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
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.
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