Monthly Archives: December 2010

Sokka vs Xander as Comic Sidekicks

Earlier this week I finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, and I was struck by how much the character of Sokka reminded me of Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Both Sokka and Xander are comedy sidekicks who, over the course of the series, evolved into a more serious role. They were normal guys in a group of people with supernatural powers, all of whom kept leveling up and getting more powerful. Many episodes involved their romantic interests. The big difference between them is that Sokka’s character arc was handled much better than Xander’s. Sokka had a clearer role, was given more interesting things to do, and became a strong contributor to the group’s overall success.

(By the way, I’m going to spoil both Buffy and Avatar. I’m also focusing on the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and not its continuation in comic books.)

Xander Harris from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Xander Harris was the everyman to Buffy’s super-powered slayer. He was goofy and jokey. He often got the worst from monsters and magic, from an insectoid teacher who planned to mate with him and then kill him, to a love spell that went awry and caused all the women in Sunnydale to chase after him. As part of the Scooby Gang, he remained in his regular-guy role throughout the series. The Scoobies began as the comparatively ordinary friends who helped Buffy, but as time went on that shifted. Willow learned magic, as did her girlfriend Tara. Buffy dated a vampire, a highly-trained soldier, and another vampire. Newcomers to the group had supernatural powers and connections to the supernatural world, like Oz the werewolf and Anya the ex-vengeance demon. Only Xander remained without either.

The writers never seemed sure what Xander’s true role was, despite him helping defeat several of the series’ big bads, the major villians of each season. In season four he was the “heart” component in a spell to defeat Adam, that season’s big bad. In season six, his love for Willow stopped her from destroying the world. He was variously identified as having heart, as seeing truly, and as having courage, but those characteristics shifted throughout the series and left him without a well-defined role. He spent most battles on the sideline. He provided moral support, not insight or fighting prowess or knowledge.

The other Scoobies were also unclear about Xander’s role, something made explicit in the Xander-centric episode “The Zeppo”. In it, everyone but Xander was occupied fighting some world-ending terror. Xander was left to fetch donuts and fret about not being cool. During the episode he manages to lose his virginity to the slayer Faith, pal around with a psychotic undead student, and stop that student from blowing up Sunnydale High. This gives him new-found confidence, but none of the others learned what he’d been up to, or even really noticed his absence. Only the audience sees what has happened, and also gets to see how melodramatic and over-the-top the Scooby Gang’s efforts are without Xander’s leavening humor.

Sokka from Avatar the Last Airbender

Sokka has a lot of similarities to Xander. Everyone in his group has crazy strong elemental bending powers: Aang the Avatar and Airbender, Toph the Earthbender, and his sister Katara the Waterbender. Their enemies are similarly powerful benders. Sokka provides comic relief, spending many of the early episodes grumbling about not having enough meat to eat, making sarcastic asides, and often being the butt of slapstick events.

Sokka diverged from Xander in how he developed skills and talents that gave him a very specific and needed role in the Avatar’s group. Sokka’s inventiveness and native curiosity led him to create several useful weapons. His planning made him the group’s tactician.

Like Xander, Sokka had his own soul-searching episode, “Sokka’s Master”. In the third season Sokka felt that he wasn’t contributing to the group, and so ended up studying with a renowned swordmaster. He trained with the master and became a credible swordsman, even creating his own sword out of metal found in a meteorite. In his absence while he trained, Sokka’s friends noticed he was gone, in marked contrast to Xander’s. The group discovered that they needed his planning and missed his joking.

Nowhere is the difference between Xander and Sokka more pronounced than in the Avatar series finale. Sokka contributes directly and importantly to the fight to stop the Fire Nation. His plan brings down the airships raining fire on the Earth Kingdom. Towards the end he stops two Firebenders from killing him and Toph by throwing his boomerang at one and his meteorite-metal sword at the other in a striking display of martial prowess.

Sokka also maintained his comedic role throughout the series, even as his serious contributions increased. Xander became more mature as Buffy went on at a cost to his comedic impact. Sokka, however, was both comedic and serious. In the finale, at the climax of his plot, he knocked a Firebender off of an airship by throwing his sword at him. As he watched his sword tumble to the forest below, he plaintively cried out, “Bye, space sword!”

Sokka was a much more satisfying character than Xander. He evolved and became a more deeply-realized person throughout the series without downplaying his sense of humor. He contributed directly to battles, making Sokka more of an equal to his companions than Xander was to his. Avatar’s structure undoubtedly made this easier: the series had a definite end, allowing the writers to craft a satisfying character arc for Sokka without having to deal with an open-ended series. The character of Xander points out some of the pitfalls of taking a sidekick known more for comedy and putting him or her in a more serious role; the character of Sokka shows how it can be done.

Yahoo Closes, the social bookmark service that we’ve used for our Shrapnel links, is getting the bullet to the head courtesy of Yahoo. If you still need a cross-browser bookmarking service, take a look at Xmarks. There’s also Diigo, which not only stores bookmarks but also lets you store the whole web page and annotate it. Both will let you import your bookmarks.

Update: Several friends also pointed me to Pinboard, which bills itself as “socal bookmarking for introverts”.

Start Using a Password Manager

On Sunday, it came to light that Gawker had experienced a long-term break-in that leaked the username and passwords for commenters on Gawker and its related sites like Kotaku, Gizmodo, and Lifehacker. Now we know that a lot of people use “123456” and “password” as their password.

Why should you care? You may not care about a Gawker account, but if you use the same username and password for that as for, say, your Amazon account, you could be in for a world of trouble. That’s why you should use a password manager.

Ideally you should use a different password on every site. Each of those passwords should contain 12 or more randomly-generated characters and include uppercase characters, lowercase characters, numbers, and special symbols. Now: try remembering all of those. Fun, huh?

That’s where a password manager comes in. You pick one strong password to encrypt all of your other passwords and let the manager generate random passwords and remember them for you. Ideally the password manager integrates with your browser so it can automatically fill in your username and passwords once you’ve opened your encrypted password database.

If you want a solid free option, try the unfortunately-named KeePass. It saves your password to a local database that you can put on a thumbdrive, and it has a Firefox plugin that automatically fills in login forms for you. If you’d prefer something more user-friendly, try LastPass. It’s web-based, which is a little worry-making, but given how they’ve set things up that I’m comfortable using them for web passwords to services other than my email or bank sites. Pick a password manager, install it, and select a primary password for your manager. It needs to be a strong one, one that’s hard to remember, so consider writing it down and putting it in your wallet. As security expert Bruce Schneier has long been pointing out, we know how to secure bits of paper.

Ironically enough, Lifehacker has a good beginning and intermediate guide to using LastPass. They’ve also got a tutorial on using KeePass, if that’s what you’ve chosen instead.

Once you’ve installed your password manager, you should upgrade your “123456” passwords to something much stronger. LastPass and KeePass will both generate random passwords for you to use. It’s time-consuming and annoying, but it’s worth it. Use a password with a length of 14 to 16 — hey, the password manager is remembering it for you, so you might as well use something long and hard to crack — and use every symbol possible.

Update: The LastPass blog has a tutorial on replacing old, sad passwords with shiny new ones.

The Gearheart Podcast Novel Gets a Soundtrack

The Gearheart is Alex White’s free podcast novel of magic, adventure, and gunfights. It’s got a steampunk feel crossed with 30s pulp, and is a whole lot of fun. He’s now released a soundtrack CD for the prequel novella he’s working on now. If you listen closely, you can even hear me singing on one track.

If you’d like to know more, J.C. Hutchins interviewed him about The Gearheart in general and the soundtrack in particular. Go! Go and listen!

Second as Farce

The furor over Wikileaks has become Theatre of the Absurd. Consider:

This is an infowar as written by Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard and staged by Mel Brooks.

Teaching is Physically Demanding

On Twitter, I joked about having one thumb and a newly-cut pile of lumber. When I later explained that, no, I hadn’t actually lost one of my thumbs, I said that my high school biology teacher had 1.5 thumbs.

It turns out that this is far more common than I would have expected. At last count, six others have chimed in about their teachers who had missing fingers or toes. My friend Joe Peacock had one who switch to teaching math after losing four fingers teaching shop class. Sadly he did not teach them base 6 math, but Joe did ask if he could only calculate pi to six digits.

In Case of Emergency

This weekend two of my friends had medical emergencies. One of them is still unconscious in a neurological ICU following a motorcycle accident. This has, as you might imagine, left his family in a terrible place, and his wife is having to put together pieces of their life that were left scattered on a highway.

Want to help? Then please, please consider the following suggestions.

Make a living will. Do you want to refuse medical treatment if you’re in a persistent vegetative state? Do you want any and all treatment possible? More importantly, do you want family and friends to have to guess at what you’d want or, worse, fight about it like Terri Schiavo’s family? A living will lets you set out, in a legally binding document, what your wishes are while you can still express them. For the US, Nolo has more information about living wills. Five Wishes is a popular living will, though it requires extra paperwork to be legally binding in eight states, including Alabama. The Lifecare Advanced Directive is excellent but takes time to work through.

Create a durable power of attorney for health care. Your living will won’t be able to cover all hypothetical situations, which means someone’s going to have to make those decisions for you. Choose your health care agent ahead of time, document your choice in a durable power of attorney document, and talk about your wishes with that person. Start with Nolo’s article on selecting a health care agent. The Five Wishes and Lifecare Advanced Directive include a section on designating a health care agent.

Make a will or a trust. If you’ve got assets like a house, bank accounts, or retirement accounts, designate what happens to them if you should die. If you have children, here’s where you appoint someone to take care of them. You can work with a lawyer to draw up a will or trust, or use software like Quicken WillMaker.

Add an ICE entry to your cell phone. “In Case of Emergency” entries on your cell can bolster more traditional methods of identification and can help hospitals contact family members.

Write down your passwords. Chances are you’ve got several computers and accounts that someone would need access to in times of trouble. If you use a password-keeper like 1Password, write down your master password. Put the list where people can get to it in an emergency.

Get a small fire safe, one that’s about the size of a bulky briefcase. The intent isn’t to protect your documents from thieves, but to protect documents against fire or flood and to give someone a one-stop place to go for documents they’ll need. Make copies of the safe key and give them to someone you can trust. And get some dessicant, like the little bags of silicon beads, to keep humidity down in the safe.

Distribute your documents. It’s best to store your original will and similar documents in a bank’s safe deposit box, but those can be hard to get access to in emergency situations. Send copies of your will, living will, and durable power of attorney for health care to your executors and family members. Put copies in your fire safe. Passwords, a list of insurance policies (if any), and information on bank accounts and similar documents go in the fire safe.

Update these documents once a year. Every January, crack open the fire safe and make sure all of the information is still up to date. Anything that isn’t needs to be changed.

Doing all of this is a task that’s easy to put off. Don’t. Spend some time this month getting your affairs in order. Those around you will be thankful later.

How to Remove the Exclamation Point Icon in iTunes

Our music collection lives on a network-shared drive. One of my ongoing annoyances with iTunes is, if it can’t find that drive because the network is down, it marks all of the music with an exclamation point icon. That icon keeps iTunes from synching the songs with your iPod or iPhone. Once the drive is again accessible, you can remove the icon by loading each track’s information individually, but there’s no good way within iTunes to tell the program, “Hey, idiot, my songs are back. Re-scan my library and you’ll see.”

There’s a workaround, though. When you start up iTunes, hold down option (Mac) or shift (Windows). iTunes will ask you what iTunes library it should load. Select your original iTunes library. iTunes will re-load it and, as a by-product, strip the exclamation point from all the files it can now find.

New Life in Old Planets

On Monday, NASA issued a press release announcing a news conference today at 2 PM EST on an astrobiology discovery. They gave no further details other than to say that it would “impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” and that the journal Science had the full paper.

As you can imagine, people’s imaginations went running wild. Jason Kottke, like many others, speculated that NASA had found life on other planets, most likely one of Saturn’s moons. That was shot down by Alexis Madrigal, senior technology editor at The Atlantic.

Last night, NASA Watch announced that NASA had discovered arsenic-based life, and now Gizmodo is claiming the same thing. This is really, really exciting.

The basic building blocks of life, as drilled into me by my grade-school biology teacher, are CHONPS: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. That’s what you find when you crack open most organic molecules, and are at the heart of everyone’s DNA, human or animal. Not the new bacteria found by NASA, though: it’s based on arsenic, a poisonous (to us!) compound. This is something we didn’t know was possible.

It’s not life on another planet, but it is life made out of completely different building blocks than we’re familiar with. If this is true, it’ll give us insight into other possible biochemistries and affect our understanding of biology. In short, it’s a very big deal.