5 comics you should be reading

Of all the things I’m a geek for, comic books and dinosaurs may be the deepest of my geek topics. They’re both certainly the oldest–I’ve loved dinosaurs since I was roughly 5 years old and discovered comics at the age of 11. To this day I find that when I can’t hit the comics shop on Wednesday when the new issues come out that I feel a form of withdrawl. I have no idea why this is, but sitting in a pile of new comics just makes me indescribably happy 🙂

Knowing this, friends on occasion have asked me what comics I like the most. Given that I don’t fuck around when it comes to my comics, I thought I’d put out a list of my favorites. These are bar-none the best comics being published in the industry today and they run the gamut from superhero fantasies to horror, light-hearted comedy to real-world allegory. My criteria here is that all these comics must be currently published on a monthly basis and have at least a year’s worth of issues out. We’ll see how “Saga” is looking after a year 😉

1. Fables

FablesThis is straight-up the best comic in the industry right now. It began over ten years ago with an idea very similar to the recent TV Shows “Grimm” and “Once Upon A Time”: what if you re-imagined characters from classic fairy tales in a modern-day context. In the case of Fables, these characters became refugees living in New York under the noses of their human “mundy” neighbors after a malevolent being known only as the Adversary has conquered their fairy tale homelands. Part of the problem with the two shows mentioned before is that they can only imagine these characters in a single context–in a police procedural or a small-town drama. The beauty of Fables is that it has never been shy about trying to find contexts in which the concept can’t work. The first story arc, “Legends In Exile” will likely appeal to “Grimm” fans given its police procedural elements, but will likely surprise those same fans when they read the next arc: “Animal Farm”, a political thriller about a revolution among the animal fairy tale folk against the human-looking ones. Since then Fables has worked as a taunt thriller, war epic, spy narrative, and in what I think is the greatest single issue published of any comic book in the last ten years both an allegory for the state of Israel and the most satisfying wedding story I’ve ever seen in issue #50. I made the mistake several years ago of buying the series month-to-month rather than waiting every 6 months to read it in collected editions and now I am addicted. I cannot go a month without reading this book. Seriously. Do yourself a favor and read this book. It is that good.

2. The Walking Dead

The Walking DeadA lot of my readers will know the title from the AMC series of the same name, which I hesitate to call a direct adaptation of the comic for a number of reasons. True, the seasons thus far have roughly lined up with the narrative arcs found in the first and second volumes of the series, but the TV show has made vastly different choices with many of the characters. In some cases creating moments of incredible emotion and at others just leaving those of us familiar with the comics scratching our heads (BTW, all the really annoying stuff with Lori and Carl from the TV show is not in the comic…just FYI ;). The comic, however, is where it all began. Robert Kirkman had a really interesting idea: what if one were to tell a story about the zombie apocalypse but don’t have an ending in sight? What if instead of getting from point A to point B, the idea of the series was to see in long-scale form what kind of choices people would make when it came time to face a lifetime with the walking dead? It sounds like a simple premise, but Kirkman has a talent for giving us characters so fascinating we cannot look away. I cheered in the season finale of Walking Dead to see they’d finally introduced Michonne, a young woman who I think it is safe to say is one of the greatest characters the comics have yet introduced us to. Also watch out for The Governor. I’m very, very curious to see how they play him in the show and whether they blink first with regard to some of the elements of the character that might wind up onscreen. Suffice it to say, he is the most intense embodiment of evil I have ever seen in any form of literature or fiction. This series is constantly engaging, constantly surprising, and really, truly makes you care about the characters in it. Every character is an individual that has good days and bad days and every time one of them dies, you feel the loss like an old friend.

3. Morning Glories

One proviso here: if you didn’t like “Lost”, you will hate this series. Morning Glories is centered around six young people at an exclusive prep school called Morning Glory Academy that has more secrets than Nixon, more intrigue than James Bond, and more confusing physics references than “Primer”. Similar to “Lost”, our six protagonists each have quite a number of secrets in their past and we learn more and more about them as the series progresses. Each of them has been recruited to become a part of the academy and only upon arriving there do they discover there’s something sinister afoot. Time travel, near death experiences, and things so weird I don’t know how to describe them are commonplace here, as are all the familiar social tropes of high school. On one level, Morning Glories works as an exploration of the “Mystery Box” storytelling device JJ Abrams famously referred to as his principle for telling stories in his TedTalks and on another, Morning Glories works as a brilliant metaphor for the weirdness of high school, where every decision feels like life and death and the bizarre occurrences we experience can seem to explode into sinister conspiracies. Thankfully, Morning Glories has an interest in tying up its loose ends. The series is very young and yet it is already beginning to tie many story threads back to each other to resolve some of the bizarre paradoxes we’ve seen emerge from it. I’ve never been more confused by a series and yet more intrigued 🙂

4. Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man

Marvel launched its Ultimate lineup of comic books over ten years ago to solve a long-standing problem: they had more than 40 years of continuity and fans who’d stuck with the books the whole time and yet that continuity had made the books nearly impossible for new readers to decipher. At a few points in Marvel’s history, they’ve attempted projects that start familiar characters over from scratch and avoid such continuity issues, but these projects have never lasted for very long and the results have been mixed at best. The Ultimate line was different, however, rather than just retelling older stories without 40 years of backstory to work with, a number of creators were given free reign to re-imagine the characters from the ground up. Captain America became a border-line racist with a distinctly 1940s sensibility, Thor became a New-Age spiritual healer, and Spider-Man was still Peter Parker…but then the writer took the biggest chance of all: he killed Peter Parker. Last year, Peter’s rogues gallery in this universe finally got the best of him. One of the strengths of this book had always been that the writer wasn’t afraid to imagine that a 16-year-old boy essentially working as a cop or a soldier would be vastly out of his depth. Peter having nervous breakdowns and coming very close to being seriously injured were commonplace throughout the title’s run. So much so that the other characters in the universe would frequently intercede either to try and convince him to stop before he got killed or at the very least learn how to do the job from the professionals. In the end, he dies protecting his Aunt May and Mary Jane Watson, having made an error in the thick of battle that leads to him taking a bullet intended for another target, then slowly bleeding to death when he cannot disengage from combat long enough to receive proper medical attention. After all this, writer Brian Michael Bendis then took the unprecedented step of having a new young man take up the identity of Spider-Man.

It’s been controversial, but ultimately I think it’s one of the greatest decision Marvel has made with this like of comic books. Miles Morales is a half African-American, half Hispanic young man from Brooklyn who has just lucked into a spot in a charter school soon after he acquires powers similar to Peter Parker’s. Miles knows even less about being a hero than Peter did, and the first few issues where he grapples with wanting to do good but frequently makes mistakes are wonderfully nuanced. Any of us who’ve ever worked in public service and have questioned our choices after seeing their mixed results will identify with him instantly. Beyond the fact that one of Marvel’s flagship heros has finally reached outside the familiar WASP backgrounds that have long been a black mark on comics’ attempts at diversity, the book works as an excellent metaphor for showing the intense pressure young people trying to make a better life than their parents had are under. Miles’ attempts to break free of his low-income background are haunting and timely. Come spend a day in this child’s world and find a wonderful backdoor into relating people you may never know otherwise.

5. The Boys

Fair warning: this series is not for the faint-hearted. Remember how “Shrek” made fun of Disney movies in a way that was alternately kind of mean and kind of hilariously snarky? Well, imagine “Shrek” for superheroes…only the writers are able to go for the jugular instead of having to make fare for the family. The central idea behind The Boys is that a company called Vought-American has discovered a compound called Substance V originally developed by the Third Reich that generates super powers in the people who take it. And much like the people of Dune discovered, when you give that much power to a few select people, things can get vastly out of hand very quickly. Unlike their funny paper counterparts, the super-powered people in The Boys feel no need to protect the innocent or uphold traditional values. Just like rock stars, these characters are crude, perverted, frequently drug-addicted, and care very little for the average person. Thus, the CIA creates The Boys–a covert group meant to monitor the activities of the “supes” and hopefully dig up enough dirt on them to shut the program down before it gets out of hand. Vought-American, on the other hand, is hungrily eyeing a defense contract in which the defense of the nation is handed over to their super-powered creations and they feast on the profits. A satire of superhero comics that goes completely past cheeky, completely past satire, into ground that is as disturbing as it is hilarious, The Boys will change the way you look at people with superpowers as you come to realize that if you could do anything, you’d probably live just like the spandex-clad cads of this universe do. A fun game in this book is to try and spot which mainstream superheroes are being satirized at any given time given the outrageous code names and habits many of these “heroes” are given. This series is set to wrap up in the next few months, so go back and read it in trade paperback form before it ends! 🙂

Got some of your own favorites? (I admit there’s no DC on this list because I just don’t dig DC’s slate right now. Any credibility they had, they burned with the new 52) Please share them in the comments section and help others find great reading at the comic shop 🙂

Leave a comment

Filed under comic books

Math hacking

I had a hell of a breakthrough in learning some math this morning…and I wish it had happened ten years ago. But first a little background:

For most of my life I’ve thought I was bad at math, which really sucked because I was otherwise a relatively bright kid. When I was really young I had a talent for memorizing things and it helped me coast through tests to the delight of my parents and teachers. It was also a huge help at the easy stuff such as basic arithmetic and multiplication, but it when the time came to hit up algebra I hit a brick wall. I could not for the life of me make the uber-abstract world of algebra work inside my head and it made me feel stupid for the first time in my life. In middle school and high school, algebra study sessions at the dinner table frequently left me in tears after spending hours and hours not understanding what was going on.

It’s not like math didn’t work for me at all…I just didn’t realize the things I was also interested in counted as math. Geometry was easy for me and the proofs for it made complete sense to me. In one middle school math class I lost focus in, I spent one long afternoon deducing what a 4-dimensional hypercube must look like. My teacher upon seeing the work was out of her depth and tried to redirect my attention to my class work. I found out five years later I’d gotten it right. Likewise, by high school I’d immersed myself in the world of comic book art and fancied a career for myself as a penciler. In learning this art, I’d assimilated the canon proportions of the human body and face, learned rules of perspective and how it can make the sizes of things shift to an observer. I’ve also had a lifelong fascination with patterns–finding arrangements of things like the tiles on the ground in the subway, arrangements of rivets on merry-go-rounds, etc, and working to find symmetrical arrangements of these patterns that can be infinitely repeatable. During phone conversations in my parents’ home I took to finding an algorithm for which of the kitchen tiles to step on such that I could navigate around an island countertop and always perfectly arrive back at the original tile (it took a couple years and countless phone calls, but I finally got it). But I never, ever thought of any of these things as math.

Math in my mind was abstract, it was something minds more nimble than myself did. For the life of me, I could see no beauty in the arrangements of numbers and variables. They were just things…staid, boring facts that were presented as sacrosanct rules which I must repeat the usage of in problem sets over and over again to prove I’d learned them (I frankly never did learn most of them). Calculus in particular was a word that filled my mind with dread. Calculus was something the smartest of the smart did…it was math akin to doing magic that only the sharpest of kids got to do in high school and which I never had a desire to work toward or do myself. It was something that you had to get through algebra to get to, after all, and if it required more of that unholy work, I wanted no part of it. Quite frankly, I didn’t even know what it was until my late 20s.

In college, I’d already decided math wasn’t for me and had figured out a way to game the requirements of my major to avoid taking any math classes. At CU Boulder, the college of arts and sciences would accept any engineering course as a math course, assuming that math was all that engineers actually did. I found an obscure freshman level engineering class called Telecommunications I to take. The course was on how to write HTML–something I’d already been doing for 4 years. It was the easiest “A” I got in college and with it I managed to skip Statistics, Differential Equations, and the host of other crazy-sounding classes my peers constantly complained about. Success! Or at least I thought…

Then in 2006 I went to Burning Man for the first time and it introduced me to fire dancing. More specifically, poi spinning. Poi is a really fascinating art because it inspires such incredibly different reactions from the people who practice it. At one end of the spectrum are people to treat it as ornamentation for movement and dance and at the other end of the spectrum are people for whom the analysis of how the tool moves is a seriously and decidedly complex pursuit. This latter end of the spectrum tends to attract people with backgrounds or interests in mathematics, physics, and programming. I picked up the tool myself in the spring of 2007 and was immediately hooked. My inclination toward pattern recognition and reorganization had found a very comfortable hook to hang its hat on and I found the practice of the art taking up more and more of my time.

As I assimilated the tool more and more, I began thinking of its movement not in terms of the arrangements of disparate movements into recognizable patterns, more colloquially known as “tricks,” but as complex combinations of simpler basic movement elements and it was these that fascinated me the most. By controlling and rearranging these elements in different fashions, I found I could for the first time create movements and tricks that no one else had yet performed or recorded. It didn’t happen overnight and to be honest I couldn’t tell you when I crossed over the line into doing something original, but what it did do was get me hooked on understanding the mechanics of the tool. At one point in the pursuit of this knowledge, I became obsessed with finding the distance the poi head would travel in all the different shapes I could make.

A good deal of poi movement bears significant similarity to a type of geometry called roulettes or trochoids, which are complex curves that tend to overlap with themselves and cycle in such a way that they produce flower-like patterns much like a spirograph. Mathematically, these patterns can be described using parametric or polar equations. To find the distance traveled by the poi head inside these shapes, it meant that I had to not only learn this type of math, but also the dreaded calculus. For, as I eventually learned, calculus was the mathematical study of curves and now everything I was doing relied on them.

And this is where things got really hard…math is traditionally taught in such a way that properties of it–say, the distributive property of multiplication, the quadratic formula, etc, are presented almost as canonical law. Students are then given problems that require these properties to solve and when the produce enough correct answers, they are thought to have learned the property successfully. This was always my issue with math: I understood the properties as presented, but I never understood WHY they worked. This is something that no math class I’ve ever taken has bothered to do–there seems to be an assumption that, this property having been proven, there is no need to understand how it was proven or why it works. Ironically, given that students are always required to show their work on a problem, we were never shown the work of how the elements we were working with worked themselves.

This became a problem in tackling my poi problem: I could find many, many references online as to what the parametric equations I needed to know to draw out poi patterns looked like, but none on why those equations worked and how they could be altered to produce different patterns entirely. I got very, very lucky in that at a fire festival two years ago I had a chance encounter with a juggler named Adam Dipert who took me through the process of creating the equations I needed. I do not think it’s a stretch to say that the ten minutes I spent with Adam that day taught me more about math than the entirety of high school did, nor that Adam is easily the best math teacher I’ve ever had. Far from just giving me the equation, Adam started by showing me how an equation could describe the movement of the poi head around then hand, and how the properties of that equation could be used to extrapolate a way of describing the hand’s movement as well. I won’t claim that instantly all was revealed, but I did now have the tools to figure out everything I wanted to know. It was as close to eureka as I could hope to get. I began creating problems for myself, not just of the flower-like roulette patterns, but also of three-dimensional poi moves that knotted and bent their way through space like corkscrews and doughnuts. And this was when math switched over from being a set of staid, lifeless facts and became a living, breathing thing.

Part of the problem, at least in my case, is that I am a hacker by nature. I see systems and patterns and upon figuring out the rules that govern these systems and patterns I want to find ways to recombine those patterns into new ones. It’s little wonder poi appealed to me, then, but this is a type of thinking that seems altogether alien to the way math is taught in most public schools. As students we are presented with the dry properties and problem sets, but rarely if ever presented with real-world problems for which the math we are being presented is the answer. We quickly forget all the knowledge our parents and the other tax payers of our school districts have paid handsomely for because it seems unrelated to the things we spend our time doing. When math had an application for something I was interested in: drawing human bodies in a way that seemed proportionally correct, finding the correct number of tiles to skip to navigate the kitchen in an easy-to-repeat pattern, I was fascinated. When math was presented as an isolated dalliance with inscrutably abstract numbers and figures I was lost and convinced I was stupid.

I’m still working my way toward an answer to my problem on poi distances. A friend wrote a computer program for me a couple years ago that took parametric equations and measured the distances traveled by the curve, but it’s only accurate to four decimal places. As repeated patterns have emerged from the data, I need to know how to write the equations that produce these distances themselves so I can isolate mathematically what these proportions are instead of just knowing what integer they are. To do this I’ve finally had to step up and teach myself calculus. I’ve had some wonderful help: Khan Academy has been hugely helpful for some of the basic step-by-step knowledge. Some of the a ha moments have come from a wonderful book that was a Christmas present from my girlfriend’s family: “The Calculus Diaries”, a wonderful book that is short on explanation of how calculus works but wonderfully detailed in all the problems it can solve. But by far the best tool I’ve had to work with is the brain of a hacker.

Many of the tools I need to simplify the equations I work have long since been lost to the annals of time. I’d love to claim I held onto all the quadratic, binomial, and trinomial properties I was supposed to have learned in high school, but it would be a lie. Now, however, I’m able to look at the numbers as yet one more thing I can hack. After tackling basic derivatives in Khan Academy’s hugely helpful video, I decided I wanted to take some of the solutions presented at the end of the last video, showing the derivatives for f(x)=x^whatever and rather than just take them at face value, create my own problems to test them and find out why they are what they are. It took a long time…I’m positive that if I’d remembered more of my high school algebra there are many steps I could have skipped or simplified, but in all honesty the extra work made it that much more rewarding when I finally got the answers myself. I tried here and there to find guides online for some of the work I was doing, but I still lack the vocabulary to describe most of this work. When it came right down to it, the solution I found was satisfying not just for reaching the answer, but knowing WHY the answer worked and thus how it can be obtained in situations that veer wildly off the grid.

As a quick note, I will say that there is another disincentive to learning math in this fashion and it has more to do with the attitudes of people who don’t consider themselves math people. People who are fascinated by math growing up may be marginalized as nerds or geeks at an age when children are known to be cruel by nature, but it’s quite another to encounter it adulthood. More times than I’d like to count, I’ve tried to shared some of the breakthroughs I’ve had with close friends only to find them recoiling at the idea of having to comprehend any complex math as an adult. The marginalization that kids who excel at math find isn’t just limited to childhood and it’s very disheartening to find it rearing it’s head even among my 30-something friends. It’s hard to take seriously the claim of friends who consider themselves open minded and whole-heartedly support their friends exploring art, music, and other means of personal expression but somehow find expression through math abhorrent.

At 31, I’m a decade past when most people who are going to learn calculus have learned it (and probably a few years after they’ve already forgotten it). There are countless lessons on it I’ve missed and I can’t help but feeling a great sense of regret that an education of this type wasn’t available to me as a child when my self-image was being ravaged by the onset of algebra. But now, being a math hacker, I know that the knowledge of it is going to be far more ingrained than anything I would have learned in high school or college. The value of the thing, after all, is the use we accrue from it. So, parents with kids who are having math problems, see if you can’t get your child more engaged by finding the real world problems that they solve. See if you can’t find how to make math applicable to the things they care about. Math isn’t hard…it’s just very good at convincing people it is.


Filed under Burning Man, math, poi

Dinosaur colors–or, making my little nerd heart happy

I am a nerd of many things…those at the top of the list would probably have to be comic books, poi, and dinosaurs. Since I was a little kid, dinosaurs have fascinated me and at one point I’d envisioned for myself a career in paleontology. There’s something unbelievably cool to me about trying to piece together the lives of extinct animals via a slow trickle of anecdotal evidence. When I look at a dinosaur skeleton–I actually see the animal living and breathing before me in the same way I imagine a car mechanic looking at an engine can see the car driving around in their heads.

One of my favorite mysteries surrounding dinosaurs is what color they were–we’ve had many dinosaur mummies preserved but all of them display only the texture of the dinosaur’s skin rather than the colors of it. This is part of the reason that dinosaurs are traditionally portrayed as being mottled and scaly, which is odd because their immediate descendents (birds) are found in a variety of colors.

We mammals invest lots of energy and body mass into facial musculature and as such most of our cues are visual. We can tell a lot about another mammal by how they orient their lips, eyebrows, and cheeks. Birds and reptiles seem very foreign to us because they have other ways of displaying their cues to their fellow birds and reptiles, but in the case of birds much of this is visual. We can make a pretty good guess as to dinosaurs’ visual acuity based upon the startling diversity we find in their skulls. Whether carnivore or herbivore, many dinosaur species are immediately identifiable by the ornamentation on their heads, which suggests that this orientation is at least in part how each species identified each other. Though the notion of Triceratops and T-rex having a battle to the death, the Triceratops goring the T-rex with its horns is a powerful image, the lack of any evidence of trauma to the horns of the Triceratops skulls we have found thus far suggest it’s more fantasy than reality. Our best guess is that those marvelous horns told other Triceratops who their brothers and sisters were in what was likely a very crowded world of massive horned dinosaurs.

So we know that dinosaurs probably had good vision–it was a primary mechanism by which they identified each other. So why the dull color scheme? I think a lot of it has to do with pulling cues from dinosaurs’ other extant relatives, crocodiles, and a lack of direct evidence to the contrary. At least until now…

For years now, some of the most interesting fossils in the world have come out of limestone beds in China. Limestone is an awesome preservative sediment because the grains in it are so fine they can preserve impressions of some of an animal’s soft tissue. It was from limestone beds in Germany that we first learned that Archaeopteryx (originally classified as a dinosaur) had feathers and was thus reclassified as a bird. The fossils coming out of China are even more exciting because they expand the roster of feathered dinosaurs to relatives of Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus, offering tantalizing glimpses at a point in evolution where the line between dinosaur and bird was so blurry they were one and the same.

Then, two years ago, a study conducted on one of those fossils revealed that the level of detail in the limestone was so fine that scientists could make out structures they recognized within some of the fossilized feathers of these dinosaurs: melanosomes, which govern the color of feathers. We’ve known for quite some time which melanosomes are responsible for which colors in bird feathers all over the world–and now we can take that knowledge and explore the remains of these new fossils to answer a question that was considered unanswerable for most of my life: what color were dinosaurs, really?

The first fossil to be studied in this way was of a small theropod called Sinosauropteryx (the imaginative name translates roughly to Chinese lizard with wings…no I’m not joking. A side effect of being a dinosaur freak is that you wind up learning quite a bit of Greek and Latin along the way) that had a racing stripe-like cluster of feathers along its spine. A study of the melanosomes in these features revealed alternating bands of red and white and for the first time in history, we could say conclusively that we knew exactly what color an animal extinct for over 100 million years ways. It’s a stunning success of detective work and resourcefulness and it makes my little nerd heart soar 🙂

Now there’s another fossil that we’ve learned the melanosome structure for and it’s even cooler. I remember a couple years ago watching a NOVA special on Microraptor, another Chinese theropod that had been discovered with evidence of wing-like feature protrusions coming from both the arms and the legs, suggesting the road to flight as we know it had more than a few twists and turns. In that special, there were more than a few conjectural models made of the animal with earth-toned (and if I might say so, boring) feathers. Now, having studied the melanosomes in the preserved feathers from the Microraptor scientists have reached a different conclusion about its color scheme: it had black, iridescent feathers. And it is so freaking cool 🙂

I can’t wait to see more and more of these fossils studied and the diversity of color schemes among dinosaurs revealed. More than anything else, it’s just such a delight to see not how exotic some of these extinct animals were, but realize how much like the modern world the Mesozoic must have looked like. We may not have time travel, but for the moment I’ll totally take this.

Leave a comment

Filed under dinosaurs, science

A sad week in sci-fi art

At the beginning of the week, we lost the man who was responsible for making Star Wars look so foreign and yet so familiar: Ralph McQuarrie.

Now it looks like we’ve lost another titan of science fiction art–the french comic book artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Though I’d venture that Moebius is the less well-known of the two artists, in my book he’s been vastly more influential. In addition to influencing the tone and scope of some of Neil Gaiman’s work on Sandman, he’s been a direct influence on a new generation of comic book artists such as Geof Darrow (who was the production designer on “The Matrix”) and Frank Quitely (who drew seminal work on both X-Men and Superman).

There’s the maxim from Understanding Comics where Scott McCloud states that artists frequently find, “that [their] favorite artist was actually just a watered-down version of an older, less-polished artist whom he had always taken for granted.” Moebius was that kind of artist. He’s the Velvet Underground of comic book artists. If you’re a fan of comic art that includes hyper-detailed, fantastical backgrounds with characters who appear human and yet alien at the same time, you’re living in a world that Moebius helped create.

Now the thing that’s got me terrified is if indeed celebrity deaths come in threes, who might we lose next? :-/

Leave a comment

Filed under comic books, sci-fi

On Kony and African Advocacy

Kony 2012 — that’s the name of a campaign that’s blown up on Facebook and Twitter this week. Its defining meme is a 30-minute video released by Invisible Children to try and raise awareness of Joseph Kony and the campaign to bring him to justice. I’ve seen a LOT of posts both pro and con in the past few days and given that I used to work for an organization that also raised awareness of atrocities in Uganda, I wanted to weigh in because the debate seems to be getting ever more muddied due to a variety of circumstances–many of which are among the reasons why I left the organization in the first place.

The video in question details the life and military campaigns of Joseph Kony. If you haven’t viewed it already, feel free to check it out below:


The bits about Kony kidnapping 30,000 children, raping young girls, and enforcing a variety of nefarious initiation rituals upon the children he kidnapped? All true…seriously, if I were to make a list of most evil human beings on the planet, Kony would be in the top 5 if not the pole position itself. He’s spent 30 years making life hell for people all across central Africa. That said, he hasn’t been a problem in Uganda since 2006. The LRA is now less a group of radical rebels and more a group of bush thugs that take advantage of the difficulty traversing terrain between Eastern Congo, Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Uganda. We don’t know for sure, but the smart money says he’s currently in either South Sudan or Congo. As for the 30,000 children he’s drafted to fight for him in the past 30 years? He likely only still has 200 of them.

What is being done to capture him? For one, last year President Obama signed into law the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act–a $40 million package to send elite US troops to Uganda to train and arm the local troops there to bring Kony to justice (the operation has also been expanded to DRC and South Sudan). The fact that Kony is an awful human being hasn’t escaped the world’s attention–the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest way back in 2005 (after Uganda referred the case to them) and there have been multiple attempts to bring him to the bargaining table and end the LRA’s operations in Central Africa. There’s no doubt that his influence has waned considerably in the years since and that his support is on the ropes. Is it likely that Obama’s effort will bring him to justice? Maybe…it seems as though there is a strong confluence of events in the region that may lead to his apprehension, including a new government in South Sudan eager for aide money and good relations with the US government, a desire for peace in Eastern Congo, and the stabilization of much of the Central African Republic.

So what about the video, then? Why put the screws to Kony in such a public manner when things are looking good for his capture? It’s possible they want to cinch the deal…or try out the efficacy of new social networking tools…or that they’re worried international focus will shift so far to the Arab Spring that Kony takes advantage of the shift in priorities and slinks away again. I can’t tell you for sure. What I can tell you is that the video isn’t terribly unique. Invisible Children has been producing videos to galvanize activism now for nearly 6 years. The organization started out with three young filmmakers who traveled to Uganda and documented the lives of the children they found there who had been effected by the fallout from Kony’s disastrous campaign in the region. They took their film on the road to raise awareness of the situation in Uganda and built a non-profit organization dedicated to taking Kony down and rehabilitating many of the children he’d kidnapped.

They’ve taken heat for many of their advocacy techniques–among them that they’ve spent only 32% of the money they’ve raised over the years on efforts back in Uganda while the rest has been spent to continue advocacy efforts. I’m not terribly concerned by this–it’s not unusual for advocacy organizations to have budget structures like this. For example, the One Campaign spends nearly three-quarters of its budget on its outreach efforts. People who are greenhorns at international activism frequently have the expectation that when they give to an organization involved with crises abroad that that money is going to find its way directly to the people affected by said conflict. When it comes to advocacy this isn’t always the case: frequently the money goes to raising awareness of organizations that are doing the on-the-ground work or lobbying for increased federal funding to go to these efforts. Whether this is a more effective means to provide support is a long, long debate that doesn’t have any kind of clear answer remotely close to being in sight. What we do know is that well-executed advocacy measures can increase funding to charitable causes, but they can have some awful side-effects.

This brings me to a second piece of criticism I’ve seen floating around related to Invisible Children: the founders cozying up to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. Was posing for the photo a dumb move? Yes, absolutely…just the kind of dumb move that three young men traveling through Africa for the first time are likely to make. Is the case, as one blogger suggested, “Both the Ugandan army and Sudan People’s Liberation Army are riddled with accusations of rape and looting?” Yep, absolutely. No belligerent army of the past 100 years has not been accused of rape and looting…including the United States military. In the case of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, they were fighting against a military force from North Sudan that was accused of vastly worse atrocities both there and in its Western region of Darfur.

And here’s where the question of advocacy gets really sticky, because there’s an overwhelming truth that is impossible to ignore if you do any amount of background research into conflicts in Uganda, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, or any of the Central African nations that have been host to destructive and appalling loses of human life in the past 30 years: there are no angels. It’s exceptionally difficult to put together a narrative that galvanizes people to action that doesn’t overlook this fact–and it can be tremendously damaging. For example, in Darfur there has been a long-standing narrative of a powerful North Sudanese military executing a campaign of mass human rights atrocities on members of the Fur, Zaghawa, and Massaleit tribes of the region, and by and large it’s true, but not a full picture. The conflict exists due to a civil war between Darfuri rebels that have fought a guerilla war in the region for nearly 8 years. Due to diplomatic pressure from the United States, among others, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has frequently signed peace agreements with different rebel groups from the region that are seldom honored for very long due both to some rebel factions abstaining from the negotiations and the tendency for rebel groups that do sign the agreements to have splinter groups that refuse to honor the stipulations of these agreements. The cycle then begins anew: fighting breaks out again, the US sends diplomats to get the two parties back to the bargaining table: lather, rinse, repeat. Part of the issue is that there has been a great deal of US grassroots support to pressure Bashir to end the conflict, but thanks to the simplified narrative used to galvanize such support, these efforts frequently ignore the role of the rebels in making a lasting peace happen and tend to drive the cycle anew.

This is the dark side of advocacy: poorly thought out narratives or programs can have catastrophic effects. One such example is the Conflict Minerals campaign promoted by the Enough Project. This campaign began by suggesting that the video game system boom of the early aughts helped drive a destructive civil war in DRC by filling the coffers of militias who were taking a cut from sales of essential minerals coming of out mines in Eastern Congo. The meme then expanded to include cell phones and other electronic devices, driving home the point that the computer you are using to read about conflicts abroad might be having a role in exacerbating said conflict. Two years ago, the campaign led to a provision of the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that required electronics manufacturers to disclose the supply chains for their electronic devices and avoid trading in sources of minerals that had come out of Congo. Aside from being incredibly difficult to enforce (melt down ice cubes from two different refrigerators and then tell me where the resulting water came from), it also put a stranglehold on mining operations in Eastern Congo, which as it turns out was also a legitimate form of employment for thousands in an incredibly poverty-stricken region of the world. While these miners have been put out of work, belligerent militias in Eastern Congo continue to terrorize the populace and support themselves with protection money gleaned from a variety of sources, including cattle farming, banana farming, and money laundered over the border from Rwanda. Not only has this measure failed to halt violence in Eastern Congo, it has also contributed to continuing poverty there.

So, here’s the question you get left with: clearly, there are awful things happening in the world. Invisible Children is raising awareness of these things, even if they’re leaving out a few key facts, what can you do when you want to help? While clearly ill-informed advocacy can have drastic effects it’s also just as bad to have a nation of people ignorant of the problems of the world. Honestly (and you’re going to hate me for this), the answer is to do your homework. Think about the amount of research you put into reading up on cars or houses before you’ll buy either one of these things. If you buy the wrong car or house, it could cost you thousands of dollars down the road or possibly put your life in jeopardy. If you put any less thought or research into efforts to help people in crisis on the other side of the world, it can be vastly more dangerous and put many thousands of lives at risk. You wouldn’t buy a house just because someone put together a half hour video telling you that you needed to buy a particular house. You’d ask your friends, you’d consult an agent. You’d get a lot of conflicting data, for sure, but in the end you’d know you did your due diligence. And here’s the other important component: if that house turns out to be a lemon (and yes, I’m still using this as a metaphor), there’s no shame in admitting that this call was a bad one and working to fix the problem. This is my biggest problem with the non-profit world currently. There is so much stigma attached to failure that such things don’t exist: even if a program is a catastrophic failure it is still promoted as a success to keep donations coming in to an organization. There are no simple answers to any of the problems I’ve outlined above. Every one of them will require a lot of time, energy, and effort to solve. There are no silver bullets…if you’re fired up and want to do something to help, do your homework, accept all viewpoints, make the most informed decision you can, and be willing to admit it when you were wrong. That’s the best advice I can give.

So should you take part in Invisible Children’s campaign? I wouldn’t, but I’m far from the last voice on the issue. There are people vastly better educated than myself that are taking part in it. What I can do is point you to resources of people I regularly read and respect who do work in Africa:

And by the way, if you’re horrified by Kony, you should really look up some of the stuff going on in Syria right now. They need your help and they need it fast!

Leave a comment

Filed under Activism, Africa, Uncategorized