Entropy Arbitrage Newsletter, August 2022

Today is Sitaday, 23 of Shkumbe 4115. [4115.05.23]

…assuming you follow the Common Calendar, of course, but I assume you probably do not. Or should. Ahem. Newsletter!

Entropy Arbitrage welcomed visitors from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Czechia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Pakistan, Panama, Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States, Venezuela, and Vietnam this month, which never fails to please me. Remember, all content is made available under the CC-BY-SA license, so if anybody needs to provide a translation, you don’t need my permission, provided that you comply with the terms of the license. However, feel free to ask for help or otherwise reach out, too.

August’s Idle Thoughts

Welcome to the twenty-sixth issue of the Entropy Arbitrage newsletter.

Does Dystopia Still Work?

Having learned that a cat-food manufacturer really hopes that people will attend its cat-food-inspired restaurant for humans and the new conservative cause of baby drop boxes, I started to wonder how things go in the market for dystopian fiction. After all, when a writer creates a dystopia for a story, none of them predict the future. Rather, they expose what disadvantaged groups already deal with routinely. They only make those problems apply directly to the reader.

In other words, when Margaret Atwood writes about Christian zealots capitalizing on a widespread fertility problem to enslave all women, she didn’t warn people about hypothetical politicians thirty years in her future, rather than the current Supreme Court. She had contemporary anti-abortion activists and politicians in mind. When Octavia Butler wrote about a bigoted politician rising to the United States presidency on the promise to Make America Great Again, she drew attention to Ronald Reagan’s “states’ rights” campaign, not Donald Trump.

Today, though, I feel like the distinctions between many social classes have collapsed to a significant enough degree that we don’t have many issues that affect us in such asymmetric ways that they represent the day-to-day experience of one group, but seem invisible to the majority.

To clarify, I don’t mean that we have equality and everybody constantly experiences joy. I don’t even want to imply that the world has changed much, given that we have so many people who can’t distinguish between dystopian fiction and prophecy. Rather, I mean that we’d notice if a hypothetical diabolical organization started forcing Chinese-Americans to spend at least an hour every day standing on their hands, it would take work to avoid noticing, because we share varying degrees of our lives with them. A surveillance dragnet affects us all. We all know someone who has needed an abortion. We all have various relationships with people who represent ethnic, religious, sexual, and gender minorities.

In that position, a writer could fabricate a dystopian law from nothing—as I did with my insipid Chinese-American example, above—or from history. But that has no audience, and becomes a crapshoot whether the story will ever feel relevant.

And that brings me back to my initial question: Does this genre still sell, when we already all live next door to any egregious wrong that a writer might want to warn us about? Or have I given my own privilege an unwarranted voice? Or, to rephrase the question to solicit real answers, what dystopias would you (the reader) create today, given an unlimited budget to not need to worry about your own life…?

Oops! All Corporations

I don’t indulge in schadenfreude much, but I have to admit to getting a chuckle out of social media, recently, reacting to media news. This past month, the fallout from the Discovery/Warner merger combined with layoffs at smaller media companies to provoke sighs about the dangers of “allowing” corporations to own the properties that we love. I need to laugh, though, because they’ve come painfully late to the party.

And look, it bothers me that they cancelled the Batgirl film (and much more) because they don’t want to “tarnish” the DC brand, but seem happy to ignore credible accusations of abuse to keep The Flash film on track, too. I just spent two months talking about the Arrowverse shows. I love the brand, so I sympathize with their distress, and I’ve had concerns about patronizing increasingly large corporations for years.

However, I don’t see any action, and for that, I need to laugh. They won’t cancel any subscriptions or put any effort into finding independent works that they might enjoy…except for horror fans, who I need to note often do a wonderful job of supporting genuinely independent projects. For the most part, though, everybody complaining will either end their action with that complaint or they’ll buy DVDs of the shows no longer available online, rewarding the company for doing what they dislike.

I don’t say that to knock buying physical media, by the way. Given the difference between home media and streaming contracts, more your money probably ends up in the bank accounts that you want rewarded. However, subscribing to HBO Max and buying Warner DVDs gives them free money.

More than action, though, I find it interesting where people draw their ethical lines. Canceling a bunch of projects offends people deeply, and they frame that offense in social justice discourse. Not having a place to stream Infinity Train (for example) offends people, even though nobody offended seemed to talk about the show previously, and I only know about it at all because a creator posted their Google Drive account with downloads for all episodes; yes, I’ll probably watch it, for that reason. Yet when journalists caught prior owner AT&T funding right-wing One America News—not to mention all the projects they cancelled to drive people to HBO Max—nobody made a peep about it.

I don’t think that it fits to call this hypocrisy, but those priorities seem miserable.

People-Search Antics for August

My final public word on people-searches appeared on the blog, in Public Records, Privacy, People-Search Antics, One Year Later.

Project Previews

August has been busy, so I unfortunately didn’t quite get to everything (anything?) that I wanted.

Watch Your Conscience

I…actually did some work on Watch Your Conscience, this month. Mind you, I didn’t do enough work to make a significant impact in the work remaining, but I hope that this starts a trend. I’ve let the project sit for far too long, and I know that you already know this.


In no particular order, I present a list of some things that I finished watching, listening to, or read in August.

No, I don’t remember when I started them, unless they were short. You can probably estimate that I watched about an episode of any given “archived” television show per day, though, if that helps. If you’d like to know what I finish watching as I finish it—sometimes I catch something during the narrow window when people can watch it free—you might consider becoming a member at Buy Me a Coffee.

  • The Fifth Season won its many awards for good reason. I had concerns early on, convinced that certain characters seemed indistinguishable, and worried about needing to constantly check back to remember which situation each chapter talked about. It satisfied me more than I expected to find that intentional.

  • Riverdale, season 6 feels like it went far off-track. I could go along with giving them super-powers; Archie Comics has multiple recurring lines of superheroes, after all, including one that adapts the Riverdale gang; the show also works best when it does whatever it feels like doing, rather than trying to “make sense.” However, trying to justify those new abilities with alternate universes and deals with the Devil and some cosmic destiny makes it seem far more desperate than if it just happened. And worse, they don’t get much use out of the powers, once established, making that subplot feel like unnnecessary filler. Oh, except for trying again to convince us that we should consider “Jughead” the most important character in the show, while wow, Cole Sprouse absolutely does not rise to that expectation. I don’t know why they keep trying to push a boring character portrayed by a mediocre actor, but I wish that they’d stop.

  • The Villains of Valley View doesn’t work for me, and I guess that I should have realized that my demographic doesn’t overlap with their demographic. I like the premise, but the implementation resembles a 1990s sitcom, complete with a laugh track. I think that I gave it enough of a chance…

  • I found Tom Swift frustrating. The show has a terrific cast, and the Tom Swift franchise could plausibly go anywhere, so I want to enjoy this show, and I want it to succeed. It has all the parts that it needs to tell great stories. However, the writing seems to run in tedious circles while trying to make us care about the “plight” of billionaires. And new inventions just show up, fully formed, to move the plot along, and then either everybody forgets about them or Tom uses them to solve a large, abstract, off-screen problem that they didn’t mention previously and has no bearing on the plot. I can’t think of a single Edisonade that works this way—I’ve sampled the major names—and it drains all drama out of obstacles, since Tom probably has a Swift Industries Obstacle Surmounter™ in the back pocket of his tight leather pants, too.

    • Contrast this last issue with the show’s parent, Nancy Drew, where they sometimes play fast and loose with their internal rules, but the characters need to work for almost every step forward in the plot; they never suggest that the plot device just happens to sit in George’s closet under her irrelevant-but-described-in-detail-anyway prom dress; everything comes from either the climax of a prior episode or needs an episode’s worth of work to acquire or build. Tom gets to skip those parts of the story. Or they make Lino a superhero. Why not, right…?

    • I should also point out that they also missed a huge opportunity in not making this a series revolving around legacy. The books covered at least four generations of Tom Swifts, with the 2006 reboot—which created The Road Back—still only revisiting the second generation. A Black Swift family that has invented advanced technology since 1910 (or earlier) could lend The Road Back’s presence some narrative weight beyond serving as shadowy anti-technology antagonists. But they don’t seem to care about any of that.

    • Maybe related, the subplot of a multi-generational conspiracy of Black Americans to fight back against white supremacy since 1920 sounds remarkably tone-deaf. Not only does it echo constant right-wing conspiracy theories about associating American-ness with whiteness, not to mention the promotion of “Separate but Equal,” and try to give us reasons to fear non-white people, but also…I mean, if such a group exists, they clearly do a terrible job of it. Maybe their first mistake involved putting billionaires in charge who think of themselves as an oppressed class?

  • The City Inside represents the sort of book that could only really come out of India, so I can appreciate it on that level and the level that I enjoy the writing. Carve out a few hours and read it or listen to it.

  • I sat on The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet since receiving it as part of a Kickstarter reward way back when. As long as I now make opportunities to read modern fiction, then, I figured that I should make the time for this one, especially since The Lizzie Bennet Diary’s star (Ashley Clements) currently has a show rewatching the show for its tenth anniversary. And…I don’t like it. The book, I mean, not the rewatch show, which I enjoy and will recommend when it ends. While the novel presents itself as the parts of the story between episodes, which I would enjoy, it doesn’t actually have much to add, instead retelling the stories from the episodes—often exactly the same story beats and some describing what happened in a video—or mixing in jokes from different episodes. Watch the videos, skip the book.

    • In addition to The Look Back Diaries rewatch/reunion show, also watch this space (eventually) for the novel telling Lydia Bennet’s side of the story. I have higher hopes for that one, since the book has a longer page-count, but Lydia has a much smaller role in videos, suggesting that the author(s) actually needed to do something bigger, there.

  • I’ve wanted to read Icon: A Hero’s Welcome forever, but never had a convenient opportunity. The original run came during a time when I had mostly stopped buying comic books for various reasons, and Milestone didn’t get nearly the hype and excitement that Image did until recently, largely after Dwayne McDuffie’s untimely death. And while Image focused on money and proving that they could break rules—the majority of their creators had a major project of “what if we had someone just like Superman, but he had no problems killing people,” as if that required any creativity to create—Icon starts by asking its own “someone just like Superman” the question “what do you stand for?” IT gets a bit bogged down by the “Dakota Universe”’s mythology and bizarrely doesn’t bother to interrogate Freeman’s conservative politics, but I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.

  • Naïve. Super bored me. It showed up on a list of recommendations and has the virtue of brevity, but while it wishes that it could sound as breezy and fun as Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (discussed in June), it doesn’t have that charm. Sorry, but adults excited to act (and speak) like children appear in normal life often enough that reading about them doesn’t hold any interest for me.

  • A Spindle Splintered stumbles occasionally—weird, given its minimal length, that it feels like describing and explaining so much—but when the protagonist interacts with people instead of telling us about her life, the story lights up to a level that I didn’t expect.

  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette didn’t work well for me. I like the concept, but the characters grate on my nerves, except for the notional protagonist, who we don’t hear from often, despite her centrality to the family and importance to the fictional history. Instead, we hear from a frenetic teenager, an abusive husband whose abuse receives multiple descriptions from different angles but never receives any acknowledgement, and a pair of preening “tiger mothers.”

  • Slaughterhouse-Five feels like it takes forever to get to the plot. And then, the story has interesting aspects, and I appreciate the anti-war facets, but the repetitious prose and the gratuitous “adult” content irritated me. Everybody else has read it, though, so you don’t need my opinion on it…

  • Angel Mage has some interesting ideas, but it gets too bogged down in its “medieval-ness” or alternate reality, for my tastes.

  • The Invincible represents a common breed of story that almost always flops. This does far better, at least until it starts trying to talk about evolution. Regardless, I’ve promised myself to read more Stanislaw Lem, and they had this new translation available.

  • I could get behind the fantasy genre more, if more of it looked like A Master of Djinn. I don’t want ancient elf-vampire feuds or (sorry, Angel Mage) “ash-blood plagues.” I want culturally relevant styles of magic that change the course of real history in important but sensible ways. I want people with motivations beyond fighter, thief, wizard, cleric, and bad guy. No forests, no castles. This delivers in spades.

  • Superman Smashes the Klan sits in the category of books that I’ve wanted to read since they came out. And it came out just as good as I’d expect from a story that extrapolates from my favorite arc of the 1940s radio show. And why hasn’t Roberta made her way into other versions of Superman stories? True, this story ties her to 1946, but the United States hasn’t exactly eliminated anti-Chinese bigotry.

    • If you didn’t already know, the modern version of the Ku Klux Klan actually started out as a fan club for The Birth of a Nation, rather than as a continuous organization founded during Reconstruction. Like cosplayers can buy Starfleet uniforms online, neo-Klansmen could order their robes from small manufacturers, hinted at near the end of the comic. A couple of decades later, Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the Georgia KKK and, rather than publishing everything that he learned in articles or a book that most people would never see, instead sent it all to the producers of The Adventures of Superman, which they adapted—retaining the rituals and some codewords—into their Clan of the Fiery Cross story in 1946, causing members to flee the organization, leaving it the barely relevant player that we know today. In other words, the modern organization started and mostly ended in mass media, exposing them as sillier than Trekkies.

  • The Empress of Salt and Fortune does another nice job with the fantasy genre, similar to A Master of Djinn, though seems unfortunately set in some ancient time, but the brevity also ensures that it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

  • I don’t think that I cared for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, certainly not in proportion to the excitement I see of everyone talking about it. It acts like it wants to present a single, cohesive story, but mostly just bounces between vignettes about the personal lives of characters who…I feel we don’t really get any reason to care about their lives, if they have lives beyond their space opera archetypes, with even some names looking like a first draft. I appreciate some of what it wants to do, and it has some touching moments, but it often feels clumsy, more like the reference guide for a hypothetical series with placeholder dialogue than a work of fiction. Maybe more than that, though, the book consistently makes a point to tell us how socially awkward our protagonists act, which feels like it panders to stereotypical science fiction fans more than it improves the setting.

  • The Witness for the Dead feels like a joke created specifically for my readers. The plot, shockingly, resembles Solitudes and Silence, with a similar not-quite-Tolkienesque fantasy world, sad sack protagonist, and special magic of getting information from the recently deceased. But it also has the “let’s spend time recapping the story for the benefit of a character” and random sexist comments of a Biodigital. And it has so much exposition. Also, it seems like the book has a recurring “bit” where our protagonist informs someone of the murder, gets a question about it in exchange, and answers in a gravely Batman-voice, “that’s what I’m trying to find out,” and I don’t get it, if the author meant it as a joke. Even the charming budding romance seems danced-around, as if it breaks some taboo to mention homosexuality.

  • For Only Murders in the Building, season 2, I initially wrote almost exactly my summary from last October: Fun, fits together, Martin 👍, Gomez 👍, even Short 👍. I thought that sounded a little familiar, though, and confirmed that I mostly only changed the order of some words. My point? They do good work on the show, enough that the praise for the second season looks a lot like the praise for the first, without any weird fatigue effects or decline in quality.

  • Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon explains a lot of my complaints about the Dinsey+ series based on it, at least. In fact, the adaptation improves on a lot of this, by pushing the focus closer to Kate Bishop, instead of making her some sort of secretary for the “real” hero. It also thankfully dispensed with the constant joke(?) that Barton only understands English, even though he constantly surrounds himself with people who don’t speak it, and the sad attempts at sexual tension that even the characters acknowledge as creepy. One aspect that amused me more than the show, though was having Barton rename the dog to Lucky from…Arrow. That felt like a legitimate emotional moment, even as a joke, and I don’t know why they didn’t leave it in.

  • Wander over Yonder feels like someone remade Ted Lasso (years before its premiere?) as Star Wars-adjacent space opera, with Grover from Sesame Street replacing Jason Sudekis as Ted Lasso. Trust me, go watch it.

  • Thrust starts strong, with elevated language and what at least sound like deep ideas. There comes a point, though, in the second half of the book, that it turns into a series of clunky sex scenes. With no notice, every character in each of the non-intersecting stories collectively has a lot (of words, not thoughts) to say about people’s genitals. One tries to simulate the weakness felt as sexual stimulation peaks, but feels more written by a process. And yet, it had no relevance, because the last tenth or so of the book goes back to obsessing over science, folklore, and the Antikythera mechanism.

  • I missed A Fish Called Wanda (on Kanopy, technically) on release for family reasons, but it surprises me that I didn’t rent it on video. I don’t know if I could say so in 1988, but by a few years later, I could have reasonably called myself a fan of Monty Python, Kevin Kline, and Jamie Lee Curtis. And decades later, it has an unfortunate and unnecessary homophobia and animal cruelty problem, but still feels surprisingly modern.

  • My Life Is Murder, seasons 1 and 2 seems like an attempt to reinvent copaganda, and I don’t know how successful I’d call it. For example, they make it clear that the cops bring her in on cases to dodge around regulations. However, most episodes have Alexa make no attempt to conceal her affiliation with the police, and she seems to come by all of her evidence in each story legitimately. But, the characters also constantly ask Madison to perform fairly invasive searches of people’s lives. That said, the show probably gets most of its audience to watch the talented Lucy Lawless—no, she doesn’t play “Xena,” here—having the time of her life, not for the analysis of modern policing. Weirdly, though, Lawless’s Alexa has a weird basket of “the habits of the youth will cause the end of civilization”-type views that seem unnecessary.

    • While writing this, I noticed that the third season started in the last week of August. I have no idea how to watch it, though, so I’ll post now and wait until the new season shows up on streaming to get into it.

  • Wow, did I not like UHF (on Kanopy, actually), I guess justifying not seeing it for the first third of a century of availability. Films should come with a content advisory, “footage contains mediocre comedians whose characters serve as a shallow channel for them to perform something like their stand-up acts under another name.” I did like seeing Anthony Geary playing his quirky character, though. Depending on traffic back from school as a kid, I would often end up home in the middle of a family member watching General Hospital, at the height of the heavily advertised Luke and Laura storyline, Luke played by Geary. But otherwise, we have brownface, animal cruelty, ethnic stereotypes, a lot of body shaming, and more. Ugh.

  • I decided to finally read American Gods, since it appears on basically every “best of” list of genre books. While I never minded Gaiman’s writing, I also never loved it, so I’ve basically ignored his work if it didn’t come to me, meaning that I didn’t have high expectations. And even then, I don’t understand the intended audience for this. Why do so many respected authors have a fascination with penises, talking judgmentally about sex work (unrelated to the penis fetish), and describing mundane procedures with careful precision as if they have provided new and exciting information? Even the concept seems lazy; I kept waiting for the big revelation, a twist that makes this more sophisticated—because everybody loves this book—but stories about gods waning power relating to worship already felt trite when I first saw it in the 1980s.

    • I should probably also mention that every story that I’ve ever heard about Gaiman makes him sound like something of a pompous jerk, and he doesn’t always keep the best company. I point this out to say that I would not have bothered with this, if the library didn’t supply it. Giving him a bit of attention, I can justify, but would just as soon not send any money his way or give him attention in a way that signals that a company should give him more money.

  • I hesitated to watch Bilal: A New Breed of Hero, since it takes its plot from the legend of a real person—Bilal ibn Rabah, one of Muhammad’s associates—and while I enjoyed it well enough, I also feel like every culture has some variation of this story, the put-upon man in a sleazy town, who leads a revolution. I don’t want to imply that Bilal didn’t exist (nobody serious questions it), but that I’d rather see something new, than the same basic story with a new ethnicity. But also, Bilal’s most unique features include his voice, so why would anyone create an animated film about him and not make it a musical? I wouldn’t call it bad, and it has quite a bit to recommend it, but just feels…unexciting.

  • Pod to Pluto feels like it gave up for the final episode to pack in references to better stories, but I’d still recommend it. As I mentioned, if they didn’t use a non-commercial license, I definitely would’ve covered this for the Free Culture Book Club.

Blog Posts for August 2022

In case you missed one and don’t like RSS readers, here’s a round-up of the past month’s worth of posts.

I also revisited and updated some older posts, for various reasons.

Significant changes to the text come with clear and dated markings. Changing the wording or correcting a typo is more routine, but it indicates that I’ve at least been looking at the post. Longer changes probably have a brief write-up in this very newsletter.

The most popular posts on the blog have been Tag: freeculture, Recutils — Small Technology Notes, Real Life in Star Trek, The Return of the Archons, and (Finally) Cutting the Cord for the month.

Articles I’ve Been Reading

You’ve seen some of these already in Friday posts, but here’s more from the sources in my RSS reader that I thought were worth reading.