Spidey the G-Man

Spider-Man-SHIELDI posted to Facebook on Saturday about how much Benjamin loves Ultimate Spider-Man, which we watch together on Netflix.

Nick Ford wrote in the comments, “I’ve heard really mixed things about USM. How do you like it, Bk?”

I find that I can’t track down anything on Facebook that’s older than a week or two, so it makes sense to me to move some of my longer thoughts back over to this blog:

I have really mixed feelings about Ultimate Spider-Man, but none of them make the show any less entertaining. It is very smartly put together and cleverly written. Benjamin absolutely loves it, but he loves other shows that I can’t sit through 5 minutes of. I find USM a pleasure to watch. Any kid who has seen Marvel’s recent movies will be happy to see the Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor visiting the show. Even Wolverine has made an appearance, though unfortunately he was wearing the silly yellow costume. This can’t be done on the big screen yet, because Marvel doesn’t hold the feature-film rights to Spider-Man: they licensed those rights to Sony, who holds onto them tenaciously.

For kids who don’t already know Spider-Man or the Marvel universe, USM is especially well done. Peter Parker is still in high school, struggling with the tamer side of teen issues, and constantly breaking the 4th wall to chat with the viewer. More than that: even in the middle of what would otherwise be intense scenes, the show will shift into Peter Parker’s mind, where everything looks like video games, anime, and juvenile comic-strip characters — including a big-rounded-headed sort of Muppet Babies version of Spider-Man. In the main story, Spider-Man is self-centered and overconfident; in Parker’s head, he’s goofy and self-effacing. The show knows how to switch back and forth with a timing that never lets things get too intense for 8yo Benjamin, or too goofy for his dad.

My main problem with the show is its premise: Spider-Man and his teen-hero comrades are all government agents. Yes, JJ Jameson still libels him as a criminal, and the cops consider him a vigilante at best, but in the end he’s a G-man with the full force of Nick Fury and SHIELD as backup. He even has access to the high-tech gadgetry of SHIELD’s equivalent of Q division.

I wrote a blog post last January about Batman vs James Bond. In that dichotomy, I think Spider-Man should be much more like Batman. But “Ultimate” Spider-Man is James Bond Junior.

Nick read my Batman vs James Bond post and disagreed vehemently:

Now that I’ve read your article I realize we have some pretty strong disagreements here…

For one thing I don’t think Batman fights for the people (as much as he might claim this sometimes). He fights for himself and his own idea of justice as well the idea that no one should suffer what *he* went through.

As far as I can tell Batman is a revenge on Gotham. It has done nothing but attract more people to the “challenge” of Batman. He attracts way more villains than he defeats and Gotham always represents darkness, paradise lost and defeat. It notably doesn’t represent success even if Bruce himself does (while, notably, most of the population seems to live in destitution or barely getting by).

“…but I can’t recall Batman ever even picking on drug users.”

I know you were probably alive in the 80s (and I certainly wasn’t) so I am surprised you never saw Batman beat up drug users. Comics certainly have a infamous history of depicting drugs and alcohol (think: Tony Stark’s infamous alcoholism and Green Arrow’s sidekicks addiction to heroin, etc.). Batman and Anarky (a favorite character of mine) both attack drug users in Anarky’s debut issue.

“For Batman, as for libertarians, a crime isn’t a crime without a victim.”

This isn’t true either. Batman has *constantly* interrogated “criminals” who he only *suspects* are doing something wrong. He does this in The Dark Knight Returns and he does it almost everywhere. He does it even when they aren’t violating rights or even if he just thinks they have some information that he needs. Batman tortures…a *lot*.

An example of this (though it’s Dick Grayson under the cape and cowl, not Bruce but whatever, the MO remaisn the same):


I’d also argue against that The Dark Knight Returns *doesn’t* depict a libertarian Batman.

At this point in his life Bruce is an outlaw, true. And the government doesn’t like him much and he rebels against that, also true. But there’s no libertarianism here. Just because the government doesn’t like someone and they’re doing something they declare illegal (vigilantism) doesn’t mean we should consider them libertarians.

Batman has nothing *inherently* against the structure or order that the government and police have set up. Sure, he may not want “corruption” but as soon as James Gordon takes over it he pretty much takes it for granted (with some exceptions of course) that the police and him are working together to rid the streets of Gotham with crime.

Batman more actively works together with the state and its agents then against it. And even when he *does* go against it it isn’t for any libertarian reasons. He just wants to be a vigilante and that doesn’t mean he’s a libertarian.

On another note, Frank Miller is a goddamn fascist personally (see: his comments on Occupy Wall St and his book “Holy Terror”) and I very much doubt he had anything more than the lone-hero and rugged individual in mind when he wrote TDKR.

“But while WayneCorp may well have risen on government contracts, Batman is not on the payroll. Bruce Wayne is spending his own money to fund his war on crime. This may put him in the ranks of the feudal warriors, but it sets him apart from agent 007.”

Due to how intertwined big business and the government is I don’t think you could reasonably contend that Bruce is only relying on his money for these things.

Yes, We Have No Bananas

YesWeHaveNoBananasIn a recent post ("Is mediocrity intelligent?"), I talked about the importance of a diversity of strategies — even apparently "wrong" ones — to the long-term survival of a species. The corollary of course is that overinvestment in any single strategy can be catastrophic.

We see this issue at play in modern agribusiness.

As Popular Science informs us,

The 1923 musical hit "Yes! We Have No Bananas" is said to have been written after songwriters Frank Silver and Irving Cohn were denied in an attempt to purchase their favorite fruit by a syntactically colorful, out-of-stock neighborhood grocer.

It seems that an early infestation of Panama disease was already causing shortages in 1923. But the out-of-stock bananas in question were not the Cavendish variety we all eat today; they were Gros Michel ("Big Mike") bananas, and they were all that American banana lovers ate until the 1950s, when the disease finally finished them off.

I would love to know what a Gros Michel banana tastes like. I’m a big fan of bananas and eat them every day. (Actually, I drink them, blended into smoothies.) But the reason I only know the taste of Cavendish — and the reason you do too, unless you’re old enough to have had some Gros Michel mixed into your pablum — is that Cavendish bananas are resistant to the strain of disease that wiped out our original bananas. We have to assume that the Plan B bananas we now enjoy are only second best as far as flavor goes. They may not even be first best at survival, because the banana industry is searching for a Plan C banana to take the place of the Cavendish once the inevitable crop disease sends it the way of the Gros Michel — something that they predict will happen in the next decade or two. (See Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel.)

Why are bananas so vulnerable to these blights? Why aren’t agricultural scientists worried about our other favorite fruits — apples, for example?

Because there are many different types of apples. I’m dizzied by the variety at our local produce warehouse.

But not only is there just the one type of banana at the green grocers and in supermarkets; each banana you’ve probably every eaten is a clone of every other banana you’ve eaten. One genetic pattern manifested billions of times over, across millions of households in the past half century. And each Gros Michel was a clone of every other one, too. That’s because bananas reproduce asexually (as do potatoes, another food that’s especially vulnerable to disease — remember the Irish potato famine?).

Cavendish DNA is different enough from Gros Michel DNA that the disease that targeted the one species was no threat to the other. But any infection that can kill one Cavendish plant can wipe out the worldwide supply.

There are many reasons food activists attack Big Agribusiness — some good, some bad, and some wacky. One criticism that seems eminently reasonable to me is a concern that Big Agra puts all its billions of eggs in one giant basket.

Once upon a time, genetic diversity in farm products was built into how farming took place. Farmers farmed local land with local genetic strains of plants and animals. Chickens may have come from Asia, and Europe never saw a tomato until the Spanish brought some back from the New World, but even as trade began to go global several centuries ago, the limits of transportation and technology meant that gene pools could be local and diverse in a way that is much harder in our era of global overnight shipping and transnational corporate bureaucracies.

If an infestation wipes out the Golden Delicious, I can eat Fugi apples instead. But if the Cavendish disappears tomorrow, there isn’t yet a different banana to take its place.


Do you remember in my earlier post when my professor presented to the "artificial life" department at Bell Labs? In the context of a communications-research lab, artificial life was about using the lessons of biology, ecology, and evolution to make telephone networks more robust.

You may think that agriculture is more "natural" than phone switches and fiberoptics, but farming often short-circuits nature’s mechanisms to suit our short-term goals. One of the main such strategies of nature is diversity. And as I tried to illustrate with the concept of the genetic deme and the relativity of fitness, diversity means that what looks like an inferior strategy today could turn out to be the salvation of the species tomorrow.

As Larry Reed wrote recently in the Freeman,

Statists those who prefer force-based political action over spontaneous, peaceful, and voluntary initiatives — excel at distilling their views into slogans. ("A Slogan Worth Your Bumper?")

But what I find revealing is the contradictions at play in the juxtaposition of different bumper stickers on the same car. (And when you see a whole bunch of bumper stickers on the same car, odds are you’re driving behind a left-wing statist.)


This past weekend, at a red light, I was behind a minivan that brandished three bumper stickers:

One said, "Women for Obama."

If that wasn’t enough to declare the driver’s politics, the next bumper sticker made the claim that strong public schools create strong communities.

The last bumper sticker advised us in rainbow colors to "Celebrate Diversity!"

(Pop quiz: Are bumper stickers #2 and #3 in accord or at odds?)

Now, it’s a standard complaint against leftists that they talk diversity while pushing ideological conformity. Political correctness, and all that.

But to me the greater irony is that the Left consistently pushes centralization. Eat local, buy local, but decide everything in Washington DC.

I know that there are left-wing decentralists, and perhaps they genuinely do see the important parallels between genetic diversity and political federalism, between local communities and local authority. But I keep thinking of a story Tom Woods tells of his attending a decentralist conference back in the 1990s, where he happily discovered like-minded activists from both Left and Right. But to the apparent delight of the left-wing so-called decentralists, the highlight of the event was the keynote speaker: Vice President Al Gore.

BananaBookNo, in my experience, the vast majority of people with Buy Local bumper stickers, as with the Celebrate Diversity crowd, are also often, e.g., Women for Obama — that is to say, champions of ever-more-centralized authority. I’m confident that the driver in front of me at the intersection saw no irony in celebrating diversity while advocating strong public schools — and an even stronger central government.

But in the biosphere, where diversity rules, order is spontaneous. That spontaneous order is both the cause of and the result from overwhelming diversity. There are no central strategies in evolution, only in the human world, and only in recent human history. Evolution gave the natural world hundreds of varieties of banana. The United Fruit Company (hardly a free-market firm, by the way) gave us only one.

[Cross-posted at LibertarianStandard.com]

Batman vs James Bond

BatmanVsJamesBondI just read over my old blog post on the economics of Batman and James Bond to refresh my memory. My wife and I have recently caught up on the Daniel Craig trilogy of 007 movies, and my seven-and-a-half-year-old son Benjamin and I have been watching a bunch of the more recent animated superhero shows from the DC universe, so my thoughts have been full of action heroes — particularly the Dark Knight and Her Majesty’s secret servant — for the past few weeks.

I remember my father complaining about both characters and contrasting them to the lone-hero tradition of hardboiled detectives and their fictional forebears, the cowboys.

In fact, my father’s point to my preteen self was a continuation of a point he made to me when I was about Benjamin’s age. I’d just gotten a set of “Undercover Agent” accessories for my GI Joe doll (we didn’t call them action figures back then). Gone were the camouflage fatigues and assault rifle; now Joe sported a dark trench coat and a walkie-talkie.

GIJoeUndercoverAgentI said, "Look dad: It’s GI Private Eye!"

My father then explained to me that my rhyming name for my new hero was self-contradictory. A GI was an American soldier, an official agent of the US government, whereas a "private eye" was a private individual, a lone hero in the fictional tradition. If dad had been more of a libertarian, he would have said that the military agent is paid by coercively extracted taxes and operates by state privilege, whereas the private detective is an agent of the market, authorized only by private contracts, and liable to the same restrictions as any individual citizen. My father doesn’t talk that way, even now, but he would acknowledge that description as making the same point.

So after GI Private Eye, I grew up with an awareness of the distinction between heroes like James Bond, who was funded and sanctioned by the government, and heroes like Philip Marlowe, who was funded by private clients and sanctioned only by his personal code of conduct. (And such detective stories often turned on the question of what limits that typically unspoken code imposed on the hero.)

Now, a few years later, my father was making a different but related point about James Bond, this time inspired by my love of another toy: my Corgi Astin-Martin DB5, James Bond’s super spy car from the movie Goldfinger. "Look dad, isn’t this car cool?"

1964_Corgi_Aston_Martin_DB5Ever philosophical, my father saw the car as symbolic, not only of that state-agent/private-individual divide he’d addressed a few years earlier with my GI Joe, but also of a divide in heroic literature. James Bond worked for the queen, he explained, in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. He was a knight for the monarch, and this tricked out vehicle from MI6’s Q Branch was the 1960s adventure-fantasy equivalent of the nobleman’s armor and mount.

I believe he felt the same about the Batmobile, but there are several important distinctions, some that put the historical emphasis on the “knight” in the Dark Knight, and some that put the “World’s Greatest Detective” more in league with the private eyes of American detective fiction.

For one thing, the medieval knight was a soldier for the king because he could afford to pay for armor, weapons, and a battle horse. He could afford to head off into battle instead of plowing the fields — and he could afford the time required for training between wars. The king didn’t pay him to be a knight. He paid the king for that honor. As far as we can tell, James Bond isn’t paying out of pocket for all those vodka martinis, and he certainly didn’t commission Q Branch for any of his gadgets. 007’s license to kill makes him a hired gun, even if he does restrict his paid murders to those sanctioned by his government.

Batman, on the other hand, pays his own way.

Like most of the medieval knights, his wealth originally came from privilege more than trade. The Waynes are old money. Even "stately Wayne Manor" suggests aristocracy, and where Superman’s Metropolis is shiningly new and forward looking, gothic Gotham is old, with deep roots in Europe. Frames of Batman on the rooftops harken back to Quasimodo atop Notre Dame.

But while WayneCorp may well have risen on government contracts, Batman is not on the payroll. Bruce Wayne is spending his own money to fund his war on crime. This may put him in the ranks of the feudal warriors, but it sets him apart from agent 007.

Finally, who are the bad guys?

For Bond, they are the enemies of the state — meaning that they are whoever Her Majesty says they are. In both the books and films, they are invariably evil, so James Bond will look like the good guy when he finally defeats them, but ultimately the double-O agents are weapons: the government aims them at its enemies and pulls the trigger. We know full well from history who ends up in the cross hairs.

Even my favorite fictional private eyes, however independent and heroic they may prove to be, don’t go looking for trouble until a client hires them to do so.

But for Batman, the enemy is crime — not mere violators of legislation and statute law, not people who manufacture without regulation, trade without license, or copy digital patterns in violation of copyright. A true comic-book fanboy could probably dig through back issues and show us the exception, but I can’t recall Batman ever even picking on drug users.

For Batman, as for libertarians, a crime isn’t a crime without a victim. And it is the victims Batman is fighting for; they are proxies for the parents he was too young and scared to rescue from the back-alley gunman. In the versions of the backstory that I prefer, Batman can never avenge his parents’ deaths, so even the target of his vengeance is a proxy: not a human criminal but crime itself. And by "crime," I mean rights violations, violence against person and property.

The Dark Knight may be on a perpetual quest, but it is not for a king; it is for the people.

[Cross-posted at LibertarianStandard.com]


My vision of Batman comes from Frank Miller’s masterpiece of 1985.

Movies, TV, and comics have all kept the Dark Knight dark ever since.

As left-leaning Grant Morrison writes in Supergods, “Frank Miller brought the Dark Age style into line with a newly confident right-leaning America. His monumental Batman was no bleeding-heart liberal but a rugged libertarian.”

I introduced my father to Frank Miller’s work the very day I discovered it. He was reading issue #1 next to me as I read issue #2. I believe he loved it almost as much as I did. If he had been putting Batman in the same camp as James Bond back in the 1970s, he could only have had TV’s Adam West in mind. The campy television Batman of the 1960s may as well have been a costumed cop.

Here’s Grant Morrison again:

In the fifty years since his creation, Batman had become a friend of law and order, but Miller restored his outlaw status to thrilling effect. A Batman wanted by crooks and cops alike made for a much more interesting protagonist…

Calvin’s dad explains fractional-reserve banking

Calvin's dad explains fractional-reserve banking

This is how I felt this morning


Following the Mayans

I tweeted this the other day:

Overheard this morning: “Well, I don’t follow the Mayans. I follow the King James version. And no man knows the day or the hour.”

Now we learn that Lio does follow the Mayans:


By the way, I did find it interesting that the woman I overheard didn’t just say that she followed the Bible; she specified the King James Version, and yet she did not use the KJV’s wording:

But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. (Matthew 24:36)

But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father. (Mark 13:32)




vulgar capitalism

When I was a kid (and a default left-winger, like most of my friends), I remember seeing the movie Annie, Hollywood’s version of the Broadway musical. There’s a scene in the movie where a bomb-carrying Bolshevik (looking more like the cartoon stereotype of an anarchist than a commie, if I recall correctly) tries to blow up Daddy Warbucks.

Annie: Who would want to kill Mr. Warbucks?

Warbucks’s assistant: The Bolsheviks, dear. He’s living proof that the American system really works and the Bolsheviks don’t want anyone to know about that.

Annie: The Bolsheviks? Leapin’ lizards!

My opinion of this scene at the time is well summarized by blogger Martin Willet in his post “Why Bolsheviks Don’t Blow Up Billionaires”:

In the musical Annie evil Bolsheviks are seen trying to kill billionaire Oliver Warbucks, apparently out of jealousy and fear that he is an object lesson that capitalism works, but then the Bolshevik is not given any lines. How absurd, as if the existence of a billionaire proved capitalism was either healthy or fair. The name Warbucks probably reveals a political consciousness that has subsequently been strangled in America. The resentment of capitalists profiting (more accurately profiteering, that is making a profit the person doing the labeling doesn’t morally approve of) from war (the First World War in particular) has been a major cause of the growth of socialist and communist parties right the way across the world in the first half of the twentieth century.

But the logic of socialism, so clear to Mr. Willet and to my young self, is not necessarily as clear to actual working people — or to the subjects of a socialist dictator. The good folks at Reason.com (h/t @jeffreyatucker) tell a very different story in “How Larry Hagman Saved Romania from Communism” about the impact of Dallas‘s J.R. Ewing on the victims of Romanian communism:

Dallas was the last Western show allowed during the nightmarish 1980s because President Nicolae Ceausescu thought it showcased all that was wrong with capitalism. In fact, the show provided a luxuriant alternative to a communism that was forcing people to wait more than a decade to buy the most rattletrap communist-produced cars.

It’s somewhat painful to me to reflect on the idea that Ceausescu and I might have seen things the same way.

This for me is the critical line from Reason:

The impact of Dallas on global worldviews reminds us that “vulgar” popular culture is every bit as important as chin-stroking political discourse in fomenting real social change.

Throwaway cultural products influence far-flung societies in ways that are impossible for anyone, even dictators, to predict or control.

There’s an ongoing debate among libertarians about the importance of popular culture to the outreach efforts of the freedom philosophy. One important thing to remember is that the message sent is not always the same as the message received, especially across cultural boundaries. I look forward to hearing what my favorite anthropologist might have to say on this subject.

The Golden Rule and its source

The Golden rule and its source

Nature is so cool!

This is one of my favorite Cul de Sacs:
Old Mount Soot

When you pirate MP3s…

Via “Intellectual Properganda” by Stephan Kinsella