Monday, July 30, 2012

Beer Snobbery

I have recently been made aware of a personal prejudice. While walking to the parking garage after work last week I came across a discarded beer bottle. Such an affront to civilized society could not be tolerated by one so urbane and genteel as myself, so of course I remedied the situation...garnering no shortage of strange looks from passersby as I carried a bottle of beer across the University of Florida campus. The things I endure for my environment.

This particular beer bottle had at one point contained Sam Adams Summer Ale...a fact which caught me quite by surprise. This was good beer. What kind of sot would enjoy such a fine product and then proceed to dump the emptied container on the ground? I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been Bud Light or Natural Ice...but the fact that someone with such excellent taste in alcoholic beverages had sullied the brand by littering! It was unthinkable.

Of course, it didn't take more than a moment or two of introspection to realize that was something of an unreasonable double standard...yet, there it was. I was unsurprised that someone who drank shitty beer would behave in a shitty fashion, while expecting better from someone who drank good beer.

I love beer, and do not hesitate to identify myself as a beer snob. I wouldn't drink Bud Light if it were free, but I will happily pay far too much money for a decent Belgian-style wheat ale or a German Hefeweizen. I am quite familiar with my local brewers and know where to find the good stuff in local specialty and liquor stores. And I will tell you all about it if you give me an opening, because I am a nerd who wants people to like the things that I like so we can gush about them together.

But I did not realize that my beer snobbery had extended beyond judging the quality of beer to judging the quality of the people enjoying the beer. It is true that most of the awesome people I know have excellent taste in beer. It is also true that many of the jackasses I have encountered in life would happily guzzle down watery piss packaged in longneck bottles. But that is how prejudice starts...we take our personal experiences and apply them universally. I am sure there are plenty of downright decent people that drink shitty beer....and, as difficult as it is to admit, people with good taste in beer can do shitty things.

My point is fairly obvious. You should judge people by their actions, not based on the things they like. But more than that, it's important to be aware of the subtle ways in which we judge others so we can avoid dismissing them unfairly or excusing their bad behavior. So while it may be difficult for me not to wince when I see you drinking Natty Light, I will do my best not to think less of you as a person for it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ups and Downs

I have been delighted by the responses to Chick-Fil-A COO Dan Cathy and his proud and publicly-stated homophobia and bigotry. In case you missed it somehow, Cathy came out "guilty as charged" when asked about his company's position on marriage equality. Many people, myself included, were already pretty annoyed with Chick-Fil-A because of the millions of dollars they have donated over the years to anti-gay groups. But actually coming out publicly and stating, with no room for equivocation, that you oppose marriage equality and support the Biblical definition of family? There's no more room for ambiguity and no getting around it: supporting Chick-Fil-A means supporting an anti-gay, anti-equality company that funnels a portion of its profits into hate groups.

And you know what? People are pissed. People with money and influence. The Jim Henson Company, who was producing kid's meal toys for Chick-Fil-A, completely severed their ties with the company and donated the payments they had already received to GLAAD. The mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, is refusing Chick-Fil-A's requests for a new restaurant site in no uncertain terms. Chicago Alderman Moreno is blocking similar plans in his district. The message is clear: we don't want to be associated with your hate.

Yes, Cathy has every right to his opinion and he can run his private company however he chooses (as long as he isn't doing anything illegal). And the rest of us have the right to express our outrage and disagreement. The photoshopped images making the rounds are fabulous. One of the coolest musicians of all time, Adam WarRock, released a free track responding to Cathy's remarks. It rocks. Internet chef Hilah Johnson re-created the Chick-Fil-A recipe for you, hate free!

Apart from some rather self-serving (and primarily Christian) reports painting Chick-Fil-A as the beleaguered victim being unfairly targeted because of their strong religious ethics, public opinion is coming out strongly against Cathy because of his remarks. This signifies something very important to me, because nothing about Chick-Fil-A or their policies has changed. They've been donating to hate groups for years. What they did wrong was to admit to their bigotry out loud. Our society is finally getting to the point where homophobia and hate is embarrassing and shameful. Voicing those opinions, which used to be fairly ubiquitous and normal, is now something only your crazy uncle does when he's had too much to drink at the family reunion. And Cathy? You are that crazy uncle. You should be ashamed. Now go watch the football game or something and leave the rest of us alone.

Of course, my elation with the public outcry against Chick-Fil-A was tempered a bit by Mitt Romney making an ass of himself. Again, I mean. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, passed away recently. Romney commented publicly on the loss, calling Ride a 'hero' and an 'inspiration'. What Romney probably didn't realize at the time was that Sally Ride was gay, and thanks to policies like DOMA that dear Mittens proudly supports, her partner of 27 years will receive no federal benefits.

This has only served to highlight the inequality rampant in our government. At the federal level alone there are over a thousand rights and protections that are only granted to 'married' couples. Sates that don't recognize any form of same-sex union are even worse. A Twitter campaign emphasizing the irony in Romney's willingness to honor Sally Ride while simultaneously denying her the right to marry her partner is in full swing, but it' know...a Twitter campaign. Sometimes I just feel completely powerless to make a difference or get through to people. I mean...people are actually voting for this guy while he keeps shitting all over women, gays and the Establishment Clause.

It's enough to give me whiplash. Can we please have more stories like the Muppets sticking it to bigots and less examples of Mittens being an asshole? kthxbai

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Science Fiction Fails at Immunology

Update: The final version is live at SiMF as of 7/23/2012!

This is the first draft of an article I'm working on for Science in My Fiction, a speculative science fiction blog. I'm not quite satisfied with it and would appreciate any constructive comments. I think I need to re-write some bits to emphasize how accurately portraying the immune system, or at least acknowledging it more directly, opens up new and exciting ways to tell a story.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Solving the Problem of Research Funding

I may have stumbled upon the solution to one of modern society's greatest dilemmas...acquiring reliable and substantial funding for scientific research.

What, you didn't know that was a problem? Well, it is! Just ask anyone who has ever tried to get a grant funded. The National Institutes of Health, the primary funding source for biomedical research in the US, has been getting less and less federal money to support science in recent years. The Budget Control Act, passed last year, is currently threatening to cut the NIH budget by an additional 11%. The National Science Foundation isn't doing much better, either. NSF had it's budget cut by $162 million last year. Research takes money, and not being able to get the funding you need is the most frustrating part of being a scientist.

But you know what the second most frustrating thing is about being a scientist? The rampant abuse of science and the scientific machinery. The misrepresentation of data. The cherry-picking. The sensationalized results. The manipulation of science to legitimize absurd claims and generate false controversies. The Andrew Wakefields and Ken Hams of the world.

So I got to thinking...what if we could turn these problems against each other? What if every time someone abused science for profit or in an official capacity, we could slap them with a huge fine and put the money right back into research?

Imagine it. We could create a new scientific organization and empower it to police how science is  represented in the media and used politically. It could be called 'Scientists Thwarting Fraudulence United'.

Is FOX News giving conspiracy theorists and climate change deniers equal footing with scientific experts again, legitimizing their absurd claims and creating a controversy where none exists?
STFU! Slap them with a fine!

Some rampant pro-life advocate manage to get their bias published, legitimizing their ignorance and generating more propoganda against women's rights?
Looks like a job for STFU!

Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents cherry-picking your work and using it to 'disprove' evolution or the geological age of the Earth, even when it contradicts your conclusions?
Who you gonna call? STFU!

Is your local government trying to legislate how scientists are allowed to measure reality because they don't like what they see?
Ohemgee, STFU!

You see where I'm going with this, I'm sure. It's a Xanatos Gambit. We would either generate enough revenue to dramatically improve science funding in the US, or people would have to actually inform themselves and accurately represent and interpret scientific findings. Experts would be valued. Quacks would cost more money than the ratings are worth. You couldn't get away with outright lying about what 'the science' says. It would be glorious.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Science Outreach

The Center for Precollegiate Education and Training here at UF has a program they do every Summer called Science Quest. It's a pretty cool program where 10th graders are introduced to various careers in science fields. Most of them come in thinking that the only job you can get with a science degree is a doctor or an engineer, so it's a great opportunity for the kids to experience what it's really like to work in STEM fields and learn what kind of options are out there.

This year I volunteered to be a part of this project by giving groups of teenagers a tour of my lab and talking to them about my research. I love science outreach, but I've never done this before because...well, I work in a Microbiology lab. Everything interesting is microscopic. Would you be excited about taking turns to look in a microscope at a gram stain?

But this year the program was really short on volunteers, so I figured I could at least give it a shot. I gave two tours yesterday, which were about a half an hour long. I showed the kids around the lab, explained some of the equipment, let them look at some human cells I had growing under the microscope and showed them some pictures of microscopy experiments I had done in the past. All in all, it went way better than expected. The kids were genuinely interested and asked lots of questions. Some of them took pictures. One even wanted to read a poster of mine and seemed really interested in protein crystallography. Another really wanted to know what RNA was and how it worked, which was complicated because she hadn't studied DNA replication yet, but I think I did all right explaining it to her.

I learned a few things from this experience. One is that I have completely lost my ability to gauge how old someone is. It's weird...anyone from 13 to 21 just looks like a kid. Anyone 22-45 looks 'about my age', and everyone else is 'older than me'. I cannot distinguish beyond that.

I was also reminded how much I love science outreach. I really love talking to people about how cool science is. I volunteer as a science fair judge every year so I get to indulge myself a bit, but not nearly enough. And I should, because science is incredibly important while simultaneously being incredibly misunderstood and undervalued. Science education in the US is woeful, with science curriculum constantly under attack by revisionists who would prefer that children were forced to learn their personal philosophy rather than actual facts about how the world works. Curriculum is being rewritten to introduce controversy about human-caused climate change and evolution in particular...despite nearly unanimous agreement among experts about the reality of these 'controversies'. Despite mountains of strong, enduring evidence from every related field, going back nearly two hundred years, all supporting evolution, 40% of Americans still don't 'believe' that it is real.

This is a problem, not just because it is pure and utter bullshit, but because science first and foremost is a tool for understanding the world. It teaches us how to ask questions and figure out the best way to answer them. It teaches us to ask how other people know the things they know, why some evidence is convincing and some is not, and that sometimes new information means changing your mind. That crucial skill is being ignored or co-opted in order to promote individual agendas, and that is unacceptable. We need people who can think critically just as much as we need to inspire the next generation of scientists. We need people who will raise hell when politicians try to legislate reality and who will ask you to cite your sources when you claim 'the science' says gay people shouldn't be able to adopt or you shouldn't vaccinate children.

If kids are interested in science and understand how scientists work, critical thinking follows. So yeah, science outreach is important to me. I was reminded yesterday just how important it was, and I'm taking some steps to increase my involvement. If you want to help reach kids about science, consider volunteering at your local museums, Universities and science fairs. Here in Gainesville, you can reach out to the Florida Museum of Natural History, the University of Florida or Pamela Fitzgerald (, Science Fair Coordinator for Alachua County.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Reconsidering the Ban on Gay Blood Donations

The fact that gay men are currently banned from donating blood in the US is a huge problem that I have written about once or twice before. It's discriminatory, medically unnecessary and puts people's lives at risk by eliminating potential donors at a time when the need for blood donations is beyond critical. In my opinion, the only thing keeping it in place is cowardice and bigotry disguised as bureaucracy.

So when I read that finally...finally!...something was being done, I was elated. Thank all that is awesome, someone is taking this seriously! The culture has changed enough that bigotry is seen as shameful rather than an accepted norm!

Of course, the actual details were a bit disappointing. Yes, it is awesome that congressmen Quigley and Kerry have organized a sizable chunk of politicians and sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services asking them to reconsider the ban. This is a great step. But what they are actually asking is for DHH&S to implement a study to look at the potential harm of homosexual men donating blood to offer an educated opinion about the necessity of the lifetime ban. Yeesh.

I can tell you right now: it's stupid, get rid of it. I realize that studies are sometimes necessary to prove things that are obvious, and given the rationale for implementing the ban in the first place I can understand why people want to be cautious...but we should be past this by now. Safe, fast and effective HIV testing has been available since 1985! These hoops should be long since jumped through, and the delay is irritating. It feels like more bureaucracy.

The actual goal of the initiative is not to remove the ban all together, either. Instead it would replace the lifetime ban associated with gay sex with a shorter ban that is more typical for 'risky behavior': six months to a year.

Maybe if I keep saying this loudly enough it will sink in: Buttsex is not a 'risky behavior'! Classifying any given sexual act as innately unhealthy or unsafe is ignorant and discriminatory! Unsafe sex, be it gay or straight or what-have-you, is risky behavior! Ugh!

I'm still really happy about this, don't get me wrong. This is a great first just should have happened about twenty years ago. Removing the lifetime ban will expand the pool of donors considerably, but the fact that male homosexual sex is still seen as innately 'risky' behavior means that only gay dudes that haven't gotten laid in a year or so will be able to donate. Frankly, being able to donate blood is poor consolation to someone going through a dry spell.

For your edification, an incomplete list of behaviors that will earn you a lifetime ban from blood donation. One of these things is not like the others.
  • You are a male who has had sex with another male since 1977, even once 
  • You have ever used a needle, even once, to take any illegal drugs or steroids
  • You have been given money or drugs for sex since 1977
  • You have traveled to or lived in certain countries during defined periods of outbreaks or high risk
  • You have been diagnosed with or exposed to certain blood-borne diseases 

Friday, July 6, 2012

Letter to My Littlest Brother

My youngest brother's birthday is this weekend. He's been dealing with some difficult stuff at home lately and I am not around to help, so I sent him this letter in his birthday card. Hopefully it will be what he needed to hear.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Roadside Sexism

So I ran out of gas on the way to work this morning. I know, I know...but there were extenuating circumstances, I swear. Lucky for me, my wonderful Parental Units treat me to a super fancy Triple A membership so I don't get trapped on the side of the road in Stark or someplace equally inhospitable. It has saved my butt many times and I highly recommend it.

Anyway, the tow truck guy arrived with some gas fairly quickly. I thanked him profusely and awkwardly explained my extenuating circumstances in what was probably a vain attempt to not look like a total airhead. "Running out of gas has got to be the most embarrassing reason to ever have to call a tow truck," said I, with a self-deprecating laugh.

"Nah." he explained, with a dismissive sigh. "I get guys that are totally capable of changing a flat tire who call us out anyway."

"Oh, ha ha...wait, what?" I responded in my mind.

Me running out of gas was entirely preventable. If I hadn't forgotten to stop immediately on my way to work it would not have happened. Even with extenuating circumstances, it was entirely attributable to my own thoughtlessness. It was thoroughly embarrassing, and I deserved to be embarrassed.

But flat tires just happen. Generally, there is no one at fault. Lots of people don't know how to change a tire, both men and women. Even if he does know what he is doing, this hypothetical dude could be on his way to work with an important meeting later in the day. He might feel that the fact that he pays a significant Triple A membership fee entitles him to call for a tow truck driver to change his tire for him, regardless of his own personal capability, and he would be absolutely right. No embarrassment warranted.

It occurred to me, as I thanked my savior and shamefully made my way to the nearest gas station, that this is the kind of sexism that most people encounter every day in this country. This kind of sexism, simply being judged differently in small ways or being held to a different standard because of your gender, can be so subtle and so pervasive that it really just fades into the background and becomes 'normal'. It becomes part of the lens through which we see the world, and it's almost impossible to fight head-on.

The more blatant forms of sexism in this country*, like being blamed for your own sexual assault or having your opinions or involvement dismissed outright or being denied promotions or equal pay or health care because of your gender, are easier to explain and demonstrate and therefore easier to fight...not easy, certainly, but easier. But they wouldn't exist without these more subtle forms of sexism, because they make the more glaring forms of sexism possible. They directly affect the way we view other people, and unless something prompts you to notice them...unless you really stop and think "Why do I expect this thing of one gender but not the other?" or "Why does the tow truck guy think it's more embarrassing for a guy to not change his own tire than for a woman to run out of gas?" then you will probably continue to see those things as 'normal'.

Which is the problem in a nutshell. Sexism is normal. It's gotten better over the years, certainly, but changing the status quo is slow and difficult and requires getting people to change the way they think and the assumptions they make about the world, and you get push-back from people who like things the way they are or who don't like being told they are wrong. It's hard, but the only way I know to fight this subtle, pervasive sexism is to point it out when I see it try and make it less 'normal' for the people who will listen.

* I specify 'in this country' because the sexism in other places is demonstrably more horrible than here in the USA. In many places, women are not permitted to own property, vote, drive, be seen in public, or make any legal decision without the approval of a man. According to Sharia law, for example, the testimony of a woman is only worth half that of a man. That is awful, and runs way deeper than what we deal with in my corner of the world.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Sue Storm Syndrome

I am a huge comic book fan, which you probably know already if you've been reading this blog or know me in person. Superhero comics especially are near and dear to my heart, which can be rough sometimes because of how terribly female characters and creators are often treated in this industry. There is a lot of excellent discussion online about these problems already. Gail Simone has been documenting the phenomenon of 'Women in Refrigerators' for years, which is basically a huge trend of female characters being severely injured, killed or de-powered in order to give a male character a better story or some personal drama to draw on for inspiration and angst. Then there is the infamous 'brokeback pose', where a female comic book character is arranged in an anatomically impossible fashion in order to show off her tits and ass simultaneously. This one is all over the place.

Female fans of comic books see this so often we almost don't notice it anymore. We love these characters and these stories so much, the fact that all women are drawn as supermodels who routinely show off their assets while fighting crime just seems like part of the medium. We would all be much happier if the women were well-rounded, actual people we could relate to, but men are still seen as the default audience for comics and changing that is an extremely slow process. Frankly, sometimes it feels like we are moving backwards in that regard. Pay attention, comic book creators: the absolute easiest way to alienate your female readers is to take a character women love and actually relate to and turn her into a male sexual fantasy. I almost quit DC entirely over the Catwoman and Starfire reboots. Seriously, fuck you guys for that. I love those characters with all of my heart, thanks to Batman TAS and the Teen Titans cartoon, and you took them and told me, in no uncertain terms, that these characters are no longer for me to enjoy. They are there for men to fantasize about. Not to say there is no place for cheesecake in comics, but please don't drag the few characters we can actually relate to down that path. If I want cheesecake I'll read Tarot.

Which brings me to the biggest problem, at least as far as I'm concerned, with female comic book characters: they are often terribly written. A big part of this is the fact that there are so few female comic book creators, especially in the Big Two (DC and Marvel). A lot of positive stuff is being done to change that, but the status quo isn't going to change on its own, guys. That's why it's the status quo.

Seriously, though. Female characters in comic books are often shallow, one-dimensional characters that are unnecessarily sexualized and fall right into line with female stereotypes. Not always, certainly, but often enough that it drives me crazy. Like I said, I can accept the sexy art as a stylistic aspect of the medium...but when the characters make stupid decisions or act like walking stereotypes or don't seem to understand how to use their superpowers? When the women are constantly second-stringers or lackeys? When they are deployed defensively while the men take the offensive even when the ladies could be way more effective if only someone would write them that way?

To illustrate this, I'm going to share with you one of my biggest comic book pet peeves: Sue Storm. I have a soft spot for the Fantastic Four (even though Reed Richards is a dick who thinks he knows what's best for everyone, cause Civil War and shipping the Hulk into space worked out so well you arrogant prick). It was literally my first exposure to superheroes when I was a kid. Whenever I would visit my grandmother (who actually had cable, wow!) I would spend the whole day watching Cartoon Network, back when they basically just aired old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. But occasionally they would show me something amazing: The Fantastic Four, Space Ghost, Birdman, the Justice Friends, Thundarr the Barbarian...those guys were the coolest thing EVAR. My love for animation and superheroes springs pretty much directly from the time spent watching those old cartoons, and basically determined that for the next ten years or so my life would be scheduled around not missing a single episode of Batman TAS, Spider-man, X-men...anything that was animated and had superheroes in it, basically.

The Fantastic Four cartoon was a favorite of mine, and Sue Storm was the only female so of course she was my favorite character. It didn't take much more than that when I was a little girl. There was usually only one female character in any given cartoon, so of course that one was your favorite. Sue also had really cool powers: she could turn invisible and create force fields. How cool is that?!? She could do anything! Though, all she ever seems to do is hide and put up a shield to protect the boys while they go clobber everything. Really. That's it. And that's all she ever did, in every incarnation of the Fantastic Four I encountered for most of my life. The 1960s cartoon, which introduced me to the characters. The 1990s cartoon, which I had to tweak my little black and white TV just right in order to watch on Saturday mornings. My early encounters with the comics. In fact, the first time I saw Sue's powers being used effectively was when her and Johnny had temporarily switched powers while he was running around the galaxy as the Herald of Galactus for a while. Because I guess it takes a guy to figure out that you can pop a force field up around someone's head to smother them or around their heart to make sure they know who is boss or any number of creative uses for the unbreakable force fields you can generate at will with your frakkin mind. Argh!

So yeah, it's a sensitive subject for me. So is the fact that Zatanna is consistently a second stringer, even though she can do literally anything just by speaking. Or that Power Girl and Supergirl, while as powerful if not more so than Superman, are always the backup or only called in for emergencies or whatever the fuck. Thank all that is awesome for Gail Simone, or Black Canary never would have been anything more than a love interest for Ollie...despite being twenty times more powerful than him. Miss Marvel, even when she is running the fucking Avengers, still has to take shit from Tony Stark. Wasp spent most of her career as a love interest and foil for Ant Man, despite being at least equal to him in power and definitely surpassing him in common sense. Oh yeah, and he was abusing her somehow despite the fact that she can shoot lasers

There are a lot of really annoying stereotypes about women that are perpetuated in comic books. Maybe this is because a lot of these stories and characters were created back when sexism was the norm and change is hard? Poor comic book industry. Time to grow up, if you really do want to have women like me buying your comics. It is just plain frustrating to see crap like this so often: Women are best suited to supportive roles. Women aren't as violent or aggressive as men. Female characters are only developed or interesting based on their relationship to other male characters. Stories about women have to be about uniquely 'female' challenges, like romance or motherhood or domestic abuse or rape or 'making it in a man's world'...cause how else can you possibly write characters that women can relate to?

How about by not being a terrible, lazy-ass writer and creating awesome characters that just happen to also be women? Yeah, I revelation. Now get on that shit. I want more comics like Birds of Prey and Worlds' Finest so I can give you more of my goddamn money. And if you do what you did to Catwoman to anyone else I love I will cut you.

Things are getting better. I don't want to only talk about the things that are wrong with superheroes. The most recent cartoon, Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Heroes actually had Sue progress in power level considerably as the series went on. She even went head to head with the Hulk and popped a force field around his head, just like I would have done. She was also a total airhead who, being the woman, was constantly nagging and mothering the rest of the team...but I'll take what I can get. I just wish I didn't have to say that so often.

For awesome superhero comics with amazing female characters that earn your respect rather than your facepalms, check these out. Or, you know, borrow them from me.

Birds of Prey (or really anything by Gail Simone)
Batwoman (especially while Amy Reeder was illustrating, because zomg pretty!)
The Authority ( Both versions honestly, though for now I still like Warren Ellis' version best, because duh it's Warren Ellis.)
Wonder Woman: League of One (Wonder Woman can be hit or miss in terms of awesomeness, but this one is a hit, especially with the amazing art, and great as a standalone.)
Astonishing X-Men (Joss Whedon's entire run on this series is awesome, and definitely features his characteristically outstanding treatment of female characters.)
X-Factor and X-Force (What can I say? About half of your average X-team is made up of extremely powerful women. The odds are at least some of them wont be idiots or walking stereotypes.)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Reviewing Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes

I like the Lego games. They definitely have their flaws - the cameraman is on crack so it can be impossible to properly judge jumps, the vehicle levels are confusing with terrible controls, and the story modes tend to be very short - but the gameplay and puzzle solving elements are often genuinely fun, and there really is nothing like running around as your favorite character in a particular franchise and smashing the scenery into its constituent lego pieces. I also greatly enjoy the humorous take on the various franchises Lego has handled. The games are generally full of insider humor and hidden cookies that make me giggle.

The Boyfriend and I recently got Lego Batman 2 in from GameFly, so of course we played through the entire story mode in a marathon day of gaming. Like I said, they are pretty short games (there were only 15 missions), so this wasn't that hard to do. Lego Batman 2 was a bit of a landmark in the Lego Video Game world because it was the first game with dialogue. Until now, Lego People didn't talk. The games largely relied on the players' familiarity with the franchises and visual cues to convey the story. This resulted in some really creative and funny visual storytelling, so I was trepidatious about this change. My conclusions? Talking Lego People are really creepy. The dialogue did give them more storytelling power, however. Lego Batman 2 is not based on a pre-existing storyline like Lego Star Wars or Lego Harry Potter, so the ability of characters to describe situations and talk about what was happening was pretty much necessary in order to have more than a superficial plot. I missed the subtlety of the visual humor and storytelling, but all in all it was an acceptable change that added more than was lost. The voice acting itself was great, especially with Clancy Brown as Lex Luthor.

The game itself was fairly typical of a Lego game. The story and dialogue were funny, the puzzle-solving and scenery-smashing was fun, you wanted to kill the cameraman for making you miss that jump five times in a row, and the vehicles were difficult and awkward to control. The vehicle story levels were actually greatly improved, but controlling the vehicles outside of the story mode was just awful. During free play, you have the option to roam around Gotham City - a giant sandbox-like environment, filled with hidden lego bricks and unlockable characters, that is completely free of loading screens. This was another new idea for Lego Batman 2, which was awesome in concept but lacking in execution...largely because it is impossible to navigate without wanting to tear your hair out. The vehicle controls are painful. Flying around as Superman is cool, at least until you try to land somewhere, and the cameraman has a tendency to zoom in on Superman's Lego Ass. That's just awkward.

Generally there is little motivation for thoroughly exploring a Lego game beyond extending gameplay or the aforementioned smashing up scenery with your favorite character. Unless you are obsessively completionist, there is really no reason to 'find all the things'. Lego Batman 2 tries to rectify that by making exploration mandatory for unlocking bonus characters rather than allowing you to simply purchase them with Lego bits. Not sure how I feel about this. Some characters are much harder to get than others, and exploring a Lego game can get very tedious. I like a game that rewards exploration, but I just don't feel like this is enough of a reward. Especially when you are basically forced to play as Batman or Robin while exploring Gotham. Sure, you can walk around as Wonder Woman or the Flash...but to do anything, you have to switch back to one of the main characters.

I was disappointed by the lack of DC Super Heroes in the story mode. Superman doesn't become a playable character until halfway through the game, and the rest of the Justice League doesn't show up until the end. Wonder Woman wasn't playable until the very last fight. Batgirl wasn't even available as an unlockable character. Huntress was, but she was kind of boring to play. It felt more like 'Lego Batman and Superman', with a few other characters tacked on at the end. The other Justice Leaguers were just repackaged power sets. Only Green Lantern had an actually usable, unique ability that the three main characters couldn't duplicate, and it was entirely plot-driven. This feels like such a wasted opportunity. It was a fun game, but it's hard not to compare it to what it could have been. Maybe someday in the future I will get a proper DC Lego game, where you are based out of the Watchtower and teleport to missions on Themyscira or Apokalips or Oa and get to play as several superheroes that actually feel useful. And with no vehicle levels. Seriously.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Water Bottle Connections

As a reasonably environmentally-conscious individual who enjoys being hydrated, I have taken to bringing a reusable water bottle with me to work. Unfortunately, the water fountains in the Dungeon of the Dental Tower of Shands produce a fluid that looks like water but tastes like dirty plastic. I suspect this is part of an ongoing experiment in slowly crushing the human psyche, combined with the lack of windows, interminable construction, abysmal cell phone reception and inconsistent temperature regulation. But I digress.

The lack of consumable drinking water was a mild inconvenience that I simply accepted as part of life: bring water from home or drink ass-water. This changed completely a few months ago, when renovations surrounding the more public, high-traffic areas of Shands resulted in the installment of a fancy-shmancy filtered water fountain, complete with a water bottle refill station.

This has proven to be a minor revolution in my day-to-day routine, which now involves one or two trips through the underbelly of the sprawling Shands complex to reach this singular oasis of relatively drinkable water. And I am not alone. I see them more and more; individuals just like me, striding purposely through the halls, water bottles in hand. Occasionally we catch each others eye and exchange a knowing glance and a nod.  There is a shared sense of purpose between us. We will no longer be forced to drink the ass-water. There is a better way, and we lucky few have found it.

Which is preposterous, really. We are strangers who happen to use the same water fountain. We don't even talk to each other. But the fact that we share that similarity makes us feel more connected. It's the same feeling you get when you go to a midnight movie premiere or a renaissance fair or a Doctor Who convention: 'These are my people.'

I'm used to this feeling in the context of nerd culture. In fact, I revel in it. 'Zomg, you like comic books TOO? Please be my friend!' I am totally one of those people. Sharing mutual interests facilitates conversation and interpersonal connection, and brings people together who might otherwise never have met. It rocks. Experiencing this kind of spontaneous connection with strangers in the context of such a mundane task is new, though. I don't think I would ever follow up on this mutual connection to strike up a conversation like I would at a Con. Cons have different social rules, and outside of that environment it could be seen as creepy. However, it made me realize how easy it can be to form connections with the people around you. Me and my Water Bottle Peeps, polite social acquaintances to the end.