Monday, December 21, 2009

Review: Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Recently, I offered a big armful of books to the local veterans center to support a gift drive for Americans fighting overseas. I am not, as you may have read, a booster of the effort, and I hate to let anything go, so kind of condescendingly, I found myself wondering what awful books I could unload that a soldier would also like to read. (I also toyed with the idea of shipping over books with politically subversive elements in them, but (1) anyone sensitive to that is having a tough time of it already, and (2) those, I mostly want to keep.) So it was some Grishams, a couple old Conan novels that I meant to read when I was 14, a bunch of shitty steampunk stuff that I no longer feel guilty about avoiding, what little military fiction I had, and a few dated opinion collections of American history. A damn shame that I had finally unloaded my mother-in-law's collection of recent hardcover potboilers six months ago, those would have been perfect. It's a long segue, but the point is that the pile looks a lot thinner than usual (even as the number of books I will potentially read in it is unchanged), and I'm happy for the recent recommendations I've received. Cloud Atlas, with it's themes of power and subjugation, could have satisfied the effort of quiet evangelism that I had mind, but as it happens, it's also one that I'd rather hold on to.

Cloud Atlas follows along six individual stories, feeling out the dynamics of man's inhumanity to man along the way, examining this against the desire for peaceful coexistence, and looking at the motivations for institutional violence and for resistance (which overlap). Generally, Mitchell is telling stories of individuals against that larger backdrop. The crimes of power develop on a larger scale than the story, backed by contextual notions of state, military, religion, corporation or class, and Mitchell works out ways in which such coersion can arise from or feed back into individual behavior and whether knowledge and compassion are mitigating or damning. Civilization--is it worth it? The question isn't such a unique writing endeavor, but it's one which, I suspect, needs a higher quality bar to get the interest of cynical publishers, and I think it takes some sense of nuance to even ask. Exploring the question within a series of connected and ambiguous morality plays, over the arc of society's desperate conception all the way to its fall, Cloud Atlas reminded me a lot A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I intend as a compliment.

Structure is really this novel's bag, though, and Mitchell takes great delight in the interconnectedness between the stories, and the variations and the unusual architecture of the book. Mitchell lets six "soloists" play for awhile before interrupting them in the middle of their own story, jumping to the next solo, taking place sometime in the future, and in a different literary form. The novel moves through the 1850s, through modern times, and into a couple future civilizations, and then back down the chain. It's a great big pallindrome of a book. There's a strong implication that the human story he tells is circular, that the icon-carving tribe with its tenuous grasp of fallen civilization, is in fact the ancestors of the (non-fictional) Moriori that first soloist encounters in the Chatham islands just a few years too late. The protagonists are spiritually related, but I think it's safe to say that connection is in a purely literary, meta, sense. The voice and vehicle changes for each story (we go from traveler's diary, to personal letters, to mystery novel, to notes for a film script, to formal interview, to oral history), and the tie-ins are well-done, and neatly incorporate a handoff of both halves of the physical object of the telling (the book, the letters, etc.) between the protagonists of each section. By the end, Mitchell is vigorously shaking his own hand in terms of minor story details too.

I find that these metafictional, self-referential tricks are great when they add a sudden insight, and I think the formal arrangement of the elements increases the reader's overall engagement with this particular novel. Like with all tricks, what really matters is execution, how well you can pull them off. This sort of metanarrative does let you cheat a little, however, and the characters (and author) can't always stop themselves from a little critique, making notes on the limitations of the various storytelling media. There's a fine line between cleverness and excusing yourself for bad writing, between showing your authorial hand and distancing your readers from your characters. Mitchell stays north of it, but he gets closer than he needs to sometimes.

And it's funny what details you catch. A misplaced neologism really bugged me, (someone writing in 1931 wouldn't use the term "critical mass"). But I couldn't get myself to notice, even with effort, what spelling conventions Mitchell chose in his contemporary English and American sections. I found myself wondering how plausible the language developments in the future sections were. A couple hundred years from now, the people of his nightmare corporatocracy have evolved a slightly streamlined English, based more or less on spelling conventions from twentieth-century advertising, but I'm lacking the hook how such language should have made the geographic move to the southeast Asian setting. I liked better the voice he uses for post-civilizational section. The speech had an cadence, in which the rules of the parent tongue had obviously been loosened, improvised, and forgotten. Would a free-form language like that be the one preferred by the last tribe to hold on to writing? Well, that one works out, I think: we have the whole Middle Ages to attest to how speech can diverge from the writing forms of the dead empire.

There are also pitfalls inherent to using so many different narrative voices. I found that the solo sections didn't necessarily compare to one another equally, or even in both of their halves. The diarist Adam Ewing was a naive bore both times. The cynical urban gentleman Nick Cavendish was irritating on the ride up and funny as hell in his second act. The bigger problem is that Mitchell is consciously working with known literary types here, and as a reader, you need them to sustain some independent identity even if they satisfy the mold. The letters from Zedelghem were one of the best sections, thanks to Mr. Frobisher's witty epistolary voice, but also for the real sensitivity that was revealed beneath the character who otherwise felt he had been pulled out of Oscar Wilde's trope barrel. The mystery novel portion, on the other hand, proved to contain too much fast-rolling cliche for my tastes, with a grating present-tense narration. ("But that part's supposed to be pulpy," protests my inner David Mitchell. Maybe.) The science fiction future was very well evoked in the first half of the telling, and if (as its central character dares to observe) letting it devolve into an implausible chase sequence weakens its story, the resolution has enough geeky allegorical horror to be satisfying. (And it's great that Mitchell doesn't carry on the pretense that he's single-handedly reinventing the genre.) The after-the-fall section, deepest in the future or the past, may have been the most compelling on its own storytelling merits. As near-mythology, it's really the most canonical style he uses, but it also feels the most original.

Despite the fact that the book makes heavy use of textual tricks and authorial winks, I think it would actually make a great film. One reason is that none of the individual plots are really all that dense, and the the level of character development for the series of shorts is consistent with what you find in a well-done film, which makes more use of archetypical characters and other shortcut cues, appropriate to a medium with severe constraints on time and lengthy exposition. Anyone bought the rights yet?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Random Notes on the Climate Debate

Drafted this while I was not feeling well in Atlanta last week. In all honesty, the post is boring as shit, and I defer any actual valuable analysis to the unspecified future, so read on at your peril. Is it better to write a post a month that's actually interesting, or to keep the train rolling with whatever crosses my mind? Wish I knew, but at the end of the day, it's only my crappy blog, and where else would I write it? Stay tuned for a review of Cloud Atlas, which will probably be better.

I thought I said all I cared to about global warming, but a few things have happened to bring it to the forefront of my awareness. The first is that one of my Facebook friends, in his indignant (is there any other kind?) conservatarian crusade, keeps trumpeting articles that, allegedly, debunk the whole argument. Horrors! Could it be true? How many nails is this coffin going to need anyway? The other, of course, is the scandal of the month, elevated to the always retarded "-gate" status, involving hacked emails from the East Anglia University's Climate Research Unit. Might as well opine while the audience is still lukewarm, after all.

(There are places to inject politics, and I expected Facebook to be sufficiently analagous to a conventional social setting that one might be cautious about starting an unsolicited argument. Especially when it's predictable bullshit. Am I supposed to just let the gloating slide when it's based on so little? Blogging's different. Shut up.)

Actually, I don't have much to say on the CRU email scandal itself. Hard to see why instructions to delete email messages should ever be made, although I don't know the context. (Talking bad about people of note might be one such context that has nothing to do with the data itself.) The dastardly word "trick" isn't remotely unusual for anyone who's ever processed graphics or used math, and tellingly, the biggest outrage is reserved for calling the critics a bunch of assholes. Bad politics, I guess, but (1) they're internal emails, and (2) who could possibly disagree with the assessment? (Go ahead and click the link to look at that Delingpole guy's picture. He looks like someone who's turned a snit into a professional career.)

My Facebook friend did introduce me to the best deniers in the business however. you can survey Climate Audit and find people who actually use numbers. CA is like the evil twin of Real Climate, a blog that discusses issues rather equanimously to my eye, but then I again, I happen to agree with them, which always makes people look smarter. Here's RC's support of the "hockey stick" (a reconstruction of thousand-year historical temperatures that shows a recent increase in mean global temperature corresponding to CO2 increases). The CA commenters run on the intellectual bullying side of the fence, and the posters themselves generally want you to use their code and other annoying things before they'll talk to you. I don't think they've refuted the physical understanding of the dynamics of global climate, which remain (I believe) reasonable enough, and is certainly where I take a passing interest, but they do their best to discredit the pre-thermometer data itself. It's too bad statistics is almost as boring as reading a daily argument with 500 comments to a post, or I might have generated some more substantive comments by now. Much as I try not to judge by style, I have to admit that I find CA's stand not overly friendly to even the casual scientist, but you can find at least one summary of their arguments by McKitrick (they evidently removed a better one between when I first drafted this and now). Feel free to judge the content for yourself; I'm unenthusiastically working through it. They at least deserve a better analysis than a shitty vanity-pressed pamphlet offered by a congenital crank. They're still assholes, though.

I don't really approve of CA's argument by vendetta. And I can't help but note the lesson as it applies to makers of political opinion too, especially those that choose to identify themselves by the crayon-drawn philosophical tract of a given political party. (As for me, I can't vow to stick only to important critique, but I will at least try to fucking entertaining about it. And I just might occasionally join in the mockery of the people that are making all the noise and/or have all the power, which only seems only fair.) I don't object to citizen journalists, if they're accurate and convincing, and I guess the same should go to citizen scientists. Of course in science, the barriers to publication or conference attendance are smaller if you satisfy the condition of having a quality argument (smaller than in journalism! they certainly exist in science, and developing a quality argument can sometimes be rather expensive if you need equipment n'shit), and it's the right way to get attention.

I like this quote from RC about these guys:
There is however a different way of criticizing scientific papers that is prevalent in blogs like ClimateAudit. This involves challenging, ‘by all means necessary’, any paper whose conclusions are not liked. This can be based on simple typos, basic misunderstandings of the issues and ‘guilt by association’ though there is sometimes the occasional interesting point. Since these claims are rarely assessed to see if there is any actual impact on the main result, the outcome is a series of misleading critiques, regardless of whether any of these criticisms are in fact even valid or salient, that give the impression that every one of these papers is worthless and that all their authors incompetent at best and dishonest at worst. It is the equivalent of claiming to have found spelling errors in a newspaper article. Fun for a while, but basically irrelevant for understanding any issue or judging the worth of the journalist.

And I noted last time, but it deserves repeating, that arguing for the status quo (high consumption is great!) is not bold. Granted, a protected platform to argue against it can make the pissants a little annoying, but it's pretty clear who has the real power to move the world, and that's the people who agree with with the CA team.

The reason that I don't completely write them off is that they spend most of their efforts trying to refute the core data. The climate model is important, and the supporting data should be as solid as possible, so, like, go ahead and pick at it. I dug deeply enough into CA to question omitting some tree-ring records in some papers, although the practice seems to be defended well by the titled scientists. On the other hand, I only trust multivariate analysis, or epidemiology (or economics) up to a certian point, and I'd also only extrapolate a computer model cautiously in any case, and when it encounters conditions that are anomalous with respect to the historical record I'd be even more cautious. I also am skeptical that we're causing a new steady state conditions of climate and geological activity, but neither did Chicxulub, if you catch my meaning. Human activity is a tremendous perturbation to the system (shaking it badly, regardless of whether it knocks the train off the track), which is plenty dangerous enough.

The most rewarding part of the reading was to learn a little about principle component analysis, and I have to admit it's kind of neat. It's a sort of generic eigenvalue analysis of a data set, an exercise analagous to finding the components (vectors, harmonics) of some function, and in this case prioritizing them by impact, using as many as you need to reconsturct the data accurately. You subject data to Fourier analysis (I've been known to get goofy about that, as it's followed me the last couple of years, and I still don't know if I want to keep it) along the same philosophical guidelines, which of course involves another sort of eigenvalue program. PCA is more exclusively a tool to analyze trends from noisy data, however, and I take amusement that it doesn't need any physical interpretation at all to work. Nature doesn't need our interpretation either, and you can design systems by "genetical" or "evolutionary" processes, although it's tough on the pursuit-of-knowledge thing. The idea is to select for desired traits taht come out of some network, system, or complex mathematical construct, varying the working parameters among the "surviving" generation and then repeating the task. It's just like breeding--except you write some algorithm to guess the next variations for you--and of course you can make living things do weird tasks this way too. I don't know if people have applied genetic algorithm ideas to raw data sets, or if they should. Anyway, a digression, and I apologize.

Finally, I think we can all agree that Sen. Inhofe is a moron.

Friday, December 11, 2009


You know, at nearly 37 years old, and having done this sort of thing for 15 of them, you'd think I could count on my ability to present in front of people without freezing up like a wild animal hypnotized by a headlight. I had no less faith in my work than I usually do, and I can't say I felt shy--I don't know who that was up there. I go along for months, years, at a stretch without that shivering dweeb breaking through and spazzing out in front of everyone, but I can never quite exorcise the twerp. It was like discovering, years later, I still have the ability to bomb my first job interview. Maybe it was the hair.

On the other hand, the vertigo is still here two days later, and might not be just stagefright. (My Mom was recovering from a viral infection with these symptoms when I saw her the time before last.) Great.

Still, a technical conference. It's been awhile.


  • Constructive criticism! I was sitting across from my boss and our marketing guy, and the timing with which they broke their conversation to sadly look at me was priceless. On a dime, the conversation turned to my many faults. I wasn't an embarrassment, you asshole, my nerves (or something) just got the better of me and I gave a bad talk. The data is still there.

  • Food! A good conference will feed you, and I'm still childish enough to savor any slop I don't have to pay for. A better conference will have at least one cocktail reception around the posters.

    If I can ditch the corporate whip-masters, then there's even a possibility of a pleasant, quality dinner. On Wednesday night, I escaped to sample this guy's tasting menu, which didn't disappoint. I'm going to have a hard time fitting it into the per diem, but it was totally worth it.

  • Swag! The number one reason anyone attends these things. That's a nice fucking ball-point.

  • I'm not dead! I'm trying not to notice, really, and wouldn't be tempted in a million years anyway. But it's a secret all nerdboys know: smart girls are sexy. Not that I'm looking.

  • Ideas! Meetings are really where all of the cutting edge ideas first turn up to the public (I chuckle when I read technology journalists whining about the journals' monopoly on the scientific scoop). There's just so much cleverness and genius flying from so many directions, that even a lazy cynic like me can caught up in the inventive whirlwind. There's nothing like furiously scribbling out a notebook full of stimulating research and your own whip-smart corrolarries, only to scratch your head over it when you get back. Back in the day, my advisor used to photocopy notes like this for the benefit of his students. It was even worse than trying to figure out my own notes now.

  • Integrity! Marketing a program isn't the same thing as reporting data. Even when the two are pointing in the same direction, as they are this time really, you can still feel the friction if you're reporting. I mean, the data are promising and encouraging and whatnot, but there's a strong motivation to really celebrate what there is, which simply isn't the way I operate. Hell, I can barely get the self-analysis up to neutral territory, never mind something positive. When the data and the pitch are far apart, then things can be really stressful. I have to think that even marketing people can feel it then.

  • Nerds! Nerds! Nerds! There's some fine posts that can come out of analyzing the social behavior of highly-educated technical types. Anyway, you can spot the schoolyard asserting itself here as much as anywhere else--you still have to decide who you'll sit with during lunch. Among the young-ish types, there's the squeaky overachievers, the intellectual show-offs, the self-imagined rogues, we're-all-from-the-same-group gangs, and people too geeky even for the geeks. Your older conferees have gradually infected themselves with standard varieties of professor, colonel, salesman, and kook archetypes. It can be fun to imagine how one becomes the other, and of course to watch the dynamics when they're put next to one another.

    And for all this, I am sure the majority are workaday schlubs too, even if I find them surprisingly hard to pin down. Not much interested in talking shop outside of working hours, my grand strategy has always been to identify the people who'd rather be elsewhere, and pair off so as to mock from the sidelines, or just go get a beer, but it's never once worked. Usually, I forgo socializing altogether and just go off to read books.

  • Airplane! I hate air travel just a tiny bit more every time I do it.

  • Tuesday, December 01, 2009

    Review: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

    Catch-22 is the first book in a new project, consisting of a compilation of the sorta-banned books of the twentieth century that I innocently posted a month or two ago. I'll put up the final negotiated checklist sooner or later--I'm slowly working the titles in to the current pile. If I read all the banned books in a year, then hipparchia has to email me a beer or something. Catch-22 has also been the subject of heated debate between my other two readers, so it found itself right near the top.

    I finished the novel a few weeks ago, but it feels like it's one I've had in my head for years. It feels canonical, yes, and I'm sorry that it devolved into a crappy catch (so to speak) phrase, but then a "catch 22" as an unofficial, iron-clad, and contradictory rule, suits the spirit of the novel well enough. As for the feeling of having been here before, I've read or watched enough of its intellectual heirs that it feels like familiar ground. Is Catch-22 really that seminal? We had absurdist and modernist literature already by 1961, even in America, and I'd hesitate to say that the most obvious followers in the form (Slaughterhouse-Five and M*A*S*H, which are also unread and likewise familiar, and the film, Doctor Strangelove) were copying Heller. Heller might have been the first to really capture the idea that modern warfare, with its faceless but horrifically effective violence, with its nightmarishly incompetent bureaucracy, is the pinnacle example of the sorts of deadpan philosophical puzzles that Kafka and Camus had portrayed a few decades previous. Or maybe he was just one of the first handful to finally get that existential haymaker to land squarely on the American jaw.

    The absurdist style has only grown on me. It puts the fear and the humor of life in a fair perspective, and my own times seem to foster an appreciation of the dispassionate monstrosity, but they probably all do. I identify absurdist humor with the ruthless comedy of a good heckler, interjecting moments of truth or context to the massive powers that are grinding indifferently against us all. It's hard not to feel like Yossarian these days, once you begin to fancy you have a slight predilection for noticing those myriad things that the political and social world violently denies, once you start to feel persecuted about all the ways the world is actually (if impersonally) trying to kill you. Of course, few of us are astute enough to observe the obvious very well, given our own paradoxical investment in the events around us, and Heller is better at it than many. He finds the right language and the right context from which to take some impressive potshots.

    The novel has a lot of great lines, most of which stand alone from whatever point in the book they appear, and I'm surprised I don't see more of them gracing the internets, given how nerds like to obsessively quote things. (Maybe the movie version cut out all the good quips. It's got to be hard to read while you're baked, after all.) Heller gets a lot of mileage out of narrative trick where he presents either a negative declaration, or else follows up an assertion with it's own contradiction. [From a random page: "'I can just picture his liver,' Doc Daneeka grumbled. 'Picture my liver,' Yossarian advised him. 'There's nothing wrong with your liver' 'That shows how much you don't know...'"] It doesn't constitute a wide variety of jokes, really, but what the hell, it's not like they stop being funny, and the characters go off on an extended repartee sometimes, or Heller keeps a coherent sketch going for a chapter or two, which is great. Occasionally the bits steer far off into too much silliness, and sometimes they're nearly played straight. The overall tone of the the story does cover something of an arc: Yossarian's conscience evolves from a purely self-preserving force to something more empathetic, as the deaths around him become more violent, and the dead more innocent, and when, for me, a connection between him and the other characters finally begins to gel. I wasn't quite prepared for the impact of the final sequence. As Yossarian slinks through increasingly brutal shadows of bombed-out Rome, and as his last friends survive the war or fail to, the emotion really hit me.

    (A violent set of cliches in today's review. Well, it's a war novel.)

    The random dips into serious commentary or total farce jarred the tone in a way that didn't always help the story. The character sketches of the large supporting cast are entertaining, and yet it took a long time to establish the point of many of them, which affected the development of the story. Not that there's anything wrong with shipping in personnel for a quick joke, it's just poorly telegraphed which of these soldiers is worth investing a feeling or two in. Similarly, the plot is a slice'em dice'em affair of flash-backs and -forwards and the jumbled narrative didn't served a whole lot of purpose, except maybe to accentuate the dark humor, but it's harder to pay attention to it when you're busy keeping track of the story details (you can follow the timeline by the number of missions they're complaining about). Catch-22 would almost certainly improve with a reread or two, starting with a good understanding of the plot and characters already in hand.

    Tuesday, November 24, 2009

    Five More Thoughts - Even MORE Shtick Ed.

    I always figured it a German sort of creole, but the spell-checker brings up "shtick" without the "c," and so who am I to argue? Eh spell-chequer wood knot lye two Mie. Whatever, the point is that the routine's still pretty much the same (wah wah wah wah, me me me me), and the alleged thoughts are too (perils of sarcasm, music inability, resentful foodie-ism, family follies, commuting--hating myself for doing it doesn't excuse constantly writing the same post). I'm going for more frivolity than last time, as I continue to avoid serious work, and to procrastinate a book review that requires an ounce or two of actual thinking. I don't even care what day of the week it is.

    1. Not!
    In age-old posts, I liked to speculate about language and culture. If Russian, say, is fabulously suited for sarcasm, Italian (by definition) for heated romance, then Yiddish is a great dialect for self-deprecating irony, or at least that is something years of consuming American humor has taught me. (I am not comfortable with this sort of generalization, but I needed a segue, you understand.) Even though life has any number of cruel built-in jokes, it's still not easy to go through it being only half-serious. Well, it does allow you to cut yourself a lot of slack when you make assertions, which is always handy in those cases when those assertions happen to be wrong, but unfortunately you can't ace living when all you ever go for is partial credit. But even if you must hedge constantly, it's better than being dead-ass wrong on everything without ever showing your work, right? I equivocate a lot, too. It drives me crazy, except when it doesn't.

    The problem is that circumstances develop which require more confidence. When you sarcastically load every utterance with its own counterargument, savor every double entendre, then where does that leave you when you want to say something sincere, to someone you like or respect? I've been catching myself quipping all sorts of things that, if one were to fail to pick up the meaning I intend, then they'd be left with the exact opposite. "I like the dress, Sweetie. No, it's my honest opinion. No, really!" I don't always make good first impressions.

    The fact that some people seem to understand what I mean, at the level I intend it, is a little unsettling. Either I'm a better communicator than I think I am, or one with fewer shades. Or else you're just as nuts as me.

    2. I'm not dead yet.
    When I was a kid, the Lego brand symbolized the quality sort of toy building bricks. Unlike the competitors that had been around forever--patriotically-themed frontier beams, the awful hub-and-spoke networks with the derogatory Romany name, or the metal screw-together bars that were vaguely Communist in their ugly, ill-fitting universality--the newfangled little snap-together plastic cuboids, with the bizarre product literature translated from the original Danish (and quickly-discarded pictorial instructions that were smart enough to avoid translation altogether), were awesome. The bricks were small enough, and fit together snugly enough that you could make anything out of them and have it stay together.

    There were a small number of specialty pieces that could add angles, hinges, wheels, and a few other useful odds and ends--wings, 90o headlights, cones, cylinders, windshields, and little dudes that achieved a sort of happy minimalist humanity--that could let a kid really innovate. I came to the age-appropriate scene when they were working at bifurcating their product lines to sucker in the completists. How I begged my mom and dad for the space-themed Legos (rockets, antennas, clear yellow blocks). My brother was big on the castle set (had some wall blocks, lances, Lego trees). It didn't take long before they all ended up in the big box. [I got a kick out of the "expert builder" Legos too, which ended up in a different box.]

    The pre-made horses for the Lego knights were probably a bad sign, and over 25 years, the trend seems to have grown entirely out of hand. Best I can tell, each set is now comprised of approximately three highly specific, complex pieces that only nominally interact with pieces from other sets. I thought I saw a Bionicle thingie that didn't have any of the Lego buds on it at all. Might as well buy action figures.

    In grad school, I bought Lego Racers (the video game), which, while having nothing to do with snap-together proto-engineering, somehow caught that spark of honest fun that some artist once caught on a smiling plastic yellow face. And virtual Lego has only been improving, by the looks of it. Lego Rock Band looks like tons of fun, somehow a little more pure than the block-less version of the game. Legos are dead, but the idea of Lego lives triumphantly on.

    3. I'm dancing! I'm happeeee!
    I've gone on about Rock Band, which is like a whole-family karaoke-full of fun. I like that we can do it together while I wait for the kids to warm up to the idea of participating in the jug band, and it's fun to pretend to drum, but of all the hobbies...

    In my non-musical musical family, we're singers least of all. To be fair, my father (who is also the only one of us alive that can keep time) can produce credible, ear-pleasing, Garfunkular harmonies, but the rest of us possess voices that have been known to send dogs whimpering inside during the full moon. The local minister canceled Christmas in 1979 to keep my grandfather away from the hymnal. Yoko Ono once threw an egg at my mom. My poor daughters both adore singing, and enjoy chorus greatly, emote the notes innocently and without shame. My darling little girl (who I'd love to see get a shot at acting) has had a hard time landing prominent roles in the school productions because they're musicals. And yet I'm all for it--what can make you happier than singing, after all?

    So getting a compliment for my voice was something entirely unexpected (and I'm sure my wife regrets it deeply). Granted, it was in comparison to two pre-pubescent girls trying to sing male parts, but I'm taking it. Evidently, I'm at least occasionally capable of hitting the same two notes that John Fogerty, Steve Perry, and Pete Townshend sing most of the time. Sweet.

    (As I write this, Stephen Colbert is singing along with Elvis Costello, and faking it pretty well. Fucking talented people.)

    4. Peer Pressure.
    Colbert completely justifies anything else Comedy Central might ever do. I still haven't figured out what I like about Food Network (as I've often complained). Okay, I like to ogle the food, which they sometimes highlight between the personality parade. I also get a kick out of how they dub Japanese-accented English over Masaharu Morimoto's broken English. (Lou Ferrigno is somewhere flexing his muscles in sympathy.) I might enjoy Alton Brown's Mr. Wizard schtick if he weren't so damned smarmy about it.

    And what's the alternative? Both times I've watched America's Test Kitchen, I've wanted to strangle that bespectacled know-it-all who tells me that everything I know about cooking is wrong. The presence of some interesting facts and explanations in there is that much more annoying, somehow. Maybe it's the presentation, like I'm being addressed as a ten-year-old. Any good material scientist knows the importance of morphology; any chemical engineer who's been around the block knows how touchy biochemical processes are to shepherd. I don't feel I need the level of condescension they offer.

    Yesterday, I got schooled in the use of a potato ricer, which all the TV chefs have been playing with lately, and which I deeply suspect is a useless trendy gadget. Glasses-guy accented his shopping guide with an after-school vintage cartoon telling me the viscoelastic spuds I grew up with just. aren't. cool. Now, I always thought "creamy" was the goal, and my trick, such as it is, has always been to put plenty of fat and milk in there, as I whip the living crap out of them, mm-mmmm. I admit they're a little gluey. But why not? I associate "fluffy" with the under-processed (and slightly under-seasoned) taters that frequented my grandmother's table, and were preferred in eastern European households (data set of one). I admit they weren't my favorite. My mom also had a ricer at one time, long ago, that she used to turn leftovers into baby food. So I'm thinking, you're shitting me, right?

    Of course I bought one. I'll report back.

    5. I hate driving, have I ever mentioned that?
    First we tried the local cooking shops, but the ricer required a trip to the nearest big megamall (helping to confirm the suspicion that it's a high-class, food-porn sort of gizmo), which, I'm sorry to say, isn't really that near. I hate everything about these places. I hate the crowd, the parking, the forced festivity, the canned indoor air, the designed inefficiency of moving around, the frenetic sense of holiday consumer pressures, the time crunch that prevents me from looking around at the rare item that's interesting (such as anything in the bookstore).

    It's not even officially Hell Month yet, but there was no parking spots at the mall today. I'm happy to walk, but don't care to be stared down by looming blinkering fatasses on even the parking outskirts. Nor do I appreciate the dangerous pedestrians who scoot in front of my car to cross the street. When I stupidly jump out in front of moving traffic, I'm sure to make eye contact (what driver doesn't appreciate a thank-you wave for being forced to yield?) at least enough to avoid getting run over. It's a simple question of weight ratios, after all.

    There's a special place in hell for the drivers of little cars that park deep in the slots, making them look empty, or better, let's damn the drivers of the street behemoths who block the view. The whole American consumer culture is overdue for a reimagining (which may not be voluntary when and if it comes), but I've got to tell you, in a lot of ways I'm more motivated by personal, and largely irrational annoyances.

    [I need to go to bed. I'll clean up the English tomorrow, if so motivated.]

    Friday, November 13, 2009

    Five More Thoughts - More Shtick! Ed.

    I've heard that we need more shtick around here, and I figure I can share this thing where I ramble along five times longer about exactly as much nothing, kind of like if Seinfeld was verbose, unfunny, and had no audience. Since I don't really go in for topical news, I limit myself to extremes of scope, blathering about poorly-illustrated big-picture stuff, or else going after the trivial and banal (mostly about myself). Is there any doubt about which is more satisfying?

    Also, I'm not genealogically qualified to use this many Yiddish-isms. Oy, the chutzpah. It's probably because I learned to read from a stack of old MADs.

    1. "Seduced, shaggy Samson snored..."
    I never really intended to become a shrill, embittered liberal, especially considering that my political views haven't really changed at all. We can trace this development to any number of things--studying too much how ideologies relate to practice, reading too many other cynical types, or suffering the continued indignity of working for a living--but the real answer is more insidiously obvious, staring right me. I grew a ponytail.

    It took about a year and a half, and I still couldn't tell you why I did it at this age. It wasn't really laziness, and certainly not vanity. Maybe it was just cheaper than a Corvette.

    A dreadful, ratty tangle of a thing. Let down, it looked like a Troy Polamalu style forehead-and-curls, although my wife thought "pro wrestler" was a better description of the wet, stringy strands (minus, of course, either sort of beefcake). My daughter thought I looked just like Slash, from Guns-n-Roses, which is actually why I kept it as long as Halloween. (I'm going to let y'all use your own imaginations as to my actual appearance.) Pulling it back allowed me to go to work.

    If you're a professional nerd, then slacking on your appearance can actually be a keen career strategy, way to generate the illusion of competence. Who would you trust to think up an innovative techie solution on your behalf: the impeccable smug little douchebag in an immaculate suit, or the slovenly ponytailed grad-student-looking guy with the pens in his stained shirt pocket and old sneakers on his feet? I mean, really! As my hair proceeded through its Einstein and its Newton phases, lucrative contracts came forth like manna on my heretofore parched horizon. Speaking confidence grew, and the reports and marketing pitches grew more successful. There was even a result or two, if you can believe that.

    I cut it yesterday, not as short as it's been all my life, but I think enough to save the shower plumbing. I declined to go all-in, for fear of losing my powers. I can stretch it into a tight nub if my career flounders again, or if I discover I'm insufficiently shrill.

    I wonder what would have happened if I grew a Lenin goatee.

    2. News you can use.
    Hey, speaking of pecs, and what children can be led to believe, probably the funniest thing I ever taught my daughter was about chest anatomy. "Hi Grandma!" "Hi M--" "You have boobs!" "Um…" "Girls have boobs and boys have pectoral muscles!"

    I was so proud. Only two or three years old, and she'd really game the reaction of adults with that line, always knew how to deliver it for a laugh. Ten years later, her personality is pretty much the same, witty and sincere and off-the-wall. She's awesome.

    3. They Live!
    So I've been watching the remake of V, less because it's good, and more out of some remembered appreciation of a halfway decent miniseries (not to mention a young boy's crush on a badass hottie alien commander, which hasn't warped me at all, no sir). The new version seems to have taken for granted the menace and conflicting sympathies that the old version took time to build up, but that's not the real problem. You could tell that the series was fucked as soon as they introduced the nerds.

    There are very attractive, well-adjusted science fiction nerds, don't get me wrong, but I've got to tell you--even if he has the correspondingly unlikely hot FBI agent for a mom--there's no way that kid has spent any time reading books and watching Star Trek. He's got that smirky disarming grin honed to such an art form that it's impossible to imagine he's ever had to escape into his imagination or to waste time doing things like "thinking." The lucky bastard smiles like he's had the world on a string since he was ten. I could see him trying to score with the alien for the novelty, but I'm not just buying the sincere infatuation.

    See, the Visitors have good reasons to look attractive, given that they have a desire to seduce the human population into subservience, with their smooth talk and gentle expressions. We can see how boys who've grown up jerking off to Milla Jovovich might gravitate needily to sexy ETs. And presuming those are well-integrated Terminator-style skin suits, complete with human-like nerves and veins and a limited set of plumbing, we can see how the aliens could sustain certain needs and desires with respect to the other species. It's also not inconceivable that they're just total interstellar pervs. But standards of attraction are pretty arbitrary, and I don't see why the aliens would be drawn to the same late-aughts American-style good looks that they're forced to inhabit for the purposes of conquest.
    I'm not saying they'd prefer prettyboy's dorky fat friend (who is the show's only slightly convincing normal) but rather, they're lizards under there, and it stands to reason that they'd go in for humanity's more reptilian specimens (pictured). Failing that, I could see them being intrigued by our more scaly, well-preserved members. Lizard aliens chasing around wizened old grannies? Breaking the hearts of lonely psoriatics all over again? Now that would be great television.

    4. "Packed like lemmings into shiny metal boxes…"
    If V teaches anything, it's that you should be suspicious of authority, especially when they have something to gain from your complacency. Where is this better illustrated than highway police?

    There's some actual service they provide, deterring reckless behavior and directing traffic around an accident, but these things are occasional. The real purpose of the highway patrol is revenue generation, to write enough tickets to keep these punitive fuckers in jackboots and donuts. Did you ever wonder why the streets get so thick with cops at the end of every quarter? When I was in D.C., they had just made a big deal about installing red light cameras (cutting out the middleman, a perfect cash spigot). If no human being is around to see you roll through a red light, then what exactly is wrong with rolling through a red light?

    The traffic police could keep their emergency response function without being such colossal assholes. Yeah, we all know what it's like to be pulled over, but even the nature of their presence is dickish. Drivers naturally cower before police cruisers. They'll shrink as far as they can into the shoulder and freeze, even when the cop is going the other way, as they wait respectfully for Johnny Law to mosey on by. And no motorist alive will pass a cop on the highway. In fact, when a statie is spotted by drivers, the usual response is to slow down to 40 or so, and try to act nonchalant, as if the police are that dumb. (I feel it's respectful to drive past them at normal legal speeds.) Police presence can confuse drivers enough to make them less safe. Last week, I had one of these assholes parked on the median across from the entrance ramp, doing not a goddamn thing but causing misery. Drivers coming up the freeway were jamming on their brakes to feign innocence, and the ramp was stalled well up onto the connecting highway. I'm surprised it didn't cause an accident right there, and I'm sure that the subtle effects of road rage trickled on down the line. That police officer caused drivers to shout at each other, yell at their kids, have an extra drink when they got home. Preserving public order, my ass.

    5. Insecurity Suite.
    I pay six dollars a month for security software for my provider. What I need to keep secure are, I suppose, my ten or so yearly credit card purchases, and my blogger and email passwords. I'd like to keep the photo archives and checkbook register free from mischief too, but we back those up every once in a while. I think if my parents or the four other people in our address book got an email from us asking their checking account number, they'd probably call us about it. I don't know if the security service is keeping those things safe, really. Like most users, I'm taking my chances under half-informed faith.

    I will say this, however. The primary service that the security suite provides is gumming up the hamster wheel in there. Inevitably, the program that freezes my computer when it starts up is the one called "Security Communication Facilitator." If it is doing such an obviously abysmal job of facilitating communications, I don't really expect much from its security services!

    Of course, Microsoft is the undisputed king of useless services. I'm typing this out in Word right now, and I've already been gifted with automatic ellipses (no matter how many times I change the settings in autotype…), automatic whole-document formatting on the italicized headings (who could possibly want that?), and that fucking autosave that sits idle for the long minutes I think, but suddenly sparks to life the second I touch a goddamn key. And for god's sake, do not paste formatted text!. I copied it from another program, you assholes, but I intend it to look like this document I'm putting together. There's a special category in hell for the simp who dreamed up the PowerPoint bulleted auto-presentation, and for the innumerate retard who set the defaults on Excel's charts, with their signature awfulness for any kind of data presentation.

    One thing I've learned as a blogger, is that it's a lot of work to keep things going at any kind of volume. It's why this form works best for people attuned to current events, or with a fine ear for minutiae and clever or funny gimmicks. It occurs to me that there is more than enough material in the annoying quirks and features that one accommodates in the day-to-day operation of human-designed electronics that a cranky person could obsess over, one bug at a time.

    Just throwing it out there, if anyone wants readers, but doesn't want to go through the trouble of thinking up things to write about. You could get rich quick. Or alternatively, if such a blog exists, I think I'd like to read and champion it.

    Monday, November 09, 2009

    Alien Earth

    It's almost funny that a molecule as simple and ubiquitous as water, which for obvious reasons has evolved as a standard compound for the all sorts of scientific reference, is actually one of the more defiant little buggers when it comes to high-level quantitation. Water is highly polar, meaning that a lot of partial electron charge huddles on the oxygen side of it, leaving the little Mickey Mouse ears of the hydrogens to wiggle around with their pants half down, showing a little proton as it were, and correspondingly getting all positively charged. In liquid water, these protons are attracted to their neighbors' oxygens and the whole crew is rather amorous. As they slosh and stir, it can be hard to tell who is with whom, those protons hugging their own oxygen, but stealing kisses from the one next door. It's that extensive hydrogen bonding that causes the unusual crystallization, necessitates fudge factors in the equations of state, requires fairly complicated descriptions of its solvating behavior--when water dissociates itself (or something else), does a bare proton end up floating around? A hydronium ion? H-O***H networks alternating themselves several layers deep until the effect of the charge fizzles out? It depends on how you need to look at it. How about polywater? Nah, let's not get carried away.

    Each of the elements, especially as you go along the second row of the periodic table, loves hydrogen in its own special way. Oxygen, fluorine and nitrogen are the elements that really get into the hydrogen bonding game. You can make some good analogies with liquid ammonia, which like water, will autodissociate (now into ammonium and amide ions), and which will dissolve ionic species. Ammonia doesn't love itself quite as much and will stabilize (most) ions less aggressively. In the symphony of ionic transport, it plays a duller beat, but could ammonia be a viable solvent for some alien biology? I don't see any obvious reason why not.

    I'm fond of these sorts of analogies--swapping media can offer windows onto the universalities of the chemistry and physics but make the whole thing look drastically alien. From another planet. The taken-for-granted chemical balance on earth--what with the free oxygen, water, and the oxidized carbon and silicon--is in a way arbitrary, some dynamic product of temperature and composition, evolved to some steady state. If we limit our speculation to the low-temperature, low-gravity conditions where "chemistry" matters, where life processes still could fit within the usual speculations, then a tour around the solar system shows familiar features carved out of exotic substances. Even on the small handful of dense, rocky balls within a rocket blast, atmospheric and geological dynamics are surprisingly familiar, even though they occur at forbidding temperatures and pressures, circulating toxic compounds.

    The Surface of Venus by Venera 13

    The surface of Venus evidently lacks plate tectonics, and a going theory is that the planet heats cyclically, the crust periodically weakens and floods with magma every few hundred million years. The atmosphere is denser than we're familiar with, reaching supercritical conditions for the predominant CO2, contributing to massive greenhouse heating like a great big heat shield. Most of the action is in the turbulent skies, precipitating sulfuric acid, with possible pockets of oxygen and moderate temperatures in the higher reaches. It's not like sulfuric acid is unusual or poorly understood--you could probably even distill it in the lab if you were so maniacally inclined--but looking at whole weather systems of the stuff is really something. The system is water-deficient, but may not have always been so. Presumably the lighter water long since boiled and buoyed itself to the upper atmosphere only to be beaten away by the solar wind.

    Mars as photographed by the Spirit rover

    The upper reaches of Venus may even be more hospitable than the darling neighbor Mars. We're familiar by now with images of dusty vistas of the red planet. That photo could almost be a back-porch view of a quiet Arizona evening, if you could only breathe. The planet has many intriguing features, but if Mars had a dynamic surface liquid layer, then it's also been scrubbed over the eons by the solar wind. (It helps to have a big magnet in the core of your planet, and just a little more gravity too.) After the landscapes and the sunrises, my favorite images of the Martian surface have shown the aggregate soil, small wind-eroded BBs and sand.

    Europa's surface as photographed by the Galileo spacecraft

    Unlike our planetary neighbors, Jupiter's moon Europa does exhibit plate tectonics, evidently with lateral spreading and subduction. The surface of the moon is smooth, and believed to be only a hundred million years young. The plates are ice, and the mantle is slush, which turgidly convects the plates along like a cold analogue of earth's silicate-based geological mechanics. Volcanoes occasionally cough up water and other cryogenic gases. In Europa's case, the driving energy for its geology* appears to come orbit-induced stresses, other bodies pulling it this way and that.

    Titan's surface as seen by the Huygens probe

    As hopeful celestial bodies go, Saturn's moon Titan is pretty great. It has a dense nitrogen atmosphere, with temperatures ranging from "dry ice" in the upper reaches to "liquid nitrogen" in its colder altitudes, which admittedly are worrisome conditions for any potential microbes, but on the other hand, there's tons of higher molecular weight organic material, for hypothetical organisms to compose themselves from. Titan is the only other well-known body (I believe) to be hydrologically* active at the surface, with surface systems of hydrocarbon rivers, lakes, and clouds that mimic our earth's water cycle. It's basically raining lighter fluid, but don't worry about lighting a match, there's no oxygen. Like Europa, Titan is believed to have a solid or slushy mantle of water, and possibly a liquid layer which would probably be stinking with ammonia, if it exists.

    It's fascinating, but the truth is, I can only pore over this stuff for so long. After a while the images start to look like inanimate wastelands: cold, poisonous, and, as it comes down to the human experience, arbitrary. You could as easily be getting worked up over the deeper meaning of the ice deposits in your fridge, of the formations of schmutz that get caked on the bottom of a lab beaker or something, and I guess those things can be fascinating too, not so depressingly lonely. Ever since Schiaparelli believed he saw canals on Mars, the optimistic view of these hostile orbs--where nooks of biocompatibility exist or existed--has been the hopeful go-to narrative for scientists. Did oceans on Mars and Venus disappear, and could it happen to Earth? Are Europa and Titan teeming with cold, slow biological seas? It's the way we have always liked to tell our stories.

    The lesson, really, is a sense of context. We're comfortable speculating on the geological* and climatological histories of other celestial bodies (there aren't too many consequences of this), and these scant data points to provide insight on How Things Work on planetary scales. If you go far enough back, earth was one of these sulfurous alien hellholes too. Our oxygen-rich atmosphere was a geological late-comer, and the older earth was smoking with nitrogen, methane, carbon dioxide and water, and metals just kind of hung around in their reduced forms. The change in the chemical environment on the surface was enormous and comprehensive. It precipitated out enormous quantities of iron from the ocean (providing handy concentrations of ore for the talking monkeys that'd inhabit the place two and a half billion years later), ate up the methane, and changed the temperature dynamics. The biology of the place completely changed at the same time, and it was all incredibly fast, in the scheme of these things.

    The Great Oxidation Event may have been the most significant "moment" in the planet's history, enabling a whole lot of new surface weathering processes, including rampant biological diversification. There had been anaerobic bugs for a while on the planet, not doing much but metabolizing CO2 and pooping methane, and it is unclear just how many billions of years ago the small population of oxygenic organisms showed up. What is clear is that they eventually won out after a long period of peaceful coexistence. One theory has it that the earth's mantle eventually cooled enough to significantly reduce the geological production of nickel, which is vital in the methanogens' metabolism. In that scenario, the blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, won out because their competitors just weren't getting their vitamins, and O2 filled the seas and skies with all their constant breathing. Cyanobacteria is pond scum among other things, and it's still everywhere. Methanogens can still be found in the deep dark places.

    Other authors have suggested that either a general decrease in the generation of chemical reducing agents (not just nickel) or an increase in photosynthetic oxygen production could sufficiently affect the global electrochemistry balance to a more oxygen-rich condition. They model the existence of two stable steady state oxygen concentrations for those chemical dynamics, and a perturbation of either of these factors could have sent the atmosphere into the high mode. No doubt it took time for the available iron (and nickel) to absorb it all, for the atmospheric and temperature equilibria to establish, and for the green bugs to really take over the place, but Goldblatt et al., believe the conditions were present to suddenly switch 2.4 Gyr ago, and the transition itself may have happened in as short as a few tens of thousands of years (from now to cave art days, by means of comparison).

    They also suggested that the upper steady state of oxygen concentration was much less sensitive to perturbation, and had the switch downward been instigated in those days, it'd have taken a few million years to go anoxic again. Worrying about losing our atmosphere is about as wise as waiting for the sun to explode. On the other hand, it does illustrate a surprising sensitivity within the planetary system and its biosphere, and there are certainly other fluctuating phenomena (such as glaciation), which are faster, and which may also be bistable, with (relatively) rapid dynamics in between. Even there, there's a touch of hubris about suggesting where our activity will ultimately get the planet, and we should worry more about the perturbation than the million-year equilibrium. It's true that human beings are affecting the carbon cycle and the biosphere faster than has usually occurred, but big-time biology, in its general sense, has recovered even from big extinction events. I'm really thinking more of the context right now, what we think of as alien. Biological species have transformed the composition of the outer layers of the globe in a drastic way during the planet's long history. In the case of cyanobacteria and oxidation, it was probably driven by geology, and the bugs got the job done as a response, grew as they grow, a matter of cause and effect. For some reason, we don't think of people this way.

    *wrong words, but "planetology" or "ethanological" or whatever sounds even dumber and more confusing.

    Thursday, October 29, 2009

    Review: Son of a Witch, by Gregory Maguire

    On the face of it, "The Wicked Years" series, which re-examines, of all things, L. Frank Baum's Oz to uncover all sorts the bitter political tension and personal injustice lurking beneath the children's narrative, is not high on the list of books that really needed to be written. Wicked only entered my consciousness because it was ubiquitous in the airports, and little did I realize that it'd already been adapted to a popular musical, and following that, Maguire was moved to write sequels. I could have bought a Wicked tote bag with my purchase if I wanted to, and the book came with a sheet of little promotional witchy stickers. Now that I'm into the series, it means that I'm in on the whole phenomenon, and I hate that! Thanks a lot, bright.

    I liked how Wicked managed to carve out a complex and sympathetic individual out of what had heretofore been a cardboard evil, and Son of a Witch performs the same feat for what had been, until then, a non-character. I don't mean to say that Liir had been overlooked by the author, but rather that he was written as a Ralph Wiggum, an unwelcome tagalong of probable-but-unsure progeny, an uncomfortable little non-sequitur, a chubby blank slate of a kid that tended to gravitate toward authority only to get ignored or abused by it. [And why "Liir"? I'm pretty sure he's Maguire's creation, and it's a name with mountains of connotation for an English-language writer, approximately none of which is yet evident.]

    The bulk of the second novel has Liir, older now, struggling to fill in the body of motivations and sympathies that drives ordinary people, and to get past his own burgeoning self-contempt at this apartness. Liir witnesses state-sanctioned horrors, but nonetheless gravitates to an anonymous military career as a means to keep himself fed, and because it relieves him of choosing his own path. The atrocities that he sees--and under orders, finally commits--eventually break through his rationalizations, and the plot is pieced together from that point, but I wouldn't call it an epiphany. The compelling part about the character is that there is no moral bluster about his conversion, and there's not really any forgiveness. Liir retains much of his fundamental weakness and bitterness, but (I don't think it's spoiling the novel to say), he manages to move history forward through what would only be called strength of character by an outside observer. It's a well-handled balance, and it is satisfying that Maguire had no obligation to topple the edifice of Liir's individuality to satisfy the source material, like he did with the original witch. The world of the sequel is, on the whole, better thought-out and fit-together than in Wicked, as the best middles often are.

    The blurbs spin the series as an analysis of the subtleties of good and evil. I don't think that's accurate. Elphaba (the witch) and Liir have unlovable personality faults (a simmering misanthropy in the former, an uncentered character in the latter), but their sin is dissidence and their motivations for revolt are humanitarian (or rather, Animalitarian). It's certainly not malice. The evil in the book is the official sort, popular, codified and systemic, but it is not vague. If there is difficult nuance at work here, it comes from mapping this story onto the original Oz books, and onto our lives outside of the book.

    Maguire doesn't quite cross the line into political and religious satire though, even if he gets close, and the story isn't exactly a "straight" version of fantasy either, as there is some typical magic-and-wonder stuff here, and things seem to behave, at least partly, by fairyland rules. Like many a good fantasy yarn, the whole thing is set in motion by an external cross-worlds plot device that unfolds like destiny, but played out by typical human motivations. Or maybe not typically human. The characters border on the archetypical, but don't quite get there either. Our Ozians seem to be, as a rule, more articulate, intelligent and self-aware than your normal Earthling (and to be more than they imagine themselves). Letting every character be a walking info-dump, even a coy one, can be annoyingly facile, but I found that I liked it here, found it organic to Maguire's not-quite-mythical Elsewhere. Early in the book, for example, Liir has a conversation with the Scarecrow (that one), who reveals himself as a political pawn, and gives the boy some advice. The wordplay on knowledge is entertaining, and it's clear that the Scarecrow is a canny but self-deprecating fellow, whose brains, or lack thereof, are more about ignorance than anything. What little we see of Dorothy, we find her more normal by human standards, which is to say direct, insipid, and loathed.

    A land like Oz (which let's not forget, was originally written as a sort of escape from midwestern life of the Populist era) is ripe for this sort revisionism--the story of such a harmonious productive land really does have a resemblance to some bullshit political propaganda. The land is a little weird. It feels a little small and underpopulated (the approximate acrage of Kansas seems about the biggest it might be) to support that combination of diversity, technology, military and economy, and no one really marvels at these malevolent, intelligent dragons, which are dispatched from the plot far too easily and anticlimactically (even if teh circumstances worked well for the characters). The landscape seems artificial and staged compared to the reality of the characters, and I want to compare it to books that explore human nature honestly, but in odd microcosm, like, as I mentioned last time, The Iron Dragon's Daughter, or John Crowley's The Deep. But for all that, the Wicked years don't quite trip over into allegory either. If anything, Maguire twists this notion just a little more, intending that our world--Dorothy's world--imitates theirs as much as the reverse, where we are the alien.

    So, it's a more interesting literary niche than the embossed, cut-out covers and the popularity would have you believe, but I seem to recall a saying about that. Strong in character and an intriguing setting. I bought the third one, but discreetly. I neglected the tote bag.

    [As an aside: there was a musical instrument featured that had two sets of strings, one across the other at right angles. I took it that the second set wasn't fingered or plucked (although maybe they could be struck), and was meant to resonate with notes on the normal set. I thought it was a clever idea which may actually work. I'm not sure how much just-resonating strings would add, and if the thing wasn't perfectly tuned, I think they'd sound like total ass, but still. Is the instrument completely made up?]

    Saturday, October 24, 2009


    In the spirit of procrastination...

    When I was in grad school, I drove a '87 Honda Accord, with the pop-up lights, burning oil, rusty rear end, and a prototypical "luxury" cockpit that pretty much all the fleets of all the makers have since adopted.  I am not a car lover, but I did really like that car.  I fixed a few vehicles in those years out of painful necessity, but most of those efforts were jury-rigging a couple of front ends thanks to my awful driving skills and occasional bad luck.  The only one I really wanted to repair was the Accord.  Biggest job I ever attempted. 

    It was just about ten years ago that I had the top of the engine spread out all over the landlord's driveway.  One of the spark plugs had blown out--the threads just gave way and the the thing popped right off--and I had to take the head off and tap a new hole and rethread it with one of those heli-coil dealies.  Fun stuff.  you could really see the black gunk on top of the cylinders, and I suspected that the oil leak was from the rods above, which was I could address, having it all apart like that, but I was already out of money and in over my head in terms of capability.  The car had negligible value, and the repair got me a good extra year out of the vehicle.  I felt really good about that repair.  The car never stopped performing for me, but it did eventually fail emissons.  If it had been the burning oil or the rust, I might have tried to get even more driving out of it. 

    I feel that this is how cars should be handled.  Serially buying new cars is absurd, and something well worth procrastinating.  Every mile that you can get free and clear of any lien, well, that's money in the bank as far as I'm concerned.  Cars should be driven until they're kaput--until the cost of maintaining them surpasses the cost of replacing them.  But when do you make the call?

    I learned this morning that my Subaru ('02 Legacy) is suffering an oil leak, from the head gasket and possibly elsewhere.  I don't think I'm at a point in my life where I'll try and pull off a major and necessary repair myself (I don't even have a garage), but these guys are quoting me on the order of $2500 for all the gasket (guess)work they think it requires (might as well replace the timing belt too, etc.).  What's worse, since I've already been procrastinating so long on getting the exhaust replaced (gradually getting noiser and stinkier), the vehicle is looking at three thousand dollars in repairs.

    I'm pretty upset.  This is the second car in a row that required major surgery at the 100000 mile mark, and I was hoping to get more than that out of a Subaru, get to that point of pure, delicious, economic gravy.  The car is allegedly worth $5k retail, so I'm not quite underwater yet, but I'm nagged with the question of how best to maintain this thing.  Do I pay for the head gasket (and other) repair, and will that get me to the fiscally pleasing ridiculously high mileage I'd prefer, or is it time start riding it into the ground?  If I do the exhaust, and then just pour oil into it until it just siezes, will that get me another year or two?  Anybody have experience with these cars?

    There are a couple of complications, too.  Unfortunately, we have to get the exhaust fixed before it can even be tested for emissions in three months, and it's not a given that it will pass.  The second issue is that we kind of hate the car--the seats are incredibly uncomfortable, the doors are flimsy, and the wind whistles through the windows in a most annoying and constant way.  I'd still rather get another couple years out of it.

    So, a decision on how long we should try to gimp this thing along has to be made by January.  We're saving up for whichever choice, which is a huge impediment to our general plans.  Which to choose?  Well, that's going to be put off a little longer.

    Thursday, October 22, 2009

    Asses' Parliament

    I suppose I should be careful about digging for relevance in books I read when I was still a teenager. I mean, provocative scenes often stick with me, but the context can disappear after a while. (One of the look-smarter-than-you-are tricks I've learned as an adult is to reconstruct context from a few mnemomic cues.) When it comes to anything I absorbed at nineteen years old, when I was still learning the basic anatomy of that sort of thing, it's a good bet that I missed all but the most obvious meanings in the first place. There is a scene, for example, in Zora Neale Hurston's vivid novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God that I've never gotten out of my head. An old mule, fattened and indolent and free, wanders off and dies. The locals perform an elaborate funeral ceremony, elevating the beast to the status of human and then some, imagining and celebrating a full mulish theology, which is followed by an equally formal, but more practical, sermon evaluated by the carrion birds. "What does this scene mean?" my young self reflected in the margins, in red ink (a short-lived habit born out of the novelty of buying my own literature), probably on assignment, but also genuinely struck with the imagery.

    The novel was set in an all-black community in Florida (based on Hurston's home town, evidently, and set during her lifetime), at a time when it was filling itself out politically. The themes of the book include freedom, autonomy, and power relationships, and in a passage like that, the shift of perspective is both entertaining and a little unsettling. The uncomfortable observation is that free people didn't do much better than re-discover hierarchies, and that the citizens ultimately suffer the same practical morality as every other creature does. But there is also the excitement and humor that comes with the privelege of establishing a society of your own at long last. Tempting that sort of universality is one reason this novel gets treated as an important book today (or at least as one worthy of an introductory college course), and finding such evocative connections to a a poor southern black community of the last century, to women, are powerful tools to crack open anyone's parochial thinking, or they should be, and anyway they did that time.

    So I hope that's enough apology for the segue into what I hope will be an entertaining post. I am not attempting to pretend, amid a period of comfort and privlege, that I was oppressed in any way (I hope I have a little more awareness than that), but I can share in the humor of our unfortunate human organizational tendencies, which copy themselves everywhere. I learned pretty much everything I needed to know about government by the time I was nineteen.

    The truth is, we're awash in government and economic models, many of which even function. Take the corporation (please): it's like some modern version of feudalism, in which hordes of peasants labor with negligible representation in exchange for the protection of health plans and subsistence wages, and which suffer under the authority of middle-managing vassals, and from which the owners gather in the lion's share of the gain. ["But that's just capitalism," you say, and mutter "Marxist" under your breath, "and you're not defining feudalism accurately either there." There's all sorts of gray areas between the various socioeconomics brands though, and I reply that I'm merely talking about the inflexibility of the org chart, and the unequal distribution of the benefits. The difference between a dynamic, viable business structure and a peasant mentality is a matter degree and of attitude.]

    Likewise, most of us have occupied long periods of lives in family units, which tend to be organized like a sort of authoritarian socialism. Benefits are distributed generously to everyone according to a central plan, but representation varies steeply with age. And the strict heirarchy dominates everyday affairs too, otherwise it'd take us a year to all get in the car. Primary school was like this too, but worse, probably because the scale gets a few more correlation lengths between the students, the authorities and the "owners".

    Donkeys are a natural stand-in for college kids, if you ask me. Let loose from Mom and Dad's tyranny, but not yet under the iron heel of corporate overlords, those young people make a lot of noise, eat anything, cart around drunks, and act, well, asinine. When I was that age, I found direct democracy to be the hideous social experiment of choice. There were maybe twenty or thirty of us cohabitating that decrepit building, and the responsibilities included, more or less, keeping it clean (or at least keeping the smell down), some basic building management, keeping a non-threatening community presence (i.e., appointing someone to answer the door and look respectable if the authorities called), managing the cook, managing the budget, as well as a number of minor things like keeping the kegs working and making sure someone signed up the hockey team in time. The accounting was mostly the food- and maintenance-related budget, presumably some dues, and a couple of really irresponsible seasonal parties that are surely outlawed by now. Good times. To get the idea of the kind of tight ship we ran, one year, a recent house accountant started off the semester by pitching us a pyramid scheme.

    Dennis would have been proud to know that all decisions were ratified in special biweekly (or something) meetings by a simple majority, etc., and were a fine outlet for sarcasm and mockery. They were generally kind of fun, but curiously, believers could sometimes emerge from the malcontents (I may have been guilty of it myself once in a while), who, from time to time, would start to treat the pretend formality like it meant something. Whenever the rare moral gesture was demanded, or some appeal to sentiment was made sincerely, you could be assured that the fucking meeting would extend approximately forever, and accomplish precisely nothing. There's no bigger waste of time than a public whine for dignity, and yet an open forum seems to engender such things. Another bizarre ethic that I recall evolving was the need to beat the working budget. "Hey, we can cut the dry ice out of the fall Bacchanal." "What do we do with the extra?" "Save it!" "Wait, what?" I mean, that sort of accounting doesn't make much sense when you're just balancing your outlays vs. your expenses. (No one suggested that we do something else with it, or cut the budget accordingly next semester.) In a less harmless legislative body, with less common interest, we'd have cutting corners for the purposes of graft and/or profit is what we'd have.

    Of course, since the general assembly was so obviously ineffective, most of the actual decisions were made behind the scenes, by a steering committee, leaving the rest of us useless slackers to go on with what we were doing anyway. (I have no idea how the select meetings went, really.) It was great most of the time, but it's also a fine illustration of how power concentrates all by itself, in that case by nothing more evil than the perpetuation of presumed responsibility.

    I hesitate to argue anecdotally, but I've gotten myself in the mood for universalizing. If I ever write a book, I hope it'll include such a section with a biting committee parody. In any case, I'm sure that equal collaboration within any group over a certain size is doomed. Yes, we accomplished more mischief collectively than was possible individually, but the tradeoff was the evolution of power structures, and the inevitable group uselessness. All of us together, as the adage goes, were stupider than any of us alone. Maybe a better group of Athenians could have managed a number greater than thirty, but all we had was our parliament of asses.

    Wednesday, October 14, 2009

    Review: Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck

    Cannery Row was picked up on a recommendation from a year or two ago (See? I do follow through on those things once in a while), a comment on an old post of a fictional bash attended by us online types. An elaborate Goodbye Cruel World sort of thing, and, well, many of us have been there. The novel, I was told, was similar in spirit. It had a party, for one thing, and caught a similar theme. It was a good observation.

    The story takes place in Monterey, CA in the early 1940s, during the peak of the fishing industry there, based, at least loosely, on real characters inhabiting an actual nook of its skid row. The novel focuses on the off hours, in dawn and in twilight, where transience is a palpable sensation, but which also reflects in the light a burnished, etched-in-stone quality, like a frozen memory, or a sepia-toned photograph, or, to dig into Steinbeck's preferred metaphor, as the earnest scurrying of the diverse marine animals that flourish for a few hours in tide pools between the ocean's inevitable scouring. I don't know if Steinbeck realized the sardine industry was as ephemeral as its population (possibly he did--he wrote this after a stint as an amateur marine biologist), but that fits in well enough. The industry that holds all these people in place isn't much confronted, nor is the war, but you can almost infer the brutal patterns of society from these large omissions. These inscrutable but measurable forces may have selected the population of this private ecosystem, but the novel concerns itself with what they do when confined to the same pool.

    The storytelling is one of those wandering mosaics, a series of interconnected vignettes that focus on one or two characters at a time, letting them cross, and interact a moment before diverging off into another sequence, with another's point of view. I don't know if this is the best version of this technique I've come across--U.S.A., for a recent example, might come out ahead in overall points scored--but Steinbeck tours us through the lives of some colorful men and women, and finds in there some universal life truths, humor, misery, joy and passion, in an admirable economy of words. There's depth in there, or at least angles of light that imply depth. (I found the handful of authorial segues and introductions to be lovely enough to rob them of their running comparisons.) If, for example, his painter Henri lacks the genius to grasp the philosophical implications in art that he imagines he's after, then his existence itself comes together as a fine tableau to describe a certain balance between connection and the individual burden of holding against a hostile world and the inevitable unknown.

    That sounds like the Steinbeck I remember, except rather than doubling as a painful object lesson, Henri is treated with a tender humor. I feel I must have read a dozen of his novels when I was young (it was closer to three). He gets assigned to students because the writing isn't difficult and the themes are impossible to miss, but Cannery Row, while taking the familiar ideas, feels like a different creature altogether. The humor is part of it, and there is gentle affection all around, but Steinbeck also makes a point to hold back on the judgment and observe the community. The soul-crushing hopelessness that was the finale of those other novels is only a prelude here, and the difference is huge. The life which follows, tough but dear, is allowed to be savored. Melancholy and joyfulness...where did I read that?

    Another thing I liked about the novel was the diversity of its residents, ranging from Mack and the boys, the bums who have, after their fashion, mastered a life of complicated idleness, to Doc, the biologist shacked up in the lab supply business across the street. The rest of the characters radiate in connections to Mack and Doc, and occupy various social strata in between them. What's brilliant about the Cannery Row community is the lack of pretension that Steinbeck places between its members. They all live in their roles in the community hierarchy, but the author locates the common experience they share. Mack spars with the Chinese shopkeeper, and Doc reluctantly takes on his mantle as local wise man, but on the other hand, Lee Chong goes to Mack's parties, and gives in to his schemes even though he knows better, and Doc treats his neighbors with dignity and patience. Each individual is an indispensable cog in the community, and they have everything in common and yet they all have those unreachable places that shelter their own failures. Lonely in a crowd, geniuses and lunatics clinging together, less different than we want to admit, and yeah, point taken.

    Monday, October 12, 2009

    No Really, Red. Let's Go.

    "Hello, Dr. H--?"

    It is well understood that going through a doctoral program takes some combination of brains, motivation, and persistence. I'd tell you it's one of those "pick two" problems, but for my money, it's the last category that is really the indispensable one, especially considering that persistence can look like a lot like inertia or procrastination when you get down to it. A high tolerance for criticism (constructive or otherwise) is helpful too, and extremes of humility or arrogance can be fine defenses against this sort of thing, and are always essential traits in any field. Brains may or may not include any ability for life-planning ability or street smarts, depending on how the opportunity costs weigh against how well you expect to live afterward. As for me, I've been lucky that my scant brains have generally kept pace just barely ahead of my even more unassuming motivation, and I've managed to Peter-Principle my way farther in life than I ever had a right to expect. The gratuitous self-loathing that comes with all that high-level underachievement is just a bonus.

    Anyway, what I'm getting at here is that I don't put very much stock in the honorific. I certainly don't use it outside of professional settings, where it might make a proposal or report an iota more professional-looking (and I'm suspicious of people who wave that crap around, including and maybe especially physicians), and no one calls me "Dr. H--" unless they're trying to sell me something. Of course this was no exception.

    "Can I help you?"

    In certain situations, I don't obligated to control my emotions with a great deal of maturity. This line was delivered with my best Squidward impression.

    "Hi, this is Smiley McCutiepie, class of '11, calling from the RPI alumni association--"

    Of course you are. "RPI" has been coming up on my caller ID for a month now, and the odds weren't good that they wanted to offer a paid interview for Rensselaer magazine. Incidentally, I don't know when they went back to going by their initials again, but I am glad that they have.

    "--and if it's okay we'd just like to verify your contact information--"

    Well, it gets me the aforementioned magazine, which indeed gives me some fine distraction as the girls pound on the door.

    '--and if you are interested, I can tell you about some of the exciting things that are happening on campus."

    RPI, which of course you know, is a small-ish, somewhat respected science and engineering school in a region that's only "upstate" New York if you live in the city. It was made famous by the accomplishments of its old, great civil engineers, and by opening up and expanding to engage a host of technically-awakened GIs after the war. I'd say the engineering programs are (or were) more academically oriented than comparable ones, sacrificing a little of the hands-on, and (I am sorry to say) a little of the graduate research effort. It has enough character of its own to avoid calling it a second-string MIT, but such a comparison is probably inevitable anyway. RPI students seem to maintain a sort of geeky joie de vivre that I'd seen stamped out of MIT students. (Of course i saw it stamped out of my fellow engineers too, in real time, but those guys were decent enough to still hang out and drink with us.) I was pretty happy there. If piling higher and deeper had to be in the cards, and given that I seemed in tune with some of the chemistry staff, I should have stuck around. (I just wasn't into the idea of hanging out with the faculty after avoiding them so successfully for four years.)

    Smiley explained that the campus happenings of interest to alumni included (1) the gigantic new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) building, and (2) a brand new athletic village.

    As for EMPAC, I have to admit it sounds impressive in principle, and a performance center and huge panoramic displays are great assets, even if it lacks that charming shoestring nerdiness of showing recent movie hits in the big lecture hall. And there's never a bad excuse to buy a supercomputer. I'm biased that they sought to erect this behemoth on a piece of my own personal collegiate nostalgia--I used to like to read on that hillside when the weather was nice--and you know, I can't shake the feeling that it's such an obvious knockoff of MIT's Media Lab. Better than MIT's, the press releases argue, but to argue that admits the comparison. The building tempts ass-ugliness too, more because it actually has an ass (note the photo), than by dint of sheer garishness. (No, that honor also goes to MIT, for the famous Tim Burton Stata center, that is now getting Frank Gehry sued. Evidently the architect--not RPI trained, I'll add--thought long and hard about how to make that monstrosity stand up, but didn't account for where the water would go when it rained.) I also don't like that EMPAC fails to match the odd-but-functional marriage of nineteenth century brick-and-ivy and 1970s brutalism that makes up the central campus, and in all, it's just a damned expensive bit of prestige. Maybe those kids who study there, if any do, will all go on to be CGI animators. I think that's something America still produces.

    RPI is also not an Ivy League school. It does have a sports tradition, with a hockey team that performs well above what you think a geek school should (some players were athletes and geeks--Joe Juneau, to take the best example, makes us all look bad), and in addition to the quality facilities, there's a whole slew of local rinks, and all the intramural games were even more fun for the general incompetence of the rest of us. Hockey's great. And the mixture of hockey and engineering has character. There are other sports of course, and in recent years, RPI has taken it on itself to become a football school as well, and for the life of me, I couldn't tell you why. Have the alumni been secretly jealous all these years of the gridiron programs in corn country? Of the elite rivalries among the august Northeast institutions? I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I suspect there is a sizable population of bright kids whose well-roundedness has been thwarted by football all through high school, which may even have steered them away from state school in the first place. I think the sport's okay, mind you, but I see the effort as another expensive proposition to loudly trumpet that the alma mater is trying to be just like all the other ones, only not as winningnessly. (We is enjineers; English was already a casualty.) Have they thought this through?

    (Also, I'll add more unwarranted bias. I remember the football fraternity as a bunch of douchebags back in the day.)

    "Uh, yeah, Smiley, when I think of RPI, I have always"

    Less Squidward now, and more joking. I won't let her off too easy, but she seems so nice.

    "Ha ha. Also, would you like to pledge--"


    "Oh, I understand. But even if you just donate $20 a month..."

    You know, I don't send money to NPR either, and I actually get a service, of sorts, out of those pitiable bozos.

    What a harsh mistress is prestige! It cost a lot of money to send me to college, and now, with this not-entirely-convincing donor-baiting, it's going to cost the next group of kids that much more. Even with all the education, I'm not so steady on my feet that I can go and throw cash around to everyone who asks. Apparently some of the alumni contribution goes to scholarships (I was told--I never saw evidence of it when I went to school), and, what is supposed to convince someone of my meager status, the more donors a school receives, the better it looks when US News and World Report comes along and does the top 50. That's pretty amazing too, if you think about it. Here's a magazine that can't stand up to the journalistic might of Time or Newsweek--talk about your runners-up--almost single-handedly, through the tyranny of a scholastic rating system ungenerous enough to include an evaluation of the old-boys network in the university equation, driving up college costs for the masses, and directing generations of kids into a lifetime indebted servitude. For that sort of investment in the American Dream, I don't know why anyone would be foolish enough to become an engineer.

    "We can give more information in email if you like. Would you be interested in that?"

    "Oh, all right."

    I've already gotten the electronic notice that I've "pledged," and I suppose that means I'll have to break my "word," but the reminder is easy to ignore. I'm hoping that the emails will at least get them to stop with the phone calls.