¿Hablas tarantula?

The IMDb allows users to tag movies for content, which results in handy but utterly untrustworthy information. Handy, because I merely have to type in “giant spider” to get a list of movies, but untrustworthy because some of the listed movies have only normally sized spiders, some have spider-like creature, and many movies are listed under different tags like “large spider” instead. But at least it provides a set of candidates from which to start.

One of the movies that popped up from such a search was “Las Tarantulas”, about which the IMDb only had that it was a Spanish-language film from 1973 and a cast list, which included a chimpanzee. I figured that it was unlikely to contain any giant spiders, but I’m always up for a tarantula swarm. Amazon actually had a listing for a cheap DVD print so I placed my order and waited.

When the DVD of “Las Tarantulas” came in, I noticed that the packaging was entirely in Spanish. This wasn’t completely a surprise, but I strained my high-school Spanish comprehension to find any mention of an English dub or subtitles. No such luck. The packaging had very little information, although the tarantulas in the artwork were somewhat reassuring. As was the chimp. Can’t go wrong with a chimp!1

The packaging for my copy of “Viy” (a Russian movie based on the story by Gogol) had been similarly mum in regards to language support. With some half-remembered college Russian and a lot of blind luck, I had managed to find a setting for English subtitles. (I have no good answer for why I didn’t simply try the “subtitles” button on my remote.) It was possible that “Las Tarantulas” might have unadvertised subtitles. If I didn’t actually check, I could believe that I hadn’t bought a movie I couldn’t actually understand.

When I explained this to my brother, he was dismissive of my reluctance. It was just a horror movie; how complex could it be? “Exposition, exposition, screaming,” he predicted. Put that way, it did seem pretty straightforward. I could figure out enough context from visual cues and settle in for the inevitable carnage.

I put in the movie.

Within five minutes I was hopelessly confused. People came on-screen, gesticulated wildly, wrestled animals, and left. After about an hour, two guys were tied to ground so a couple of tarantulas could crawl on them. Then, more running about. Throughout all of this, the chimpanzee jumped around excitedly.

I honestly think I’m better off not knowing what anyone said. If I understood the dialog, it might make sense — and that wouldn’t be fun at all!


1. You’ve probably gone horribly wrong if there’s a chimp in your movie.


Coding Fiction

It’s not entirely analogous, but there are ways in which programming is like writing fiction. Maybe it’s because I do both, and my lessons from one activity inform how I perform the other. Nonetheless, even if the connections are forced by my perspective, they are able to be connected. So here’s where I see them being similar, or at least having common usable approaches.

It’s easier if you have a plan. It doesn’t have to be exceptionally detailed, and it doesn’t have to be set in stone, but whether writing a program or a story it helps to have an idea of what the end result should be. I know that some folks like to just start writing and see where it takes them, and that’s fine. Whatever works for you is the way you should do it, right? Me, I find it a lot easier to put words down if I know what tone I’m going for and have some loose structure in mind.

You’d think that knowing what you’re trying to accomplish would be a given for programming. After all, there’s a requirements document and everything! Well, for most of my career I’ve been on agile projects, and very few of them had a requirements doc. Far too many, in fact, had us start writing code before we even knew what the project was about. There was one project at HoneyPot where we spent $1 million on development before the client had agreed on requirements. That went over poorly.

Entire sections may need to be rewritten. This is a hard lesson for writers, but it’s widely understood. What seemed like a great passage when written might need to go because of pacing considerations. Or a part of the plot wasn’t working, and you needed to rework the scene to support a revision. It’s all part of the process.

For many programmers with whom I’ve worked, touching code a second time amounts to failure. The ingrained model is “One and Done” — a sort of measure twice and cut once approach to coding. This of course assumes you have full and correct requirements, which you won’t. Ever. It’s simply unrealistic to believe that new requirements won’t lead to a rewrite of part of the code base. Nonetheless, I’ve seen a developer literally on the edge of tears because yesterday’s code didn’t support today’s business needs.

It’ll never be perfect. I spent 10 years rewriting the first three chapters of a novel. Those three chapters were pretty great! In that time Stephen King pumped out enough books to fill a shelf. Big, thick, hippo-choking books. Done is better than — well, not done. There’s a point called “good enough”, and it’s probably lower than you think. Just read a best-seller; you don’t even need complete sentences anymore.

I mentioned that programmers don’t like to revisit code. One tactic they use to avoid it is to make their code as perfect as they can imagine, able to take on everything they can think of. But you can’t think of everything, and there’s a point beyond which you’re spending time solving a minor problem when major work needs doing. Do a good job, but let it go.

Lastly, and most importantly, whatever gets the job done is right!

Cleaning Where We Left Off Picking Up

I said goodbye as I left our house, knowing I’d never see it again. I would be coming back to the same address, and all of our animals and things would be there, but it would be a different house. It would be clean.

It’s not that we never clean, but we do it piecemeal — a room (or area) at a time — and typically when we’ve passed our breaking point and are forced to acknowledge the necessity. We both work full-time and have an array of interests and hobbies that are all much more compelling than scrubbing floors. Yet, we want to live in a clean space, where things do not stick to our cats.

Up until now, we’ve comprised. We did as we pleased until the cats looked like a dorm room carpet, and then we’d grudgingly set aside our distractions and make things a bit less squalid. That accomplished, we’d observe that this would all be much easier if we cleaned more regularly, which is exactly what we wouldn’t do.

Well, something had to break, aside from the CD jewel cases I stepped on a few months ago.

Last Friday, a house cleaner came over to give us a quote. She gave a reasonable quote and didn’t bat an eye at the clutter. We spent the weekend picking up and sorting, making the house fit to be cleaned. Boxes were emptied. Shelves were filled. Corners were seen again for the first time this decade.

The appointed day arrived. We said farewell to the cats and left the house, wondering what we’d find when we returned. All day, we wondered if the cleaner had come yet. We wondered if the cats would forgive us. We made a token effort to pay attention to our work.

When I got home, everything had changed but nothing was different. A few things had moved, but that wasn’t the biggest thing. A layer of neglect had been removed. It looked like responsible adults lived here.

Along with some very freaked out cats.

The Narrative Beneath the Trial Coverage

Jodi Arias has been convicted of 1st degree murder, and America congratulates itself for knowing that she was guilty all along. But why does anyone not involved with the case care so much?

The easy answer is to blame it on the news media, which I do, but that is nothing either new or informative. The question is why the media wants us to care. It’s not merely to fill airtime; there are “sensational” events happening often enough that we should answer why this trial in particular attracted attention.

She’s a reasonably attractive defendant, which certainly didn’t make news agencies avoid the case. She also killed a man, which under our society’s still-patriarchal view of women as delicate servants brings a bit of attention in itself. Still, she didn’t sleep with a student or kill children, which are the usual ways young white women on trial come to national attention.

Her defense at trial was that she killed him in self-defense.

Ah. Aaaaaah! Here we get into something the media can use. Experts can talk every single day of the trial about whether a self-defense claim is ever valid and, more importantly, if killing an abuser is even self-defense.

The interest isn’t in what Jodi Arias did, or even why, but in whether women are allowed to defend themselves. Can abused women take advantage of opportunities to prevent further abuse?

And the real draw for the media here is that there was zero (reported) evidence to support Arias’ claims. Only her word and that of experts were available to verify her claims of abuse. So all of the theoretical arguments by the media’s talking heads kept circling back to the real narrative of the coverage — she’s lying about being abused.

Through her case, we can all reinforce the script that women lie. A woman claims to have been abused? Lying. Raped? Totally lying. One well-publicized instance of a woman you just knew all along was lying will now be the filter through which we judge all claims by women.

Do I think that the promotion of this case was a calculated decision to help erode public opinion about abuse? No. Rather, it was a calculated decision to give us a story that feeds into our sense of outrage — a sense that is still informed by outdated notions such as “women lie”, “reports of abuse are false”, and “I could tell by looking at her”.

Writing this the day after the verdict, the Jodi Arias case is already being buried. Now we’re being feverishly told about how three women held captive should have escaped years earlier and how the man who helped them finally is horrible and stupid.


Adapting to Changes

With Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby looming over us like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the matter of film adaptations is once again a topic of unhappy internet chatter. As usual, it’s largely breaking along the views that a classic is being ruined and that the book remains intact. (Although this time a number of people are hoping that the film is a masterpiece of ill-conceived excess.)

For my own part, while I have always been fine with the glorious misfire that was the 1960s release of “Casino Royale”, the recent version incensed me. Given the opportunity to restart the Bond film franchise, the decision was made to start with him as a violent thug. To me, the core of the book was that he had been more or less playing at espionage until the events surrounding this job hardened him and gave him focus. So to throw that aside seemed to miss an opportunity as well as the point.

It’s not on a level with the attack by natives in “The Scarlet Letter”, but it’s a cinematic grudge I’ve held on to with all the strength that nerdrage allows. I still haven’t gotten over “Congo”, and to be honest the book wasn’t even especially good.

I do agree that the source is still there, and I’ve even clung to the thought that even a bad adaptation could get new readers for the book. I think it’s more likely that viewers unfamiliar with the work will simply move on.

I’d like to be able to move on, myself. I only have so much energy for outrage, and I need to save it in case Tom Hanks gets another Oscar.

Representing Women in Genre Fiction

I’m in the process of reading a science fiction yarn from 19621. Like many mid-century works, the sexual politics of the story can most charitably be described as “dated”. Although the only female astronaut, Gail Loring, is a biologist who has passed all of the requirements for the trip to Mars, she becomes nothing but a prize to be won by the men.

What are her thoughts on the role the book locks her into? She picks the narrator and tells him:

“In those bygone days I thought a trip to Mars was a career. I’m a woman, Bill Drake. That’s my real career.”

My purpose isn’t to single out the author or even this book. Anyone who’s seen or read older sci-fi is all too familiar with this outcome. The genre allowed women to hold doctorates in one hand, so long as they served coffee with the other.

At this, it was a significant step up from the heroic fiction women popular in magazines, comics, and serials from the previous generation. Women were either wild creatures to be tamed or feisty yet frequently in peril. Even iconic characters like Dejah Thoris or Wilma Deering, celebrated for being women of skill and bravery, spent a great deal of time waiting for their men to save them.

As with so many social issues, the representation of women in genre fiction has been improving slowly. A sub-industry of comics and TV shows played with the contradiction between conventional femininity and heroism (perhaps the most famous of which here in the US were “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Xena, Warrior Princess”). These were followed by movies about women in fetish leather who were little more than comely killing machines. (I’m looking at you, “Underworld”.)

Let’s not speak of the women in comics. Most heroines seem to outfit themselves at Lover’s Lane. To be fair, there have very recently been improvements in some of the titles at Marvel and DC, and I would be utterly remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to Bandette. A creator owned title from Monkeybrain, its good-natured action and humor made it my favorite new comic this year.

Still, there’s a long way to go.

I bring this up because I consider myself a feminist (other things, too, but that’s enough for now). I thought it was enough for me, as a creator, to make my female characters with an effort to avoid sexist clichés. I wrote the Billy and Gravely comics with a deliberate undermining of the roles of women in B movies of the 1950s and ’60s. My story “The Heart of the Warrior” was explicitly about the aspects of rape culture that permeated so much early adventure fiction.

It’s not enough.

See, all my main characters have been men. All but one: Betty Marie, from “Dope Fiends of the Zombie Cafe!” — and I turned that into the first part of the Billy and Gravely series. I looked at all my planned projects, and they were all about men, too. I thought about changing them, but that felt wrong. You can’t just swap out characters; the whole story changes. Gender is only a part of the character, but every part is important. It seemed to me that it would be short-changing a new character by shoe-horning her into another project.

So I came up with a whole new story, for a female character I want to write about. I’d gladly read about her if someone else wrote her, which is my first criterion for any character. Who do I want to read about?

I want to read about a strong woman who has a personality — and eerie but thrilling adventures! She’ll also serve coffee, but only to her friends, only in her apartment and only if there’s some already made.



1. The Red Planet, by Russ Winterbotham. Monarch Books.