or acquire it through some other means.  The problem lies in the fact that I'm not exactly outside the target demographic for most comics currently being published by Marvel and D.C.

Though they'll never acknowledge it outright, most comic publishers have long given up on selling comics to children (See D.C.'s Identity Crisis, most of Marvels output) and have begun to cater to a relatively small group of die-hard fans.  Further complicating matters, many of the current batch of comic creators are members of this same small group.  Thus, the industry is left with a small group of fans who are increasingly interested in comics for their nostalgia value and a crop of creators, including Kurt Busiek actually, who feel the same.  I'm not saying that no original comics are being written or drawn, though mainstream comics increasingly seem to be made up of the same ideas over and over, original work just doesn't seem to sell.  Matt Fraction's Casanova is a really interesting piece of sci-fi pulp storytelling... that is only being published because Fraction writes X-Men comics for Marvel.  Image Comics, once one of the biggest comic publishers in the country now publishes some really original stuff, all of which sell significantly less than 10,000 copies.  The only thing that seems to sell are nostalgia comics and big "event" style comics.  All over the internet (and in comic shops) you'll hear people complaining about this, but ultimately this is what brings people buy, so this is what the comic industry sells.

3.  The comic industry is startlingly behind the times.
Comic fans aren't entirely to blame with for the dearth of good comics.  The comic industry went through an exceedingly rough period during the mid to late 90's and in many ways has yet to recover.  Part of the reason comics are now marketed towards an increasingly older population is because no one else is buying them anymore.  I've already discussed some of the implications of this in creative terms without discussing the cause.  Increasing competition is probably part of it, as was the transition from a wide distribution of comics (in drug stores, newstands, etc) to the rise of the comic specialty stores.  However, the industry is suffering from an inability (or lack of desire) to adapt to the changing market.  Increasingly comic fans (including me) are buying collected editions of single issues at bookstores or online.  However individual collections are often difficult to find and generally lack simple things like page and volume numbers.

Piracy has been a problem for comics for as long as there has been copy machines.  However, the internet has revolutionized comic piracy.  Almost every comic published in the last five to ten years has been scanned and uploaded to the internet within 24 hours of its publication.  I know for a fact that the entire Vertigo line is available for easy download, as is the majority of both the Marvel and D.C. libraries.  Why comic piracy has been so successful probably has something to do with the rising price of individual issues (the industry is currently transitioning to a $3.99 per issue standard), but probably has even more to do with the high quality of the pirated versions.  Official comics released online are notoriously of low quality and are generally ignored.  In contrast piracy groups have created software that makes sharing high quality comics online incredibly easy.

The industry has long resisted any significant online distribution of comics, choosing instead to release terrible motion comics and low quality versions of comics from 20+ years ago.  The market is obviously there for online comics with the iPad and other tablets providing an incredibly appealing vector for such distribution, but I doubt the comic industry will embrace it before its too late.  Something like iTunes but including comics would probably do a lot to increase distribution to comic fans and non-fans alike.

4.  Final Crisis
This post is getting entirely too long and there is a lot I haven't talked about that deserves in-depth discussion such as creator rights, manga, webcomics, and non superhero comics.  I'm frustrated with the lack of quality and original work in the current industry because there is such a ridiculously large amount of potential for good, original work.  Though a lot of the writing and art in mainstream books is boring and mediocre, both major comic companies employ lots of really talented people.  Many of the more creative end up leaving to work somewhere with more creative/financial freedom and end up creating really interesting work that no one reads.  The medium of comics provides some really interesting methods for storytelling (See Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics for more on this) and there are certainly talented people working across the industry.  What is frustrating is how little any of this potential is realized.  A book like Pax Romana is a really original way of presenting a narrative, its just too bad that comic fans would rather read yet another story about Superman fighting Lex Luthor with barely passable writing and muddy art.

In which I rant about science

One of the science blogs on my google reader published an interesting review on PCR.  PCR is a widely used technique for quickly replicating and examining DNA samples.  The review is very much worth a read: check it out here.

First, the guy on acid thing doesn't even begin to cover the crazy that is Kary Mullis.

Second, this description is interesting in how much it highlights how completely problematic and subjective the "hard" sciences can be.

Psychology as a Science
My big science pet peeve (other than terrible puns in journal article) is when people insist that psychology is a "soft" science or generally unscientific.  Ignoring the blatent philosophical hypocrisy of using these labels without operationalizing them, separating psychology from biology, chemistry, and physics creates a false dichotomy.  To do the work that I do I have to learn, and be able to critically assess, material from fields as varied as neuroanatomy to chemical messaging to MR physics.  True, some fields of psychology share more characteristics with sociology and political science than the biology-oriented stuff that I do, but that doesn't mean that they don't apply the scientific method.

Subjectivity in the "Hard" Sciences
What I think the PCR article shows nicely is how all science, even the "hardest" of sciences, are built on assumptions.  Building on these assumptions is what allows science to move forward (well, maybe).  That Psychology is more open to the notion that its principles are just assumptions that may be altered or thrown out in the face of opposing evidence makes it epistemologically honest, not unscientific.  The techniques of physics, chemistry, and biology are, like those in psychology, are based on sets of assumptions and open to subjective interpretation.  To claim otherwise demonstrates either a lack of understanding as to how science really works or a failure of critical thinking.

Folk Psychology and Pseudoscience
Now, with all that said, I'm not going to pretend that there is nothing unscientific happening within psychology.  Studying human behavior seems to lend itself to more a more philosophical discourse than something like the study of plants or chemical reactions or whatever.  However, this sort of thing is unscientific because it doesn't follow the scientific method (which itself is built on a set of assumptions by the way) not because it is psychology.  Just as there are are unscientific elements within psychology, there are equally (if not more egregiously) unscientific elements within fields that are widely regarded as objectively scientific.

A Note on Voodo Correlations and Marc Hauser
I don't mean to lump these two things together, but they I think they highlight the scientific nature of Psychology.  While the Voodo Correlations business was ridiculously overblown, it did make researchers think critically about their methods.  This doesn't make Psychology unscientific, it just means there is an open (though overdramatic) dialogue about what methods should be used in what setting.  The Mark Hauser thing just demonstrates that Psychology data, like any other kind of data, is open to being faked.  The fact that Hauser's students (or assistants, I'm not so clear on this point) turned him in, demonstrates more open dialogue.  That these dialogues exist doesn't make Psychology unscientific, if anything it makes it more scientific than fields where such discussions either don't occur or are actively suppressed.

Final Notes
This isn't why I insist on calling myself a scientist, I just do that because I'm obnoxious.