Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Very First Employer


This is a composite of the several dozen phone calls I received, along with some other salient details, from my very first employer, my neighbor Mario, of Pommel Place in West Des Moines, Iowa:
"Cleeeese! What are you doing? This is Mario. My machine is broken! Can you come cut my grass? I will give you warm Dr. Pepper as a refreshment. Despite the fact that I am in my late fifties and have a quite large gut, I rarely if ever put on a shirt during the summer months. Please be careful when you use the weed-whacker around my abortive attempt to reproduce the Trevi Fountain in my backyard. I am Italian but I teach Spanish at Drake. My wife spends 23 hours a day on the couch. Cleeeeese!"

Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: Citizen Vince

Jess Walter
2005
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

SPOILER ALERT

This book started out with promise but ended up being a disappointment.

Part of my disappointment was in the ridiculously unrealistic naiveté of the gangsters. The other part was that I let myself get cool ideas about what might happen to the main character but the reality was not nearly as exciting as what I had imagined.

The main character, Marty Hagen, is a small-time hood from New York City. He had a successful racket going in credit-card theft until he got himself in debt to some bigger-time hoods. He then turned state’s evidence, was put into the witness protection program, took a new name (Vince Camden), and moved to Spokane, Washington, where he became a baker in a donut shop.

The story opens in Spokane when, unfortunately, Vince’s old life has caught up to him in the form of a hit man sent by his New York creditors to kill him after they discovered where he was living.

It’s a typical formula for a gangster book – an essentially well-meaning, nonviolent hood, in love with a golden-hearted hooker, trying to work towards a better, less felonious life.

What I liked about it was that it takes place in 1980, during the last few months leading up to the Carter/Reagan election. Vince, who had never cared for politics in the past, and who certainly has enough to deal with already with the hit man after him, gets more and more distracted by the race until it’s almost all he can think about. He gets his voter registration card, goes to hear politicians speak, and even befriends a guy running for local office. It gives him a new focus and new reasons for pursuing his dreams.

The politics give a colorful background and atmosphere to the otherwise run-of-the-mill plot. Vince hears Reagan’s now-legendary one-liners and reads headlines about the hostage negotiations with Iran and has to react and interpret them in real time, as we had to, without the benefit of hindsight. There are even a couple short entertaining sections written from Carter’s and Reagan’s points of view (judiciously informed by the twenty-five years that passed between then and when the book was written).

The problem is that the political background is just that – background. At first, I thought for sure that Vince was going to get more deeply involved in it and maybe even run for office himself. He shows a natural ability for it and makes contacts very quickly. I thought it would end up being a story about redemption through public service, or at the very least an ironic statement about the type of person it takes to succeed in politics. But it doesn’t. Vince never does anything besides vote, and even that, by the time he does it, seems a bit pointless and hollow. (Even for me, a rabid voter.)

The other problem with this book that I mentioned earlier is that the gangsters really do not act like gangsters. Get this: When Vince realizes that his creditors in New York have sent a hit man to kill him, he flies to New York, finagles his way into a poker game with them, reveals who he is, and tells them that he is in witness protection. He then tells them so convincingly that he bears them no ill will, that he will pay them back everything that he owes them, and that he has had an epiphany and that all he wants to do is to go back to Spokane and become a full-time donut baker, that they believe him, and they let him go back to Spokane, with only a relatively minor favor to do in return.

Come on. I watched The Sopranos. I know they had to kill Adriana once she got caught by the Feds, no matter what she promised or how much Christopher loved her. No way would these guys let a snitch leave New York alive.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: the book is written in present tense. I’m open to the idea that a book can be written in present tense and still be good, but I'm hard pressed to think of one.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Favorite Pro-Sports Head Coach Ever

Mike Brown: Head Coach, Los Angeles Lakers. Dungeon Master. Inveterate shirt-ironer.

O Happy Day! I have a new favorite coach-type person to root for.

I looked all over for a link to an online version of the full Sports Illustrated profile to no avail. If you are into basketball, D&D, and/or shirt-ironing it would really behoove you to seek out this article (subscription required).  It's in the Dec. 19 issue, the one with Tim Tebow on the cover.

Friday, December 23, 2011

UPS Poem

For the last month I worked as a driver’s helper for UPS during their peak holiday season. The job involved running to and fro one of those familiar brown trucks, delivering holiday presents and everyday orders alike to residential doorsteps while my boss, the driver, worked in the back of the truck organizing and planning out the next few stops. Putting helpers on the routes during peak season is the only way that UPS drivers could complete their appointed rounds within the 13-hour-40-minute time limit imposed on commercial drivers by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Today was my last day as a UPS driver’s helper. Here’s a little remembrance of my final delivery.

Driver’s Helper

by Chris Hartman

I just delivered
The last package of 2011
To 117 Hammond Street
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
A white Land’s End bag
An insouciant toss from five yards
The pouch nestled perfectly
With a clappy thud
Against the gothic wooden door
Of this Tudor-style house
Tastefully adorned with pine boughs
And red bows
For Christmas, in two days

Friday, December 16, 2011

Book Review: Tehanu

Ursula K. Le Guin
1990
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

SPOILER ALERT

Tehanu is the last book in Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle, a series of books set in a rural middle-ages-y fantasy land filled with mages and dragons.

With all due respect to Ms. Le Guin, who has written some complex and groundbreaking books, the Earthsea series is really not my bag. And Tehanu is no exception.

For one thing, there is not much of a plot. The main character, Goha, was tutored as a girl by a powerful mage (i.e. wizard) but left that life as a young woman to marry a farmer and raise a family. At the time of the book, Goha is somewhere in middle age. She has adopted a girl, Therru, who was so unwanted by her parents that she was permanently disfigured in a fire that they set to kill her.

At the start of the book, Goha and Therru travel far overland to see Goha’s old tutor, Ogion, who is dying. After he dies, Goha and Therru stay on in his house and are beset alternately by ruffians vaguely related to Therru’s parents and by Aspen, an evil, Wormtongue-esque rival mage, who has it in for Goha for some reason.

They while away the time at Ogion’s house amidst all of this until one day a dragon comes, bearing the half-dead body of Ogion’s other pupil, Ged, who was once a super-powerful arcmage but who lost his power defending his master in a terrible battle. Goha nurses Ged back to health and then they all make their way back to Goha’s farm, where they are beset by the same ruffians they were beset by at Ogion’s house.

Then, when Goha’s estranged son comes to claim the farm, they all decide to go back to Ogion’s place, where they again immediately run afoul of Aspen, who puts a spell on Goha and Ged and is about to drive them off a cliff, when Therru saves the day by calling the dragon to come back and rescue them.

I spent the whole book thinking something was about to actually happen but nothing ever really did. They mainly just travel back and forth between Ogion’s and Goha’s houses, and are only occasionally, and only briefly, in danger.

Le Guin’s treatment of women in this book is also frustrating, given how good she can be at representing the misunderstood or the different.

In Tehanu, only men can be mages; women with magical powers can only be witches. Mages are involved with big-time projects and politics; witches concern themselves only with small-time magic like healing illnesses or finding lost objects. In the plot, the men are the active elements and the women are the ones who are passively acted upon; the men either put the women in danger or save them – up to and including the male dragon at the end.

Goha’s life has been split between her unusual magical life under Ogion’s tutelage and her more ordinary human life with her husband and children. She never really comes to grips with either one or reconciles the two. She seems drawn towards magic, but never really accepts the power it would give her, and tends to want to go running back to the farm.

And, finally, the dragons in Tehanu are just too dreamy for me. With the exception of the dragon in Shrek, I like my dragons to be mean and uncompromisingly tough, fought by knights with swords or by men and women with bows and arrows.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The B-52s Have Still Got It

Live at the House of Blues, Boston, 12/2/11.

Kate Pierson: 63 years old and deliciously eerie on "Planet Claire."

The audio isn't great in this video, but if you look carefully, at the very beginning you might be able to see Kate reach down and touch the hand of the guy standing right next to me.






Friday, December 02, 2011

Book Review: Powers

Ursula K. Le Guin
2007
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

SPOILER ALERT

This book was only available in the Young Adult section of my library. And, after reading it, I can see why; this is definitely a book for teenagers.

As I’ve said before, I really enjoy some of Le Guin’s work, and then there are other books of hers that I don’t like so much. The books that I don’t like usually fall into one of two groups: those that are too dreamy and those that have too heavy-handed a Message. This book fell too far into both of these categories for me.

The Message in this book is that slavery is evil. (Which, of course, it is.) The story is about a young slave boy, Gavir, who has been brought up in a comparatively benevolent household. He is in denial, at first, about how bad it is to be a slave, because his life appears to be pretty good. His masters are not overtly cruel; he is able to live with his beloved sister, Sallo; and he gets to go to school with the master’s children because he’s being trained to be a teacher.

But eventually his little world starts falling apart and he begins questioning the system. He gets bullied by some of the less benevolent members of the household. His home gets invaded by another country. And the last straw is the awful murder of his sister, which finally makes him run away for good.

After he runs away, he lives in several different kinds of societies, including a city of freed men; a cave with a wild man of the hills; a camp of runaway slaves in the heart of the forest run by a megalomaniac misogynist; and the poor marshland settlements of his own people from whom he was stolen as a baby. From them all he is exposed to alternative governments and different attitudes towards women, work, war, and cooperation.

For those who track such things, Gavir’s story is the classic monomyth: he is born under mysterious circumstances, shows early evidence of supernatural abilities (he can see visions of the future), goes on a long journey or quest, encounters several father figures from whom he has to become independent, and has to have a showdown with an arch enemy to finally prove himself.

Anyway, the point, which, of course, Gavir eventually realizes after all of this, is that a cage is still a cage no matter how gilded it is. That slavery is an evil institution, however disguised it may be, and a limited freedom is no freedom at all.

This is all very well and good a message, but so obviously delivered.

And the characters are so black and white. Gavir and his sister are one hundred percent good, eager naïfs. They have unquestioning obedience to and reverence for their masters. They are hard-working and earnest. And the bad guys are uniformly awful bullies. And of course Gavir has to take their bullying without complaint and without retaliation because he’s just so earnest and good.

The story is also not all that exciting. Gavir's life really isn’t all that difficult most of the time. He is in physical danger maybe twice, and in an actual physical conflict a couple more times, but these situations are all generally over in about a minute. Even his escape from slavery is easy.

And all of the pivotal events in the book are instigated and resolved by external forces without any action on Gavir's part. He is swept along by events, not directing of them. Even his final showdown is won essentially passively, by natural forces, not by anything special he does.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Vintage Wallet Inserts

An unused but apparently vintage wallet I recently picked up included two wallet-sized pieces of extremely cheap paper printed extremely cheaply with various features, warranties, seals, and an ID “card.” I scanned in the four images:

Finest in Leather

The American Designer Award for Finest in Leather. Impressive! Something tells me that perhaps there was no such thing, nor was there an entity called the “Leather Industries of America,” but perhaps I am being too cynical.


Leather Wallet Warranty

I guess the warranty is as to the materials, not the workmanship or construction. If the wallet falls apart in a couple weeks, that's on you, buster.

(Two months in, the wallet seems to be holding together fine.)


Replaceable Windows

Now, where to find these “additional windows”...


Identification Card (Approved)

Good to know that this is an “Approved” identification card. Or is it the bearer of the card who has been approved? And “card” is a stretch. These inserts are printed on some of the flimsiest paper I've ever encountered, several notches below newsprint.

In the vital stats section: Blood type. Good thinking, I guess.

Notice how the “Zip” is in a slightly different typeface? Looks like Helvetica regular as opposed to the condensed sans-serif used for the address blanks. (Typographers: In the condensed font, I notice that the a, y, and r have distinctively curved elements. Is this maybe the special font that Bell developed for phone books, designed to be legible at extremely small sizes? ) The addition of the “Zip” later on indicates that the original design of the insert dates from the pre-zip-code era, that is, before the early 1960s, but that the wallet itself is newer than that.

Basic standards of tomfoolery would of course require one to write in “Federal Bureau of Investigation” in the “Employed by” blank.

Maybe not the best idea nowadays to just give out your SSN to the random stranger who finds your wallet.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Tinariwen

I just saw these guys in concert recently. What a concept - a rotating collective of Tuareg-Berber musicians from the Sahara region of northern Mali, playing traditional Bedouin music with a bit of a Santana-and-Zeppelin-inspired rock style, on traditional instruments + electric guitars and basses.





Friday, November 18, 2011

Book Review: A Dance at the Slaughterhouse

Lawrence Block
1991
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

I am a huge, huge Lawrence Block fan. My love affair with his books started about twenty years ago when my dear great aunt lent me her copy of Eight Million Ways to Die. Since then I’ve read everything Block has written that I could get my hands on.

A Dance at the Slaughterhouse is the ninth installment of the Matt Scudder series, which is Block’s best series by far. The Scudder books are not only extremely gritty murder mysteries but also a complex and realistic record of the main character coming to grips with his alcoholism.

Matt Scudder was a brilliant, if sometimes ethically questionable, detective in the NYPD who resigned from the force after a bullet he fired (while drunk and on duty) ricocheted and killed a little girl. Since then, he has been working as an unlicensed private detective and struggling to stay sober.

By the time of Slaughterhouse, Scudder is has been in AA for several years. He has a stable relationship with his girlfriend Elaine, resists drinking through the whole book, and pursues two cases at the same time: tracking down the producers of a snuff film and figuring out whether a wealthy lawyer did or did not kill his wife.

It’s a shame that this is the only Edgar that Block has won. Slaughterhouse is a perfectly good book, but my favorite Scudder stories are the ones earlier in the timeline (like Eight Million Ways to Die and When the Sacred Ginmill Closes), when he is in the initial fits and starts of his recovery. They make you suffer right along with him as he goes through agonizing backslides which only make it that much harder for him to climb back up onto the wagon.

No matter how long he has been sober, Scudder is (and you are) always, always conscious of alcohol around him. He’s confronted with it all the time, like when he goes out to dinner and the dinner menu says, playfully, “A day without wine is like a day without sunshine!” When his cases aren’t going well, or he’s under stress, it’s doubly hard; the first thing he always fantasizes about is a glass of bourbon. Or a bottle of bourbon.

At one point in Slaughterhouse, Scudder meets a contact, a young cop, in a bar. The cop is drunk, argumentative, and clearly on the same path Scudder himself was on. After making one attempt to get their meeting to happen somewhere else, Scudder eventually chooses to leave the cop there in the bar. He feels guilty about leaving without making more of an effort, but his sponsor reminds him that, as an alcoholic, your first responsibility is not to drink. You cannot always save others because it may take all you have just to do that.

Blurb writers are always comparing Block to Elmore Leonard. I don’t know why they think this is a compliment, given how great Block is and how annoying Leonard is. I wish that Hollywood would stop making movies out of Leonard’s books and make a good movie out of one of Block’s. Eight Million Ways to Die was made into a movie, and it does star Jeff Bridges, who of course is fantastic, but the adaptation is disappointing. Instead of New York, it takes place in Los Angeles, where Matt Scudder definitely doesn’t belong, and Scudder has resigned from the police force because he killed a drug dealer, rather than a little girl; not quite the same thing.

For those who like mysteries but for whom the Matt Scudder series is a little too dark and/or explicit, Block’s Burglar series is tamer but just as well-written. The central character, Bernie Rhodenbarr, is a used bookstore owner by day and a burglar by night. He always manages to stumble across corpses while on his night job and has to solve the murders himself to prevent them from convicting him of the murder.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nebula v. Hugo

I thought it was high time I used this space to address another excellent reader question: what is the difference between the Nebula and Hugo awards?

The short answer is that the Nebula is voted on by sci-fi writers, while the Hugo is voted on by sci-fi fans.

I suppose one could think of the Nebula as being more like the SAG Awards, and the Hugo as being more like the MTV Viewer’s Choice Awards.


The Nebula

The Nebula was started in 1965. It is mainly awarded for writing – novels, novellas, novelettes, and short stories – although every year there are also a couple service awards and one for “best dramatic presentation,” which is usually a film.

It is awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), which is a professional organization for science fiction and fantasy authors. There are several levels of membership, which are determined by how much you have published, and you can only vote on the Nebula if you meet the criteria for being in one of the top two levels. To be in the second-highest level you have to have sold at least one short story to a professional publication (the SFWA has a list of the ones they will accept) and you have to have been paid at least $50 for it. To get into the top level you have to have sold three short stories or one novel or one full-length professionally produced dramatic script.

The Hugo

To vote for the Hugo, on the other hand, all you have to be is a supporting member of that year’s WorldCon (World Science Fiction Convention), which you can do by paying $50 to the World Science Fiction Society. That gets you voting rights for the current year’s nominees and the final ballot, and nomination rights for next year’s awards. You don’t even have to attend the convention. The only caveat is that you can’t nominate your own work, and you can only nominate up to five works each year.

The Hugo is older than the Nebula; it was first awarded in 1953, skipped in 1954, and then awarded every year from 1955 until now. It is awarded in a wide variety of categories which change from year to year and can include books, films, TV shows, fanzines, art, and people. My personal favorite is a special award given in 1969 to Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins for Best Moon Landing Ever.

The Hugo Awards are named for Hugo Gernsback, the founder of Amazing Stories, the first major sci-fi magazine in the United States.

An Unexpected Finding

When I launched this whole book-review project, I predicted that I would like the Nebula winners more than the Hugo winners. Presumptuous as I am, I thought that since the Nebulas are awarded by the writers, they must be of higher quality.

But so far, lo and behold, I have given the Hugo winners slightly higher ratings than the Nebula winners. As of today, I have read 44 of each (of which 20 books have won both awards). The Nebula winners have an average rating of 2.95 and the Hugo winners have an average rating of 3.27.

Sources

Another Fan's Nebula-v-Hugo Analysis
Hugo Awards website
Nebula Awards website

Friday, November 04, 2011

Book Review: The Eye of the Needle

Ken Follett
1978
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

This book is a blockbuster page-turner with all the ingredients - war, sex, human drama, and international intrigue with the fate of the free world at stake. It also has several elements that I am a particular sucker for: spies, WWII-era Britain, remote Scottish islands, and violent storms at sea.

The main character is Henry Faber, a careful, ruthless, handsome German spy. Faber is known as Die Nadel (The Needle) because of the trademark stiletto he carries and with which he kills a fair number of people over the course of the book.

Traveling around the southeast coast of England in early 1944, Faber discovers that the forces the Germans have been observing building up in East Anglia, which they believe will be used to invade France at Calais, are a hoax. He even is able to take a roll of pictures of dummy cardboard planes to prove it. This leads him to the natural (and correct) conclusion that the Allies are planning to invade at Normandy instead. If he is able to let his bosses in Germany know this, it could change the entire course of the war.

Faber then tries to make his way up from London to his contact, a U-boat stationed off the coast of Scotland, before he is caught by the pesky MI5 agents on his tail. He runs into a number of frustrating delays and setbacks. Desperate, he eventually steals a fishing boat and sets out for sea in the middle of a huge storm, only to get shipwrecked on a barren, windswept island populated by only four people: an old shepherd, a young farmer who lost his legs in a car accident, the farmer’s sexy estranged wife, and their baby son.

The shepherd and farmer are immediately hostile and suspicious, but the wife, Lucy, is quite receptive to Faber... to say the least. The challenge for Die Nadel then is to elude the two men, find a way to contact the U-boat by radio or boat, and to avoid getting distracted by falling in love with Lucy.

Donald Sutherland and Kate Nelligan are pensive in the
1981 screen adaptation of this blockbuster.
Like The Day of the Jackal, the story is told primarily from the point of view of the bad guy. This can get emotionally confusing. On the one hand, Faber is the enemy and you want him to get caught, and you don’t like that he kills Home Guards and innocent rooming house landladies. But, on the other hand, almost up to the very end, you root for him to win his hand-to-hand fights and to get it on with Lucy.

The details of spycraft are not as gritty and realistic as in, say, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - but then again, Follett doesn’t have the advantage of a background in British intelligence like LeCarré does.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Sin City

No book review this week, due to the fact that I'm recovering from a recent trip to Las Vegas.

My trip was 99% business, I can assure you. Really; I was attending the Tableau Software user conference, which was fantastic. I urge all of you with data visualization needs to run right out and buy Tableau. I've been using it for four years now and it is far and away the best product I've seen.

But I did have time to take some pictures. Check out my entire photoset on Flickr. There's even a photo there of Cory Doctorow, science fiction author and BoingBoing editor, giving one of the keynotes.



Friday, October 21, 2011

March for Occupy Boston

Take a gander at my photos from the 10/15/11 march in Boston in support of Occupy Boston. Samples below.


Friday, October 14, 2011

Twain's Ode to Odessa

Some readers of this blog with little in the way of outside interests may recall that I am trying to catch up on great books of the past as part of a self-improvement project. One long-standing desire has been to read Innocents Abroad.

As I had a long-planned trip to Italy, it was perfect timing for me. My local library here in the 8th Dimension was kind enough to lend me a copy, and I took it aboard the plane to read all about Twain's adventures there in anticipation of my own visits to Naples, Pompeii and Capri. For those of you who haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it.

The background is that Twain was in New York City in 1867, planning to return to San Francisco, when he read that the Quaker City would soon be departing for a voyage to Europe and the Levant. Twain quickly arranged for several newspapers to pay his fare in return for the promise of frequent reports by post. Besides the exotic nature of the itinerary (France, Italy and Greece but also Constantinople, Damascus, Tangiers, and Jerusalem), the tour backers had promised a sort of "celebrity cruise" headlined by Gen. Sherman and Henry Ward Beecher (both of whom were no-shows).

Twain then collected all these letters and had them published in a book called Innocents Abroad. Accidentally, though, I picked up Daniel McKeithan's annotated collection from 1958 of the original letters. This turned out to be much more fun. The letters are much more sardonic and acerbic, especially Twain's observations about religious matters, which he toned down quite a bit for commercial reasons in the book itself. McKeithan notes at the end of each letter all the changes Twain made, and there is no doubt that the letters are the unadulterated Twain.

Below is an excerpt of Twain's review of Odessa -- to which he was exceedingly complimentary compared to his other destinations. It originally appeared in the Daily Alta California of Nov. 3, 1867. I write this post in tribute to our fearless blog founder, whose family's ancestral stomping grounds were that same "Pearl of the Black Sea."

It is a free port, and is the great grain mart of this particular part of the world... I have not felt so much at home for a long time as I did when "raised the hill" and stood in Odessa for the first time. It looked just like an American city; fine, broad streets and straight as well... that was so like a message from our own dear native land that we could not refrain from shedding a few grateful tears and swearing in the old time-honored way. Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we saw only America!

Book Review: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

Robert A. Heinlein
1966
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

Normally I can't stand Heinlein and his misogynistic Ayn Randian treatises. But this novel was one of his least bothersome (second only in least-bothersome-ness to Starship Troopers).

Basically, if you are able to ignore any references of any kind to women or economic theory, you’ll be able to enjoy the solid science fiction story that makes up the bulk of this book.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress takes place, naturally, on Earth’s moon. It is the 2070s and there are large settlements on the moon, or “Luna.” Luna is primarily a penal colony – like Australia was in the early 19th century – and most of Luna’s residents are either convicts or descendants of convicts who were exiled there. Many are serving out additional sentences working as indentured servants for the tyrannical Earth-based Authority corporation.

The moon’s population is an incredibly diverse mixture of races, cultures, and languages; the only thing that all “Loonies” all have in common is a fierce resentment of Authority and the Terran domination it represents. Mistress is about how the people of Luna find their legs and their voice, join together in solidarity to fight for their independence from Earth, and form a new society once they have their freedom - ta da!

The book’s main character, Manuel (“Manny”) O’Kelly Davis, is a multi-racial, multi-lingual, highly skilled technical fix-it freedman with one arm. The entire book is told from his point of view (and, entertainingly, in his strong Russian accent).

The story starts when Manny is called in to fix a glitch in one of Authority’s central computers. During the fix, he discovers that the computer is self-aware and the glitch was a joke, a product of the computer’s malicious sense of humor. Manny names the computer Mike (after Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother) and the two of them become fast friends.

Initially, Manny has no interest in organized rebellion and is caught up in the Free Luna movement almost by accident, by attending one little meeting that gets raided by police. But his technical abilities and the advantages he gets from his relationship with Mike, who controls the entire network of Authority computers on Luna, propel Manny rapidly right into the center of the struggle and, eventually, the war.

The war for independence puts our hero on an interesting ethical standing. It is, in some ways, an indigenous, grassroots rebellion, but mostly it is carefully orchestrated by Manny, Mike, and a small circle of their closest friends. They provoke Terra into attacking first so they can look like justified martyrs, they fix elections, and they use censorship, semi-truthful propaganda, and harassment (or terrorism) to accomplish their goal of a free Luna.

This book was a tricky one for me to evaluate. It has a large dose of the two elements I can’t stand – and I mean really can’t stand – about Heinlein.

One of these is his awful sexism. Heinlein’s occasional claims of “respect” for women only make him look worse; he is the classic example of a man who puts women up on a pedestal so he can look up their skirts.

The other is his inescapable, simplistic, and pompous Randian economic and social philosophizing. You can never get too far in a Heinlein book before some character goes off on a smug anti-taxation rant.

But, on the other hand, Manny Davis is one of Heinlein’s more appealing characters. He is pragmatic and practical and doesn’t have time for a lot of unrealistic idealism and messing around.

And the moon of Mistress is a darned gritty and satisfyingly realistic setting. Heinlein surrounds his characters with believable underground living quarters and work environments; sensible pressure suits and other equipment; rich family histories and appropriate social structures; and a rich Loonie pidgin. It is easy to picture it as a real, functioning lunar colony.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: The Falling Woman

Pat Murphy
1986
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

The Falling Woman is set in Dzibilchaltún, a Mayan archeological site near Mérida, Mexico. The main character is an archeologist, Elizabeth Butler, who can see the ghosts of the ancient Maya working and playing around her - often more realistically than she can see her own live workmen and graduate students.

Butler’s long-estranged daughter, who is going through a sort of a lost period following the death of her father, comes to see her and stays to work on the dig. Both mother and daughter then start to see the ghost of a formidable Mayan priestess who can see them too – and who has unpleasant designs on both of them, including wanting Butler to murder her daughter.

The book is clearly and straightforwardly written, the plot is decently exciting and well paced, and the subject matter certainly has potential. My major gripe with it was that there were so many, many details about both the Maya and the field work that didn’t sit right with me. And when I consulted with some Mesoamerican archeologists of my acquaintance, they confirmed that most of these details were either goofy or just plain wrong.

The first thing that jarred me out of the story’s dreamland ghost story vibe was when Butler, the head of the dig, actually puts her cigarette out on the wall of one of the site’s stone temples. Not only would a burning cigarette accelerate the disintegration of an irreplaceable artifact thousands of years old, but it would, as my experts pointed out, contaminate her charcoal and radiocarbon samples.

One of the other archeologists on Butler's crew is described as having a habit of putting any piece of pottery he finds into his mouth, straight out of the ground, and cleaning it off with his spit on the spot. My experts confirmed that you should use water; no one uses (acidic and damaging) saliva because it's acidic and damaging. Also, it's gross.

One of Butler's graduate students explains that the best times to survey are at dawn and dusk, because you are better able to see regular lines and lumps in the ground that might signal human construction. My experts say: “Completely silly. Silly to the max.”

At one point, the archeologists in the book talk about there having been trade between Teotihuacán (in Mexico) and Guatemala, as evidenced by the fact that Teotihuacán pottery has been found in Guatemala. I had been taught by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel to be wary of a lot of north-south trade in the Americas, so I questioned that as well. My experts said that, yes, there was indeed trade all over Mesoamerica. So some pottery from Teotihuacán did make its way to Guatemala. But it is not clear whether it was direct face-to-face trade or passed gradually from one group to another. In addition, most of the Teotihuacán-style pots in Guatemala are actually locally-made imitations.

And finally (or finally for what I have the patience to write here), the central plot of the book rests on the assumption that the Mayans performed human sacrifices, in the form of throwing people into the cenotes (sacred wells). My experts say that this idea is based on a story that was published at the beginning of the 20th century, itself based primarily on one statement made by a 16th century Spanish explorer.

I think the problem here was that the book purported to present a realistic portrayal of an archeological dig (aside from the ghosts), but that the inaccuracies poked too many holes in that realism and it thus fell apart.

I wanted to get into it. I really did. And I might have been able to if it had been a little less serious about itself. I am willing to overlook a lot of flaws and suspend quite a hefty chunk of disbelief for the sake of a good story - as long as the story isn't pretending to be any more expert than it is.

Take Raiders of the Lost Ark as the best possible counter-example.

Here you have a guy whose primary tools, rather than a Marshalltown trowel and a whisk broom, are a .45 revolver and a bullwhip. He spends far more time punching out Nazis and romancing his lady friend than carefully sifting through ancient trash piles. It is a completely unrealistic portrayal of archeological field work, but an absolutely classic adventure, and doesn't pretend to be anything but.

One of my expert archeologists cited above is actually also one of the world's biggest fans of Raiders. We saw it together in the theater when it first came out; I remember hearing him laugh uproariously when Indiana Jones’s workmen are digging for the entrance to the Well of Souls with giant artifact-destroying shovels, and they hit the roof door with a huge thunk, ripping off a piece of the ancient wood.

He went out and bought a fedora the next day.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Obama’s Deficit Reduction Plan: Phase II of a High-Risk but Coherent Strategy

I happened to catch the PBS NewsHour last night for the last part of this segment on Obama's deficit reduction plan. The sound happened to be down on the TV at the time. Even so, I could tell just by looking at the posture and facial expression of the liberal guest, Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that he was jubilant. He looked like a cat with a bird in his mouth, feathers floating etc:


Philip Swagel
Maybe that was because his conservative opponent was Philip Swagel, a former Assistant Treasury Secretary in the George W. Bush administration, now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute on a break from his job as an economics professor at the University of Maryland. I had never heard of him in my life; in fact I thought at first that it was Rich Lowry from National Review. That told me a lot as well: The conservative heavy hitters were apparently unavailable to come on the NewsHour to try to argue against the Buffett Rule and so forth.

Rich Lowry
Greenstein is, for my money, the most credible liberal fiscal-policy analyst in D.C. And the guy could barely contain himself with glee. I remember last December when he gave his qualified blessing to Obama's post-midterm-election deal with the House GOP to trade forbearance on raising tax rates on the wealthy for an extension of unemployment benefits and a payroll tax cut. I tweeted the CBPP analysis and linked to it on Facebook, and was obliquely accused by various observers of "cherry-picking" CBPP charts (whatever that means) in order to put a too-sunny face on a bad deal.

But the CBPP seal of approval was really significant to me back in the bleak days of December 2010. Greenstein has a deep understanding of what's politically achievable, he's very well plugged-in to House and Senate Democratic members, leaders, and staff. He's not as flashy as Paul Krugman or Robert Kuttner, but he's done a heck of a lot more than either of them over the last 20 years to get the best possible legislative deals for liberals (which have admittedly been pretty bad deals as pieces of liberal legislation; my point is that K+K are excellent policy analysts but not at all credible as political tacticians).

So as a hopeless Obamaphile, I was sort of jubilant last night too. Because I see Obama's deficit-reduction plan as the execution of Phase II of a high-risk but nevertheless coherent political strategy:

Phase I
  1. Realize that as a Black man, he is constrained in his ability to mount a full-throated "angry," "confrontational" opposition to GOP tactics, many of which ("You lie!" the birth-certificate nonsense etc.) were clearly designed to bait him into a furious response. If you watched the NewsHour video above, you heard Swagel try several times to call Obama "angry."
  2. Wait until the GOP exposes themselves by taking a one-way trip to fiscal-policy crazy town with, for example, the Ryan plan to voucherize Medicare and the debt-ceiling shenanigans, not to mention Rick Perry's statements that "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie."
Phase II
  1. Unveil a tough and politically powerful deficit reduction plan that places stark choices before voters: Preserve the New Deal largely intact OR keep taxes on hedge fund managers et al. at rates half of what their secretaries pay. But not both.
  2. It wouldn't hurt if this unveiling took place in mid-September, after the August vacation and town-hall season had ended.
Will Phase II of Obama's plan work? Maybe not. But for a conciliator-type president who had a filibuster-proof Congressional majority for less than one year, it was a coherent plan. And he deserves the support of liberals for executing it.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Journey: Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)


Top 10 features:

10. Air guitar.
9. Drum kit made out of oil drums w/ hi-hat made out of old hubcaps.
8. Black and pink muscle-tee.
7. Excellent Steadicam tracking through pallet-storage areas.
6. Air drumming.
5. Those snug Levi 501's.
4. Bergmanian profile-n-face shots.
3. Popped collar on the tweed jacket.
2. Poignant commentary on U.S. de-industrialization during the 1980s: Disused export dock, forklifts, etc. are repurposed for new top U.S. export: culture.
1. Air keyboards.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review: Mirror Dance

Lois McMaster Bujold
1994
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ – – –

Once again I am forced by Hugo voters back into Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga.

In general, the Saga is pretty tedious. This installment is basically par for the course but it does have one fairly significant plus, in that it involves one of my favorite sci-fi subgenres: the production of laboratory-raised clones to use as organ donors or body vessels to prolong the life of the original gene donor. (See also: Parts: The Clonus Horror.)

The Saga is a series of at least eleven books about a set of planets interconnected by trade and blood relations. Space travel and warfare are at a Star-Trek-level of speed and sophistication. All of the planets have elaborate internecine political struggles and many are ruled by royal houses.

With a couple exceptions, the books tell the life story of Miles Naismith Vorkosigan, the son of the plucky, beautiful starship captain Cordelia Naismith and the handsome, strong, passionate, wise, but reluctantly-ruling Count Aral Vorkosigan of the planet Barrayar. Enemies of the Count attacked Cordelia with biological weapons when she was pregnant so Miles came out stunted and weak, having to spend much of his first years in an incubator and then in various types of therapy.

In spite of his physical disadvantages, Miles of course grew up to be fantastically intelligent, an excellent military tactician, a beloved leader, and irresistibly attractive to both ladies and hermaphrodites. He lives a double life as the dutiful son and heir of the Count on Barrayar and the brilliant, daring Admiral Naismith of Barrayan Imperial Security.

Earlier in the Saga, an evil group of the Count’s enemies stole some of Miles’s cells and brought them back to a sinister lab that raises clones and performs brain transplants on them when the progenitor grows aged and wants a new, younger body. They created a clone of Miles, which they named Mark. Mark has been trained from the incubator to be an assassin, the idea being that they will eventually substitute him for Miles and he will get close enough to kill the Count.

However, by the time of Mirror Dance, the abusiveness of the fiends who raised him has gone too far for Mark. He escapes from his clone crèche, steals one of Miles’s ships, and tries to free all the other clones. The plan goes horribly wrong, Miles comes after Mark and rescues him and the other clones but gets shot and left for dead in the process, and then the rest of the book is spent on Miles’s crew and family (including Mark) trying to find him again and destroying the clone-makers’ compound if they can as well as a nice side benefit.

I’m sure if you’re a fan of the Vorkosigan saga, you will love this book. For me, the whole saga is too much like a romance novel or a soap opera to get very deeply into. (Luckily by the time I reached page 269, or 269/560th of the way through the book, Frederick Pohl’s Man Plus arrived for me at my local library branch so I could take a break for a while.)

Bujold's characters are divided cleanly between those who are unjust and evil and horrifyingly ruthless, and those who are completely in love with Miles. Miles always knows exactly the right thing to do in any social, diplomatic, or wartime situation. As Admiral Naismith he is theoretically in danger of his life almost every minute, but you also never for a moment forget that he’s secretly royal and that gives him a lot of advantages in staff and equipment that others would not have. Also it lets him bestow lavish and perfect but anonymous gifts on his friends and loyal subordinates.

There is a lot of time spent on how tedious and wasteful all the glamorous royal ceremonies are, and the primary characters spend a lot of time being forced to go and dress in fancy uniforms and stand around making cynical comments about the other guests, but underneath it all you feel like they really love it. Who could force the Count and Countess to hold their own Winterfair ball, anyway?

Get ready, because we’re going to have one more round of this with the Hugo-winning Vor Game. Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Another Albers Rug: Play of Squares

Another knitted & felted rug I made based on a design by Bauhaus fiber artist Anni Albers. This one is based on Play of Squares.

Pattern available here.


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Propaganda

For most of my working life I've made a living as a propagandist. Propaganda is a delightful word to say out loud. It is also a scary word. It conjures images of Goebbels and Big Brother.

Another word for propaganda is advertising, also now something of a pejorative. Persuasive communication is yet another synonym. It is safe, and leaden.

Propaganda per se is morally neutral. It is based on the Latin verb propagare, which means “to propagate,” as when a horticulturalist plants or grafts a cutting. I know this fact about propaganda, and yet I have always struggled with the moral ramifications of creating it. Should not facts and logic be sufficient to win an argument or motivate action? It always was for me, or so I tell myself.

A BoingBoing guest post by Stephen Worth in January 2010 praises passion as a necessary complement to reason. In particular:
The problem with this world isn’t that there isn’t enough logic. The problem is that there isn’t enough compassion. Logic won’t cut it alone in each of our own lives either. There are a million things that make sense to do. I have a whole laundry list full of logical things to do in my own life—more than I'll ever get around to doing. Guess which ones I actually go out and do? Reason may be the reason to do things, but passion is what makes things actually happen.
Worth is right. Logic may appear to offer safe harbor for those of us who want to escape the moral dilemmas inherent in persuading people to think or do something. But logic can take you only so far in changing people’s minds (apparently not very far). This has been a very hard lesson for me to learn, and I have to continually re-learn it, which is frustrating because in other areas of my life I am not so thick-skulled. But to make history, you have to temper reason with passion. Scary.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Election 2012: 1860 Redux?

With Rick Perry now in the race and doing well, Michele Bachmann’s in trouble out in Iowa. A key staffer is leaving. I still can’t believe that all the Rockefeller Republicans I went to college with are going to stand for this Tea Party takeover. On the other hand, they do have a friend in Obama. As Matt Yglesias tweeted last week, Mitt Romney ought to run for the Democratic nomination.

I don't remember Bachmann making any big mistakes; she impressed me as a campaigner. I think Americans still have serious hangups about women in leadership positions. With time, we’ll get over this, thankfully.

Betty Draper
CTHULHU-INFLUENCED “GENERATIONS” DIGRESSION ALERT: There are so many older silent-generation (b. 1925-42) GOP women who would never vote for a woman for president. (This is the generation of women who were too young to have their value affirmed by the WW II effort and too old to join the 2nd-wave feminists—think Betty Draper in Mad Men.) This entire generation, both genders, is just plain confused about everything (generalizing here), and they’re not sure how to feel about women in power. This generation is also a key part of the GOP coalition. (Did you know that the Silents failed to elect a president? Mondale, Dukakis, and McCain were the only ones to even get nominated.)

How about this: a real 1860 four-candidate barn-burner: Perry wins GOP nomination, Romney starts new Prosperity Party, Obama wins Democratic nomination, and somebody runs to Obama’s left in a Progressive Party. It would have to be an old baby-boomer type, maybe Bernie Sanders (let me know if you can think of a better one...Tom Hayden?) The idea here would be to force through the generational transition of leadership from the Baby Boomers to Gen Xers. Obama’s an Xer; Romney's a boomer but he presents as a modern technocrat. Perry and Sanders will run the Baby Boomers’ last-hurrah campaigns. In this case, I'd say Romney wins, followed by Obama, Perry, and Sanders.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Book Review: The Windup Girl

Paolo Bacigalupi
2009
Awards: Nebula, Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The Windup Girl takes place in near-future Bangkok after several environmental nightmares have come true. Worldwide oil supplies are completely depleted, so all machines and vehicles are wind, hydrogen, solar, coil-spring, pressure, human, animal, or coal-powered. Global warming has made temperatures soar and sea levels rise dramatically, so Bangkok has to be protected from complete inundation by a system of pumps and levees. And nearly all plants and animals have been wiped out by diseases and have been replaced with genetically engineered variants.

This last is not an accident. Agribusiness corporations deliberately hoarded stores of seeds and then manufactured the diseases, pests, and plagues that wiped out the naturally-occurring plants and animals, so they could profit by selling the starving world their own genetically-modified, disease-resistant, but sterile products. They now basically rule the world economy.

Thailand has held their own against the agribusiness corporations relatively well because they sealed their borders to imports and hired their own secret, illegal “gene-ripper” to develop new, fertile varieties of their own native plants and distribute them on the black market. One of the major agribusiness companies has sent in a secret agent, a “calorie man,” Anderson Lake, to try to discover who the gene hacker is and where his seed bank is stored. Along the way, he meets and (sort of) falls in love with Emiko, a Japanese windup girl – a genetically modified, semi-robotic human conditioned to obey and to serve.

Thailand is ruled nominally by a child queen, and in reality by her regent, the Somdet Chaopraya. Two of her ministries – Trade and Environment – are led by strong, ambitious men who vie against each other to be the next regent. The story is a little confusing and doesn’t really have any one central plot, but essentially what happens is that Emiko and the calorie man get mixed up in the escalating power struggle and eventually serve as catalysts leading to the death of the Somdet Chaopraya and bringing on an all-out civil war.

After I finished this book, I went back and forth for a long time deciding whether I liked it or not. On balance, I decided on a somewhat lukewarm yes.

The near-future Bangkok that Bacigalupi presents is rich and multi-layered and easily pictured. He has unique inventions – the windup girl herself, the calorie men, the genetically engineered animals that populate the city, and the types of energy and propulsion that people have to use in a petroleum-depleted world.

On the other hand, there are a couple major things that are either too disturbing or too annoying to ignore.

First: language. For one thing, this book is written in the present tense, which I’m realizing I generally don’t like in a novel (although I have to admit that it isn’t nearly as annoying here as it is in the Yiddish Policemen’s Union). But the primary irritant in this one is the use of hyperbole.

Everything is described so dramatically. This over-emphasizes the minor events and makes them seem cataclysmic, so that you get desensitized to the drama, and then the parts that really are cataclysmic have less of an impact than they should.

Also, his hyperbolic phrases are pleasing and catchy at first, but after they are used for the fourth or fifth time, they begin to seem formulaic. After a while, I started writing down the particularly obvious repeats:

- Alleys running thick with blood
- Light spearing eyes
- Scalding skin / skin on fire (with heat)
- Ribs exploding with pain / ribs screaming (after beatings)
- Blossoming (e.g. Blood blossoming red after person is shot; a blossom of pain; legs blossoming with hurt)

Second, and more importantly: there are two major rape scenes, both involving Emiko. I’m not sure how to judge the necessity of a graphic rape scene, but these certainly were very disturbing and seemed to go on well past the point where the point was made. I really started to bridle viscerally at how much Bacigalupi felt he had to do to prove how Emiko’s conditioning made her obey even at the cost of her total shame and extreme physical pain.

I did particularly like one of the first scenes in the book, though, where Anderson Lake has to shoot a megodont (a genetically engineered elephant) who has gone rogue in his factory. It reminded me a lot (perhaps intentionally so) of George Orwell’s great essay Shooting an Elephant.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Obama’s Economic Policy

Note: this post started out as a comment to a post on the Iowa politics blog Bleeding Heartland. 

Obama’s critics from the left decry his adoption of the GOP frame on deficit reduction. I join them in this critique as a matter of economic policy; the best course right now is larger deficits to stimulate the economy, combined with a longer-term fiscal policy that aims to roughly balance the budget over the course of the business cycle (run surpluses during booms, deficits during during slumps). (Though I would note that as a sovereign issuer of currency the U.S. can comfortably run annual deficits in the 2% to 3% of GDP range indefinitely.)

Still, Obama refuses to follow the standard Keynesian course prescribed by sensible liberals. Why? Why does he adopt the economic policy that he does?

Here are some possibilities that occur to me:
  • He genuinely believes that it is the right thing to do.
  • It is part of a poll-tested strategy to retain enough independent voters in battleground states to enable him to win re-election.
  • He is a blank slate on economic policy and is carrying out the views of various advisers.
  • He is in the sway of shadowy special interests, say key Wall Street figures.
  • He is basing his policies on a different set of data or assumptions than are his critics; in this case, both sides would call the other side "misinformed."
  • He has a deep psychological need to please establishment figures such as the editorial board of the Washington Post, David Brooks, and the rest of what passes for a DC class of opinion leaders.
  • He harbors resentment against liberals and wants to show them who's boss.
  • He knows that government spending in this country is tied up inextricably with issues of race and that as a Black man he cannot activate those latent prejudices among the electorate.
I think the likeliest explanation is the poll-tested strategy one, but I think the race issue has been curiously underplayed. Which ones did I leave out?

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Another Inflation Hawk Argues for a Higher Inflation Target

Economist Kenneth Rogoff, no liberal, is arguing for a higher inflation target:
If the Federal Reserve raises its target inflation rate by several percentage points - up from around 2 percent, where it’s been for the past decade, to somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 to 6 percent - and injects new money into the economy until it gets there, then debtors will get some relief and the wheels of the economy will once again start to turn.
One of the biggest propaganda victories of the 20th century was convincing the middle class that inflation is the worst possible thing that can happen to them. High inflation sucks, to be sure, but people tend to forget that inflation also reduces the real value of one's debts.

We also hear a lot about the "elderly who live on a fixed income." Except that most elderly people depend on Social Security for the bulk of their income, and SS is inflation-protected via COLAs.

However, there is one class of people for whom inflation is in every and all cases an unmitigated disaster: bondholders, a.k.a. the owning class. These are the folks who make money from money. As Rogoff, an inflation hawk, notes, tolerating higher inflation will result in a transfer of income from financiers to workers, (or as he puts it in less class-war terms: from creditors to debtors). That's exactly right. All economic policy is a question of the distribution of income.

Videotaping Cops

The Globe reports:
A court ruled Friday that the 2007 arrest of a Boston lawyer for recording police officers with his cellphone violated the man’s First and Fourth Amendment rights. The ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston allows Simon Glik to continue his lawsuit against the city and the police officers who arrested him. He was charged with violating a state law that bars audio recordings without the consent of both parties. The court affirmed that Glik’s actions had been legal and denied the officers’ claim that they had “qualified immunity’’ because they were doing their jobs as public officials.
On reddit.com there are periodically posts by cops who invite readers to "Ask Me Anything" (examples here). To a person they say they are fine with being videotaped. If cops are doing their jobs correctly, they need not fear being videotaped.

We give cops an awful lot of power and discretion. In particular, they have a state-sanctioned monopoly on the use of deadly force. In return, it is reasonable that citizens have extra oversight powers over their actions.

Friday, August 26, 2011

What Is Science Fiction?

For the 1976 hardcover first edition of Man Plus by Frederik Pohl, the promotional writing on the front flap of the dust jacket says this:
Man Plus is so superbly well done that it will appeal not only to science fiction fans but to readers of such novels as The Andromeda Strain.
Does that mean The Andromeda Strain is not a science fiction novel?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Topkapi

When I read The Light of Day, by Eric Ambler, I had no idea that it had been made into a movie called Topkapi.

I saw the movie recently on TCM and I have to say that I liked it a lot more than I did the book. It played up the comic aspects of the caper, moved more quickly, and was changed from a first-person tale to a more omniscient point of view.

I guess Hollywood screenwriters know what they are doing.

This movie has several tricky stunts in it that are said to have inspired other filmmakers, including the makers of Mission: Impossible (see this clip). It was also filmed on location in Istanbul, which was gorgeous. The best part of the movie, by far, though, was Peter Ustinov, who plays the hapless, bumbling Arthur Simpson to the absolute hilt. (He won his second Oscar for this role.)

It also stars an enigmatic Melina Mercouri and a handsome but callous Maximilian Schell as the masterminds of the heist.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: Man Plus

Frederik Pohl
1976
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ –

Good story ideas come in all sizes. Some are so big they need to have trilogies (or even ennealogies) written to fully flesh them out. For others, one 200-page book is fine. And others are better off as short stories.

Frederik Pohl seems to have an instinct for writing up his original ideas (or original takes on old ideas) into appropriately sized books. He fully explores his premise but doesn’t beat it to death. This means that his books usually end up being relatively short but efficient Cool Idea Delivery Systems.

I think this is the best book by Pohl that I have read so far. Many people have written stories about the colonization of Mars by humans. Usually the premise is that we will terraform Mars to support human life. In Man Plus, instead, the U.S. has a top-secret project to physically modify a human being – a man named Roger Torraway – so that he can survive on the surface of Mars.

Scientists replace his skin with a super-tough, rhinocerous-like hide that can withstand high solar radiation and temperatures hundreds of degrees below freezing. They replace his lungs and most of his circulatory and digestive systems with machinery so that he needs hardly any oxygen or food. They give him new eyes that can see into the infrared and ultraviolet bands of the spectrum. And they put big solar panels on his back to power the parts of him that are now mechanical.

Naturally, there are forces at work conspiring to make the project difficult. One is internal; Roger’s wife Dorrie is a bit of an unsupportive whiner and is also having an affair with one of the project’s scientists. This is pretty upsetting to Roger, especially at a time when he’s being turned into an unrecognizable monster and preparing to spend two years alone in space.

The other problem is external. According to all the most reliable governmental models, the world will soon descend into nuclear war. The only thing that will turn the projections around, apparently, is a successful manned mission to Mars (to rally and inspire humanity, I presume). The pressure on the Man Plus scientists to succeed in an unrealistically short time is therefore immense, so much so that their only other Mars-altered human subject died in the lab from too much aggressive testing.

It’s a good premise and the story is suspenseful in its own subtle way. You want to find out if Roger can survive all the operations and the mental and physical stress and make it to Mars, and you really want to find out what it’s like through his eyes when he gets there. For most of the book, Pohl keeps dangling the promise of the upcoming mission just out of reach (of both you and Roger) like a tasty carrot.

There is also a quiet, almost incidental mystery running through the book about who the narrator is. Most of the time I forgot to wonder about it, as I was absorbed in the rest of the story, but it does add a nice additional piece of intrigue and allows the book to end with a bit of an extra flourish.

Friday, August 05, 2011

99 Views of Wilco

I've been having a great time going through my pictures of the Solid Sound Festival three weeks ago (June 24-26). And, since I imagine that everybody else can't get enough of my concert photography, here's a collage I put together of of 99 pictures I took at the two Wilco shows.

Actually, to be honest, it's 98 pictures of Wilco and one picture of Pajama Club.

Full-screen downloadable version here: http://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/59408454

Friday, July 29, 2011

Book Review: The Diamond Age

Neal Stephenson
1995
Awards: Hugo
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Neal Stephenson is one of my favorite sci-fi writers and I’m disappointed that with all the funny, rich, and prescient books he has written, I only get to write about one of them here.

I was introduced to Stephenson by a co-worker who suggested that I start with this book rather than the somewhat more famous Snow Crash. About ten pages in, I was hooked.

The opening chapter drops you bang into a new world on the outskirts of Shanghai fifty years or so in the future. You don’t understand any of the lingo or the technology or much of what is going on at first. But (as in Neuromancer, or A Clockwork Orange, or anything by Shakespeare) you learn quickly by immersion.

The society of The Diamond Age is technologically advanced but in many ways socially backward. Almost everybody belongs to a “phyle,” which is a sort of tribe or clan. Phyles are heavily class-segregated; the phyle you are in determines where you live, whether your neighborhood is polluted and crime-filled or not, how much education you receive as a child, and so on.

People who don’t belong to any phyle are called “thetes.” They live in a sort of demilitarized zone between phyle enclaves. They are outcasts who must survive by their wits and often by turning to lives of servitude or crime.

Some phyles have strength because of sheer numbers or sheer ruthlessness. Others have strength because they possess skills that others are willing to pay for. The richest and most powerful of these is the New Atlantis phyle, which is home to nearly all the “artifexes” (designers & programmers) of the nanotechnology that the world depends on. New Atlantis enclaves are on artificially extruded hills high above the poorer sea-level phyles, where the air is cleaner and their houses are easier to defend.

New Atlantans have adopted the lifestyle and mores of late-19th century Victorians – deeply repressed emotions; convoluted social etiquette; sweeping skirts and parasols for women; snuffboxes and waistcoats for men. But all of these affectations are supported by, and in some cases overtly combined with, the incredibly advanced nanotechnology that pervades everything.

Nanosites are responsible for purifying water and air and for performing most medicine. Neighborhoods are protected by grids of hovering nano-pods that can either be passive information-gatherers or defensive weapons. And the coolest thing (I thought at the time I read it) is that newspapers and books are no longer made of paper and print; they are now made of nano-paper, thin layers of nanosites sandwiched between mediatronic screens that can display a universe full of multimedia presentations at the request of the reader. (And to think it only took Apple 15 years after this book came out to come up with the iPad.)

To try to sum up the plot quickly (a tremendous injustice):

Lord Alexander Chung-Sik Finkel-McGraw, a powerful man in New Atlantis, sees that the crushing overprotectivity of his clan is causing their children to grow up without either creativity or common sense, and that this will eventually lead to their downfall. He hires a brilliant artifex, John Percival Hackworth, to build an intelligent, interactive book, a book he calls the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, for his granddaughter. The book will supplement and subvert the Victorian educational system; it is designed to teach a child to think creatively and to solve real problems, instead of the theoretical ones presented in schools.

Finkel-McGraw contracts with Hackworth to build one book, under top secret conditions, and makes him swear to destroy the compiled code so no one can ever build another one.

Hackworth builds the book but does not, however, destroy the code. He sneaks it out of his laboratory and takes it to a seedy neighborhood in Shanghai where he pays Dr. X, an off-network power broker with a matter compiler, to compile a second copy for his own daughter.

From here on in, of course, the gig is up. Not only does Dr. X immediately start trying to decrypt the compiler code so he can build his own copies of the book, but also, on his way back to New Atlantis, Hackworth is mugged by a gang of thete youths who rob him of everything he has, including the book. One of the thetes takes the book home and gives it as a present to his four-year-old sister, Nell.

Nell and her brother live in poverty, holed up in an apartment with a mother who entertains a steady stream of boyfriends, many of whom are abusive. They get most of their food from the free public matter compilers. Nell’s brother has steadily worsening asthma from the pollution in their neighborhood. Neither Nell nor her brother goes to school. But Nell immediately takes to the book, and the book, as it was programmed to do, bonds with her. It builds its lessons around her real life, including teaching her weaponry and self-defense. Eventually, following the arrival of a particularly violent boyfriend and with the help and advice of the book, Nell and her brother run away.

Tension builds as Nell spends the next few years evading capture by various people who want her book. Dr. X starts creating hundreds of thousands of copies of the Primer to give to orphans in China. Several phyles with terrorist bents, including one particularly scary one called the Fists of Righteous Harmony, grow stronger and begin to endanger the safety of the formerly protected ones. Eventually it starts to look like Nell, with her book-raised intelligence, pragmatism, and reluctant leadership skills, will be the one the world will depend on to take it in a new and better direction.

The style and content of The Diamond Age make you think right away of Neuromancer. While I liked Neuromancer okay, I never found myself laughing out loud while reading it like I do with Stephenson’s books. He’s got a sarcasm to him that is really funny.

Also, there’s something about the characters and the environment here that is more appealing to me. Some people have called Stephenson’s writing “post-cyberpunk,” to differentiate it from Gibson, the main idea being that in Gibson's original cyberpunk fiction the heroes are criminals bridling against a repressive dystopia, while the heroine in this one is definitely not a criminal and the world is not under any one omnipotent entity’s control.

The technology in The Diamond Age is just futuristic enough to be cool and amazing, but it is also described realistically enough that it seems like it could conceivably be developed by humans without aid of magic. It isn’t jarringly juvenile and is clearly thought up by somebody who knows about computers. It is also a great combination of old and new; for example, the New Atlantans want to ride around on horses like real Victorians, but they demand robotic horses that can take them at car-like speeds and do their own navigation.

Also, the Primer itself, as a storybook within a story, was brilliant. One of the best fairy tales Nell reads in her Primer takes place in the Dukedom of Turing, which is populated by robotic knights who throw her character into a dungeon. She has to figure out how to escape and then how to gain mastery over all of the robot knights, and along the way you (and she) see that the fable is teaching her the basics of computers and binary numbering systems and how to debug and reprogram code to do what you want it to do. It is awesome.
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