Writer of fiction, poetry and essays.

[Note: I feel bad for even discussing this, because regardless of whatever political implications it may have, it involves the murder of a young man. It’s a very tragic case, and the family has already suffered much as a result of all the conspiracy theories and media attention. To atone for contributing to the conspiracy theories, I made a small donation to the GoFundMe page established by his family.]

Earlier this week, Fox News was forced to retract a story about the 2016 murder of Seth Rich, a DNC staffer.

It’s been a popular conspiracy theory among the Breitbart/Alt-Right crowd that Mr. Rich was murdered because he was leaking DNC documents to Wikileaks. However, the evidence for this idea all seems to come from a highly dubious source–a hacker named Kim Dotcom.

They insinuate–though I’ve never seen anyone say this outright–that the Democratic party or the Clintons themselves somehow ordered that he be assassinated.

I agree that the circumstances surrounding the still-unsolved murder are indeed suspicious. However, it’s kind of a massive leap from that to “It must have been the Democrats!” Only people conditioned to believe absolutely anything negative regarding the Democrats would automatically jump to that conclusion.

Think about it: if a person is murdered under mysterious circumstances, the first logical suspect should not automatically be his employers. In this case, given that his employer was a major political party with many enemies, it would be far more logical to consider whether some of those enemies are responsible for the crime.

Rich was the Voter Expansion Data Director for the DNC.  Presumably he possessed a fair amount of information relevant to the 2016 Campaign.  This much everyone agrees on–where the conspiracy theorists diverge from known facts is in assuming that he was the one leaking that information.

I have not seen anyone suggest the alternative possibility that his murderer was attempting to steal the information he possessed in order to leak it.  Or perhaps just generally interfering with the operations of the DNC by killing their personnel.

Consider this: we know that the Russian government interfered in the election.  We also know that they are willing to use violence against their political enemies.

There is very little evidence to suggest that Mr. Rich was leaking information, other than the claims of a known criminal.  There is on the other hand a massive amount of evidence from many credible sources to suggest the Russian government was leaking information.

I’m not saying that the Russian government authorized Rich’s murder as part of a larger plan to steal information to use against the Democrats and then covered their tracks by spreading propaganda about a counter-conspiracy.  I’m just saying if you are going to advance conspiracy theories about the case, that scenario seems way more plausible.

When I was a lad, I used the family video camera to make all sorts of crazy movies.  I wanted to be the next George Lucas or Steven Spielberg.

Naturally, being a young boy, my preferred genre was action/adventure. My main stylistic influences were Star Wars, The Terminator, and the James Bond movies. (Yes, I know I had no business seeing those so young, but there it is.)

I had several long-running series that I added to whenever I could get the camera and a new tape. (For readers under the age of 25: tapes were something that we used back then to record data.)

There was the “James Monkey” series–a collaboration between me and a friend which starred us as members of an elite secret agent team led by a toy monkey, whom we dubbed “James” for the parallel with James Bond.

Then there was the “Secret Agent Boy” series, which starred just me as an elite secret agent who operated alone, against enemies who were either invisible or strongly resembled plastic Halloween skeletons. (I was an only child.)

But my most elaborate series was a convoluted stop-motion epic I made using pretty much all of my action figures and other toys.  It was a franchise crossover-laden multiverse, involving figures from Star Wars, The Terminator, Metal Gear Solid, Pokémon and many other random figures I had, led by the unlikely duo of Huckle Cat and Lowly Worm, from the Richard Scarry Busytown series.

(Some background: Huckle and Lowly were my favorite characters as a little kid. Naturally, I read all the books and then asked my Dad to make up new stories involving them.  Dad’s stories were typically a darker take on the Richard Scarry canon–for example, one involved Huckle and Lowly running away to join the French Foreign Legion.)

The point here is, if you were wondering at what point in my life I first started creating weird fiction, the answer is “pretty early”. In fact, looking back, I realize nothing I’ve written as an adult is half as weird as some of the stuff I dreamed up when I was 10 years old.

Anyway, the reason I bring all of this up is that the other day I happened to find an old box with DVDs of my movies.  Most of them are too long and too incoherent to post in full, but I found a few sections that I thought I’d share for your amusement.

The first is a car chase scene.  If you can’t tell–and I’ll be very surprised if you can–what’s supposed to be going on is that a bad guy shoots out the tires on our heroes’ car, causing it to flip over and skid off a ramp–but not before it crashes into said bad guy.

I was so proud of those special effects when I was a kid.  Hours of work for a few seconds of absurdly incomprehensible screen time.

The second clip is the opening title sequence to the same movie. (I’ve blurred the credits to avoid embarrassing any family members.) It’s called “Dr. Maybe”, because all my movie titles were parodies of Bond film titles. Also, to explain the first title card: the Buhwumbabumbas were another invention of my Dad’s–a warlike species of aliens who would frequently invade Earth to steal our supplies of their most prized commodity: baked beans.

Once again, this is probably totally mystifying to anyone who isn’t me.  It’s supposed to depict the Buhwumbabumba ship landing on Earth. How I ever thought it actually conveyed that is beyond me.

One thing I am still proud of is that musical score.  Composed by me–a person with no musical talent or training whatsoever–using my electronic keyboard.  Maybe I’m crazy, but I think it holds up pretty well.

eatingbull-book-cover-by-lance-buckley
“Eating Bull” by Carrie Rubin

I rarely read murder-mystery or thriller-type novels, especially not those without supernatural elements to them.  Stories with lots of non-supernaturally-motivated murders rarely appeal to me.  So Eating Bull was a bit of an adventure–not the sort of book I would normally read.

“Eating Bull” is the cruel nickname given to the novel’s protagonist, Jeremy–an overweight teenager who becomes the primary plaintiff in a lawsuit against fast-food companies in Ohio.  He is supported by his good-hearted but overworked mother, Connie and his nurse, Sue–a determined woman with a strong sense of social justice.

Arrayed against Jeremy, Connie and Sue are school bullies, unsympathetic co-workers, and even Jeremy’s own grandfather–an agoraphobic Army veteran. Sue faces the additional difficulty of her loving but extremely protective husband, who dislikes her risking her own safety by courting the wrath of public opinion.

In addition to all of this, a serial killer calling himself “Darwin” commits a series of grisly murders–all of them targeting overweight people, whom he deems “sheep”.

I won’t go through the plot in too much detail and risk ruining the appeal of watching it unfold. I will say that all these elements are combined very well–each chapter is told from the perspective of either Jeremy, Sue or Darwin., and all of them balance out and keep an extremely gripping pace.  For the final fifty pages or so, I couldn’t put the book down, and the ending is very emotionally satisfying.

Jeremy is very sympathetic and likeable, and Sue is an admirable portrayal of a heroic woman who nonetheless has a flaw–she tends to value her concern for Justice over the more immediate concerns for herself or her loved ones.  This is well-done, because such a character could have easily become cloyingly saintly, and Rubin does a good job of making her seem heroic and also still human.

The Darwin chapters are naturally quite disturbing, and a good example of why I don’t normally read this genre.  Not that they are badly-written–rather, that they are so well-written as to make me feel slightly sick just reading them.  The portrayal of the killer’s mental state is quite sharply-drawn–among other things, it’s one of the best depictions of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that I have ever read.

These chapters are definitely heavy on gore, and that was a little tough for me–which is kind of funny, given that my own books have a fair amount of carnage in them.  The parts with violence against women were especially hard to take. But again, these are my own tastes, and I suspect fans of thrillers will be used to this sort of thing.

All in all, I came away extremely impressed by Eating Bull. In spite of the violence, I enjoyed the characters and the pacing. And Rubin also has a real talent for clever descriptions and almost Chandleresque turns of phrase. There were a few hiccups here and there, but overall it stacks up well against the few modern thrillers I’ve read. (Stephen King’s 11/22/63 and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in particular.)

I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed the book, since thrillers are normally not my cup of tea.  It was something I pondered for a while as I was reading Eating Bull: “Why am I enjoying this so much? It’s not like me.”

And then it hit me: there’s another side to the book, apart from the engaging plot.

Eating Bull‘s main theme is the problem of obesity–Jeremy is obese, Sue wants to cure the societal causes of obesity, and Darwin wants to exterminate obese people. All the minor characters, in some way or other, comment on Jeremy’s condition–some positively, some negatively–but it’s the central theme of the book.

Now, some would just use that as a cheap “hook” or gimmick to tie everything together.  But Eating Bull goes to some lengths to explore the causes of obesity.

For example, there are several scenes where Connie gets some fast-food for Jeremy to eat after she returns from work.  She knows this isn’t optimal, and is apologetic to Jeremy’s caregivers when asked about it, but explains that it’s cheaper and faster to get bad food–and as a single mother working two jobs, this is no small consideration.

There are many other examples of this throughout the book, all aimed at showing the various factors that contribute to obesity. At times, it raises some serious issues regarding how food is marketed, reminding me of the non-fiction book Fast Food Nation.

In some ways, Eating Bull is really what they used to call a “problem novel”–a novel meant to illustrate and draw attention to some societal problem. These were especially popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of Charles Dickens’s novels are examples of the genre, as is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

It’s very difficult to write a social problem novel that doesn’t come across as preachy and heavy-handed–the author has to balance all the mundane facts (and sometimes even figures) needed to make the social point with a compelling dramatic narrative that is interesting to read. (In The Jungle, Sinclair seems to simply give up towards the end, leading to entire chapters that are just lectures and Q&A sessions on Marxist theory.)

For the most part, Eating Bull avoids this pitfall, keeping the action going at a brisk pace while exploring the larger social theme through minor incidents and at well-chosen intervals.  When some detailed sociological point needs to be made, Rubin wisely has it said by Sue, for whom it seems logical and in-character.

This social aspect was really what set Eating Bull apart for me–it was something more than just an interesting page-turner.  Whereas most thrillers are normally easy to forget once you have learned How It All Works Out, this one gives you a bit more to think about.

One word of warning: if you enjoy eating chips or similar snacks while reading, well… you probably won’t while reading this one.  You may decide to opt for a salad instead, but then of course it’s harder to eat a salad while reading. And that’s to say nothing of the Darwin chapters, after which you may not want to eat anything at all…

Still, it’s a good book.  Check it out.

You’re going along in life, a typical, liberaltarian American millennial, enjoying a materially comfortable life with your friends, who are of every gender, religion, race, sexual orientation and ethnic background. It all seems quite nice.

And then you come to find out that, all of sudden, the Presidency has fallen into the hands of a nasty, misogynistic liar who despises you and all your friends, and who means to ruin the culture you grew up in, all on the pretext of “bringing back the coal jobs”.

“Well, now, that’s quite the caterpillar in my buttermilk,” you say. “What manner of devilry hath wrought this state of affairs?”

For a detailed explanation, see here.  But the short answer is, it’s a thing called the Electoral College.

“That’s about the meanest trick I ever heard of,” you cry. “Can’t the Congress do something about this horrible chicanery?”

No, they can’t.  Because the problem with the Electoral College is directly tied to the problem with Congress: apportionment of seats has caused both to favor one party.  They have systematically designed the system to work for very specific voting blocs.

“Well, none of this sounds like it would stand up in a court of law,” you reply (rather exasperatedly).  “I believe I’m going to fight this all the way!”

Good luck with that.  Because the outfit running Congress has also stacked the Court in their favor, even violating the spirit of the Constitution to do so.  So, even if you somehow get your case to the Supreme Court, don’t count on winning it.

“Has the world gone mad?” you ask in frustration. “I was raised to believe that liberal values had won out all across the developed world, and that racism, misogyny and robber barons were all relics of a bygone era.”

Yes–we were all told that.  But as it turns out, liberalism only really controlled one branch of government–the so-called “fourth estate”.  And that doesn’t get you as much you might think.

“It all sounds hopeless when you put it like that! They control all the levers of power; and all we have are our social media accounts and some safety pins.  What can we do to dig ourselves out of this?”

Well, some people have said we should re-draw the Congressional districts to be more fair

“Yes,” you exclaim, filled at once with gallant liberal élan. “Let’s go for that!”

–but the problem with that is that to redraw the districts, you need to have political power, and to gain political power…

“…you need to redraw the districts,” you finish, in a defeated monotone, realizing the depth of our plight. “Then it really is impossible, isn’t it?”

No.  It’s not impossible.

“Really?” Your ears perk up at this. “I thought you were just now trying to convince me that it was.”

No, no–we just need to think outside the box, that’s all.  After all, what are Congressional districts?  Are they, once drawn by a given party, henceforth and forevermore ordained to be in favor of that party even unto eternity?

“That’s a pretty highfalutin way of putting it,” you answer, a bit annoyed. “But even so, I can tell you that the answer’s ‘no’.”

Right! Congressional districts are just lines on a map. So just because they are drawn around a specific area…

“…doesn’t mean that the people living in that area have to stay there forever!” you say slowly.

Correct again! You are a sharp one, you know that?

(“Why, thank you,” you reply.)

Here, look at this map of the margins of victory by county in the 2016 Presidential election.  Look at all those giant blue columns towering over everything.

election-map-3d-by-county
Credit: Max Galka, Metrocosm.com

“Great Scott! Look at all those surplus blue votes in California!”

I know, right?  So my thought is: what if we simply transferred some of those extra blue votes into the red areas?

“You mean… people living in liberal cities should move out into the hinterlands, and cancel out all the redistricting and apportionment shenanigans?”

You ask this cautiously, because you are understandably skeptical that such a crazy idea could ever work. After all, isn’t it awfully difficult for people living in the city to just pack up and move out into the countryside? How will they get jobs and housing?

Good question.  Maybe just moving to smaller cities would do the trick, though.  Even the cities in the heartland have some liberal enclaves.  The local politicians there may be sympathetic to bringing in more liberals. That seems like a promising place to start.

“Look,” you say, striking a more realistic tone. “This all sounds great on paper, but do you really think it can happen? Can we really save American just by moving to different cities?”

Maybe.  I’m not saying it’s guaranteed.  And certain… interested parties are already passing laws to make it difficult to vote for people who have just moved to a new state. So, it’s by no means a sure thing.

But, at the same time… can you think of a better plan?

What he said:

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart, and he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why?”

Like so many things Trump says, this makes no sense.  But I think I know what he meant.

I think he is alluding to the Nullification Crisis–a conflict between the Federal Government and South Carolina during Jackson’s presidency.  The stated reason for the crisis was that South Carolina claimed they didn’t have to abide by Federal tariff laws.  The real motives were a bit deeper, and are an obvious prelude to some of the issues that sparked the Civil War.

Jackson himself wrote: “the tariff was only a pretext, and disunion and southern confederacy the real object.”  It was sort of a trial run for the South, which would later use similar states’ rights-style arguments as a reason to preserve slavery, ultimately leading them into conflict with the North.

Trump, of course, knows none of that.  But Stephen Bannon, an admirer of Andrew Jackson, probably does know it, and Trump vaguely remembered him saying something about it once.  Of course, he couldn’t remember specifics, like that it was about the issue of Federal vs. State power, or that it led to Southern states claiming they had a right to preserve slavery. He just remembered “Andrew Jackson” and “something that led to the Civil War”.

(I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect Bannon is one of those guys who argues that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but was instead about “states’ rights.)

The end result is the totally rambling and nonsensical quote above. But I think on this one, it’s pretty easy to trace Trump’s incoherent babble back to the primordial Bannon-stew that spawned it.

Wonder Woman, Jane Got a Gun, and Ghost in the Shell
From left: “Wonder Woman”, starring Gal Gadot, “Jane Got a Gun”, starring Natalie Portman, and “Ghost in the Shell”, starring Scarlett Johansson

Have you heard? Feminists and superhero fans have been getting anxious about the relative lack of promotion for the upcoming Wonder Woman film, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins. They are concerned that it is going to suffer the same fate as recent DC Comics films have, and be cast as second-rate superheroes in comparison to Marvel’s string of successes.

I’ve been following the fortunes of the Wonder Woman film for a while now, and I also noticed this lack of publicity.  It registered with me because it fit into a pattern I’ve seen before.

My favorite movie of all time, Jane Got a Gun, was another film whose marketing campaign I watched closely. The Weinstein Co.’s promotional efforts for it were abysmal–I think I saw one trailer for it, and it made the movie look like an action/adventure flick when in fact it was a romantic drama. (Even the title is kind of misleading. They should have called it Jane Ballard.)

Jane Got a Gun had an infamously turmoil-filled production, and apparently the Weinstein Co. based its decision on the film’s history, rather than the finished product. (It’s usually a mistake to focus on process over results.) As such, they didn’t put much effort into promoting it, and didn’t hold advance screenings for critics.  As a result, few people heard of it, and it fared poorly at the box office.

This isn’t the only recent example of a film getting hamstrung by bad marketing.  Ghost in the Shell was a big-budget sci-fi picture with a strong story, and it flopped badly at the U.S. box office.

Unlike the case of Jane, the studio could never be accused of not spending resources promoting Ghost. Paramount even bought a Super Bowl ad for it.  But it was hit with an intense negative buzz, in which people accused it of “whitewashing” because of the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson as the lead character, Major Killian.

This accusation is obviously nonsense to anyone who bothers to watch the film. Major Killian is a cyborg–a human brain housed in a machine.  True, she was originally a Japanese woman, but the entire premise of the film is that her mind and consciousness are transferred to an artificial body.

And yet the accusation of whitewashing persisted, and undoubtedly contributed to negative press surrounding the film. Which is too bad, because while it was not a great film, it was certainly one of the better sci-fi movies I’ve seen in recent years. It was far better than the highly-successful blockbuster The Force Awakens, for example.

This is why what’s happening with Wonder Woman doesn’t surprise me too much.  I have, as they say, seen this movie before. But like Ian Fleming wrote, “Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, the third time it’s enemy action.” At this point, I have to think this is part of some pattern.

So what’s the common thread?

While they are all very different films, Jane Got a Gun, Ghost in the Shell and Wonder Woman do have a few shared characteristics.  Most obviously, they all feature female protagonists.  They also are all categorized as action films. (Although Jane probably shouldn’t have been).

Is Hollywood deliberately sabotaging female-led action films? That seems crazy, since the easiest way for studios to prevent such films from succeeding would be to… not make them in the first place.

Let us, like Woodward and Bernstein before us, “follow the money”.

One thing to look at is the studios producing the movies: Warner Bros. is handling Wonder Woman, because they own DC Comics.  As I mentioned earlier, DC has been in competition with Marvel on superhero movies, and they have been losing.

Marvel is owned by Disney, which acquired it in 2009.

It so happens Disney also originally had a deal with Dreamworks to release Ghost in the Shell, but it was terminated in 2016, and the movie was released through Paramount instead.

Jane Got a Gun is the clear outlier here–the Weinstein Co. isn’t on anything like the same scale as Disney, Warner Bros. et al.  Also, Jane was rated “R” whereas the rest of these are “PG-13”.  So, presumably it had a much smaller marketing budget at the outset.

The key point is that all three of these movies are released by companies that aren’t Disney.

This is most significant for Wonder Woman, because of the ongoing DC/Marvel battle, which is really a proxy war between Warner Bros. and Disney.  And Disney has been winning it.

Part of the reason I brought up The Force Awakens to contrast with Ghost in the Shell  was because it got way more positive press despite being an inferior film.  But of course, Force Awakens was made by Lucasfilm, which since 2012 is owned by… Disney.

The upshot is that I think Disney is way better at promoting their movies than most of the other studios are.  Even when Disney has something sub-par, they can generate enough positive buzz about it to get people to buy tickets.

It’s important to understand what promotion really entails.  It’s more than just advertisements on television and the internet.  It’s more even than tie-ins, and red carpet events, and sending the cast and crew on talk shows.

It has to do with how PR firms work.  They feed stories to industry journalists to create a buzz around their clients’ products. (Read this marvelous essay by Paul Graham for an in-depth description of this process.)

My impression is that Disney–or perhaps the PR firm they hired–does a vastly better job of promotion compared to the other studios.  They have a much higher success at generating positive buzz for whatever they are releasing next.

Now, to some extent, there is bound to be a “crowding-out” effect. If Disney can internally do better PR, or if they can pay more to get it, it leaves less room for other non-Disney productions to get good PR.

And of course, none of this has anything to do with the actual quality of the movie in question.  (Indeed, I often wonder just how many movie reviews are influenced more by the PR campaign surrounding the film than by the film itself.)

In my review of The Force Awakens, I concluded by saying:

“[W]hy do so many people like The Force Awakens?  I don’t know–maybe it’s the same reason so many people like Donald Trump: both are loud, in-your-face, and have so much money backing them that they won’t go away.”

The comparison actually runs a bit deeper than that.  Trump, whatever else you want to say about him, is great at promotion.  He is like a one-man PR firm in terms of his ability to draw an audience for whatever he is peddling.

Disney, or whoever is handling PR and marketing for their movies, has a similar level of promotional skill.  And the other movie studios are unable to match it.

I think there is also something of an escalation going on, in that the more Disney hypes their releases, the more the other studios are then going to be expected to do to hype theirs. Expectations for marketing campaigns get higher and higher, and when studios fail to meet them, people don’t go to see their movies.