Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: The Falling Woman

Pat Murphy
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
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


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
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.
Related Posts with Thumbnails