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|Saturday, November 16th, 2013|
|Book Review: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
You may recall that my only extensive past exposure to Robert Heinlein was Stranger in a Strange Land
, which I found brilliant and enjoyable until the second half, when the hippie-esque wish fulfillment and extremely soft science became overwhelming. For a fifty-something, he seemed awfully close to adolescent. But TMIaHM, published five years later, shows a maturity, tastefulness, and intellect about on par with Isaac Asimov's.
Set in the 2070s, it has proven overly optimistic for space programs by 2013 (like pretty much all sci-fi from the 1960s) but still maintains a high overall credibility. The moon, always called Luna by residents (who call themselves Loonies), has been a penal colony for decades, much to the detriment of anyone born there. Sure, Loonies not under sentence may leave, but few can take well to Terra's gravity and germ presence, so few do. The Authority, led by a "Protector" who's still "Warden" to Loonie minds, cares no more about what Loonies do to each other than Lord Vetinari cares what goes on between most Ankh-Morpork citizens, to use a comparison from my last book review. The key difference: heavy taxation and high expectations of exports, threatening famine in a few years. A handful of individuals understand that nothing short of revolution will save Luna. The odds are decidedly against them, but hey, Loonies love to gamble.( And who are these individuals?Collapse )( Politically controversial? PerhapsCollapse )
The real beauty of this work is that it doesn't call on you to agree with one side or another. You just have to appreciate the complex realism of a situation getting out of hand, smart people learning from history, foolish masses learning the hard way, plenty of patience and impatience, sacrifices, ambiguous victories...and mostly believable sci-fi additions.
Next up: Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness
. I'm a little apprehensive about this one.
|Monday, November 4th, 2013|
You might expect me to give NaNoWriMo another go, especially now that I work only half time. But seeing as I still don't have a good idea four days in, I won't.
This might not have been a problem if I hadn't ruled out all fantasy and sci-fi premises when I started thinking about it again. Yeah, I wanted to broaden myself with a little realism for a change. In particular, I wanted to write something funny, because I seem to get more appreciation when I use humor. Alas, I've read very few humorous novels, and most were fantasy or sci-fi. I thought about imitating movies I like -- maybe a crime caper like Snatch.
(the period is part of the official title) -- but the ideas I cooked up didn't coalesce into a lengthy story.
Oh well, there are other creative endeavors calling to me. Some online associates are calling for drawings or even comic strip arcs from anyone. And I did skip my traditional Poetry Week last month.
|Friday, October 18th, 2013|
|Book Review: Guards! Guards!
As I said before, Terry Pratchett's first and latest (tho not for much longer) Discworld novels, The Colour of Magic
, could hardly be less similar and still belong to the same series. From my perspective, Guards! Guards!
was the missing link. It retains much of the former's focus on invoking and subverting cliches and some of its focus on the supernatural, including Death personified, while putting the latter's hero in the spotlight for what I assume is the first time.
The story takes place almost entirely in Ankh-Morpork, the old city that has devolved to a filthy crime capital. Lord Vetinari, called the Patrician, appears to be the tyrant the city needs to run at anything better than pandemonium. Like Baron Klaus von Wulfenbach in "Girl Genius," he's not all that rotten at heart, just pragmatic in cruelty. Unlike the Baron, he calls for very few laws. As a result, the City Watch has become a powerless joke populated by seemingly useless men. It's strange for me to see Captain Samuel Vimes constantly drunk in the beginning, given his good life and awesomeness by Snuff
. I guess Pratchett gained optimism.
But while I don't share quite such a dreary view of humanity, I grinned many times while reading. Here at last is the level of humor that made Discworld so big a hit. It contains several characters who rate offhand mentions on irrelevant forums I read. My favorite might be the innocent, ignorant, yet effective new guard Carrot. My mom's favorite (and she should check it out) would have to be the Librarian, a man-turned-speechless-orangutan who nevertheless retains high competence and strong opinions. I'm afraid there aren't many females this time around, but the incomparable Lady Sybil Ramkin, caretaker of swamp dragons, makes a grand entrance. The humor wanes a little in the second half as the crisis intensifies, but it gets better in the end.
Warning: Do NOT read the Harper Collins summary on the back cover. It spoils too much.
Next on my list is The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
by Robert Heinlein. From what little I've gathered, it won't turn into a hippiefest like Stranger in a Strange Land
|Saturday, October 12th, 2013|
My mom showed me and my sister this article
and asked for our thoughts. She liked my response well enough that I'll post it here:From what I can tell, women may be the more emotive if not the more emotional sex, but I doubt their emotions are any more complicated or difficult to capture. Men, being the majority of creators in the business, just need more practice at recognizing how we're different and not so different. And as long as men don't have to be constantly handsome, let's not be afraid to let a woman stop being pretty for a while.
Lots of people think of Rapunzel when they see these images. Heck, the adjectival title is enough to evoke
Tangled. I suspect that Disney feels a need to take baby steps in innovation, so much of it is hackneyed on purpose. They don't want preexisting fans to feel left in the dust. Probably most giants are slow to change.
I appreciate the article's hyperlink to the Bechdel Test. Of course, what we know so far is no guarantee that
|Friday, October 4th, 2013|
|Book Review: The Complete Father Brown Stories
So much for my expectation that I would read some and put the rest on the shelf indefinitely. I completed the 800+ pages in just short of two months. This includes a long but, to me, worthwhile introduction by Michael D. Hurley, who is aptly economical in his endnotes throughout the collection (I didn't even bother with a second bookmark). Most of the stories are 12–21 pages long; "The Donnington Affair," which Max Pemberton began and our main man G.K. Chesterton finished, reaches 30.( Cut for lengthCollapse )
Following this read, I picked up a birthday present, The Elements of F*cking Style
, but I don't need blunt examples to know the rules and that sense of humor really doesn't cut it for me. I'll donate it somewhere. In the meantime, I will surely enjoy Guards! Guards!
by Terry Pratchett.
|Friday, September 27th, 2013|
|How much of a dork am I?
Man. It's one thing for me to confuse Noel Coward and Noam Chomsky. Or Lady Gaga and Dame Edna, way back when I'd heard more about the latter. It's another thing for an old-movie buff (note the hyphen) to confuse Burt Lancaster and Burt Reynolds.
At least my brain fart left Burl Ives out of it.
|Wednesday, September 18th, 2013|
I recently browsed Farmer's Almanac
(not surprised the old-fashioned thing is approaching its bicentennial) and, in testament to my lingering youthfulness, took most interest in the game section. One of the easiest puzzles also struck me as the most curious. Let me paraphrase in brief:Some kid broke a neighbor's window during baseball. Each questioned player told one truth and one lie. Who did it?
Four of the five pairs of statements that follow take the form of "It wasn't X. It was Y." The last one goes, "It was X. It was Y." You don't need much logic to notice that all the "wasn't" statements have to be true. From there, you can rule out one of the last two statements, completely ignoring three testimonies.
I don't blame FA for varying the difficulties from elementary level to, well, frustrating for me. But this setup raises several questions that must not have crossed the writer's mind. Why would all the players make various false accusations? How would anyone determine that they alternated between truths and lies except by already knowing which was which? Why would they bother with the denials, which are implied by the accusations? And why accuse two people back to back for what's decidedly the work of just one of them?
You can call me picky, but hey, this is
a logic puzzle. Logical thinking doesn't stop with the rules. ;)
|Sunday, September 1st, 2013|
|Austria Report: Language
I'm pleased to say that Before Sunrise
did not exaggerate the presence of English in Vienna. This presence continues about equally in Hallstadt, Salzburg, and Berchtesgaden (yes, we briefly forayed into Germany!). Only one person we talked to, a waiter, required a compromise language; luckily, the first one he suggested was Spanish. Funny, it's more common to find French and Italian on signs. Oh, and Wikipedia threw me off: We never encountered Austro-Bavarian or Alemmanic, supposedly the second and third main languages.
Nevertheless, the pocket dictionary I bought paid off every day. As stylish as English appears to be in shopping centers, lots of text remains only in German. On one of the first days, for instance, I stopped my sister from opening an emergency exit, or Notausgang
. (From what I saw, a given German term or sentence has about a 50% chance of being shorter than its English equivalent.) I made a point never to leave a hotel without the dictionary, often delving into it every minute or so. To me, it was kind of a source of comfort, a linguist's constructive diversion to cope with dull times. Not that the language got any prettier with exposure; sometimes it made my scalp itch.
The most important time to dig out the dictionary was when we rented a surprisingly large, high-tech Volvo. The manual was dense but restricted to German. Some answers were so hard to find that Dad would try to do without them for quite a while, as by leaving the rear windshield wiper on. Alas, it's only a pocket dictionary, albeit good at noting Austria-specific terms. Sometimes a word would appear in a definition without turning up in the opposite section, and I'm not talking about issues of conjugation.
The one time that we truly felt left behind by not knowing German was when we attended Strauss's Die Fledermaus
. We could enjoy the singing and deduce a few plot points, but the spoken comedy segments largely went over us. At least we could enjoy two men trying to pass for French, especially when one said, "Voulez-vous couchez avec moi?" (It was a modernized production for sure.) I think I also picked up on a pun that would work in English: When a man sings in jail, another makes a crack about Sing Sing.
Oddly enough, sometimes we were unfamiliar with an English term in a translation, tho it was no less valid for that. Ever heard of a chough
? I had no idea which of five ways to pronounce it until I finally looked online; it's "chuff." A fairly charming bird, BTW.
Austrian German names and words did not amuse me as much as Dutch
, but I noted a few. Frey Wille is a jewelry maker, not an orca knockoff. Spittelberg does not sound like a good place to eat out. If you see "Quark" on a menu, it's curd, not in an especially small portion. Lots of towns start with "Bad," meaning bath; but when we saw signs for Bad Aussee, my sister took a picture for her Australian friends and I automatically added, "No biscuit!"
I don't recommend that you take English-speaking kids under a certain age to Austria. Only when I got to Vienna did I realize the origin of our "wiener." OTOH, "Schmuck" must have a very different origin, as it turns out to mean jewelry. Throw in the frequent use of "Fahrt" in talks of travel, and you've got quite a juvenile snickerfest.
Not much to laugh at in English, but I did find "white hot chocolate" deliciously ambiguous. "Motel One" seems a misnomer; by American standards, the multi-floor building is much more of a hotel. Oh, and one example of odd English from the U.S.
airport: "If you're 12 and under..."
Finally on the subject of communication, if you see red with a white horizontal stripe, it's not necessarily a do-not-enter sign. It could be the national flag.
|Friday, August 23rd, 2013|
Hi, all. Yes, I've been back since Sunday. I've been putting off my Austria trip report, partly because I've been busy catching up with things and partly because...well, what I'm about to say, I didn't tell my family at the time, lest I ruin it for everyone:
It was the least fun vacation I've had since St. John of the Virgin Islands in 2005 (where there's little to do besides swim and snorkel). Oh, nothing very bad happened. The Austrians were tourist-friendly enough. We found plenty of ways to pass the time. I just couldn't get excited about any of it, before or during. Only the zoo looked promising, and we opted out for economic reasons.
I can think of many factors in play for my lack of enjoyment. One, my previous two trips -- to New Zealand and the Galapagos -- were among the best in my adult life and thus a hard act to follow. Two, classical music and aristocrat museums don't interest me as much as nature or visual arts. Other family members loved the scenery, but I found it too predictable. Three, I've been to so many western European countries that it's starting to feel like old hat. Four, I don't take nearly as much synesthetic comfort in German as in Romance languages or even Dutch. Five, the best foods for a semi-vegetarian are not native to Austria. Six, I suspect that months of underemployment are subtly wearing on my disposition.
I intend to go into more details later, perhaps incrementally like last time. Hopefully I'll sound less negative then. For the sake of getting that negativity out of the way...Dear Europe: This will not be your last summer to reach the upper 30s Celsius. Please look into more ways to stay cool. If you skimp on air conditioning for environmentalist reasons, at least consider alternatives to duvets.
|Sunday, August 4th, 2013|
|Book Review: The Caves of Steel
Charging ahead, I finished the 209 pages (plus Isaac Asimov's own introduction) just in time for vacation. Much shorter than its threequel, The Robots of Dawn
, which I read and reviewed nearly two years ago
, and possibly a little better.( The backdropCollapse )
Oh, about time I got to the plot, right? Well, as in TRoD, police detective Elijah Baley must solve a murder mystery with high stakes for the future of Earthmen and perhaps humanity in general. The victim is a roboticist in Spacetown, the Spacer-filled neighbor to NYC. If the culprit is an Earthman as widely suspected, interplanetary relations will get even worse. To complicate matters, Spacers insist that the victim's own creation, R. Daneel Olivaw, who looks utterly human to Earthmen (tho the cover artist took liberties with telltale straight lines), be Baley's partner on the case. Not only does Baley hate robots, but for his career's sake, he'll have to solve the mystery first while appearing to be cooperative.
Basically, it's an odd but not silly Wunza Plot
. "Lije" and Daneel offer interesting dynamics, almost like Dr. McCoy and Spock. One is decidedly bright but sometimes lets emotions and prejudices lead him the wrong way. The other remains patient, passionless, generally highly informed and talented, but oblivious to sarcasm and unclear on some of the more nuanced motives of humans. I like them both.
I've learned to expect nothing short of brilliance from Asimov, albeit not always agreeable. Here again I readily accept his focus on dialog over action. Little of his vision of the future is really questionable, tho I wonder how NYC's unique transit system could outdo modern alternatives. It helps my enjoyment that we see a lot more of Baley's wife, teen son, and boss, as well as broadly a greater sense of what people do in everyday life.
Much as I like to chase a book with a dissimilar one, I am taking a set of mysteries with me on vacation, namely the Father Brown collection by G.K. Chesterton. It's a tome, but the format makes it easy to shelve and resume much later if need be.
|Thursday, August 1st, 2013|
In the last few years, I have seen or heard the words "crazy homeless guy" together quite a few times. Sometimes a still less politically correct version like "crazy hobo." (Note: Wikipedia says that hobos are migratory workers, as distinct from lazy "tramps" and "bums.")
This is starting to grate on me. I know that many homeless people have mental health issues, probably most often as a cause of their homelessness, but all too often somebody jumps to the conclusion that a guy who acts odd is not only crazy but homeless. He might be sane enough to keep a home, or his insanity might be too recent to affect where he can stay yet.
I also notice that people sometimes include the "guy" part when the gender hasn't really been established. A quick search indicates that homeless men outnumber homeless women, but not by much. I realize it's probably just a default gender thing, but I worry that this sort of talk could further marginalize homeless women -- who, I might add, more often have their difficulties compounded by children.
this characterization accomplish anyway? Do we feel sorrier for crazy people if we think they're homeless, or do we want even less contact with homeless people in case they're crazy? Given that I see the noun phrase most often in comedic contexts, I doubt that it emphasizes pity.
So I for one will forgo using the designation outside of direct quotations. If I do know a person to be crazy, homeless, and male, I'll try to be more sensitive in talking about him.
|Saturday, July 20th, 2013|
I have a minority opinion, so unpopular that I’ve been reluctant to spell it out. But that’s exactly why I should: Too few others have done so. And given how popular the subject remains after a week, I can’t keep it under wraps much longer:
George Zimmerman is probably innocent where Trayvon Martin is concerned. Both legally and ethically.( Now hear me outCollapse )
I feel so sorry for Zimmerman. In the unlikely event that I meet and recognize him, I will buy him a drink of his choice.
Oh, and while I’m at it, I’ll air my opinion on the Marissa Alexander case, which concluded months ago but has come up in comparison.( Also not totally relevantCollapse )
And forget about the “striking similarities” in the John Henry Spooner case. He had much worse grounds for "self-defense."
If you want me to cite sources on claims in this post, just tell me which parts you don’t readily accept. I thought of citing them already, but there are so darn many that I’d rather cite as needed.
|Friday, July 12th, 2013|
|Book Review: Shadowplay
As I mentioned before, it had been too long since I finished Shadowmarch
. Not only did I have difficulty piecing together everyone's situation at the start of the sequel, but I now have trouble comparing the two books in terms of quality. For this and other reasons, I suspect that my memory for trivia is fading, which may or may not be a good sign.( Cut for lengthCollapse )
If I read another sequel to a downer fantasy, it'll be The Wise Man's Fear
, continuing from The Name of the Wind
by Patrick Rothfuss. In the meantime, I've picked up Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel
-- the first time I'll have read two volumes of an adult series out of order.
|Sunday, July 7th, 2013|
I downloaded the free version of Wie Geht's, a German language course on Chrome. Having seen nearly all the free features, I'm thinking of buying a Pangaea Passport. Maybe I won't get much out of it -- I won't master German in less than a month -- but it's only ten bucks, doesn't require renewal, and counts for other lessons as well.
The trouble is, you can buy it only via Google Wallet, which I never used before...and which doesn't recognize my credit card information. For some reason, it says, "Your current payment method is not valid." My account does not appear to be suspended or anything. I could enter my debit card info, but I shouldn't have to. What gives?
|Monday, July 1st, 2013|
|Thanks again, Randall Munroe
While I'm still not convinced that there's much to be gained from attempting space colonization, I have arrived independently at his implicit conclusion:
|Saturday, June 29th, 2013|
Some Altarum employees are arranging to have me back on the job! -- at will, for only 20 hours a week to start, and for only one department's projects. We'll see if my hours expand soon enough to keep me around.
Oh, and the department has been warned and will accommodate my family's vacation plan: August 4-18 in Vienna. (No word, marmoe
, on whether we'll see Germany next year to grant them World Cup success.)
|Saturday, June 22nd, 2013|
I have just completed my first full month of unemployment. So far the only organizations to reply to my applications with more than an automated message are employment agencies, who have yet to finish their assessments of my editorial tests.
I wonder if working for the same company for most of my post-college life could count against me. It's gotten hard to contact anyone who remembers my time with earlier employers. I can't even recall the name of my supervisor at the previous company.
My mom has provided valuable assistance in preparing me for applications and interviews. Nevertheless, I make a point to do some things, like cover letters, without her input. I have my pride.
Anyway, I feel no worse now than I did a month ago. My resume seems strong enough to land something in an acceptable salary range at an acceptable commute distance before even half my severance runs out, regardless of Mom's suspicion that my type of position is going extinct. My main worry is that I'll select an unhappy job by mistake.
|Sunday, June 9th, 2013|
I see a pattern to my dreams of late: tour buses and prescience.
Last week I dreamed I bused to an apparent cage-free zoo full of surreal animals, such as bark-covered bears and snakes that resembled Aspen. (Somehow I thought that someone had made them as a tribute, but how would that work?) I returned later in the dream to find that the animals had grown significantly, which was worrisome, but they remained benign.
After I awoke, my mom, whom I had not told yet, suggested that we jog around the National Zoo, which we did.
Two nights later, I was on another tour. I don't recall any recurring theme except that we kept eating cheap, McDonald's-style burgers. It was good to wake up and put a better taste in my mouth.
That day, I went to a cookout. Yes, I had some advance warning, but it hadn't occurred to me before that I would be in a place where burgers formed the main food.
If I find myself on another bus, I'll attempt lucid dreaming and see if I can alter my destiny.
|Tuesday, May 21st, 2013|
I came in this morning to hear from my nearest co-worker that my supervisor had been dismissed, as had several other employees. Believing that none of us was safe, we exchanged contact information.
Minutes later, a man I did not recognize invited me to a meeting room. Having seen Up in the Air
, I guessed his task easily. Fortunately for him and his assistant, I made no scene.
The last time I lost a job was January 2005. I'd half-wanted to leave that one, but this one I've always liked. And while I got annoyed in 2005 when I was accompanied to my desk to collect things and seen out the door without saying goodbye, this time I couldn't even go to my desk. They just fetched what I'd need on the way out and said they'd send everything else I requested that's not company property, including all the contents of my H drive.
Altarum Institute has long struck me as impressively generous to employees -- and perhaps that's one reason this happened. My furlough days weren't the only sign that it's not as resistant to the recession as it used to be. Even the layoff details seem pretty generous, tho I'd better go over something with an attorney.
You know, I've dreaded this prospect for a long time, but now that it's come, I'm not half as upset as I expected. Maybe it helps to know that my performance had nothing to do with it. While the dismissal of 14 employees, including my entire department (not to be replaced any time soon), is hardly good news, it does mean I have good company in leaving a good company.
Also, I try to keep perspective. I still have it better than many people I know. I can afford to spend a pretty long time with neither a job nor unemployment benefits, tho I don't intend to procrastinate in the search. In effect, my termination also terminates a five-year rut that has kinda bugged me. A new chapter of my life has begun. My next job probably won't be the same (see The Washington Post
for how low a priority copy editors are). I might even find that my best bet involves moving out of the city. I'd miss weekly family visits, but there's not much else to keep me here.
|Friday, May 17th, 2013|
|Book Review: On Basilisk Station
Continuing my questionable habit of starting a series with the earliest book, I made this my introduction to David Weber's "Honorverse," as fans call the Honor Harrington franchise setting. I have no idea how it compares to later entries, but I am willing to give those a try eventually. At least this one doesn't make amateurish choices like The Colour of Money
One major draw is the egalitarianism. Roughly half the identified characters are female, some of them in commanding positions. Honor may be the only one we feel like we know very well, but the rest aren't vacant either. They behave differently, most tho not all worthy of respect, none functioning as decoration (despite the cover artist's unduly photogenic face for Honor). And unlike some attempts at dignified heroines, Honor is decidedly not a man in a woman's body, as reflected in an important plot point, nor a Mary Sue like I feared.
As space operas go, OBS is pretty credible, at least to a science layman like me. It puts little focus on SF innovations; the main standout in this regard is Honor's pet treecat, an enviably empathic little ET who actually does serve as just a decoration, however welcome. It's set far enough in the future for human-populated planetary systems to war with each other, yet humans still act fully relatably (none improbably smart or stupid) and have recognizable names of various nationalities. The major struggles are hard and costly.
The one thing I don't like is the military aspect. As it happens, a forumite recently pointed out that spaceship battles are duller than you'd think, in any medium. That would explain why The Forever War
had more engaging action scenes. In truth, OSB has a lot more talk than action, and I appreciate the talk better -- except when it gets bogged down in technical and naval jargon like a highbrow Star Trek fanfic. Generally, I favor the emotional, interpersonal human (and occasional alien) side over the rest. Still, it never bored me for long.
Now reading Shadowplay
. Turns out I don't remember its predecessor Shadowmarch
as well as I thought, and unlike other Tad Williams sequels, it starts with no synopsis. I have some catching up to do, but at least the heroes are on the move.