Thursday, December 31, 2009

Windows 7 Still Sucks

Just as 2009 comes to a close without any clear decision on my part whether to continue this blog or not, I wanted to report that the new Windows 7 laptop we got for the kids this Christmas has already locked itself up with a major software crash that required two separate system restores (to different dates) and still hasn't been resolved after roughly four hours. It's still taking forever to boot up in both safe and standard mode and then hanging whatever process I try to initiate.

That's right, it's less than a week old. Barely has any damn files loaded on it after I deleted the bulk of the junk it came with.

Windows just keeps running variations of CHKDSK that keep reporting slightly different results. Now it finishes pretty quickly, tells me everything is fine, and then locks up. For some reason it seems to have forgotten how to connect to the household wireless network. I'd check on that, but Windows automatically tries to access the Internet to check my security status, freezes Internet Exploder when it can't make the connection, and dies before I get the chance to correct anything.

This could be the result of the most recent Windows update (of which there have been two "critica"l updates in three fucking days), it could be the result of my daughter trying to download and install the Unity Flash player, it could be some combination of the two, or it could just be the fact that Windows is a steaming pile of shit no matter how prettily it gets dressed up. At this point, the Unity Flash player should be uninstalled, but I can't check to see if it is still there because the system locks up before I can open anything through the control panel.

Half the time when I reboot I end up with a blank screen, and the rest of the time I get my crippled Windows 7 desktop, which is prettier but ultimately just as useless.

If I have to reinstall the operating system along with the programs that I did put on the system, I'm going to be even more pissed off than I am now.

In related news, I've had the Mac that I'm writing this blog post on a year and a half ago and the biggest problem I've had is old CDs with scratches getting stuck in the DVD Superdrive and taking interminably long to eject. Sometimes it crashes in the middle of Word documents. Generally I don't lose much information. That's annoying.

Very small potatoes compared to this insanity. And I paid for this privilege.

The lesson in my view is: don't buy Windows machines if you have any choice in the matter.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Deciding Whether to Continue the Blog

So, I'm debating whether keeping up with the blogging is worth the time and energy I sporadically invest in it.

In terms of keeping in touch with friends and family, it would probably be more efficient for me to put a profile on something like Facebook.

In terms of reviewing books and such, I'm not sure that the reviews help other people and I'm not entirely clear on what I get out of them. At times it feels like a burden, as though I have to review something I've read if I thought it was particularly good or bad or if it just left me confused.

Writing about my own writing has been somewhat helpful for me. But I think that having a space dedicated solely to that might be more productive than the mishmash I have now. And I'd like to publish some material before going much further down that route.

That leaves the occasional commentary on current events, which certainly gets lost in the big Internet blur.

Perhaps one option is to separate this blog into a few different "channels"--one for reviews and one for posting or discussing my own writing, and then a Facebook page for minor social updates and connections.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: Lamentation by Ken Scholes

Lamentation is a marvelous book that strikes a careful balance between the imaginative inventions of a distant future and the emotional depth of its main characters.

The events of the story are triggered by the awful destruction of the legendary city Windwir, which held the collected knowledge of lost ages under the auspices of the Androfrancine Order. The city was annihilated by the use of long-lost and forbidden magic, magic that was no doubt recovered as a result of the Androfrancine's own holy quest for knowledge in the ruins of the world long destroyed.

Precisely how Windwir was destroyed is revealed in short order. Why it was destroyed is a question that takes much longer to answer. And the impact of its destruction upon the lives of the main characters and the course of nations is the story whose first portion the book tells.

Scholes takes an interesting approach with his narrative. Each chapter presents us with several short sections a few pages in length, each offering the point of view of a different character. Most of these characters have their stories followed throughout the narrative. I found that this allowed Scholes to follow a number of storylines as they wove in and out of each other, intersecting and separating at different points.

Normally that sort of storytelling approach can leave me somewhat lost in the overall narrative or frustrated when the author jumps away from an interesting storyline into one I don't care about. Scholes avoids this by keeping each of the sections very succinct yet informative.

As a result, once you leave one character's storyline and touch upon the stories of three others, say, you haven't forgotten what you left behind when you return to that original character.

Moreover, I found that I liked all of the primary point of view characters that Scholes introduces.
These characters include: Petronus, the Hidden Pope; Rudolfo, the Lord of the Ninefold Forest Houses; Jin Li Tam, daughter of the mighty Tam banking family and an adept spy; and Nebios, the last (human survivor) of the destruction of Windwir. Another character, the mechanical man Isaak, does not get his own point of view sections in the book but really comes to life through his interactions with the main characters. Like Guy Gavriel Kay's work, this book is filled with clever people struggling to understand and outwit each other. There are also some moments of romance and love that are genuinely touching.

The setting is also interesting, a mixture of mostly well-understood magic (more akin to alchemy than traditional spellcasting), recovered technological artifacts, and high-Renaissance technology. Scholes pulls a clever trick here, in my view. The first few chapters bombard the reader with unusual images: birds carrying messages via carefully knotted cords dangling from their legs, mechanical men, soldiers treated with magical powders that make them both invisible and superhumanly fast, and so forth. But then these unsual creations are explained and expanded upon gradually over the course of the novel, while only a few new bits are introduced, so that by the end they have become facts of the world with which the reader is comfortable.

Compared to something like John C. Wright's work, which hurls out Big Ideas every couple pages at a breakneck pace, Scholes's work here is calmer. Instead of adding on new supernatural or supertech concepts, he expands upon the societies and major players in his future world.

There are clearly a lot more Big Ideas and Wondrous Things lurking around in the setting, waiting to be uncovered. But like an archeologist digging through a delicate past, Scholes shows patience and restraint in revealing their details over time.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Excuse Me While I Turn Down the Awesome

Courtesy of my friend Geoff. This is what being the commander of a starship is supposed to be like. And some days I feel this good.

It's also why, even though The Next Generation ultimately ended up being a wiser and better written show, and the boots, highwater pants, and mini-skirts are about as dated a futuristic look as you could conceive of today, if I had a chance to play a Star Trek rpg (and I own two of them, by Last Unicorn Games and Decipher, both out of print), I would still totally go Old School Trek. For the awesome.

Writing Goals and Submitting Stories

At the beginning of December, I went over my list of goals for the year in order to evaluate and revise them.

One of those goals involved writing. I wanted to spend at least X number of hours writing fiction in 2009. I even specified that I shouldn't count the time spent writing about setting material toward achieving that goal. I know my habits in this regard.

Well, I did not meet that goal. I can't say for certain how far short I fell, because very early on I stopped keeping track. I just know that I would have had to write an hour a day every day (and then a little extra) to meet it and I did not do that.

In the past I've had similar goals, all based around writing for a certain amount of time or to produce a certain number of words on a daily basis. Because I've heard lots of advice that you should write every day to develop the work habits and professionalism needed to become a success.

My current approach is different. Now, instead of trying to hit daily writing goals, I'm trying to finish stories. That's pretty much it. My goal is to write roughly one short story of moderate length (say, 5,000 words or so) every month, or a very short story (like a flash fiction piece of under 1,000 words) every couple weeks.

In terms of how much I write on any given day, this goal doesn't necessarily translate into a lot of new words on the page or a lot of time at the keyboard or notepad. But it has occurred to me that those daily writing goals tend to focus upon the peripheral aspects of writing rather than the end result--a story I like well enough to submit to a paying market.

How has this worked out so far? Well, at the moment I'm a bit ahead of schedule. I started writing on December 7th and yesterday I submitted my second complete flash fiction story to a paying market: Flash Fiction online, no less. That tops my entire short story output for the entire year.

I think the pace of a story a week will taper off as I start to work on freelance projects. But I think my initial goals are still achievable. Thirty days to write 5,000 words works out to less than 170 words a day.

The truth is that the writing has come in bursts. I wrote one story in its entirety in a single day and then spent the rest of the week revising it, probably accounting for no more than 150 new words. But they were important words. The other story I wrote in a couple bursts and then rewrote quite heavily in another chunk.

In between working on the stories, I spent time thinking about the stories and what I was trying to achieve with them. I also sent them out for comments by friends and family. Then I spent my writing time each day going over the story in some detail and tweaking it as I thought necessary.

Since my goal is to complete stories and submit them to professional markets, I don't think quite as much about the process as I used to. I'm concentrating more on the stories themselves. As a result, I'm working in more of a natural flow. Some days are just more productive than other days in terms of raw output, but other days that are superficially less productive are just as vital for the flashes of insight into a story that they provide. Focusing on shorter lengths has also helped keep my wandering mind from digressing down too many paths.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I'm Mr. Heat Miser

Watched The Year Without A Santa Claus with the wife and kids tonight. Hey, I love Christmas. Giving and receiving presents, the excitement on the kids' faces, even some of the whole peace on Earth vibe. All fun. But eight going on nine years of living in a northerly climate have taught me that when it comes down to it, I'm a Heat Miser kind of guy. A low of 60 is a beautiful thing.

Review: The Umbrella Academy

This graphic novel was written by Gerard Way, lead singer of the band My Chemical Romance, whose music I'm frankly unfamiliar with. (They make a big deal throughout the graphic novel of the author's rock star status.)

Nothing against Way using his apparent star status as a musician to get this gig, as well as an apparent sequel volume that I won't be reading. But it reads like a bunch of unrelated bits that he thought were cool and decided to string together with amateurish glee.

It's the story of a group of kids, born under unusual circumstances and gifted with extraordinary powers that they use to save the world, under the guidance of their adoptive billionaire father, who is apparently an alien.

The story jumps back and forth between the present day, when the adult members of the Umbrella Academy unwillingly reunite to face yet another threat to the world, and the past, when they began their journey toward familial dysfunction.

The story has some interesting ideas, a lot of weird ideas masquerading as interesting ideas, a cast of potentially intriguing but undeveloped characters, and only the vaguest semblance of a plot. It reminded me of Grant Morrison's run on The Doom Patrol, with a slightly more coherent premise, equally weird but less interesting characters, and plotting that makes Morrison's early work look tightly scripted.

Bad guys appear and disappear with no clear motivation and no apparent relevance other than to provide a cool image and a loud bang. Even the main villains are the thinnest of sketches. Plot hooks are left dangling everywhere. It's not even clear just what kind of powers the various members of the Umbrella Academy possess. In some ways I applaud Way for trying to embrace the idea of showing rather than telling, but the scenes he devises are a jumbled mish-mash that end up telling us very, very little about anything. The big finale is a complete deus ex machina moment that relies upon one of the Academy members displaying a power nobody realized he had that single-handedly saves everyone from doom.

Ultimately, the Umbrella Academy is style turned up to 11 and masquerading as substance. The five star reviews on Amazon leave me scratching my head, frankly. The three-star reviews seem to hit the nail right on the head. If Way had exercised the storytelling discipline to flesh out anything that he dabbles in here, I'd have given him higher marks for the creativity of some of the ideas he tosses out.

But I feel that in the current comic book marketplace I can easily find much better told stories that are creatively satisfying.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review: World War Z

I picked this book up from my local library on the slightest of whims.

I'm not a fan of zombie films (never even seen Dawn of the Dead) or zombie comics (I like Robert Kirkman but have never read any parts of his zombie opus The Walking Dead) or even zombie roleplaying games (I own the Angel and Buffy games from Eden Studios, but have never been interested in their flagship product, All Flesh Must Be Eaten). I'm not even a big fan of postapocalyptic settings.

On the other hand, I do like alternate histories and oral histories, and World War Z is a surprisingly well-done combination of the two. It's presented as a collection of interviews with survivors of the great zombie war, conducted on behalf of the United Nations as part of its efforts to record the history of that horrific event.

The interviews move all around the globe, talking to people at every level of society who had some role, large or small, in the unfolding of the conflict and the desperate attempts to fight back the zombie threat. The international scope of the story is one of the strong points for me, giving the reader glimpses of very different reactions to the zombie threat in different corners of the globe, as well as insights into the different societies themselves.

Another impressive aspect to the book is the level of thought Brooks has given to all aspects of the zombie threat. He deals with people trying to escape to the mountains, to the frozen north, to islands, to the open sea, and underground. There's even a glimpse of what happened to the crew aboard the International Space Station. Every possible manner in which people might be expected to react to the rise of the walking dead, both rational and emotional, seems to be covered at some point. There are unexpected reactions as well.

Many of the vignettes are powerful little stories in their own right. There are several recurring characters, but many one-shot glimpses into the horrible trials that people endured.

It was the thoroughness with which the topic was explored, combined with the diverse and interesting cast of characters portrayed, that made this book a wholly unanticipated good read for me. Interestingly, Brooks spends basically no time explaining how the zombie threat even arose in the first place. Most books would spend a lot of time belaboring this point. I guess zombie afficionadoes are supposed to know this sort of thing already.

I found this absence of explanation somewhat refreshing, because (a) no rational explanation is ever going to arise in a modern-day setting sans magic and (b) it puts the emphasis squarely upon the individual stories.

Monday, December 14, 2009

What I Want/Don't Want in Science Fiction and Fantasy

I've been thinking about this topic over the past few months as I've read a lot of different books and short stories in the two genres, written by a wide range of authors.

I've noticed some trends in the types of stories that I've been reading. Note that these aren't necessarily trends among authors. A talented or experienced author might try his or her hand at writing in several of the styles noted below, though I think the hackneyed style appeals mainly to people who are writing serial novels for licensed properties or else are content to rest upon their reputation for a bit and crank out some predictable books for the money.

There are two styles that I don't like in fantasy or science fiction novels. I won't bother to finish a book that clearly falls into either one of these categories. I might finish a short story or watch a film that indulges in them.

These books are distinguished by two main traits: they don't work hard at all to maintain internal consistency and they don't respect the intelligence of the reader.

By internal consistency, I mean that the authors typically posit some form of magic or technology in the setting that would have much, much broader effects on the society than they describe. They simply haven't thought it through or they have but decided that it doesn't matter.

Another problem with internal inconsistency is related to characters. Characters are placed in positions of power or influence and then proceed to act with complete ignorance of a plethora of facts that 99% of the people placed in those positions would know. This reveals itself in spaceship captains ignorant of how their vessels function, villains with no sense of economics or tactics, and characters who exist mainly to be spoon-fed details of the plot.

These factors play into not respecting the intelligence of the reader. Authors often spoon feed the reader the most basic genre concepts or plot points, often repeatedly, via the mechanism of explaining those points to inept characters. Authors also make the assumption that whatever crazy idea they come up with will simply be accepted by the reader without any rationale.

A lot of science fiction and fantasy on television and film falls into this category. This can be palatable if there's enough action or humor or visual style. But I can rarely stretch my attention to two hours of this approach. It breaks novels for me. Mike Resnick's recent Starship novels fall squarely into this category in my view, as do
most serialized novels based on popular movies or roleplaying games. There are always exceptions: John M. Ford's The Final Reflection is a very satisfying science fiction novel that happens to be set in the Star Trek universe.

I understand the reasons for this type of sci-fi and fantasy. Done with flair, it can be a good way to draw in new readers. I just don't care for it myself, because I'm not a new reader anymore. And I don't like it when recent works in this style get widely celebrated as masterpieces of the genre, because they aren't.

Literary Experiments
These are novels that tell a story in a style designed to be confusing, to shake up the reader. The most frustrating thing about these types of novels is that you get the sense that the author could write something much more satisfying and comphrehensible if they wanted to, but that they choose to be vague.

One approach is to use indecipherable language. Sometimes an author that I like will produce one of these and leave me scratching my head. Ian M. Banks's Feersum Endjinn was like that. I just couldn't labor through what the narrator was saying.

Another approach is to use a nonlinear narrative or no clear narrative structure at all. A common tactic is to present many different mysteries or paradoxes in the course of the novel and then explain none of them. Often these novels will suck you in with their clever writing, until you realize that they aren't going to provide anything resembling a satisfying conclusion, much less an explanation of what was happening in chapter four. In my view, Michael Swanwick is the master of this style of throwing out events and ideas without a care for explaining or resolving them, though I have to say that I just don't get Gene Wolfe either.

Some writers like to populate an entire novel with unlikable characters or center the novel on a main character with no discernable redeeming qualities (and I count being interesting or clever as a redeeming quality in this case). I can't think of any reason to do this with a work of fiction other than to try to upset reader's expectations and be daring in some way. M. John Harrison has done this, for example. If I get 100 pages into a book and don't care in any way what happens to any of the characters, then why am I reading it? Alistair Reynolds did this with Revelation Space, but I've found several of his other works less troubling in this regard.

As far as I can tell, writers who produce more than one book of the Literary Experiment style tend to stick with it. And it's the style I'm most likely to hate and whose practitioners most consistently leave me completely cold as a reader. They also tend to win awards, like avant garde types in any creative pursuit.

Unlike the Hackneyed style, I really can't see the point of this style of fiction outside of the short story length. If you want to be weird and obtuse for the sake of being weird and obtuse and conveying some sort of feeling, you can do that at the short story length without punishing your readers. I always get a significant whiff of arrogance from the authors who indulge themselves in this fashion.

Essentially, I believe that the point of writing both fiction and nonfiction is to communicate something coherent to the reader, and nearly all literary experiment novels fail badly on that score with me.

There's another style of science fiction and fantasy that sometimes works for me but fails at a fairly high rate due to the many pitfalls it contains.

Big Idea Obsessions
Science fiction is more prone to this than fantasy, as far as I can tell. There are really two different problems here for me.

The first type of Big Idea novel problem revolves around characters, or rather the lack of interesting, believable characters. A science fiction novel based around a big idea doesn't
have to be bereft of well-rounded, intriguing, lifelike characters that you can appreciate as a reader. But oh so many of them are. They plod ahead with cardboard characters and plots that exist only to illuminate the central concept that the author is obsessed with.

This problem has plagued science fiction stories from the beginning of the genre, for the simple reason that some science fiction readers don't care about characters. What they want is a kind of speculative, technical nonfiction disguised as fiction. And that's fine by me. I just have no personal interest in that style. Some very popular writers fall into this category for me.

The character issue can manifest in another way that it less prone to criticism but which utterly fails for me as a reader. The author might create a huge tableau of characters, each seen in a brief glimpse before the narrative moves on to other characters. The result is that as a reader I never feel a connection to any of the multitude of characters tossed onto the scene in pursuit of the Epic Narrative, such as the fulfillment of a prophecy, which in these stories is a stand-in for the Big Idea. This is the type of Big Idea Obsession approach that fantasy is most prone to, although I have seen it the science fiction of authors like Stephen Baxter and Kim Stanley Robinson, whose work draws accolades but generally leaves me cold. I like to have anchor characters who persist over the course of the narrative.

The other Big Idea Obsession problem is the Mighty Technological Gimmick that Makes No Sense while dominating the plot. Some authors come up with an idea that sounds cool but which they are either incapable of explaining or which just doesn't hold together when you look at it closely, as one might over the course of a long novel. Tony Daniels' Metaplanetary was one of the most recent such ideas I've encountered.

A related category is the Mighty Technological Obsession That is Boring or Extraordinarily Technical. When boring, the concept might work in a short story, but can't sustain a novel. Nancy Kress's Probability Moon fell into this category for me, as did Alistair Reynold's Revelation Space, ultimately. When the Obsession is Extraordinarily Technical, well, it's just over my head, I guess, because it never makes sense to me yet I suspect that to someone thoroughly versed in an arcane technical or scientific field it holds together.

Big Idea Obsessions can work for me if the idea holds together and the author surrounds it with some interesting characters.

Some writers are mainly Big Idea Obsession types, framing their stories around the exploration of one big esoteric concept. Larry Niven has both hits and misses in this style, as do Greg Egan, Robert J. Sawyer, and Wil McCarthy. Others bounce around, writing a variety of novel styles. An example would be Greg Bear, who has some excellent Big Idea Obsession novels among his output.

What I Like: Well-Crafted Speculative Storytelling
This approach includes stories that have:
  • At least one interesting, multi-dimensional fleshed-out character or side that I can care about.
  • A small group (at most) of point of view characters or a consistent omniscient viewpoint that concentrates on what happens to a fairly small group of characters. Social experiments strongly indicate that people don't make more than four to seven close friends at any point in their lives. Likewise, I don't care about the details of what happens to a dozen or more different characters in a single story or novel.
  • Good dialogue.
  • Interesting technology or magic that doesn't dominate the entire story. That sort of thing works much, much better in short stories than novels. If the concept is rich enough, with enough twists and turns to be worthy of novel-length exploration, then it desperately needs to be tied to the types of characters noted above. I don't care so much about how technology or magic affects civilization in the abstract; I care about how it affects people that I've come to care about in some way.
  • Narratives that start at Point A and end up at Point B, not Point A or Point A-2. Don't loop. Something needs to change.
  • Novels that offer some sort of resolution to the major challenges that they present during the novel. There can be dangling issues left unresolved, but if you say in the first few chapters that the immediate goal of the characters is X, then by the end of several hundred pages they had damn well better have achieved or failed to achieve X in a clear fashion.
  • Stories that don't invoke something ridiculous from out of the blue to save the characters and the author.
  • A sense of wonder and adventure. That's what I read speculative fiction for in the first place.
On the bright side, there are MANY novels like this out there. More really good books than I can read in any given year, with more being written all the time.

And I've learned that most of the writers who have produced some of the novels that I cited as examples of styles I can't stand have written other novels that I thought were great. I can't say with much certainty anymore that "I love author X or loathe author Y." This makes the idea of celebrating a particular writer a little less relevant to me. I celebrate particular stories and books and appreciate authors for having written those specific works.

Perhaps the Internet is an apt metaphor for the current state of fantasy and science fiction. Most of what is on the Internet is crap. It's still full of great stuff. Similarly, there is more bad speculative fiction (in my view) being published
and celebrated than I would have thought possible. At the same time, the quantity of Really Good Stories is also tremendous.

So it's a great time to be a fan and a reader, but that doesn't make me any less critical.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Review: The Watchman by Robert Crais

This is another one of the action/mystery novels by Crais, set in Los Angeles and featuring the main characters Joe Pike and Elvis Cole. Pike is a former Marine, ex-cop, occasional mercenary, and sometimes PI and troubleshooter working with Cole, a private investigator. Pike is stoic, deadly, and taciturn. Cole is garrulous, glib, and tough. The Watchman is primarily a Joe Pike novel, though it does feature Cole and several other characters, like police forensics specialist John Chen, as point of view characters.

In this novel, Pike has to repay a favor from a previous novel and accept a job protecting a spoiled rich girl who caused an auto accident that allowed her to see the face of a dangerous man wanted by the federal authorities. Attempts on her life soon follow, and continue even after Pike is assigned to protect her. But seeing as Pike is not really a bodyguard at heart, he decides that the best strategy is to hunt down the people who are pursuing the girl.

Crais does an excellent job here keeping the events moving at a brisk pace. There aren't that many surprises in terms of the plot: a few twists that don't really knock you off your feet. But the twists and turns do seem to hold up well. Pike does some very dangerous things, but he does them in a very methodical, pragmatic fashion. By surrounding Pike with other characters who are more talkative, neurotic, and witty, Crais both makes Pike's oddness stand out and shows that he can write a variety of characters.

The best part of the story is what it reveals, bit by bit, about Pike's personality and that of Larkin Barkeley, the rich girl he is protecting. Crais takes a character who, on the surface, I've seen in dozens of action movies: the close-lipped badass who you don't want to cross. But he injects him with vulnerabilities, based on Pike's own past as an abused child and his present inability to really connect to most people. This is a guy who, for all his confidence in a crisis situation, is most comfortable when he's silent and unseen. He moves through the world around him almost like a ghost, and there's a sadness to his self-imposed isolation.

It feels as though Crais thought carefully about what kinds of life experiences and mindset would be necessary to create a guy capable of the sorts of action-film deadliness that Pike emanates, and then decided to show what that sort of person would be like in and out of battle. He's not the first person to take this approach; in many ways Pike is an archetypal Warrior, the one who protects the village but cannot truly be part of it. But Crais manages to present Pike with a simple and direct style that feels effortless on the page. I find it well-crafted and an enjoyable read.

Walking Journal, Days Twelve and Thirteen

On Day 12 I walked to the local Meat Market to get pork chops for dinner. They have some good natural pork produced locally in Idaho that we like. And I didn't want to drive. The roads were pretty icy but the walk went just fine. Really damn cold, though, somewhere around 15 degrees at that time. A bit too close to Overland Road and some other streets that were busier with traffic than I expected.

Walking in areas with automobile traffic is much less relaxing and enjoyable than walking on trails, in the park, or in a more quiet neighborhood. The cars are just ridiculously loud and the exhaust is gross. Not having sidewalks on the neighborhood streets just adds to the "fun."

On Day 13 I walked to the local branch of the library to turn in some books for my wife and daughter. Along the way I met a woman from southern China who was also walking along the street. We had a nice talk and I convinced her that it was actually safer to walk on the banks of the irrigation canal when it was snowy than it was to walk on the streets or sidewalks, where the ice and slush accumulate. And it was. It has been so cold that none of the snow has melted, so the path wasn't muddy or icy. It was about 10 or 12 degrees, thankfully sunny with little breeze.

I got to enjoy a feeling that I couldn't quite identify at first, but now I think I've got it figured out. There are times when we get to be an expert on something that we are very knowledgeable about. That's quite satisfying. But there's another set of circumstances where we receive credit for being informed about something that we really don't know much about, simply because the average person knows even less.

In this case, the woman was quite surprised to find out that I had some rudimentary knowledge of China. I understood that the southern provinces of China are noteworthy for their entrepreneurial spirit and that there are a lot of Chinese from that region spread throughout Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia. Just the fact that I understood that China is a really big place with some very different cultural groups and dialects seemed to surprise her. Also, I was walking to my destination, which she found amazing given the weather and her experiences with Americans in the West.

However, I did fumble one thing. The walk takes us past a field with a horse. There used to be a pair of llamas there as well. I mentioned this and quickly found myself trying to explain what a llama was and what it looked like to someone who had never heard of the animal.

Anyone who knows me can swiftly surmise that I erred on the side of Too Much Information. I don't know if this woman will ever remember that llamas hum to themselves, that they are ferocious spitters, or that they can be used to guard sheep from wolves and coyotes. I'm not sure that my description--"imagine a smaller camel with more hair and ears that stick up"-- was very helpful either.

Anyway, on the way to the library, where I dropped off the books and returned immediately (the walk is a lot slower through the snow and on an icy street), the company helped me ignore the ridiculous cold.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

I really enjoyed historical novelist Bernard Cornwell's retelling of the Arthurian legends (The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur). The Last Kingdom has a similar feel. The first novel describes the early days of King Alfred (before he got the name the Great) as he defends Wessex from the onslaught of the invading Danes and other Vikings, who conquer the other kingdoms of England with surprising swiftness.

Except the story is told not from Arthur's point of view, but from that of Uthred, who is an English earl of Northumbria by birthright but raised as a Viking after being captured in battle as an adolescent. Uthred needs to choose between the adoptive family and culture that he loves and the lost heritage that he feels it is his destiny to reclaim.

Cornwell has a talent for describing wars and battles in a way that lets you understand both the larger movements of soldiers and the individual horror faced by combatants who can feel each other's breath in the press of the shield wall. Just when you think he's celebrating the violence too much via Uthred's reveling in the carnage, he'll pull back and show you the cost, or have a wiser Uthred commenting upon his luck or the fear that he felt.

The story also gives you a good feel for the events shaping the lives of people in England during the time of the Danish invasions and for what motivated them. The differences between the pagan Vikings and the devout Christian English such as Alfred are often stark, with Cornwell revealing a dislike for the hypocrisy of many churchmen through the thoughts and words of his protagonist, Uthred.

Ultimately, it's the way that Cornwell manages to make characters like Uthred and other supporting figures flawed, interesting, and likable enough to root for that makes the novel a good read. The novel is based on historical events, but not all the characters are figures from history, and those without a background in this historical period would probably be hard pressed to figure out which of the minor characters are "real" and which are made up. What this means is that you are never really comfortable as to who is going to die and who will live. That lends a real sense of anxiety and urgency to some of the conflicts. People you've come to like will die in this story, while others may surprise you by surviving.

All in all, a recommended read for fans of historical fiction, those interested in Vikings, and for anyone wanting to set a fantasy piece in this sort of feudal, Iron Age social and technological environment.

Walking Journal Days Nine, Ten, and Eleven

Well, I fell behind recording these walks but not in keeping up with my walking schedule. On the ninth day I walked to the Hillcrest Library and back, then walked my dog (who is still rehabilitating from knee surgery) down to nearby Borah Park and back, for 40 minutes total.

On the tenth day my wife and I walked around downtown Boise looking at Christmas lights as we celebrated the anniversary of our first date (albeit a few days late). Then we had a delicious sushi dinner and walked back to the car. A total of 30 minutes for the first walk and 10 for the walk back to the car. It was cold!

Yesterday was day eleven, and I walked along the canal down to Cole Road and back through the open fields behind Bishop Kelly High School's football and baseball practice fields, coming back up through Borah Park. A nice 33 minutes overall. Cold again, but clear.

Today should be an interesting walk, because it snowed last night and it is still snowing now. Temperature was 18 degrees this morning while I shoveled half my driveway, which I'm going to have to shovel again. Argh! In a while I'm will trudge out to the meat market and get some stuff for dinner and trudge back. I need to get some real, waterproof snow boots. I have the other cold weather gear I need (could use another pair of lined jeans), but I only have a pair of hiking boots and no matter how often I treat them with waterproofing compound they flat out suck in the snow.

At least I got the kids to school on time and without any incidents in spite of the snowy roads. This is the time of year that my wife wakes up in the morning and peeks out the windows to see if it has snowed, then tries to conceal evidence of snow from me so that I'll actually get up. After eight years up here I am still not a big snow guy. I don't mind it so much if I don't have to drive in it (except shoveling my driveway, which has enough cracks in it to keep me from going more than a foot or two without hitting something that stops the shovel cold). But I run a lot of the errands--driving kids to and from school and piano practice, getting the groceries, and so forth--so it seems I'm always out in the snow several times a day.

I think snow is probably more attractive, though more daunting in some ways, in an environment that is more pedestrian and mass transit friendly than one dominated by cars. When the snow blankets everything, it's cool and serene. When cars turn the snow on the roads into black, icy slush that sprays everywhere and refreezes into brown slicks of ice, it's not so lovely.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Stop Painting Tiger Woods as the Victim

I've tried to ignore all the recent hoopla about Tiger Woods, his car accident, and the fact that it was the result of a fight with his wife precipitated by the fact that she found out Woods cheated on her.

But I do listen to sports radio occasionally, and the shills for ESPN bending over backwards to defend Tiger have gotten ridiculous. Yesterday I was subjected to a reporter attacking goofy Scandanavian golfer Jesper Parnevik for expressing regret that he introduced Tiger and Elin Nordegren to each other and suggesting that next time she might try using a driver on him. The reporter tried to sound as appalled as possible and spun her reaction by saying that such comments were just cruel to Elin by keeping the public spectacle public.

Uh, I think that public shaming and ridicule is exactly what is supposed to happen when somebody does something as asinine as cheating on his wife. Especially when that someone is as rich and influential as Woods. He's not going to be harmed any other way but in the court of public opinion.

And who thinks that will last? He's going to stay rich, remain popular with his rabid fans, and be forgiven by the public the next time he wins a major or cuts a check to charity.

This is just part of the normal cycle of shaming and humiliation that anybody who does something like this and gets caught faces in their social circle as a result of their bad behavior, be that immediate family, coworkers, or friends. People talk about them both behind their backs and to their faces. They get mocked and joked about.

It just so happens that because Woods is a major public figure worldwide, his "circle" is vast and thus the shaming process takes place very publicly. And Woods has clearly pursued this iconic status by accepting huge amounts of money to endorse products that have nothing to do with his sport and everything to do with how people perceive his character.

That being said, I have no personal interest in reading about Woods or his marriage. I don't care about his dirty laundry. Certainly if he shows contrition and mends his ways he will deserve forgiveness.

But it irritates me to have people waving his dirty laundry around and proclaiming that it's really clean as a whistle. And forgiving somebody before they've really been punished is a great way to ensure that rich, powerful, arrogant people remain rich, powerful and arrogant. Everyone should have to face some consequences when they do something stupid.

Just let the man take his deserved lumps for being an ass and stop acting like he is the injured party in this whole affair.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Walking Journal Day Eight

Well, today I walked again in the park downtown, heading onto the Boise State Campus to look at the computer offerings at the BSU BroncoTec store. That took 12 minutes. Then I walked another 30 minutes along the river and back toward the main library, where I picked up a book illustrating spaceship drive proposals such as magnetic sails and nuclear pulse engines.

No pictures, but I did notice MANY more people out walking when I started at 1:30 pm as opposed to 8:45 am, which I found interesting. I mean, if you work a regular job, you're still in the office at 1:30 in the afternoon, right? I sort of like the more solitary walks, to be honest. When there are a lot of other people around, I realize how slow I am. :-)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Walking Journal Day Seven

Today I walked for 50 minutes along the Boise River. A nice walk all around, kept a good pace up, enjoyed it a great deal. Cold though, and tomorrow morning promises to be even colder.

Along the way I entered the grounds of the MK Nature Center and walked around a bit. This gave me a chance to snap a shot of yet another bridge:

I like the way this bridge bends around. Reminds me that life's path is not always straight.

I also saw this fun object:

The nearby sign says that this is a "Bat Box" designed to encourage bats to nest in an area so that they will eat nocturnal bugs. I just love this idea for some reason. A Bat Box instead of a bird house.

Annoyances at Age Extremes

I found myself getting irritated the last two mornings due to encounters with people at the opposite ends of the age spectrum.

There is a young girl in my son's highly gifted elementary school class who I can safely say, after being in her presence approximately once a week during the past two school years, should be the inspiration for the next truly awful, spoiled, rotten young girl in the next Roald Dahl-style book or film. She's the sort of kid that I really have to struggle not to take into a corner and have a talking to, because she's bossy, greedy, rude, and lazy. She consistently contributes next to nothing to activities except snarky comments and sloppy work. And she ignores directions. The only person who has some influence on her seems to be the classroom teacher.

All of this really stands out because the other kids in the class are pretty good. Some are silly or goofy or distractible, but after the teacher had a discussion about bullying, there's no one else as mean as this little girl, who is clearly deliberate and careful in her nastiness. Maybe her parents are doing the best they possibly can, but I suspect they could do a hell of a lot better. I really, truly hope she is not in my son's class again for a third year. Probably she'll be the next Sarah Palin.

The other annoying experience was with a white-haired driver. I pulled out of the main library parking lot, making a left turn into the center lane because a lot of traffic was coming the opposite way and I didn't want to block anybody wanting to turn right from the lot, because those lanes were empty. I sat there waiting in the center lane while a line of cars drove by.

Then, as an opening appeared, this old guy pulled out and made a left hand turn around my car. If I hadn't seen him in my rearview mirror I would have pulled right into him. And he's looking at me and shaking his head in disgust as he does so. It took him longer to make the turn than it would have taken me to merge, so the opening that I saw ended up with him cutting off the car behind him--who wanted into the center lane to make a turn.

So I got ahead of that car and then, as I passed the old guy at a light up ahead (I was turning at the light and he was at the back of a line of cars going straight), I leaned over and flipped him and his passenger off.

I'm not proud of that reaction. It didn't teach him a lesson and it gave me only some temporary relief, at the cost of feeding negative emotions.

With the girl in my son's class, I try to keep an even tone and speak carefully around her, even when she's being a brat. But I'm pretty sure she knows I don't like her, because I correct her a lot and she tries to argue, even when other kids agree with my point.

With the old guy in the car, who's much closer in age to me than this girl is, I think I snapped because my mind said, "damn it, he should know better. He's had his chances to learn." Still didn't make it worth my emotional energy.

Don't know why, but bringing it up feels a little cathartic.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Walking Journal Day Six

Well, I forgot my camera this morning. I don't know if the pictures would have come out well or not--I went to Camelback Park and hiked around the packed dirt trails up and down its steep hills for forty-five minutes in 30 degree weather that was very different from yesterday's bright blue skies.

The fog was very heavy this morning and the section of Boise that normally spreads out before your eyes like the overhead views of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood, full of neat little houses surrounded by trees, was swallowed up instead.

At first I imagined some great beast exhaling steam that crept in and hid the streets and buildings from view. Here be monsters.

Later in the walk I looked back toward the top of a hill I had just left behind a couple minutes earlier, and it was cloaked in mist. Then some sort of construction machine started up down below, its diesel engine chuffing invisibly. After a minute or so there was a clanking sound that I associate with the slow movement of tank treads from World War II movies. The magical fog of a few minutes before was transformed into the fog of war.

I still couldn't see anything, but I let myself flow with it and for a few tense breaths I waited for something sinister and mechanical to emerge from the fog below the bluff on which I stood, the tips of my boots at the edge. But it never came into view.

So another good walk, though I forget to take my allergy medicine this morning and didn't get back home to do so until the late afternoon, so I'm paying for my excursion a bit right now.

Review: In the Land of Invented Languages

The subtitle of this book tells you pretty much everything you need to know about its contents. Okrent, a linguist, explores both contemporary and historical attempts to create artificial languages.

For each primary language that she explores, she provides not only a brief biography of its inventor (longer in some cases, such as that of the troubled man who invented the symbolic language Blissymbolics), but examples of the language in use. So you get various phrases written in English and translated into Esperanto, Klingon, and so forth. Moreover, you often get an intermediate translation, which shows what is literally being said before moving on to the smoother, "natural English" version.

The fundamental flaw faced by nearly everyone who has tried or is trying to create an artificial language from scratch is that they want to make a language that is superior in some fashion to languages that have developed organically over time.

They want their new languages to be more logical, more emotional, simpler to learn, easier to pronounce or spell, impossible to lie in, or some such goal. Often they based these goals on a belief in certain universal linguistic principles that their language will display more effectively than any others.

The problem, of course, is that their new languages usually make much more sense to the creator than to anybody else. And the new languages tend to promote schisms among their adopters at a startlingly early stage in the process, often when they have only a few hundred users at most.

And even when there is success with creating languages that are inherently more logical and precise, such as Loglan, a key problem arises: it is just too damn hard to figure out how to say anything in the natural flow of a conversation. People have to think too hard and in somewhat unnatural ways to communicate adequately. In other words, many of these ideal artificial languages assume a clarity of thought and intent that real people cannot live up to in the actual world. It turns out that while many people want to blame the limitations of language for our difficulties in communicating with each other, much of the problem resides within our own minds. "Natural" languages (I don't think the term is entirely accurate, as it seems to me that all spoken human languages are artificial in origin, but it suits how we tend to think about language) work in large part because they are flexible enough to deal with our own fuzzy thinking.

My favorite part of the book came at the very end, when Okrent describes the constructed language or "conlang" community, which consists of people who make up rigorous, linguistically accurate languages for fun, often basing them on elements borrowed from many different obscure terrestrial languages or coming up with really esoteric ideas suited to alien species. I don't think I'd want to do the work that those people put into their hobby, but I can appreciate the creativity and discipline that it takes. Some of the results, such as the squirrel language Dritok, which consists of clicks, pops, hisses, and snorts, sound very entertaining.

An interesting book, though not one I'd read if I was pondering the idea of creating a new language for the betterment of humanity, because the text is littered with the broken sentences of those who tried and failed.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Walking Journal Day Five

This morning was chilly but crisp, with a bright blue sky, not much of a breeze, and a temperature around 30 F. I dropped the kids off at school and then went to Ann Morrison Park downtown. Walked for about 35 minutes, not counting a couple minutes of time lost to snapping photos.

First off, yet another bridge! This picture came out better than I expected, given that I have no real talent for photography.

I really like pedestrian or "walking" bridges a lot. The slight curvature, the freedom of movement across an otherwise impassable or challenging space, the views, and the fact that pedestrian bridges tend to be so much quieter than those open to automobile traffic.

One of the little creeks that runs through Ann Morrison Park has thin layer of ice over it. A flock of seagulls ("I ran, I ran so far awaaaaay--" sorry) were hanging out on the ice.

I thought this was really cool, for some reason. Just the idea that these birds that spend so much time flying over an ocean that is always in motion walking around on top of a slick sheet of frozen water was interesting. I wonder what they think about the contrast, if they think about it at all.

A Little Football

As it stands today in college football, undefeated TCU is almost certainly going to get an automatic bid into one of the prestigious (and monetarily very rewarding for their participants) BCS bowl games at the end of the year. Should Boise State go undefeated by beating a pathetic NMSU team next week, they will probably be left out of the BCS.

For the second year in a row.

By the way, these two teams played last year and TCU won by a single point, 17-16. There's not a lot of difference between them.

BSU gets knocked for its strength of schedule. Its signature win this season is over the University of Oregon, who are on the verge of winning the PAC-10 and who currently sit at 7th in the AP and BCS polls, one spot behind BSU.

But I think it's a little sketchy to say that TCU beat 3 Top 25 teams, which is what they get credit for doing by beating Utah, BYU, and Clemson. Currently, only BYU and Clemson are ranked in the AP Top 25 (Clemson by the skin of its overrated teeth, at 25th), and only BYU is in the BCS Top 25. Oregon is much better than any of those teams.

TCU benefits heavily from the fact that the Mountain West gets vastly more respect than the WAC, based largely upon the current reputations of the trio of TCU, BYU, and Utah.

Those three teams are a combined 31-5 this year. By comparison, the top three teams in the WAC (BSU, Nevada, and Fresno State), are 27-8. And those 8 losses include losses to BSU twice (ranked 6th), Cincinnati (Ranked 5th), Wisconsin (ranked 20th at one point), and Notre Dame (back when they were ranked 23rd). The MWC ranked losses include TCU twice (ranked 4th), Oregon (ranked 7th), and BYU (sitting at 14th right now).

Marque wins? Aside from playing each other, you have BYU's fluke win over a stunned Oklahoma team minus its quarterback, TCU's win over Clemson (uh, okay), and Utah's win over . . . well, nobody. Utah didn't have a signature win over a ranked team this year.

Of couse, neither did Nevada or Fresno State.

Still, that's not a tremendous separation. Moreover, Utah lost to the two ranked teams it played--which happened to be BYU and TCU in its own conference. Nevada began the season in a coma and then went on a tear. I'm not convinced that the current Utah team is any better than Nevada in terms of talent; their wins this season are no more impressive. The Utes are largely living off of the buzz of their bowl win over Alabama.

But this perception of the MWC as being a far superior conference lets TCU play two ranked teams in conference, and that's a huge edge for them in the BCS calculations.

Those who say, "The Broncos should just schedule tougher teams" have no idea how difficult that is for a good mid-major type school.

BSU would gladly move into the MWC, and the topic comes up every season. But the MWC commissioners run away from that suggestion like it was on fire. They like the little niche they have somehow carved for themselves without adding any other competition.

Since a merger is unlikely, perhaps we could solve this perception issue by having BSU play BYU and Utah in nonconference every season? Home and away? It surely doesn't involve much in the way of travel and makes great regional sense. That way BSU can get the same schedule benefits that TCU enjoys, while leaving open a nonconference date to try and score a higher profile opponent. And if BSU loses those games, then the argument over relative quality is settled on the football field.

That being said, I think TCU is probably a little better than BSU this season and I hope they do well in whatever BCS matchup they are rewarded with. I have no dislike for the Horned Frogs. It's the system that gives out automatic berths to unimpressive ACC champs (and weak Big East champs, most years) that is flawed.

More Conservative Christian Inanity

While looking for items for my daughter's wish list on Amazon, I stumbled across this review of the Bionicles books from Lego by a woman identifying herself as a Christian home-schooling her children.

"Not only are these Bionicle figures and their stories filled with dark images of death and cruelty, the paranormal, occult aspects are very liberally seen throughout the books. This dark world comes with an entire alternate reality, including it's own language, geography, religion and politics. It is very easy for boys of any age to get all caught in this dark world and the consequences could be very disturbing. . . .

We are Christians who teach our children the Bible and undoubtedly my son could sense how the themes of Bionicles were very different than those we were teaching at home and what he was hearing at church.

My advice is that ALL parents thoroughly review the Bionicle books before giving them to your children to read. My previous work in the field of child counseling showed me that children of today have enough problems with dark thoughts and tendencies (ie. the skyrocketing rates of childhood depression and suicide, boys getting "lost" in fantasy worlds, etc.) and do not need books with dark themes.

Christian parents who value raising children with a biblical worldview might well consider avoiding the Bionicle series as it will send messages that will conflict with views you desire your children to grow up with."
I don't even know where to start with this sort of earnest, well-intentioned, yet ultimately simple-minded and ironic (see Bible comments below) fearmongering.

I've heard rising divorce rates and environmental stress associated with higher urbanization and the fast pace of the information age mentioned as possible contributions to adolescent depression. Even video games and violence on television. But this is the first time I've heard someone blame fantasy worlds based on books stimulating the imagination. When I was a kid, that's the very thing that helped me FIGHT depression.

Bionicles might be potentially annoying to adults who haven't gotten into the setting as much as their kids, but they are hardly harbringers of a dark, occult worldview. I have no idea what to say to someone who is shocked that a book might do something as crazy as provide a detailed, alternate world of imagination. Perish the thought. Though I have to say, I'm pretty sure the world this woman lives in has its own language, history, politics, and religion compared to the world that I live in.

The BIBLE is loaded with more violence (wholesale slaughter left and right), cruelty (it condones slavery and sacrifice), and mature themes (multiple wives, spousal coveting, and so forth) than you will find in the Bionicle books. And plenty of stuff in the Bible is patently made up, should you choose to take it literally. So I'm puzzled as to how reading Bionicle books and playing with toys that require you to assemble them will warp them compared to intensive Bible study. And unlike the supposed "cult" inspired by Bionicle books, many people devoted to biblical teachings have actually murdered and repressed other people in massive numbers in the past as well as today.

I had some more stuff to suggest what is more likely to contribute to eventual depression among kids home-schooled in a narrow minded, conservative Christian worldview once they eventually encounter the diversity of the larger world and have to deal with arguments based on facts, but honestly I hope that her kids grow up happy and healthy.

Review: Astro Boy Movie

Saw this film yesterday with the kids at a local "dollar cinema." Of course a dollar cinema doesn't cost a dollar anymore, but this one is reasonably priced and pretty clean, and five minutes from our house.

As for the movie itself, the kids liked it. My seven year old son was particularly entertained and enjoyed all the action sequences. My ten year old daughter, who has read some of the Astro Boy manga in translation, thought it was fine, but wondered why they made so many changes to the storyline of the manga.

Ah, the ageless question of why adaptations make the changes that they do to stories that we love. Although I can't say that I cared a lot about Astro Boy one way or the other coming in.

The film's narrative is very simplistic. The villains are foolishly and almost pointlessly villainous, the comic relief is slapstick, and the whole question of how humans should interact with intelligent beings that they have essentially enslaved is sort of waved at in passing. There's probably more action than necessary. You won't get any insights into human dependency upon technology or the emotions of robots as you do in Wall-E. As far as the animation, it's fine but not breathtaking in any way; the characters are cartoonishly exaggerated but without much subtlety of expression, kind of like a big screen Jimmy Neutron film with less humor.

All in all, not a film I'd recommend seeing or renting unless you have younger kids interested in it. Then it's not bad to sit through as far as such things go. The enthusiasm of children can compensate for a lot of visual and narrative shortcomings.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Walking Journal Day Four

Today was a little rushed. I wanted to go down to the hike and bike trails where they run by the Boise River and then swing by the main branch of the public library. Movie plans with the kids sort of cramped my time more than I intended. I did manage to get down there, but wasn't really feeling very relaxed as I rushed through the last ten minutes checking my watch, hoping I'd make it back in time to get the kids to the movie matinee. (I did.)

However, I did see some nice things. Starting with this old railroad bridge that was converted to a pedestrian bridge. (It's located near the Anne Frank Memorial, which I will photograph on another walk.)
Not sure what the symbolism is of my encountering and wanting to take pictures of bridges and tunnels, but there it is.

Crossing the bridge, I saw this neat old tree by the Boise River:

As my poem Giants might suggest, I've always like big old trees. I especially enjoyed how this one seems to claim it's own little piece of ground as the river swirls around it. Given that the river is at a low ebb right now, this tree must be pretty tough. I'll try to remember to take a picture of it in the spring.

And then, crossing the Friendship Bridge from the Boise State Campus side of the river back into Julia Davis Park, I saw something rather unusual in downtown Boise: a pair of deer. They were trotting along at first, looking kind of skittish. I waited until they settled down and got close enough to get an okay photo of them.

Seeing the bridge and the tree and the deer made the first half of my walk pleasant, though I managed to distract myself with time concerns just five minutes later! I'm glad I went today, because I wouldn't have seen the deer otherwise.

As for the walk itself, I walked 30 minutes and had some odd soreness in my right ankle and one strange muscle spasm in my left calf that hurt like an SOB for about 15 seconds. Then it got better. On the fourth day I have a few more aches, specifically some heel pain, than I expected after something as moderate as daily walking, but I will have to figure out how to adjust to it. Hopefully a third straight night of doing yoga will help a bit.

Review: The Renaissance at War

If you like military history or are interested in the wave of change that swept through Europe as a result of the Renaissance, then this book by Yale historian Thomas Arnold is a real treat.

In less than 250 pages, Arnold deals with a large amount of material in a very accessible fashion.

Chapter One, "The New Fury," describes the impact of the gunpowder revolution, specifically the introduction of artillery, on European sieges and fortifications. Arnold includes multiple sidebars that help the reader decipher the bewildering array of Renaissance military pieces and the key differences between them (culverins have longer barrels than cannons, with a thicker base that allowed them to use heavier powder charges and fire at longer ranges). You get a sense of the range of artillery, how much gunpowder and shot it used, and how difficult and costly it was to transport over distances. Then there is a good discussion of how fortifications had to change to withstand assaults by the new cannons.

Chapter 2, "The New Legions," discusses how infantry and cavalry were altered to adapt to the needs and capabilities of gunpowder weapons. This chapter brought up many points of which I was unaware. For example, military drums were a Renaissance innovation designed to provide a strict cadence needed for densely packed squares of pikemen and musketeers to march and manuever in unison while providing flanking fire for each other. Arnold also makes the point that the introduction of guns themselves didn't necessitate all the changes that took place. Early guns were less accurate than crossbows; someone could have instituted many of the Renaissance battlefield changes adopted for firearms without guns, based on equipping large numbers of soldiers with heavy crossbows, whose bolts could pierce armor.

But the early guns were cheaper to make and use than crossbows (which I did not realize, assuming that gunpowder was more costly than it apparently was), faster and easier to use (since they weren't aimed and reloading was apparently a simpler and speedier process than using a small winch to rewind a heavy crossbow), and possibly more intimidating (with a shock and awe effect of noise, flash, and smoke that crossbows lacked). So it was both more affordable and more feasible to equip large numbers of soldiers with the new weapons. Ironically, once this was done, it became necessary to institute new methods of drill, many originally inspired by Classical Roman training manuals, to put the large numbers of musketeers to good use.

This is also the first text I've read with a decent discussion of the design and uses of war wagons, which were a common feature of warfare in Eastern Europe (particularly among the Hussites). Not a lengthy discussion, but much more informative and easier to find than the coverage in every other general source that I've read. Since this was an interest of mine, I was quite happy.

These two chapters alone made the book a treat for me to read. Chapter 3, "The New Caesars," gives an interesting description of the changes to the battlefield role of the nobility and of military commanders during the period, which is helpful to anyone trying to envision what a battlefield of the period was like and how knighthood transformed.

Chapter 4, "Cross versus Crescent," describes the ongoing wars between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire for control of the eastern European frontier, North Africa, and the Mediterranean. Good reading, supplemented with some very cool and very readable color diagrams of several key sieges and battles.

The last two chapters, "Dueling Kings" and "Faith vs. Faith," are about the conflict between the Hapsburgs and the Valois kings of France on the one hand and between Protestants and Catholics on the other. These were well-written, but not particular interests of mine, so I didn't give them as thorough a read.

Overall, this is a portable, concise, informative, and attractive reference to the key military transformations of the period.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Walking Journal Day Three

Today it was much sunnier, but the temperature was actually a few degrees colder, close to freezing. Still, without the same breeze and with the direct sunlight, I felt warmer on my walk, almost a bit too hot. Headed out in the morning in the neighborhood and walked for 30 minutes.

Here's a look at the brand-new school (built last year) that's a five-minute walk from our house (assuming one of our neighbors lets us cut through his yard, as he always did when Will attended kindergarten at the old school that was torn down). I give you Grace Jordan Elementary:

It's a very nice looking school, with a big playground area that I did a terrible job of capturing in the next photo due to the angle of the sunlight, which was blindingly bright:

(Hey, I think I got my thumb in there!) Yep, I wouldn't have to drive a 45 minute round-trip twice a day if my kids attended this school. Wouldn't even have to start the car. Would undoubtedly save a lot on gas money.

However, I think this is probably pretty fair, all things considered. My kids were fortunate enough to both qualify for a special highly gifted program that puts them in small classes with great teachers and a challenging group of peers. It's not perfect, but it has given us a lot of wonderful opportunities for the kids and introduced us to some great people. So on the big karma wheel of life, I feel that there should be some inconvenience attached to our receiving such a blessing.

Right next to the elementary school is a pedestrian bridge that crosses Overland Road. When the new school was built, they held a contest, and a majority of the kids wanted to name the new school Skybridge, which is cool, but the Board of Education ignored the kids and went with a name honoring some local person I've never heard about. Important to teach those kids early on that their input doesn't really count for important decisions, just things like the People's Choice Awards. Here are a couple photos of the Skybridge:

On windy days the bridge sort of hums. For some reason there was a squirrel running around up here who sprinted off when I approached.

This is a shot of the eastbound traffic on Overland. Not very busy on a Saturday morning. I may try this again later when there's snow on the ground.

A good walk overall, even if the neighborhood is a bit familiar.

Review: Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons has an uncanny ability to write well in any genre. Muse of Fire is a science fiction novella about a wandering troupe of Shakespearian actors known as Earth's Men. They travel about the stars in a distant, bleak future where humanity lives under the rule of a hierarchy of mysterious and powerful set of alien overlords.

In this setting, the human race is divided into arbeiters, who perform manual labor, doles, who are gray-hearted and somber clerks, and the dragomen, who are sexless, genetically altered translators for the Archon, large arthropods who are the immediate overlords of mankind. The crew of the Muse of Fire don't seem to fit into any of these categories and it is isn't clearly explained why not, though the narrator is one of the few humans who comes from Earth, which is a blasted, desolate planet filled with the billions of sarcophagi of generations of dead humans, who are returned to their ancestral homeworld by their alien overlords upon death.

In the middle of a performance on one backwater world, the Earth's Men draw the wholly unexpected attention of an audience of Archons. They are then sent on a breakneck journey to perform a new play for each of the alien races who control the known universe. First they perform Macbeth for the Archons, then King Lear for the amphibious Poimen, then Hamlet for the colossal and terrifying Demiurgos, and finally Romeo and Juliet for the mighty deity Abraxas.

It is a strange journey, full of dazzling imagery and mysteries that remain mysteries to the largely befuddled human crew. Along the way, Simmons manages to give a pretty good description of the various personalities found in the theater and this particular troupe, coupled with asides relating to various aspects of Shakespeare's plays and the roles therein.

Knowing Simmons, but having only slight familiarity with gnosticism, I'm confident that there are many layers of symbolic meaning to the names and choices for the various alien hierarchy and the odd religion that the human race follows. However, not being able to appreciate the full depth of such aspects did not impair my enjoyment of the story, which kept me reading past my bedtime to get to the end.

In somewhat classic Simmons fashion, there's no real sense of the ramifications of the changes that take place as a result of the events in the story, either for the individual characters or for humanity as a whole. But it is quite clear that significant change has occurred.

I don't know that I would buy this book as a stand-alone novella unless I found it for a good price. But the story is included in Gardner Dozois' anthology The New Space Opera, so you can get it there along with a lot of other interesting stories.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Walking Journal Day Two

Thought I'd try keeping a log of my daily walks. After battling a bunch of aches and pains the past few months, I'm starting the RealAge Workout, which is a bit milder than my previous workout schedule. The Phase 1 goal is to walk at least half an hour every day for 30 consecutive days. I'm modifying that slightly by adding a brief Movement Prep routine (about five minutes) taken from Core Fitness, and hopefully adding some yoga as often as possible.

The first walk was actually on Thanksgiving, with the family. We walked about 50 minutes along the river downtown.

Today I walked to the local branch of our library, at Hillcrest Shopping center. The majority of the walk was on the irrigation canals in our neighborhood. It's a fairly relaxing way to walk, albeit a bit muddy this time of year. The temperature was in the mid-30s, with some occasional drizzle. Here's a shot that shows how some of the water remaining in the canal has frozen over.

This walk normally takes about 14 minutes straight from my door, so I modified it by walking down to the local highschool and picking up the canal route there. It still ended up being too short by about 12 minutes, so I walked across the enormous parking lot behind the shopping center until I got to 30 minutes. Then it was another 13 minutes or so to walk home after a break to browse the shelves.

I never noticed it before, but this parking lot is rather large considering that it is almost always empty except for a handful of cars and an occasional delivery truck. Here's a shot:

I have to wonder what the people building the shopping center were thinking. Probably that there would be enough business that employees of the various businesses here would have to use this back entrance parking instead of parking out front. But from what I've seen, that's not the case.

Still, I'd rather walk through this lot than the front of the shopping center. It has one of those crappy dollar stores, a cosmetology store, a liquor store, a poorly aging Albertson's grocery store that we don't shop at, another discount shop of some sort selling crappy stuff, and a Payless Shoe Store that we patronize sometimes when the kids need shoes.

The library is tucked into a corner in the back, a bastion of relative serenity.

Review: Purple and Black

This fantasy is an epistolary novella, told entirely through the letters written between Nicephorus, the young and recently crowned ruler of the Vesani empire, and Phormio, an old school chum who has been sent to the embattled frontier more for his loyalty to the embattled emperor than as a result of any personal qualifications.

As is apparently in keeping with Parker's other fantasy works, this is more of a historical fantasy about an alternative world without magic, strange creatures, or wondrous landscapes. It's a highly political story, focused on the machinations of individuals in an old, corrupt imperial bureaucracy trying to acquire or preserve power and authority. And it is ultimately a tragic story of friendship, youthful idealism, and betrayal.

The conceit of telling the story through letters works well because the letters themselves are typically brief and to the point. There are some twists and turns that gave themselvs away a bit earlier than I would have liked, but the development of Phormio and Nicephorus's characters is handled well, with little bits of their backstory emerging.

The setting felt odd to me: clearly everyone is fighting at a high medieval level, with armor, swords, and so forth. Yet there are sections in the story where it is made quite clear (in fact, it is key to the plot) that there is a rather sophisticated record-keeping apparatus in place within the empire, to the degree that every piece of armor mass-produced by certain companies receives its own lot number. And books seem to be quite commonplace, at least among the elite. There are references to specific editions of multiple works and of texts updated over decades. All of this lends a somewhat more modern feel to what is otherwise a lower-tech society. I'm not sure how well it works; at times it felt anachronistic, even given that this is a make-believe world.

On the other hand, it did make me want to check on whether the Roman Empire or one of the Chinese dynasties employed such detailed and well-organized record-keeping for military matters.

I wouldn't spend the $20 or so to buy a hardcover of this novella; it's just too slight of a story for that sort of outlay unless you are a big K.J. Parker fan (this is the first of her books that I've read). However, the story is well worth reading if you can find it at the library or perhaps someday included in an anthology.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Review: Night Watch by Sean Stewart

This is one of those incomplete reviews I write every so often when I make it a significant way into a book (at least 150 pages or so) but just can't find the interest or enthusiasm in me to finish reading.

The book in question is Night Watch by Sean Stewart, a writer who has received high praise for other novels such as Resurrection Man, Perfect Circle, and Galveston. This is the first book of his that I tried to read, and I think I may have picked one of his less successful efforts.

Stewart writes some beautifully evocative prose, and that's what kept me reading as long as I did. I found the dialogue less successful, but enjoyable at times. The setting just did not hold together well for me, and the plotting was uneven at best. The experience of reading the novel was akin to that of watching an artsy version of an action movie made by a gifted cinematographer and a below-average director.

Throughout the book I had the feeling that I had picked up the second or even the third book in a series, one in which all the characters have already been introduced and a certain amount of their intertwined personal histories played out. However, though this novel is set in the same broad setting as Resurrection Man, in which magic is reintroduced to the world following World War II, it apparently takes place long after the events in the earlier novels.

Two hundred pages into this book I couldn't tell you who the main characters were or what exactly their goals were aside from "try to save Vancouver's Chinatown from destruction" for a number of them. I didn't come across any characters that I liked with the possible exception of Wire and Ant-something-or-other, and I really didn't care what happened to any of them.

As far as the unusual setting, a future that mixes various levels of technology with the presence of uncontrolled magical forces, I have no real sense of how magic is supposed to work in this setting, which is always a problem for me, though not for everyone. Magic without limits or rules communicated in some fashion to the reader becomes, in my view, a plot device that is too easy to abuse.

More significantly, I don't know how the people in this setting really view magic. There are a bunch of tough, militaristic white Canadians who are supposed to have a very rational view of the world because they've pushed the magic away into one corner of their city. This seems kind of unbelievable to me, but the real shocker was having a character named Claire, whose mother was a Hawk Goddess called the Harrier, express skepticism about the "superstitious" nature of the Chinatown inhabitants. I would think that her own origins would have cured her of any such traits. And the people of Chinatown are afraid of these white techno-magical cyborg soldiers they've hired as mercenaries, but it's patently obvious that these guys are no match for the magical "Gods" or Powers that live in and around Chinatown.

Ultimately I didn't finish the novel because I didn't trust the author to answer any of the questions that I was interested in. There's a scene where Stewart goes on for at least six pages about a character's efforts to build a fire to save himself. Now, to begin with, I was not invested in that character at that point in the narrative. Even if I was, six pages of him repeating the same basic actions over and over to stave off the cold and get a fire lit was severe overkill. And then the character disappears, at least for the next 100+ pages that I bothered to read. Why on Earth invest that much narrative and reader effort in the struggles of a bit character who is only going to disappear?

Later on, Stewart sets up a scene when several characters are about to embark upon a dangerous attempt to save the life and possibly the soul of a man trapped by demons. Their main resources are the fighting experience of a 95 year old man and the magic sword that his son has brought him. Then Stewart chooses to skip over that scene entirely. We rejoin the characters after they have completed the mission successfully.

The experience of those two scenes encapsulated much of the novel for me. Pages of descriptive prose spent upon topics that I would have happily devoted at most a paragraph of my attention to, and a complete overlooking of various scenes that would have interested me.

I think that in this novel this tendency to toss key scenes "off-screen" and spend time on odd little exchanges goes beyond a quirky choice to emphasize certain literary elements over "less sophisticated" action sequences. It's more like the novel just has no focus, no sense that when you set up the audience to anticipate a big confrontation and then just blow it off as an afterthought, you're toying with them. It felt like a bait and switch. If he wanted to write an atmospheric novel about unlikable characters in a dreamlike setting, I don't think he should have included the military aspects and the battle for the city, because they just don't work here.

Based on his reputation, I'd like to give another Stewart novel a try, but it will be a while before I bother to get around to it. I think I'd rather read a book of poetry by Stewart as opposed to a book of prose.