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The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), running most of this week here in Las Vegas, is pretty much business as usual this time around: no truly sensational “gotta have it!” new technologies on the market, just refinements on existing technologies that company marketing departments are going bonkers trying to package as new technology. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing – there are plenty of existing technologies that no one has managed to market successfully yet, and some are even technologies a lot of people could get a lot of use from if they’d try them – but tarting those technologies up to make them sexy enough for people to even look forward to is getting a lot harder.

For example:

I saw a presentation of Creative‘s new product yesterday. Creative has always been a pretty good company – they pretty much set the standard for the PC soundcard, were one of the first if not the first company to introduce a portable MP3 player and though Apple has pretty much colonized that market, Creative’s line of MP3 players are still superior in some ways – and they always put on a good show at CES. In fact, their show is so good it prompted many other companies like Logitech and SanDisk to put on their own shows. The format’s always the same: a makeshift “auditorium” within the booth space, with scheduled “shows” in which practiced hucksters crack jokes, talk fast, periodically hand out prizes to audience members and try to get everyone interested in the company’s big Push items of the year. Interestingly, this year Creative abandoned their shotgun approach to product promotion – in previous shows they generally rattled off a dozen products and the breathlessness alone made many of them more appealing – and focused instead on a single thing: a lightweight sort of dedicated notebook computer for teleconferencing, listing at around $700 a pop (but if you’re at CES, you could be first on your block to own one for half that price)… plus $10 per month for connectivity services.

It’s a good, sharp looking product. Video output and sound quality are good. And I wish them luck in selling it, because videoconferencing isn’t a new idea, and most people who travel for business (their focal market, though they did have a brief “home use” presentation) already carry a laptop. (The quiet revolution in computers over the past couple years has been widespread buyer abandonment of desktop computers in favor of notebooks.) Many of these already have built-in cameras. Videoconferencing software is nothing new, and there are Internet services, some free, to facilitate connectivity between two or more sites. Creative itself makes very good tiny cameras attachable to notebooks. So why, instead of developing tech that can be integrated with existing notebooks that everyone in their prime market already owns, do they create an entire new piece of tech the customer will have to lug around? (It’s not that heavy in itself, but one more thing to carry isn’t something most business travelers will eagerly cotton to; given that Creative already makes teleconferencing cameras, why not create a hardware/software package that can be added to existing computers?) While Creative wants the product to look like essential equipment, a means through which companies large and small can cut down on overall costs by reducing or eliminating travel time and expenses, practical teleconferencing has been possible for years now and the main reason most companies don’t teleconference is they don’t want to. Because there’s something about face-to-face meetings, especially between bosses and underlings, that cameras can’t replicate. Of course, Creative kept repeating another argument in their marketing arsenal: videoconferencing is “green,” and, as the she-shill in Creative’s little show put it: “Green is cool!”

Yeah, I can see General Motors buying that argument.

“Green” is one of the big buzzwords at CES this year. Everyone’s “green.” Consumer tech companies are suddenly hot to demonstrate why, though they exist on products built to burn energy at rates undreamed of 100 years ago, they’re socially conscious and willing to do their part to halt pollution and global warming. (And, in fact, these were the earliest promises of modern tech, that it would ultimately result in a cleaner, safer, more prosperous world.) Not that most of the rampant new eco-awareness isn’t sincere, and better late than never, but it remains that for many tech companies eco-awareness is less a focus than a side effect of other concerns. While it’s true modern microchips burn much cooler than their predecessors (and we’d likely burn a lot less energy microcomputing if everyone upgraded their chips and motherboards to the latest standards) the impetus for cooler chips wasn’t a desire to save the planet but a desire to keep the average home computer from doubling as a space heater, because it used to be as chips gained power they got hot. Real hot. Heat makes for unreliable systems and demands elaborate (also power-gobbling) cooling. But it’s hard to walk ten feet at CES this year (well, despite the monstrous size of the Las Vegas Convention Center, which has brimmed over to the Hilton, the Sands and various other local venues, it’s hard to walk ten feet at CES in any case) without someone trying to explain why their tech is the “Green Solution.” Never mind running Al Gore for president again; let’s run him for president of Silicon Valley!

So… existing tech masquerading as new tech. Not that we should really expect anything else from consumer electronics companies. HD-DVD and Blu-Ray continue to slug it out for high def DVD format standard, with Blu-Ray currently on the rise but machines and software for both formats widely visible at the show. (Some companies were even handing out dual promotional DVDs for their products, one in each format.) High Definition TVs, which we’ll all need to own by sometime next year if we want to keep watching DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, are just getting bigger, and smaller. (Someone – Panasonic? Toshiba? – is releasing a very high resolution half-inch screen sometime in the coming year, they threaten.) The other two big pushes are “the digital home” (again), apparently based on the premise that we all want houses where we monitor all activity from a remote spot, our stoves automatically senses the perfect cooking temperature for the pot roast we slide into them and our refrigerators realize there’s only one more egg in the carton and automatically connect with Kroger’s computer to tell it to put eggs on our shopping list. Me, I’d like to just find a toaster that won’t incinerate bread. If you wander CES long enough, you’ll see the other big consumer push, no doubt prompted by general acceptance of the iPhone, is the touchscreen.

Expect to see touchscreens on everything in the next couple years. Not those plastic membrane pads on microwaves and such where you still have to physically push a spot to get any effect, these are new screens you barely have to graze with a pore. Hopefully we’ll learn to become a much more delicate people before any of this hits the market, but companies also seem to be trying to link it to “nannyware” that allows the device’s in-house microchip to question your decisions if it feels you made the wrong one. But, again, touchscreens are nothing new. The best touchscreen item I saw was a new universal remote control from Logitech which programs not for devices but for functions: if you want to watch a DVD, it not only starts up your DVD player but turns on your TV, sets it to the DVD input, turns on your home theater if you have one, and follows whatever procedure you use to play the DVD. And, presumably, dim the living room lights appropriately if you’ve got them hooked up to a remote dimmer. One touch, theoretically. So easy your grandmother can program it, the Logitech huckster said (which I thought was really impressive, because both my grandmothers are dead) – though they did specify you had to go online to get the simple step-by-step instructions for setups. Not that I’m mocking it; believe me, I want one. But, as with most technology, I sense a gap between promise and actual functionality, and that’s the great killer of tech companies.

So… a year of refinement and repackaging rather than innovation, it seems. I can understand the lack of recent innovation, given that we’ve become a tech culture where companies exist just to buy up old patents so they can troll for other companies to sue, often questionably but usually with enough legally-allowed leeway to extort money from the company being sued to make the lawsuit go away. No especially interesting new software that I ran across. The tech that will likely have the single biggest effect over the next couple years is the solid state hard drive, which basically amounts to a big, big thumb drive with no moving parts and using much less energy to take the place of the arrays of spinning disks we currently have in our computers and various other machines. Of course, no CES is complete without promotional giveaways, but those have been on the decline the past few years too; despite a preponderance of pens – a freelancer like me can stock up on office supplies for a year at the show – there weren’t any really hot items, though Nero Software gave out electric yo-yos that are pretty fun and Intel, as part of a space-themed program, handed out bags of freeze-dried ice cream, which has the texture of Styrofoam but tastes very good. As in San Diego, the smaller companies can no longer afford promotional items since their bottom lines are tight and attending CES costs a ton now anyway, and the bigger companies don’t need the promotional items, since everyone’s going to pay attention to them anyway. Contests are the big promotional tool now – if all goes well, I’ll have two new desktop computers, four notebooks, three 42″ plasma TVs and a Dolby 7.1 home theater set-up by Friday – while the big companies all seem to have gravitated to the roach motel theory of convention booth design: a large, byzantine, dimly-lit area that crowds can enter but not easily leave.

What’s mostly absent from CES? Acknowledgement that consumer spending is down, which is probably something consumer electronics firms don’t want to hear. No one seems to be selling anything with an eye toward consumer affordability; their main focus was on why the few bucks you might have to spend should go to them. Which means that, while the Taiwanese electronics companies clustered over at the Sands Convention Center were getting little attention from showgoers, they’re the ones who will most likely end up getting the bulk of our money.

I may go back on Thursday for the big wrap-up.

It might be a make or break year for both Marvel and DC; lately they’ve both taken to dumping their eggs into shaky baskets. Given that both, especially Marvel, have been riding a wave of steady sales increases it would seem both are now more secure than they’ve been for many years, but 2008 may be a make or break year for both of them, and for the DC universe in particular.

The DC universe, of course, has built over the last several years around a steady chain of increasingly volatile crossover series, starting with “Identity Crisis” and leading through a maze of INFINITE CRISIS, 52 and COUNTDOWN and their many tributaries, offshoots and seepages, which will theoretically culminate in 2008’s Big Event To End All Big Events, FINAL CRISIS. It may be a bigger crisis than they anticipate. Their problem is that the whole thing has been strung along a promise of “changing the DC universe forever!” and a) changes in comics are generally so transient that nobody even swallows “forever” anymore, even if they’re waiting for it, b) so far what changes have occurred have been as transient as possible, except for arguably the return of the Green Lantern Corps and the arrival of a selfish, semi-psychotic parallel Superboy & c) FINAL CRISIS has to pay off. That last one’s the big one. Everything they’ve done has theoretically been leading up to FINAL CRISIS, which now pretty much has to be about the greatest superhero story ever told or a substantial number of readers who’ve ridden the whole thing out run the risk of disgustedly dropping the whole thing – which at this point would pretty much mean the entire byzantinely interwoven DC Universe line – for good. Marvel was in a similar situation at one point; having built their business around the presence of “Marvel zombies,” fans who obsessed on owning every single Marvel comic being published, the company abruptly saw its sales plunge when the number of books reached a critical mass – turned out the “Marvel zombies” who realized they could no longer afford to buy all the books stopped buying any of them. Marvel’s sales were strong enough regardless that the line didn’t collapse, but it still took them a couple years to recover, at which point “Marvel zombies” were no longer a dependable quantity. How many books in the DC universe could withstand a similar cave-in? FINAL CRISIS not only has to be a really good story – reportedly Grant Morrison is the brains behind it, and I have complete faith in his ability to pull it off… if he were given parameters (don’t change the Superman or Batman costumes, don’t kill Wonder Woman, etc.) then left to his own devices, but it’s unlikely such a series would be able to dodge editorial department micromanagement, which is rampant seemingly everywhere these days – but has to have a satisfying ending that achieves some sort of exciting, forward-looking widespread alteration of the status quo. (Even then, does anyone really believe that someone who hates the changes won’t be lurking in the wings to reverse them? If they can bring Jason Todd back to life, they can reverse just about anything.) If it ends up just another back door to yet another Big Event Crossover Series, or ends up just another sop to some other status quo, odds are pretty good the audience will shrivel dramatically.

Meanwhile, Marvel has made the risky move of breaking up Spider-Man’s marriage the really hard way. I can understand why they’d want to; if there was ever a character who should never have been subjected to domestic bliss, it’s Spider-Man. Spider-Man and bliss just shouldn’t ever be on speaking terms, except momentarily. (Sorry, but his whole shtick is the sad sack determined to overcome all adversity. He’s the Job of superheroes.) Plenty has been written elsewhere about the, um, “wisdom” of using Mephisto to do it. All I can say is it’s the wrong way for this reason: you want to make a change like that, you just make it, say “okay, this is how it is now,” and then never refer to it again. There’s no way to do a retcon story like that that isn’t innately stupid, and that’s not a criticism of those involved, it’s just the nature of such beasts. (Personally, I think it would have been a much better story for Tony Stark to be the devil Spider-Man cuts a deal with, letting Mary Jane and Aunt May go off into anonymous witness protection while Spidey pays for it by serving a “master” whose policies he disagrees with and trusting that Tony Stark will remain innately noble and never use the women as hostages if Spider-Man goes off reservation again. But I guess that wouldn’t have solved that pesky secret identity problem.)

Marvel, as it has proven over the decades, can get away with a lot; readers generally like the characters enough that they’ll forgive pretty much anything. But they haven’t always gotten away with everything, and one thing they didn’t get away with was the Spider-Clone story of the ’90s. It started well enough, everyone got interested to see how it was resolved – and instead of resolving it Marvel dragged it out and out and out until pretty much no one cared how it wrapped up, sales on the Spidey books plunged, so did sales on many other books, and before anyone knew it Marvel was staring down the business end of a bankruptcy court. (Not that many other things weren’t contributing to the situation, but the Spider-Clone saga past a certain point sure didn’t help.) Depending on how it’s played from here, the Mephisto thing threatens to be this decade’s Spider-Clone. It’s hard to tell from the final scene of the arc – an apparent “flashback” episode to show us that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson never got married and are no longer on speaking terms – but a bit of dialogue in the climactic scene preceding it, where Mary Jane dramatically pronounces that even if their memories of their lives together are eradicated their love is too strong – in fact, a freakin’ force of nature to be reckoned with! – that in spite of everything they will someday be reunited as the lovers they are destined to be. I can understand why the bit needed that sort of overheated hooey (sorry, I’m just sick to death of people in comics blathering about “destiny” and “fate”) but it sets up only two possible outcomes: either the series from that point on effectively becomes about their overcoming this horrendous obstacle in their lives, or it becomes a story of them failing to reunite, in which case Mary Jane’s final statement is a hollow mockery. The right direction past this point is probably to just write Mary Jane out of the series entirely – she doesn’t even need another scene, she can just never be mentioned again – but there are probably tons of Peter/Mary Jane fans out there furious that they’re broken up now, and, again, you just know there’s somebody lurking in the wings determined to “put things right again.” Because, y’know, that’s all comics writing is about anymore. What Marvel needs now is a Spider-Man storyline so compelling that it distracts everyone from what was never going to be a good situation no matter who did it, and so good that those who can’t forget the Mephisto storyline (and, uh, when did he get so powerful he can change whole histories with a snap of his fingers, and if he’s that powerful why’s he wasting his time kicking dogs?) are more than willing to forgive it. The last thing Marvel needs is another “Spider-Clone”; I know they’re betting they can get by it but it may be they’re not playing poker but dominoes.

Much as I’d like to think Democrats are preferable to Republicans, and even though I know better it’s nothing more than vestigial naïvete in the hopes that there are at least some politicians out there who aren’t total flaming idiots, and total flaming hostile idiots at that, they come along and rabbit punch all of us. The Democrats were dumped back into power in Congress at the end of 2006 because a substantial number of Americans were just plain fed up, which has been their general state for so long now that most politicians just write them off now as cranks, I think, but it’s their general state because politicians keep dicking them around.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, though nobody seems to get it: Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about ideology. This is the mistake political parties here – doesn’t matter which – always make: they think that if they win an election their particular sociopolitical policy has achieved dominance, and the public that voted for them is absolutely willing to fall into goosestep behind them. The Ghost epitomizes this; having achieved the narrowest possible presidential election victory in 2000 (and “achieved” is itself something of an aggrandizement) he immediately began publicly stating that he planned to “rule” as though he had received a mandate – and it turned out he wasn’t being remotely rhetorical. The Democrats were elected to Congress in 2006 for one simple reason: the perception that the Republicans, particularly the White House, had screwed things up beyond belief. Because Americans are told over and over those are the only two choices, and, as I said, Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about ideology. They only want things to work reasonably well, with as little harm to anyone – especially them – as possible. Democrats have been just too _______ dumb to get that. America wanted, really, only one thing from them: do something about the crappy war in Iraq that an inept, duplicitous administration had lied us into and had no way (and possibly no desire) to get us out of. So what have the Democrats done? About the war? Exactly what they did before they were given control of Congress again – whatever the Ghost desired. (You get the feeling that many of them echo John McCain’s sentiment that he doesn’t care if American troops are in Iraq for the next thousand years as long as our casualties there are down.)

What we’ve really badly experienced over the last 20 years or so is the total disintegration of political discourse, with all kinds of sophistic equations taken as absolute truth, such as concern for our troops is by nature the same thing as a determination to “win the war at all costs, ” and “making America secure” = “shutting down the Constitution and stripping Americans of their rights.” There no longer seems to even be the conception in Washington that “national security” could possibly mean anything besides “continuous expansion of a quasi-fascistic police state” and apparently no idea how to achieve national security except a continuous expansion of a quasi-fascistic police state. Don’t think it’s happening? Haven’t kept track of all the times in the last seven years that representatives from the CIA or FBI or other government agencies have gone before Congress and sworn on oath that they were not abusing their “expanded powers” or doing end runs around the already weak-kneed institutions set up to oversee use of those powers, and then it turns out they’ve been abusing them all along, have you?

So California Democrat Jane Harmon decided to show Democrats could also look out for “national security,” and pushed a bill through the House Of Representatives (and with a 404-6 vote, it didn’t take much pushing, which makes me wonder about all the other Democrats in the House) that will set up a tribunal to determine which Americans are guilty of “extremist belief.” It’s, pure and simple, a thought crimes bill. It’s not directed as terrorists, it’s directed at anyone the government decides it doesn’t like. The “commission” it will create if passed by the Senate (where Susan Collins of Maine is pushing it and there’s no sign anyone is pushing back) and signed into law by the president will depend largely on secret testimony, at hearings held around the country. And for what reason? Has there been some sort of secret eruption of homegrown terrorism the press hasn’t been telling us about? (The few that have been touted in the press have all been quietly admitted to have been trumped up by the FBI, long after the blare of the headlines has been forgotten and public attention has been refocused on more urgent issues like Jamie Lynn Spears’ pregnancy.) What “dangerous ideas” are Harmon and the rest of the House so frightened of that they’re willing to totally overlook that the First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans to have even ideas the government doesn’t like without threat of retaliation, as long as they don’t assault or kill anyone or blow anything up? I’ve got nothing against women serving in Congress but, you guys in California, would it be so hard to elect one that wasn’t anti-Constitutionally insane? (Diane Feinstein and a few others from California have had their own runs at quasi-fascistic legislation in the last few years.)

Since Americans can’t trust either Democrats or Republicans, it makes perfect sense to me that Barack Obama slaughtered Hillary Clinton in Iowa last week and Mike Huckabee slaughtered every other Republican in sight. What both have in common is a lack of support from their own parties, which translated into popular support, and if there’s a message both Republicans and Democrats should have shoved down their throats coming out of Iowa that’s it. (It’s significant that Iowa saw an unprecedented surge of young voters getting involved, and bad news for the parties.) It was an unlove letter to Hillary, and her crass brand of insider politics, in particular. There’s no question that Hillary’s “the chosen one” as far as the Democratic Party leaders are concerned, and no doubt that hurt her. What was most interesting was that women in Iowa abandoned her almost totally (old ladies still like her, apparently); Hillary’s crew has been systematically trying to embarrass blacks (not that Iowa’s crawling with them, but there are more there than most people realize) out of voting for Obama by claiming they’re only voting for him because he’s black, while out of the other side of their faces expecting women to back Hillary because she’s a woman. But people are concerned with more than that. Despite the best efforts of pundits to tell us otherwise for the last two months, exit polls in Iowa indicated that the war was still the biggest issue, and the economy as it affects the average American was a close second. That both Obama and Huckabee did far better than squeak through could give their campaigns real momentum; while even in primaries Americans tend to fret over “wasting their vote” and often vote for the more popular candidate they feel could win over the upstart they prefer, New Hampshirites must now have a sense that a vote for Obama or Huckabee wouldn’t be a waste after all, and there’s no reason they can’t have the same appeal in New Hampshire as in Iowa. Romney can be considered an adopted “favorite son” in New Hampshire; can Hillary? While it was also entertaining to see Edwards beat Hillary (barely), the real surprise out of Iowa was the dismal showing of Rudy “Elect me or the terrorists will kill us all!” Giuliani, who scored a mere 4%, far less than even the Republicans’ absentee candidate in residence, Fred Thompson, and less than half of Ron Paul’s 10%, which the press didn’t even bother to acknowledge. (A message to you, Rudy: they don’t like you. They really don’t like you.) Given that it’s a two-party system, the strong showing of so many candidates seen as outsiders in their own parties can only be seen as voters flipping a really big bird at both parties, and the only way to mistake that message (as Hillary did when she proclaimed on the evening of her defeat that she’s “ready to rule”) is willfully.

But what I really want to know is whether Obama will use his newfound credibility to shut down Senator Collins’ Senate version of Rep. Harman’s Gestapo bill before it could pass. He’s still an active senator, after all, and it would be a good expression of the “hope” he’s theoretically bringing us if he denounced the measure as the heinously unconstitutional rampant paranoia that it is, despite it being pushed by members of his own party. Chris Dodd or Joe Biden might want to try as well, since they’ve got much less to do now. But Obama could do more than shut it down; he could bring it to public attention.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Busy month. Besides finishing a major comics project and beginning at least one other, I’ve got the Nevada Caucuses on the 19th and a mini-convention being run by the Clark County Library System on the 26th. They’re still finalizing the program, but comics fans from all over the tri-state area (and I’m looking at you, SoCal and Arizona, and now that I think of it we’re not all that far from St. George UT either…) if you’ve been looking for an excuse for a mini-vacation in Sin City, here’s your chance. Check out the latest developments here.

Back to Wednesdays with the column from here on in, by the way, as far as I know…

For those who asked, my New Year’s resolution is to not make any New Year’s resolutions. It’s the perfect instantly self-breaking resolution, so now I can just get on with my life. Try it yourself next year; works great.

A few weeks ago I reviewed the film JUNO and liked it, but things about it continue to nag at me. A comedy about a sassy but pregnant Minnesota teenager and her family coping with her unwanted pregnancy, I can understand why the character wouldn’t go through with an abortion; that would have either ended the film right there or turned it into a very different movie. (I don’t doubt it would have been an equally funny abortion comedy done with the same relative sensitivity, but I imagine distributors, not to mention various moral wardens around the country, would have howled bloody murder.) But did their sole portrayal of women awaiting abortions have to make them so detached and creepy? What keeps bothering me is the film’s Big Lie (besides the one about the outsider high school chick still having fresh-scrubbed skin, perfect make-up, and a livelong friendship with the cheerleader): that it’s relatively painless to surrender a child you’ve carried for nine months to someone else, regardless of how good that person seems to be. This mainly comes up now because the film’s heroine is now being touted as a role model by right wing pundits (specifically a columnist named Clarence Page). The last time I checked, abortion is still a legal option in this country, despite efforts to make it more and more difficult to get, and the fact is that, in the real world, anytime you surrender an infant to others you’re looking at just as much of a lifetime of wondering if you did the right thing, because you can never be sure how these things will work out. (If you wanted to get dark about JUNO, for instance, it’s not difficult to imagine the Jennifer Garner character, no matter how loving she is while waiting for the child, being unable to cope with being a newly single new mother and breaking down; as George Bernard Shaw said, when you start by giving yourself to those you love, you end by hating those you’ve given yourself to.) Raising a kid is a tough gig. Abortion’s far from a perfect solution to an unwanted pregnancy, but there’s no reason it should be stricken from public discourse. (My other caveat about the film: Juno’s taste in music is ’70s punk rock – so why is the soundtrack so syrupy, and why is the closest thing to her sounds of choice a wispy Velvet Underground track? Hollywood…)

Speaking of Michael Cera, who co-stars in JUNO, I’ve been catching up on my crap DVD watching, and that includes Cera’s “breakthrough” film SUPERBAD. The one good thing I can say about it is the producers really believe in truth in advertising, but what can you say about a film that makes you feel you overpaid when you see it free? Next up was TRANSFORMERS, which tries its damnedest to restore the derogatory use of the phrase “comic book movie.” Really thin, with tissue-paper characters and plot filled out with a ton of sound and fury. While it’s fairly amusing to see the Transformers transform the first couple of times, the entertainment factor’s diminished considerably by director Michael Bay’s habit of making the visual mechanics of the transformations incomprehensible. (Probably worked better on a big screen.) By the time John Turturro walks on as a self-important nebbish of a black ops agent, the story kind of disintegrates altogether. Despite that, it’s an oddly fascinating film, with good support performances from Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel and Rachael Taylor. But ultimately I was left with a lot of questions about things I probably wasn’t supposed to think about, like when the hell did Shia LaBeouf turn into David Schwimmer, and why? Next on the list: OCEAN’S 13.

It’s great how “spiritual leader” Pat Robertson continues to be a laugh riot. Apparently he begins every year spitting out a list of predictions for that year (all of them come from the lips of God, mind you, making Pat not just another half-assed fortune teller but a prophet) and last year he stated America would see another “major” terrorist attack in 2007, with dire suggestions that the attack would be nuclear in nature, and that God would not protect America from it because America had not wised up and changed its sinful ways since 9-11. (I forget, was it Pat who said 9-11 was God’s retaliation for America tolerating homosexuality, or did Jerry Falwell say that and Pat just gravely agreed?) You may vaguely recall nothing of the sort happened. Someone asked Pat about it this year, and guess what? Turned out the prayers of Pat’s followers saved us! Whew! I thought we were goners that time…

You may have heard the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is stepping up its war on piracy by preparing lawsuits against consumers who make copies of their own CDs for personal use. It’s not. Given their prior behavior, I wouldn’t put having thought very seriously about it beyond them, and there are a number of groups and corporations ramping up assaults on the very concept of “fair use,” which various spokespeople, including recording industry lawyers, have publicly spoken of as though it’s illegal despite courts upholding the concept time and time again and it being enshrined in the 1976 Copyright Act. But for the moment at least the RIAA isn’t out to actively undermine it, at least not in so many words…

Since we’re on tech/repression themes this week, leave it to the government to combine the two, as they’ve wrested unto themselves the right to rummage through the hard drives of anyone entering the country. This has been going on for quite awhile, and various judges have made various pronouncements on the legality of it, but the situation has gotten cloudier lately as questions have arisen about the limits (if any) to the government’s ability to look at anything they want to, including whether they have the right to force someone to supply keywords to encrypted files or drives, whether they have the right to look at information about reporters’ sources etc., whether they can arbitrarily stop travelers and demand to see laptop contents or if they need the same sort of probable cause most other official searches require, and whether, as the Electronic Freedom Foundation puts it, the practice amounts to electronic surveillance after the fact. It’s a messy situation not really covered by existing law, with some “slippery slope” concerns: if the government decides it has to right to examine at will any hard drive crossing the border, how long before it decides, especially in a country increasingly obsessed with defending against terrorism at any cost, that it has the power to examine at will any hard drive within the borders?

Congratulations to longtime reader Jerry Scanlon, the first to recognize every cover in last week’s Comics Cover Challenge had the word “new” somewhere on it. Your mission this week: make Jerry happy by bouncing over to Rob Helmerich’s Trade Paperback List, which, as Jerry says, “is a great resource for determining what characters, artists, and series have been collected in TPB format.” Hmm… I’ll have to mention that to the librarians I meet at the show later this month.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist… anything, really – binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. There’s a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but I wouldn’t count on finding it this week. Good luck.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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