Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hanging My Head

Duke 68, UConn 59 - UCONN | Men's Basketball: Ouch. That was ugly. Kemba Walker, Jerome Dyson, and Stanley Robinson are all fantastically talented atheletes but are going to have to learn to play together much more effectively if this year's squad is going to have any chance of doing anything this year. This much talent shouldn't look like a middle-of-the-pack team.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Quiblling Over Lists, It's What I Do

The best books of the ’00s | Best Of The Decade | The A.V. Club
+1 for "The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" among several strong selections.
-1 for "The Road." "The Years of Rice and Salt" would've been a better choice. Or "World War Z."

Non-Random Book, Non-Random Passage #2

For the last twenty plus years, Kim Stanley Robinson has been my favorite writer. Prior to that, it was either Robert A. Heinlein or Mark Twain. I already hit Twain in the random series, so I'll pick a Heinlein passage to take me back to the those heady high-school days when reasonably bright (I'll be haughty here and put myself in that category) kids' brains are soaking up knowledge like sponges, awash in destabilizing hormones, and still, for having ten or more years of schooling, remarkably empty.

Heinlein is like crack for teen geeks with a sci-fi bent. All that machismo, science, solipsism, and wacky libertarianism: Danger, Will Robinson! I shudder to think some of the stuff I thought back then, but I still treasure these old books, and there are lots of them. The juveniles, the classics, and even the ones near the end where (To Sail Beyond the Sunset, I'm looking at you) things were just getting plain weird.

Since Starship Troopers is first Heinlein that leaps to mind, I've got go with Major Reid and Johnny Rico in History and Moral Philosopy class.
"Are a thousand unreleased prisoners sufficient reason to start or resume a war? Bear in mind that millions of innocent people may die, almost certainly will die, if war is started or resumed."

I didn't hesitate. "Yes, sir! More than enough reason."

"'More than enough.' Very well, is one prisoner unreleased by the enemy, enough reason to start or resume a war?"

I hesitated. I knew the M.I. answer -- but I didn't think that was the one he wanted. He said sharply, "Come, come, Mister! We have an upper limit of one thousand; I invited you to consider a lower limit of one. But you can't pay a promissory note which reads 'somewhere between one and one thousand pounds' -- and starting a war is much more serious than paying a trifle of money. Wouldn't it be criminal to endanger a country -- two countries, in fact -- to save one man? Especially as he may not deserve it? Or may die in the meantime? Thousands of people get killed every day in accidents ... so why hesitate over one man? Answer! Answer yes, or answer no -- you're holding up the class."

He got my goat. I gave him the cap trooper's answer. "Yes, sir!"

"'Yes' what?"

"It doesn't matter if it's a thousand -- or just one, sir. You fight."

"Aha! The number of prisoners is irrelevant. Good. Now prove your answer."

I was stuck. I knew it was the right answer. But I didn't know why. He kept hounding me. "Speak up, Mr. Rico. This is an exact science. You have made a mathematical statement; you must give proof. Someone may claim that you have asserted, by analogy, that one potato is worth the same price, no more, no less, as a thousand potatoes. No?"

"No, sir!"

"Why not? Prove it."

"Men are not potatoes."
What I still enjoy in Heinlein is captured here.  What I outgrew is as well.  He's very directly challenging his reader to tackle questions of ethics and morality.  And he's strident about it.  All those italics and exclamation points, I didn't add those.  I don't mind that so much, sure it's a bit florid but I think that's a great approach to go after a young reader.  Pose the questions, demand an answer, then demand a justification.  The problem is he's sloppy.  Where he has Reid say they've established an "upper limit" of one thousand, no, that's not what they did at all.  That's saying up to one thousand prisoners are enough to go to war over, more than that is not sufficient reason.  I know what he was trying to say but you can't have a character say they're being held to mathematical standards of proof and morality is an exact science and be so careless with your words.  The whole situation is the kind of overwrought there's-a-terrorist-who-knows-where-the-bomb-is-do-you-torture-him-for-the-information scenario.  Obviously, a nation should not just forget about a P.O.W. still behind enemy lines.  But, neither do we need to suppose that immediately after the last signature is on the armistice document, the presence of P.O.W.s behind enemy lines means lobbing a nuke or immediately picking the rifles back up.  (Demand their safety, work out the logistics of their return, explain the consequences of failure to comply or discuss in good faith, then act accordingly.)  At heart, Reid and Rico are right, you risk more than one life to gain the release of a prisoner -- if need be -- because saying, "Well, it's just one prisoner, screw him," would clearly be wrong.  Just like torture is wrong.   The problem is Heinlein's bluster obscures the real process of how you reason through a dilemma like the one discussed.

I'm glad I read Heinlein when I was young, I'm not sure I could stomach him now if I hadn't.  I'm glad because even though the prose and ideology are dodgier than I realized as a teen, the lesson that it's important to get to the right answer, that you arrive at it by reasoning, that there is a science to answering the hard questions (no appeals to mumbo-jumbo and mystical bullshit) -- as long as a kid comes away with that, that kid's going in the right direction.  I hope my kids read this stuff when they get older.  I also hope they don't stop with Heinlein.

And, I never did outgrow Twain.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

KSR Watching

Deals: 11/23/2009 - 11/23/2009 - Publishers Weekly:
"Orbit's Tim Holman inked Kim Stanley Robinson to a world English rights, three-book deal, with the first title in the agreement, 2312, slated to drop in 2012. Holman, v-p and publisher of the Hachette sci-fi/fantasy imprint, brokered the deal with agent Ralph Vicinanza. Robinson, who's won various genre awards including the Hugo and the Nebula, is best known for his Mars trilogy, published in the 1990s by Bantam's Spectra imprint. In the new novel, set 300 years in the future, human beings have fled Earth in favor of new homes within the solar system."

Monday, November 23, 2009

Non-Random Book, Non-Random Passage #1

Have I mentioned how much I love having my books all shelved and at hand? Yes. The random was fun (for me) but I'm itching to flip through some faves. Of course, it's Kim Stanley Robinson to start. The Gold Coast maintains a special place in my heart, even though The Years of Rice and Salt is currently my favorite of his novels. I've got a Hardback 1st and a paperback TGC -- liked it so much I bought it twice. Plus, I received a J'ai Lu edition en Fran├žais as a gift.

There's a bit that's always stuck with me, something I'd done, and I'm sure most folks have at one point or another where you count back generations to try to fit history in your head, make the scale of it intelligible. In the novel, the gang of friends need to get out of Dodge while some trouble blows over, so they jet off to Europe, hit some of the big tourist destinations, then decide to see the Pyramids in Egypt (and are underwhelmed), then Jim, our protagonist, suggests checking out Greece and getting off the beaten path to do some camping. They find some ruins and with the help of a few lines off the back of a map launch themselves into history:
"Well, the back of the map has a few sentences about it, and that's all I know, really. It began as a Minoan town, around 2500 B.C. Then it was occupied by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Under the Greeks it was an independent city-state and coined its own money. It was abandoned around either 900 A.D. or 1500 A.D., because of earthquakes."

"Only six hundred years' difference," Sandy says, "My Lord, the time scales!"

"Immense," Jim says. "We can't imagine them. Especially not Californians."

Sandy takes this as a challenge. "Can too!"

"Cannot!"

"Can too!"

About five reps of that, and Sandy says, "Okay, try this. We'll go backwards from now, generation by generation. Thirty-three years per generation. You tell us what they were doing, I'll keep count."

"Okay, let's try it."

"Last generation?"

"Part of Greece."

Sandy makes a mark in the dirt between flagstones. "Before that?"

"Same."

Five generations go by like that. Jim has his eyes squeezed shut, he's concentrating, trying to recall Cretan history from the guidebooks, his history texts back home. "Okay, this guy saw Crete deeded over from Turkey to Greece. Before him, under the Turks."

"And his parents?"

"Under the Turks." They repeat these two sentences over and over, slowly, as if completing some ritual, so that Jim can keep track of the years. Sixteen times! "That's one big Thanksgiving," Humphrey mutters.

"What's that?"

"Lot's of Turkey."

Then Jim says, "Okay, now the Venetians."

So the response changes. "And their parent?" "Venetian." Ten times. At which point Jim adds, "We've just no reached the end of Itanos, by the way. The end of this city."

They laugh at that. And move to the Byzantines. Seven times Jim answers with that. Then: "The Arabs. Saracen Arabs, from Spain. Bloody times." Four generations under the Arabs. Then it's back to the Byzantines, to the time when the church before them was functioning, holding services, having its doorsill scraped by the door's locking post, again and again. Fifteen times Jim answers "Byzantine," eyes screwed shut.

"And their parents?"

"In Itanos. Independent city-state, Greek in nature."

"Call it Itanos. And their parents?"

"Itanos."

Twenty-six times they repeat the litany, Sandy keeping the pace slow and measured. At this point none of them can really believe it.

"Dorian Greeks." After a few more: "Mycenean Greeks. Time of the Trojan War."

"So this generation could have gone to Troy?"

"Yes." And on it goes, for eight generations. Sandy's shifting to get some fresh dirt to scratch. Then: "Earthquakes brought down the Minoan palaces for the last time. This generation felt them."

"Minoans! And their parents?"

"Minoan." And here they fall into a slow singsong, they know they've caught the rhythm of something deep, something fundamental. Forty times Sandy asks "And their parents?", and Jim answers "Minoan," until their voices creak with the repetition.

And finally Jim opens his eyes, looks around as if seeing it all for the first time. "This generation, it was a group of friends, and they came here in boats. There was nothing here. They were probably fishermen, and stopped here on fishing trips. This hill was probably fifty feet inland, behind a wide beach. Their homes down near the palace at Zakros were getting crowded, they probably lived with their parents, and they were always up here fishing anyway, so they decided to take the wives and kids and move up here together. A group of friends, they all knew each other, they were having a good time all on their own, with their kids, and this whole valley for the taking. They built lean-tos at first, then started cutting the soft stone." Jim runs his hand over th eporous Minoan block he is leaning against. Looks at Sandy curiously. "Well?"

Sandy nods, says softly, "So we can imagine it."

"I guess so."

Sandy counts his marks. "One hundred thirty-seven generations."

They sit. The moon rises. Low broken clouds scud in from the west, fly under the moon, dash its light here and there. Broken walls, tumbled blocks. A history as long as that, and now the land, empty again.

At this point, some headlights break the characters' reverie and they are back in the present day. Whew, long passage to transcribe. I love it. Humphrey's Thanksgiving quip falls flat, unacknowledged once explained. The generations in the recounting wash up on empty land like a wave, then recede. The sand they are scratching in, the rocks that were scraped and cut, they abide. The repetition and ritualism, expanding their imagination of history. Jim's eyes are screwed shut until he reaches the first settlers. When he opens his eyes, I feel like I'm seeing the landscape the way he is.

And so we should, imagine backwards, then look at where we are. Where are we going next? How are we living in times that are like the times of our ancestors? How are things different? Then, of course, we need to think about what comes next, right? How to live now so when future generations count back, they don't say "bloody times."

Best Ofs Rolling In

The best TV series of the ’00s | Best Of The Decade | The A.V. Club: Oh my. Time for best of the year and decade lists again. I'd like to make some; will probably settle for reading them.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Jane Goodall on the Daily Show

The Daily Show | November 12, 2009 - Jane Goodall | Comedy Central
There's a good reason to link to Jon Stewart every day. Jane Goodall may not be the bestest reason of all; but, she's a favorite of mine. Of course, if Goodall isn't your thing, there's the usual pointed quips at the expense of GOP buffoons -- Stupak and Pence, for instance.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

High Degree of Silliness

Emmanuel Faye’s Book Questions Status of Heidegger - NYTimes.com
Whether, as the Pythons asserted, he was a boozy beggar or not, the question seems to be: could a dyed-in-the-wool Nazi really think anyone under the table.

On a tangentially related note, this reminded me of a dude I was in line behind in a coffee house in Cary a while back who, chatting up the barista, declared with hep solemnitude that he was getting his Masters in ... get this ... Theology. While the young lady professed admiration, it was all I could do to suppress guffaws. I mean, I could see if this were Europe in the Dark Ages, but in the 21st century they're still giving out advanced degrees in Santa Claus Logic and Easter Bunny Studies? It boggles the mind.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rex Is Not Anything (Triptych Cryptic Import)

David Tennant to Star in American TV Pilot | Gallifreyan Embassy: It's got a horrible name (Rex Is Not Your Lawyer) but a mildly interesting premise -- in that I'm not sure I'd be interested if Tennant weren't involved but, since he is, it's one that has lots of potential.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Random Book, Random Passage #11

Doctor Who and the Daemons, Barry Letts. I went on a tear in 1983 and 1984 reading all the Target Doctor Who novelisations and still have an entire shelf to prove it.
'Yes, sir,' replied the Sergeant, obviously not believing a word of it, and moved away to sort out the junction boxes ready for the link-up to the electricity supply. The Brigadier moved as a close to the Doctor the heat barrier would let him.

'Do you know what you're doing?' he asked quietly.

The Doctor smiled charmingly. 'My dear chap,' he said, 'I can't wait to find out!'
Great old Pertwee-era Who with the Master no less.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Random Book, Random Passage #10

Not sure how to handle this one? Comic books and graphic novels will prove tricky, me without my scanner set up. Here's a fuzzy photo and all caps quoting from Los Bros Hernandez's House of Raging Women (Vol. 5 of the Complete Love and Rockets).

"BUT TO MY SURPRISE, SHARPE IS A REAL GENTLEMAN! AS HE'S ABOUT TO WIPE HIS SOPPING BROW HE NOTICES ME IN THE AISLE SEAT AND STOPS HIMSELF IN MID-MOTION AS NOT TO DRIP SWEAT IN MY BEER. MY FAITH IN HUMANITY IS RESTORED ... FOR THE MOMENT."
Not positive but I think these Fantagraphics editions of Love and Rockets were my first foray into comic book anthologies/graphic novels. I had beat old paperback collections of newspaper comics (Peanuts, B.C., Andy Capp) that were passed down to me, but I was never a comic book guy. I am more today in my late 30s than I ever was as a kid, oddly enough, and that's still not very much.

Scozzafava (Triptych Cryptic Import)

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