Friday, November 26, 2010

Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

Daniel Keyes
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –


Flowers for Algernon is a seminal work, not only of science fiction but of fiction in general. It is written in the form of the diary of a mentally retarded man, Charlie Gordon, who starts out with an IQ of 70 and then goes through an experimental procedure which temporarily raises his IQ to a genius level of over 180.

This is a great premise and Keyes tells the story well. The book allows you to look into the mind of someone you wouldn’t normally understand and see him as an equal.

Charlie originally works as a janitor in a bakery and thinks everyone there is his friend. As he grows more intelligent, he realizes that his co-workers have actually been ridiculing him and making him the butt of their jokes the whole time.

And he realizes that the scientists experimenting with him see him only as an object, as something they’ve created. “It’s frightening to realize,” he says, “that my fate is in the hands of men who are not the giants I once thought them to be, men who don’t know all the answers.”

Not only is this extremely upsetting to him, but it is also threatening to the people around him. His relationship with his experimenters becomes increasingly hostile. His co-workers turn against him and petition to have him fired. He realizes that:
“It had been alright as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron. I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies. I had betrayed them, and they hated me for it.”
He has had to grow up and learn, as we all do, that our revered authority figures are only human. And he’s had to compress that whole process into just a few months.

I quite appreciate the pain of this disillusionment. Unfortunately, however, there were two major things that turned me off about this book.

The first was that I didn’t like the characters very much. Not Charlie Gordon, or the scientists experimenting on him, or his sympathetic teacher Miss Kinnian, or his co-workers in the bakery. They seemed (respectively) cold and arrogant, self-centered, dippy, and mean.

The second was the omnipresent, kitschy 1950s-era psychology. Charlie’s post-experimental monitoring is full of Rorschach tests, dream therapy, and the use of free association to “remove mental barriers.” During key moments of change, instead of explaining what is happening to him in any accessible way, Charlie tends to go into trippy meditative trances complete with shimmering flowers and balls of light and mental voyages into the universe.

The Speed of Dark, which came out in 2003, was consciously modeled after Flowers for Algernon but I liked it much more. The autistic man who was The Speed of Dark’s main character had compatriots, autistic co-workers coping with their own challenges in their own ways. The key non-autistic people in his life were more interesting. The interactions he had with minor characters – a policeman, his landlady, his mechanic, people in his fencing class – were human and subtle. And his inner thoughts were always comprehensible, even as panicky as they sometimes were.

Algernon was originally published as a short story in 1959 and I actually think that the shorter version is better. Perhaps because it necessarily has to focus on the central plot and doesn’t have as much time to expose the characters or to get into wacky psycho-pop.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Food Review: Doritos

For my birthday I picked out five 99-cent bags of Doritos brand tortilla chips, each one a different variety. I paired each selection with a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. 

Doritos Late Night Cheeseburger
I was amazed. These chips really do taste exactly like a cheeseburger. I would like to know more about the source of the "Natural Beef Flavor." In the future, all foods will be delivered in chip form.

Doritos Collisions: Pizza Cravers + Ranch
The Collisions concept is simple: Just sweep up whatever chips happen to be on the floor of the factory at the end of the day and jumble them together in a single bag. Back to the brooms guys, this combo didn't really do it for me.

Doritos Spicy Nacho
Just a Doritos Nacho Cheese with more Nacho. I say, if you're going to add Nacho, then you should really add quite a lot of Nacho. This chip did not live up to the hype re: quantity of Nacho.

Doritos Spicy Sweet Chili
The best part about this chip is the package design. The word "Spicy" is rendered in a heavy-metal "devil" font while "Sweet" is done in an informal feminine script to indicate that it was written by an angel. Perhaps a good "date chip" but I do not like to encounter sweetness when consuming salty snacks.

Doritos Blazin' Buffalo and Ranch
Again with the Ranch. What is Ranch? What is the origin of the Ranch flavor? How is this flavor related to the herding of livestock? I don't know. It just appeared at some point during the 1970s. As for "Blazin' Buffalo," again we have a case of overselling. There is nothing blazing about this buffalo. 

Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: The Healer's War

Elizabeth Anne Scarborough
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

The Healer’s War is a moving real-life account of one woman’s service in the Vietnam war in the guise of a good science fiction story.

The main character, Lieutenant Kitty McCulley, is a nurse at a U.S. Army hospital near China Beach. Her hospital treats wounded American GIs as well as South Vietnamese civilians. McCulley isn’t always great about keeping her cool or doing things exactly by the book but she genuinely cares about her patients and tries her best for all of them, whatever color they are.

The American soldiers usually stay for only a short time and then are shipped to better-equipped hospitals back home. The Vietnamese civilians, having nowhere else to go, tend to stay longer, and McCulley develops something of a bond with several of them.

One of her Vietnamese patients is a holy man, a healer, who had both legs blown off by a bomb. She cannot save him but before he dies, he gives her his magical amulet. The amulet reveals auras – clouds of color around people and animals that show how they are really feeling and where their pain is – and it also focuses her energy to give her tremendous powers of healing.

Both of these powers come in very handy when she is transporting one of her patients to another hospital and their helicopter is shot down, leaving her and her one-legged, ten-year-old patient to slog their way through miles of Vietnamese jungle until they are eventually captured by the Viet Cong.

While the jungle section contains most of the adventure in the book, my favorite parts were the first section, in the hospital, and the last little section, after McCulley gets back home to the States, because they are both so clearly based on the author’s own experiences as an Army nurse in Vietnam and as a returning vet.

In the first section, Scarborough paints vivid pictures with details. Everyday life at the hospital is largely miserable for McCulley, with the smells (disinfectant, pot, latrines), the heat, the rain, and the bugs. Her nylons fuse to her legs with sweat and the plastic earpiece on the telephone has been melted by the bug spray everyone wears. She deals with so many angry, aggressive, and/or flirtatious soldiers that the nice ones can actually be the most unsettling. But, at the same time, Vietnam can be beautiful to her, with misty mountains covered in hundreds of shades of green.

The last section of the book is equally powerful. It doesn’t give away anything about the book’s central plot to say that when McCulley comes home from Vietnam, she is suffering from shock and trauma and is isolated from those around her. She has real trouble adjusting to life with relatives and friends who have no concept of what the war was like. It is very hard to watch her go sluggishly through the motions of trying to repair herself until she finally realizes she can’t do it all on her own.

I also very much liked McCulley’s personality. She’s a realist and she makes it easy to put yourself in her shoes. She’s exhausted and depressed by the war but she doesn’t make too many excuses for herself. She thinks of herself as an inept, incompetent nurse who isn’t doing a terrific job, and sometimes she does screw up, but her compassion and care for her patients come through loud and clear.

The only major knock I have on this book is that the power of the amulet goes a little too far; in particular, it eventually allows her to understand Vietnamese perfectly. This makes communication with her VC captors conveniently easy but it seems inconsistent with the amulet’s other attributes, which are more vague and impressionistic.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tax Expenditures

There's plenty to criticize in the Simpson-Bowles and Rivlin-Domenici deficit reduction proposals that have been offered in the last week. Our number-one problem right now is punishingly high unemployment, not the projected deficit in 2030. Also, our long-term fiscal problem is almost entirely a health-care story, and neither plan really addresses that.

But punishingly high unemployment is a really hard problem to solve, and health care is even tougher, so instead I'm going to talk – muse, really – about how much I like the fact that both fiscal proposals adopt the technique of "zeroing out" all the various tax deductions and credits that tend to accumulate in the tax code over time, thereby forcing would-be deficit cutters to justify their full cost if they want to add them back in.

The home mortgage-interest deduction is an obvious one. At the margin, it might turn a few renters into homeowners, but the vast bulk of the expenditure goes toward subsidizing larger, costlier homes than people would otherwise purchase. And, like all tax deductions, it is worth more to high-income families, who have bigger interest bills and higher tax rates, than it is to low-income families. Many if not most of those marginal home-buyers pay too little in interest to itemize anyway; they take the standard deduction and derive no benefit from this subsidy.

Then there are the various tax credits for children, for postsecondary education, for storm windows, for electric cars. If we want to subsidize children and education and storm windows and electric cars, we ought to appropriate the funds and send folks a check so they can pay for these items. That's harder to do politically, but it's more honest.

Businesses get special tax breaks on research and development expenditures, and from time to time they also manage to get Congress to pass accelerated depreciation rules, supposedly to encourage the purchase of capital equipment. Both subsidies may well be worthy goals; if so, let's just cut them a check for R&D and for capital equipment. I imagine this sort of thing would be distasteful to rugged-individualist business owners, but we all have to do our part.

In addition to distorting our economic decision-making and letting economic policy-makers off the hook, these tax breaks, deductions, credits, and so on all cost money. That's why analysts call them "tax expenditures." To offset the expenditure, we have to raise the statutory tax rate. It's like when a furniture store raises the retail price of a sofa before announcing a 50% off sale.

The 1986 tax reform, which abolished many tax breaks, including the preferential rate on capital gains, offers a partial guide, and I'm surprised I haven't heard more people citing it. The broader tax base made lower rates possible, though we may have overshot on the rate-cutting. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton both had to raise taxes in the early 1990s to deal with burgeoning deficits. Still, "broaden the base and lower the rates" is the right starting point for any reform.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

An Ingenious Arrangement of Lights and Mirrors

No, it's not the latest deficit-reduction plan from Washington, it's an article from Modern Mechanics and Inventions, May 1932!

Via Modern Mechanix. Perhaps of special interest to Whorfin.

Ten 1000-watt lamps, "concentrated light-rays," sound-proofed rooms. Sounds like a flash-fire waiting to happen. Luckily, the theater is loaded with asbestos!

Text in full here.

I guess it's noteworthy that the inventor chose bridge as the best application of his invention, as opposed to chess, say, or mah-jongg or skittles.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Book Review: Death and the Joyful Woman

Ellis Peters
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

This is yet another well-put-together British mystery.

It starts with the violent murder of a businessman hated by many people for a variety of reasons. Someone is arrested for the crime but the detectives (and the reader) are convinced the accused person is innocent. The book follows the entire business of investigating the crime and finding the true killer.

There are negatives to this book, indeed, but they are outweighed by the positives.

The Positives

The two sleuths are likeable – both the official professional (the police detective, George Felse) and the unofficial amateur (George’s inquisitive teenage son Dominic).

The story is very well constructed. Peters does a nice job of ramping up the tension toward the end so that the climactic scene really is very exciting.

Peters exhibits hardly any of that annoying habit some mystery writers have where they too obviously keep things from the reader that would let the reader put together the clues themselves. Or the habit of trying to string the reader along and make the book more suspenseful by hinting clumsily at what the reader has already figured out, to the point where the reader wants to scream, "I know it was the butler already!" In this book, as you figure things out, the story is right there with you, acknowledging what you've figured out and then taking you to the next step.

There are some great quirky phrases in this book. I don’t know whether they’re more a result of Peters’ creativity, nationality, or era but they’re excellent:
"A sprat to catch a mackerel was fair enough"

"he was laughing like a drain"

"speak of the devil and his bat wings rustle behind you"

"working as packer and porter and general dog's body at Malden's"

"I never said anything to the fellows, naturally, but it leaked in around dawn, with the milk"
The Negatives

Some of the non-detective characters are ridiculous.

Particularly Kitty, a young woman with a complex relationship to the murdered man. Kitty is beautiful, innocent, and dippy. She does a lot of gasping and looking astonished and pleading with her big violet eyes. Naturally, guys feel rewarded just helping her out. She is like many young females in 1950s-1960s novels who are supposedly wild and rebellious, but never actually so rebellious as to be socially unacceptable.

Also, the police detective's wife, Bunty. She is completely understanding and helps her husband talk things out when he needs to even though he has a major crush on Kitty and she knows it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Prisoner

We're enjoying "The Prisoner," a 17-episode sci-fi/spy series from 1967-68, now out on Blu-Ray and available on Netflix. This unusually long opening sequence, which includes a commercial break, plays at the beginning of each episode in order to give even the casual viewer a complete understanding of the premise of the series.

The exteriors of "The Village"/prison were shot in a fanciful resort in Wales.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Book Review: Seeker

Jack McDevitt
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This book is great in many ways. It is an exciting detective story with appealing central characters, plenty of outer-space travel, and a satisfying ending.

The story takes place many centuries in the future, after humans have developed faster-than-light travel and colonized several worlds. It is narrated by Chase Kolpath, an interstellar pilot. Kolpath and her boss, Alex Benedict, make up the staff of Rainbow Enterprises, a company that explores remote sections of space, finds ancient artifacts from abandoned space stations and failed colonies, and sells the artifacts to collectors.

It is lucrative. But Kolpath and Benedict are always running afoul of archaeologists and historians who view their business as theft, and this tension pervades the entire book.

The book’s adventure begins when a woman asks Rainbow Enterprises to appraise an antique cup with the seal of the starship Seeker on it. The cup turns out to be 9,000 years old and to be, just possibly, a relic of an ancient lost colony.

In researching it, Kolpath and Benedict find out that back in the 25th century, Earth was overpopulated, poor, plague-stricken, and ruled by a series of harsh authoritarian regimes. A small group of idealists, the Margolians, fled Earth in two rickety starships, including one named Seeker. Whether they successfully established a new Eden for themselves or died in the attempt, hey were never heard from again. Their fate at first became the subject of novels and films but gradually their memory faded to the point where most people in Kolpath & Benedict’s time now think it is merely a legend.

If the cup can be proven to be from this lost colony, and if it can be used to trace the colony’s location, it could be Rainbow’s greatest find ever.

Together, Benedict and Kolpath unravel the secrets of the ancient emigrants. They do library research; they talk to avatars of the long-lost Margolians; they explore remote sections of outer space; they have daring adventures and evade several attempts on their life.

This was the first time I had read anything by Jack McDevitt. I liked it so much I immediately read the prequel, Polaris, which was just as good and which suffered not at all from being read out of order.

Stephen King has called McDevitt “the logical heir to Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.” That is a pretty high bar, but King might be right. McDevitt’s writing is straightforward and the process of putting together the pieces of the puzzle keeps your attention the whole time.

One of the things I liked best about this book (and about Polaris, too) was Chase Kolpath. She is matter-of-fact and thrives under pressure. People naturally call her by her last name. She is a great pilot and her boss respects her as such. Benedict is a better sleuth, but when his investigations put their lives in immediate physical danger, she’s always the one who keeps her head clear and gets them out of it. She has a private life and keeps it private, from both her boss and largely from the reader, too. She likes a party and goes out with guys but doesn’t get attached to any one of them.

I also liked the ways that McDevitt layers fiction within fiction. He puts a quote at the beginning of each of his chapters, for example; sometimes it is from a real (19th-20th century) author, but more often it is from fake fiction or fake philosophy, written sometime during the 21st-26th centuries. The quotes don’t feel like the rest of McDevitt’s writing so it really does feel like he is borrowing from other authors.

Also, as a side project, Kolpath decides to watch all the films based on the Margolian legend. Her summaries of the plots of the movies she watches are really funny.
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