A couple times a year Microsoft hosts a presentation they call Microsoft Xtreme. Xtreme shows are done simultaneously in multiple cities, broadcast from Microsoft's Seattle area home base via satellite. Sure, they exist solely to promote Microsoft product (and, yeah, I know, Microsoft is the devil incarnate), but they're free, refreshments are served, and they usually give out cool gifts like pens, t-shirts, free programs, etc., as well as raffling off often very expensive programs as door prizes. The presentations usually aren't too painful to sit through either.
Until this time. I spent last Saturday morning listening to Microsoft tout its wares. This Xtreme was different from others. Perhaps due to qualms over possible terrorist attacks on public gatherings, perhaps due to the general lack of interest in new operating systems at a time when companies are spending next to no money on new technologies, the meeting was underattended (compared to the SRO audience of last April's show). The average age was, I'd estimate, 50, and that can't be good for Microsoft. While it's not unusual for these presentations to be a smidge on a condescending side, this one really took the cake.
It wasn't a sign of faith in their new product that Microsoft chose to start the show with a couple of their corporate stand-up comedians comparing the virtues of Windows XP and... Windows 95! (For those of you who've never strayed from Apple, Dos or Linux, XP is five generations or so on from 95.) They trotted out "cool" feature after "cool" feature, never once mentioning that some of those features are found in Windows 98, others in Windows ME, and you could hear the embarrassment in the presenters' patter as they had to pretend the rest of us were going to pretend XP was a major jump over what came before. The groans in my theater were audible. Now the fact is that the vast majority of XP improvements are under the hood, which makes it tough for many people to get excited about it; people tend not to get too worked up about operating systems in the first place. So what do they do? Pull out the teenybopper glitz. Wow! You can use Windows Media Player to record music (which you can do now)! You can turn your footage into movies (using Windows' substandard movie maker, already on Windows ME)! You can watch DVDs on it (if you have a third party DVD decoder.) You can MAKE YOUR OWN SCREEN SAVERS!
That's the best they've got?
Got worse from there. They trotted out the new Pocket PC system – a breakthrough system for fairly expensive PDAs – and basically ignored all the really useful assets of such a tool for a lecture on how you can use a picture of the American flag for your backdrop. And use it as a portable music player. Yeah, those are features I'm going to pay $500 for. They pushed their new gaming system, the X-Box, as a must have, and showed really great graphics for a really boring looking game. And on and on. As I said, Microsoft often at these shows tries to hype the occasional item that's risibly uninteresting, but this was a whole slate of them, and even the presenters seemed grimly uncomfortable about pimping them. It could be they're all wonderful products, but they didn't come off that way, and I haven't seen a spectacle like that since WCW closed up shop. Problem is: looking around the world of computing, I see very little more innovation and progress anywhere than Microsoft demonstrated at this show. The world of computing is, in fact, looking increasingly like the world of comics: a couple corporate giants generating headlines churning out basically the same as it ever was in glossy new clothes and trying to pretend they're doing something new, and a horde of smaller companies and one-man shows putting out interesting, possibly useful products that almost inevitably get lost in the shuffle.
I keep forgetting to watch CITIZEN BAINES and THE GUARDIAN, so I can't say my interest in the current TV season has done anything but wane. (My minute reviews last week angered some TV watchers who felt I was being unfair by not watching entire episode before commenting on the shows, but they missed the point. I wasn't trying to see how quickly I could turn shows off but how long I could stand to leave them on. That I couldn't for long was the review, and all the review that most of the audience gives shows. That's how these things are judged in the real world: the longer you can stand to watch it, the better a show is considered to be.) Last year's amusing curiosity, NBC's ED, now seems stale as the show desperately tries to concoct reasons to keep its character arcs going, which pretty much cuts me down to reruns of MAVERICK (the James Garner episodes, of course) on TVLAND. And, for those with cable TV, BBC America's CASTAWAY.
Cable TV was once touted as a potential spawning ground of bold new ideas but the reality, enforced by the sheer economics of the thing (not unlike the economics of dot-coms), is that cable has become the repository of seedy reruns and infomercials. BBC America falls into the same category, saved by the reruns being British often unseen in America. Which doesn't make most of it any more interesting or watchable than most American TV, but once in awhile there's an exception. CASTAWAY, now in its second season, is one of the channel's guilty pleasures, a "reality" show that doesn't sink to the game show malarkey of SURVIVOR but presents itself as sociological experiments. The goal here isn't to beat competition but to master cooperation, something considerably more difficult. The first series saw a group of 30-40 people of diverse backgrounds spend a year trying to form an isolated community on a remote Scottish island. The new series goes a little more SURVIVOR in format but is nonetheless fascinating as a group of 16 men and women (again, of varying backgrounds) are whittled down to 8 in grueling SAS-style survival training in Scotland and then sent on a 120 kilometer suicide trek through the Amazonian jungle. In a subtle way, it's the funniest show on television as the castaways' behavior is illuminated both by their own commentary on each other and the commentary of their friends, family, lovers, employers and ex-spouses watching from afar. CASTAWAY is a behavioral pysch experiment run amok, and if your idea of entertainment is watching more or less ordinary people cope with vast changes in their circumstances, it's truly entertaining.
Writing an issue of BIRDS OF PREY at the moment. (No, I don't know who's taking over the book when Chuck Dixon heads to Cross/Gen.) Helps pay the bills, and I admit to always liking the Black Canary since I first saw her in a cameo in FLASH #137, and she's one of the few company owned-characters I always wanted to write. (Technically, this is my second time, since she was in the last Fate vignette I wrote for a JSA SECRET FILES just before their most recent series launched.) I find it interesting that Warners has officially optioned BIRDS OF PREY for development as a TV series, which doesn't really mean anything except they're shopping it around to networks, but it doesn't really surprised me. Some time ago I wrote that comics like BoP (I don't think I mentioned it specifically but it fits the bill) make good media fodder because you can strip away the "superheroisms" of them and still retain a strong, translatable concept – in this case, a cripple woman computer whiz and an action-oriented female detective combine their skills to covertly fight crime – which is something that can't be done with straight superhero concepts. If companies are really interested in raising their media presence, esp. considering it's properties like GHOST WORLD, FROM HELL and a de-superized SMALLVILLE that have successfully made the jump lately, they'll create more "low level" books that leave the superhistrionics behind and focus on simpler virtues.
No review comics surfaced in this week's mail, but former NYC punk scene mainstay Ronald Binder send me scripts for upcoming comics projects MONSTER COPZ and I WAS A TEENAGE VIKING WAR GODDESS, hoping I'd review them instead. Ronald originally contacted me after my Joey Ramone tribute last year and I'm afraid he got lost in a heavy onslaught of e-mail that complicated my life for a few months. Though I always meant to write back to him, once thing after another got in the way. (Still does, matter of fact.) The work is campy action quasi-rock'n'roll escapism, and having read the scripts (Ronald has apparently optioned screenplays based on them as well) I can say I'd love to have the comics to review, but... sorry, if I start reviewing unpublished scripts I'll open the floodgates. I can say some of the included art is pretty nice, though I don't know who did it. If you're a publisher, give Ronald an e-mail toot and maybe he'll show them to you. (No, that's not an invitation for anyone else to send me scripts. I made an exception for Ronald because there's some history there, but I mean it: completed comics – at least completed photocopies – only.)
Unless you live around Virginia, you've likely never heard of James Gilmore, Virginia's governor. One of Bush's cronies, in additional to his gubernatorial duties and chairing the Republican Party he heads an "anti-terrorism" committee that has become, it seems, a hotbed of zealous paranoia. It was Gilmore who generated the "Office Of Homeland Security" concept, and if that had odd resonances of the Gestapo (whether there's any similarity in practice remains to be seen, but I'm not the first to conjure the image and I'm far from the only one), Gilmore's newest scheme not only plods directly into that territory but, if implemented, will drastically expand the definition of "terrorist." Based on the 1978 Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, which unnervingly created a Star Chamber with seven unknown members unanswerable to the public will to deal with "information too sensitive for the public to handle" (you can almost hear the potential splish-splash of a future Watergate resulting from that one, though I suppose we can always hope for the best, since our leaders are, if nothing else, trustworthy) Gilmore has suggested the creation of a "secret cybercourt."
Dealing solely with the disposition of information, which is theoretically FISA's boundary, is one thing. Gilmore's proposal would create a shadow court to investigate computer crime, with no judicial or legislative oversight and having the power to spy on and raid anyone "suspected" of committing any crime with the help of a computer. Never mind due process, probable cause, subpoenas or search warrants. Unnecessary. (They're unnecessary in the FISA court as well: an example of how an unpleasant tool supposedly intended for an extreme situation – in FISA's case dealing with foreign menaces on American soil – will ultimately be repositioned as a catch-all solution for any situation.) How do they justify this? Simple. The rush is on to reclassify all "cybercrime" as terrorism. (The Bush administration already sought that reclassification in its recent antiterrorism omnibus.)
You might as well just reclassify all crime as "terrorism," and if this goes through that step goes from laughable to credible. After all, isn't someone terrorized every time a crime is committed? Nothing like carte blanche police powers to rescue an overburdened legal systems. It's only a small jump in logic between secret courts and secret prisons; after all, if crime's serious enough that the public can't be made aware of its existence, it's serious enough that the trials and sentences can't be made public either. Gilmore also calls for an "unprecedented partnership" between the government and the private sector for "the sharing of information." Meaning, if you take the rest of this into consideration: they're entitled to our information, we're not entitled to theirs.
Gilmore's committee is drawing up the legislation even as I write this. Some people feel I'm anti-Republican (hell, some of my best friends are Republicans, haha) and I don't honestly feel most Republicans are budding neofascists, but when the head of the Republican Party starts pushing "secret courts" operating without answerability, I start wondering if the Republican Party officially considers the second amendment the sum total of the Constitution. Yeah, you can make the argument (a pretty good one, probably) that my extrapolations decompose to zealous paranoia as well, but given an Arab-American man was recently snatched from his home, flown to New York and held without counsel for a week due solely to the similarity of his name to that of a wanted terrorist (despite their looking nothing alike) and his purchase of four airline tickets (for a family vacation)(call me naïve, but couldn't this have been sorted out in fifteen minutes in his home town?) and given that Attorney General Ashcroft has instituted the policy that all Freedom Of Information Act requests are to be legally challenged wherever possible regardless of what information's requested, it seems to me we should be at least as wary of secret police powers as we are of anthrax. Is it paranoid to wonder if others have been snatched and are being held without counsel? It could be secret courts and secret police powers will never be abused – but how would we know? The Bush Administration is pushing hard into the twin terrors of vastly expanded powers and vastly expanded secrecy to cover their use of those powers. Some things that shouldn't be left to trust.
Last week's column generated a lot of heat, mostly from people who translated my overall point that the main victim of our bombing of Afghanistan has been international support (the lynching analogy, many seem to have missed, was provided by an overseas friend to describe the rising viewpoint in his area and was not my invention), underscored by Bush's meetings with increasingly doubtful world leaders this last week, into a plea for pacifism. I guess I just have to learn to be more hawkish. But there was a good reply to both me and my critics last week at Slate by William Saletan that covers most of my qualms and comes the closest to a sensible view of our current adventure as anything I've seen. I don't agree with Saletan on all points, certainly, but it's worth a read.
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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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