Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Halloween Grinch

I have a confession to make. Halloween is probably my least favorite of the major holidays each year.

On Valentine's Day I like to get chocolates and flowers for my wife.

The Fourth of July is loud but shooting off a few small fireworks around the house is fine and as long as we don't have to go to one of the big fireworks displays where there are huge crowds (with the interminable parking jams that result), I'm happy.

Thanksgiving is great if you have family around and feels cosy and comfortable even if you don't. Plus I'm usually pretty tired once the cooking and cleaning is done, so there isn't much stress.

Christmas is cool enough to compensate for the heightened stress that it brings.

But Halloween doesn't have a lot of redeeming factors for me.

  • I'm not really into dressing up in costumes that much. So I don't put much advance thought or effort or money into them.
  • I don't really like horror movies. My wife and I watch a scary movie every Halloween as a tradition, but I'm mostly hoping not to be bored or grossed out.
  • Having dozens of strangers ring my doorbell and ask me for candy stresses me out. I feel an obligation to have enough candy on hand. (The fact that we have a dog that goes ballistic when anybody comes near the door and so has to be kept shut away and whining in a separate room doesn't help). I do like to give out the candy itself, but the irregular timing of the visits just makes me tense for some reason.
  • By the same token, I expect someone to go to a modicum of effort to get free candy from me. The kids who don't say trick or treat, or who are really old, are a little annoying. The ones who keep coming up to the door after all the candy is gone, the lights are out, and it is quite late, really annoy me.
  • I'm also not big into this growing trend of people driving their kids into other people's neighborhoods and trolling for candy. When I was a kid, we went to a school party and walked around our neighborhood. People didn't drive us up to a street and pick us up at the end to drive off and deposit us elsewhere for more candy acquisitions.
Maybe I would feel different if I had a chance to go to a grown up Halloween party again, but that hasn't been the case for a decade or so. And so many adults seem to be so much more into Halloween now than they were when I was a kid.

I don't remember my parents making a whole lot of showy stuff for effect or dressing up in complicated costumes themselves at Halloween. I do remember my mom making simply awesome costumes for my sister that routinely won prizes at the school parties.

So I'm sitting here as the first groups of trick or treaters arrive, waiting by the front door as my kids are trick-or-treating with their mom. I could have gone too, but for some reason I feel weird to be asking other people for candy when there is no one at our house to hand out candy.

Like I said, I have a weird thing about Halloween. Still, the kids like it, so I try not to be a drag.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Review: Eifelheim

This novel by Michael Flynn was nominated for a 2007 Hugo. It tells the story of first contact with aliens who crash their vessel in the Black forest in 1348.

There's another, shorter storyline interspersed with the medieval tale: this deals with a theoretical physicist and a historian whose work leads them to some interesting discoveries about the events that took place in the distant past.

The book moves along at a relatively sedate pace, with a lot of intellectual and ethical discussion and debate. The medieval sections are interesting, if not gripping. I think Flynn has done a good job here of portraying the very different world view of the villagers, nobles, and priests in this distant time and place.

Unfortunately that can make for some very dense and confusing reading, in particular when the main character, a well-educated priest named Dietrich who has a dark secret about his past, gets into discussions with the aliens about certain principles of physics and natural philosophy. I confess to reading a few of these sections several times without ever having a full grasp of the points being made, and I minored in the History of Science and Technology. However, I recognized or followed enough of the arguments to be impressed with Flynn's scholarship. He chose to try to describe these topics in a way that the characters of that period would have been most likely to approach them, rather than aiming for a more anachronistic approach that might have been easier to follow. Like I said, it can be rough going, but Flynn's careful and often clever use of language is impressive when dealing with such esoteric subjects.

Flynn has also created a number of very interesting, nicely developed medieval characters and does a similar job for a couple of the aliens. Their interactions seem believable and he generates enough empathy for certain characters that I felt sad at some of the fates that befell them.

The modern chapters of the book, which alternate between the points of view of Sharon (the physicist) and Tom (the historian), are rather awful in my view. The problems are manifold:
  • Sharon and Tom are annoying, largely oblivious characters whom I cared nothing about. Sharon is just incomprehensible most of the time and utterly unlikeable the rest of the time. Tom is a doofus. Not a lovable doofus, just a doofus. Plus, he alienated me as a historian (see below).
  • It is very hard to follow the gist of anything that they are talking or arguing about when it comes to their fields of inquiry or even their personal relationship. They are said to have been together a long time, but I have no inkling why, because in addition to not understanding each other, they don't seem to like or respect each other much.
  • I went to graduate school in history. I have family and friends teaching in history departments around the country. I have never met a historian like Tom, who is completely illiterate in "narrative" history, obsessed with statistics and models above all else, and who manages to constantly drop foreign phrases into the middle of his speech. I heard of one such person, but even meeting him I found he could hold a conversation about historical events without sounding like a mathematician. So Tom failed the credibility test for me.
  • Add it all up, and the Now chapters add practically nothing to the book until the very end. They don't really move the plot, they don't make you care more about the characters, they don't provide any action, and they aren't very interesting.
Needless to say, I was stunned to learn in the afterword that the current novel was developed out of an 1985 Novella from which the "Now" chapters of the novel were taken. I can't imagine reading through that novella from start to finish or how it could have planted a seed that could have blossomed into the far superior historical chapters of the novel.

Overall I think the novel is worth a read if you have a little time and are ready to stretch your mind a bit. It isn't long, but it was very slow going in places for me. I honestly think you can skim the "now" chapters (thankfully they are short and there are only 10 in all), except for the final one, Anton. You will miss very little that couldn't be summed up thusly:
  • There's a village that disappeared during the Black Death and was never rebuilt, though historical models suggest that it should have been.
  • There's an annoying physicist with an theory that eventually and painfully morphs into a confusing explanation for faster than light travel through unusual means.
  • The researchers eventually figure out that the missing town is where the aliens landed and that it was never resettled because of the events that occurred there in the past. There is an obscure record of some of the alien technology hidden in some of the manuscripts from the period that ties into the annoying physicist's research and provides a clue that the legends about the abandoned town may have been true.
There, that's all that is really conveyed by the nine chapters in terms of the plot. Go straight to the final one and you'll do fine without distracting yourself with ideas like, "I hope Sharon gets fired," or "Maybe Tom will get a clue."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Declining States of Happiness

Read this post on the Freakonomics blog and had to comment upon it. The post refers to a paper noting the decline in the reported levels of happiness of American women over the past few decades. Apparently this paper was recently attacked in an op-ed piece by a journalist who questioned its methodology. Here one of the researchers defends his work.

The study itself may be perfectly reasonable--I have not read it. The comments about it annoyed me, as did the complete dismissal of the criticisms leveled by the journalist, some of which seemed to be petty but others of which seemed to be practical enough.

I don't know if my comment will pass blog muster or not. Here's what I wrote:

In regards to #33, the original poster is saying several things about the flawed nature of self-reported happiness surveys as sources of hard empirical data. The political screed you seem to have provided on your own.

(a) People (and societies) don’t all define happiness in the same way. Individual and social expectations play a huge role in determining happiness. Over time, it seems reasonable to argue that these expectations can change within a society. (After all, the survey is arguing that levels of happiness can change–why not definitions of happiness as well?)

(b) When revealing personal information on anonymous surveys, people may be motivated to misrepresent themselves. If they feel they SHOULD be answering in a particular fashion, they have a higher incentive not to give an honest answer that paints them in a negative light.

(c) Surveys asking people to self-report their degree of happiness have the same challenges as any survey asking about someone’s emotional state, as opposed to something more concrete like their height or salary. Even if everyone defined happiness in the same way and answered honestly, what happens if you catch a survey respondent on a bad or good day?

These issues make me very suspicious that a statistical analysis of such self-reported happiness data can provide results that in and of themselves explain much of anything about the phenomena they observe. For example, what if contemporary women continue the pattern of OVER-reporting happiness as has been proposed for the earlier generation of respondents? The gap would actually be even greater than proposed.

What such a study can do is raise important questions. Have womens’ EXPECTATIONS for their personal lives and their social roles changed in the past few decades, and how? Or are the EXPERIENCES of modern women contributing to a decline in happiness? Perhaps both? Do men and women in our society bring fundamentally different perspectives to the question of happiness, or do they define it in the same way? Those are difficult and interesting questions, but this study is just a stepping stone toward them. [end comment]

Now, a statistician may argue that they have mathemathical methods allowing them to account for any outlying deviations in credible responses to the happiness survey.

I say bullshit to that. The entire enterprise is flawed because it takes one incredibly vague, unconfirmed data point (How happy are you?) and extrapolates from there.

Don't believe me? Imagine asking a bunch of people how nice they are and then trying to make grand assumptions about the shift in compassion in American society. Would that hold as much credibility as asking people their views of capital punishment or examining hard data on how much they contributed to charities?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Cooking: Homemade Tomato sauce and pasta

So, I learned a few things yesterday about cooking.

  • You really need to look closely when someone leaves a note that says "1/2 the recipe" and adjust the ingredients accordingly.
  • Home grown tomatoes and herbs just taste so much better than store-bought stuff. I will really miss these in a week or two.
  • I'm close to being sick of eating stuff with tomatoes. So maybe it balances out.
  • A garlic clove is a deceptively vague unit of measure, because cloves vary wildly in size. The recipe I made was apparently intended to repel vampires. I halved the amount of garlic and it was still a bit heavy for my taste.
  • When you toast pine nuts, recognize that they cook incredibly quickly, even on low heat. You can't turn away for, say, 30 seconds to check something at the sink. Or you'll burn a few of them.
  • Don't skimp on the quality of the olive oil--good olive oil is SO much better than cheap olive oil. I haven't noticed this with stuff like canola oil or corn oil. I used good olive oil and it showed.
  • If you reserve half a cup or so of the water that you cooked the pasta with, you can add it to a thinner sauce and thicken it (with the starch washed off the pasta) while adding complementary flavor. In theory. Because I drained the pasta before I forgot.
The result was still pretty good. I think I would have paid a bit more attention if the sauce had some meat in it, because I would have been more excited about the meal. Pasta is pretty simple in many ways, but there are little tricks I'm still learning. And sauces have a lot of room for mistakes to be made.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Wrist Brace: Pros and Cons

[Spider-Man's web-shooters, courtesy of Wikipedia. I am wearing something kind of like these, only not cool. In any way. Unless you are an elementary school kid.]

I hurt my wrist and I'm wearing a wrist brace. I thought I'd tell you all about it.

The advantages of wearing a wrist brace:

  • Reduced wrist pain for the most part
  • Even when my wrist is still sore, wearing the brace draws attention to my ailment in a quiet but obvious way. People ask, "What did you do to your wrist?" with expressions of concern. This gives me a variety of response options: (a) the joke explanation ("I got high-fived so hard it popped a tendon"), which I almost always use for kids; (b) the shrug-the-shoulders, "Guess I'm getting old" line; (c) the "lots of typing and some weight-lifting" line (which not only has the virtue of being largely true, it draws attention to two of my more respectable hobbies); or (d) "Shooting baskets," which I reserve for people who know that up until last week, I generally spend about 15-20 minutes shooting baskets in the park next to my kids' elementary school each day before I pick them up. There are junior high kids who just call me, "The basketball guy."
  • I get to politely brush off expressions of concern with a brave and/or optimistic, "It will get better. Or not. Just one of those things in life." Just saying this often enough almost convinces me that it is true and helps alleviate my typical pessimism about physical setbacks.
  • Wearing the brace discourages me from typing too much or doing several other things that probably contributed to the problem in the first place.
  • Every once in a while, I look down and can't help feeling a little bit like Spider-Man.
Cons about wearing the wrist brace:
  • Tough to fit under the sleeves of some shirts.
  • Can't play basketball with the brace on. The other day, for the first time ever, I saw another adult shooting baskets in the park before the end of school. Older, white-haired fellow. Missing a lot of shots but his release put nice spin on the ball, so I could tell he knew what he was doing. Really wanted to go shoot with him for a minute, particularly since he had a ball that was clearly a bit low on air and I always drive around with a ball, pump, and needle in my car. But it was quite early in the "rest the wrist" process and I didn't want to screw up my self-guided rehabilitation.
  • Makes going to the bathroom a bit of an adventure, because . . . well, the brace/splint keeps you from bending your wrist. Now, imagine attending to a certain anterior region of your anatomy following a trip to the bathroom with an arm that moves like a robotic appendage or the limb of a George Romero style zombie. Ain't happening. So I have to remove the brace and then put it back on. (Note that this has really brought home to me how right-handed I am. The other day I thought, "Well, I'll try the left hand this time." And it simply refused to move, as if my right-brain was saying, "The right hand gets all the accolades and respect anyway--the left hand is not going to assume this duty." I seriously hope that I don't ever break my right arm.)
  • Sometimes people make professional bowler jokes regarding the wrist brace. Not a fan of bowling.
  • Every once I a while I try to flex my right hand and realize how impractical Spider-Man's classic wrist-mounted web-shooters (see above) with the trigger in the palm really are. That saddens me, because those are cool.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Squirrels and Us

It's in the nature of a squirrel
To stutter-sprint across open ground
Leap and pause, double-back
Start and stop and start again
Quick as you blink

A hawk will snatch a squirrel
Who hews to a true trajectory

But on city streets
There's no hawk to fool
Just the onrushing oblivion
of tires on pavement.

Still, a squirrel has its nature
Memories burned into the blood and bone
of generations
And it gives up these habits hard

How often do we hesitate,
Reverse course or stop short
Because we imagine the shadow
of a hawk overhead
Flying out of our past
Thinking we are dodging phantom dangers
When we are only fooling

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Field Trip

My hand enfolds yours
As we stumble through the cold water
Bare feet shivering in rubber boots
Soles slipping on slick stones

We are not going to fall

We are here to catch mayflies and fish and crawdads
With nets and buckets

But we won't

Instead we'll find little blobs of jelly from snail eggs
Big stones encrusted with small clusters of sand
(these hide tiny larvae)
And slip on rocks covered with green slime
(this is alive too)

I will stand in clear shallow water and see nothing
A moment later, a child dips in a net and scoops up a fish

We won't catch big things, much as we try
But we will see
A crawdad growing back a lost claw
(I feel the splint on my wrist and can only laugh with envy)
Mayflies dancing on sunbeams before they die
(They have no mouths, so their ballet is their mating song)
Little things alive all around us
That I never notice
And that I'll probably forget again

But I won't forget the feel of your hand in mine
As we made it back across together

Review: Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon

I read these 25 issues written by Joss Whedon and illustrated by John Cassaday in the form of graphic novels: one hardcover collecting the first 12 issues and two softcovers collecting issues 13-24 and Giant-Sized Astonishing X-Men 1.

Here are the things I liked about the series:
  • The core cast is stripped down to a manageable number.
  • The dialogue between characters is fantastic, especially the exchanges between Kitty Pryde and Emma Frost. Fans of either Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel will see a lot of similar quips and snarkiness here.
  • I think Whedon gets a good handle on characters like Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and Beast. And he manages to make Wolverine interesting without having him steal every scene, which is nice.
  • There is some much appreciated humor sprinkled in throughout that manages not to derail the action in the slightest.
  • I love Cassaday's art in general, particularly how he shows emotion through body language blended with facial expressions and his ability to draw just about any crazy thing that Whedon can dream up side-by-side with perfectly normal looking stuff like teens, clothes, and a grassy lawn. It is immersive.
  • Seriously, tons of great one-liners, most of which I just can't set up properly here because they have a visual element or require a few set-up lines to produce the proper payoff. And it might sound silly, but whoever placed the word balloons in the panels did a great job. You can see the timing that you would normally hear if actors were delivering these lines from a script.
  • For the most part, the new characters that Whedon introduces, such as the young student who can create a cool-looking force field around herself, the villain Ord of the Breakworld, the artificial intelligence Danger, or the really bitchy Agent Brand of the interstellar/interdimensional variation of SHIELD known as SWORD (get it?), are well done. Whedon has this particular knack for making his key antagonists so interesting that you want to see them keep coming back even when they are doing bad things.
  • The interpersonal drama is great and the personality issues/relationship subplots are woven deftly into the action scenes.
  • There is a real sense of loss in the storyline.
The things I didn't like:
  • I wasn't that excited about the old costumes coming back, particularly Wolverine's bumblebee look. The rationale given in the book is rather weak (superheroes wear costumes).
  • Ord is a cool character given some of his lines and his trials and tribulations. But he looks downright goofy. The Breakworlders in general resemble a bunch of homicidal Dr. Seuss characters.
  • The plausibility of some major plot elements make as much sense as the various prophecies tossed out in Angel or the cosmology of the 'Verse in Firefly (one solar system with a ton of terraformed habitable moons that all have Earthlike gravity and atmosphere and the one at the edge of the solar system still gets regular, normal sunshine--what?). Basically, as with most of Whedon's work in my opinion, you shouldn't look too closely at why these Big Events/Threats happen, or what the rules of the setting are, because they don't make a whole hell of a lot of sense (the vampires in Buffy and Angel are wildly inconsistent and the whole "a demon takes over the dead human body because some other half-demon bit them" is flaky and tosses out a lot of what makes vampires potentially interesting). What's important is how Whedon's characters react to these events and rules, which does tend to make sense and can be very engrossing.
  • The Breakworld, an entirely new setting element, is really just a stand-in for yet another Demon Dimension where most everything and everyone is violent and dangerous. It felt a bit forced into the Marvel Universe.
  • Those familiar with the casts of Angel and Buffy will probably find a fair number of similar characterizations in play here. Emma Frost and Brand as dueling bitches who somehow win our sympathy (Cordelia). Kitty Pryde as a kind of Willow/Fred amalgam. Cyclops has a bit of the forlorn hero vibe that Angel carried, Beast goes back and forth between cerebral and action hero in the vein of Wesley. Wolverine is a bit like a less talkative Spike. The thing is, all of these characterizations work, in my view. And it's probably more that certain relationships or bits of dialogue are reminiscient of some scenes in those series than anything else. So perhaps this is in the eye of the beholder.
Versus Grant Morrison's New X-Men or Marc Millar's Ultimate X-Men
  • There aren't as many wild and daring ideas in this story as there were in either the Ultimate X-Men by Marc Millar or the New X-Men by Grant Morrison. There's one very interesting social concept in Astonishing X-Men, the idea of a cure for mutants, that got more or less blatantly stolen for the X-Men 3 movie. But it just falls by the wayside without any real sense of resolution after it gets tossed out there.
  • On the other hand, the narrative of Whedon's story is much more coherent than Morrison's sequence. I also found the characters that Whedon introduced far more interesting and clearly presented than the majority of the ones that Morrison introduced, who are for the most part head-scratchers (still not sure what Xorn or Fantomex's abilities were or how they made any sense, and I could have done completely without Beak or Angel). Morrison tends to introduce new characters explicitly to upstage existing iconic characters, like a gamer who wants his new player character to prove he can beat up the existing high-level NPCs in a campaign. Thus they swiftly become annoying rather than integrating into an existing concept. And Whedon writes dialogue about a dozen times better than Morrison.
  • As far as Millar goes, in Ultimate X-Men, as in most of his comics work (though to a lesser degree in Ultimates), he dials most everyone up a bit too far on the being a bastard or a self-interested ass personality meter for any of them to be likeable or even sympathetic. I couldn't care less about any of Millar's X-Men living or dying. I was genuinely upset when Whedon killed somebody major off at the end of his story arc.
  • So if I had to look at relative strengths of the three series, I'd say Morrison is most gifted at exploring and introducing wild and original ideas in a setting, Millar is best at crafting a fairly coherent plot that drives forward very focused characters with great action and intensity, and Whedon is a master of creating characters that feel real and generate a range of strong emotional responses (humor, affection, dislike) in readers. Your reading preferences will probably influence your responses accordingly.
I definitely recommend the series, which is quite self-contained vis-a-vis the rest of the Marvel Universe. It doesn't even connect that strongly to the events of Grant Morrison's lengthy run on New X-Men that preceded it in the continuity.

Cooking: Roast Chicken

Made another one of my favorite meals last night: Roast Chicken with potatoes and carrots. This version produces a beautifully browned chicken with crispy skin while also providing very juicy breast meat and nicely flavored potatoes and carrots.

The key to this recipe is rotating the chicken in the oven so that it cooks and browns evenly and then letting it rest to collect the juices. And also butter.

1. You heat the oven to 450 F. Get a 4-5 pound whole fryer with the giblets and such removed. (Heavier is better and I've found that organic chickens have a richer flavor.) Then you melt a tablespoon or two of butter and massage it into the skin of the chicken. You can use a brush if you're afraid to get your hands greasy.

2. Chop up half an onion into a few big chunks and cut some rosemary or sage (last night I used sage from our garden) and stuff both into the cavity of the chicken.

3. Put the chicken on its side in a roasting pan and put the pan in the oven for 30 minutes.

4. Slice some small red potatoes in half (bigger potatoes may need to be quartered--I don't like mine more than an inch in thickness) and chop some carrots (or use baby carrots).

5. After the first 30 minutes, take the pan out of the oven. Turn the chicken over onto the opposite side. Baste it (I use a brush) with pan juices and some more of the melted butter. Then add the potatoes and carrots and put back in the oven for another 30 minutes.

6. After the second 30 minutes is up, turn the chicken breast side up in the pan. Baste it again and stir up the potatoes and carrots. Set the timer for 10 minutes. At the end of that ten minutes, baste again and set timer for another 10 minutes. At the end of that 10 minutes, check to see how done the chicken is--wiggling the leg to see if it is nice and loose works pretty well. You may or may not need a final 10 minutes in the oven (A 4 pound chicken is usually done after two 10 minute sessions, while a 5 pounder often takes 3 10 minute sessions.)

7. Take the chicken out of the oven. Leave the potatoes and carrots in for another 20 minutes. During this final 20 minutes, you need to put the chicken breast side down on a cutting board and tent it with foil to help keep it warm. Angle the chicken so that the back end is higher than the front. This lets the juices in the chicken drip down and infuse the breast meat, which can often get a little dry during normal roasting because it takes a bit longer for the dark meat to cook than the white meat. (Warning: you want a cutting board or surface with grooves in it to catch the chicken fat and juices that drain down, otherwise you'll have a very messy counter.

8. After the last 20 minutes, take the potatoes and carrots out of the oven. Turn the chicken right side up and carve it. Serve with the carrots and potatoes.

For our family this meal always produces leftovers that are very tasty a couple days later.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I Imagine

Imagination became a problem for me
When I started to believe that I had
to do something with it
Other than enjoy the places it took me.

The need to explain my imaginary places,
The need to share them,
The need for them to be understood
and appreciated.

I made these needs up at some point
I don't remember when.

People said when I was young,
"You'll be a Writer."
And I write every day
Without the capital.

But it feels like I'm failing
every time I imagine something beautiful and strange
And I can't find a way to express
the wonder of it
the mystery of it
the magic of it
To anyone else.

I'm mocked by my daydreams
Butterflies I cannot catch
without stilling them.

When you chase something, looking back you remember the pursuit
and not the thing itself.
I miss what I experienced when I didn't worry about how to share my personal vistas
with all of you.

Not that you did anything wrong.

I told myself
That I was an insufficient audience.

I told myself to feel lonely
If I couldn't bring the rest of you along.


Yesterday I saw the world's largest Ponderosa pine
And read an article about the world's tallest man.

Today I learned
They aren't the biggest any more
If they ever were.

(Or maybe they are
I took someone else's word for it.)

I doubt the tree was as lonely as the man.
Trees are used to being big
Every forest has its giants.

And giant trees are old trees, and probably wise.

Giant men die young.

Their hearts are not big enough
To carry the weight of the words and the stares that fall upon them.

Come to think of it,
I suspect that people cut down most giant trees as well.

And some giant men, like trees, are mounted on display,
Sliced open to show the years of their lives
for people to point to and nod, as if they understood.

A lucky giant man is buried young
And in the earth, dreams of becoming a great old tree.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Rio Gets Olympics?

When I first read this, I thought, "Wow, isn't Rio one of the deadliest cities in the world, with an absurdly high murder rate?"

Well, this article suggests that currently, in terms of murders per 100,000 people, Rio ranks below Detroit (and also New Orleans if you read the fine print, which notes that the murder statistics are based on the pre-Katrina population--but since New Orleans now has a lower population and still has a lot of murders, it's rate should be higher).

Now, having fewer murders per capita than Detroit may not be saying much, but it does suggest that Rio isn't as outlandish as it might appear at first blush.

Also humorous that good 'ol power broker Juan Antonio Samaranch made a personal and very obvious appeal to push Madrid into the final round of voting. Madrid Train Bombings, anyone?

The Olympic Committee, totally above board and honest in its deliberations. (Not that Chicago has a lot of room to complain about dirty politics.)

Cooking: Tomato Bisque

[This is a photo of someone else's tomato bisque, as I didn't feel like taking a photo of my own.]

Work has been wearing my wife down a bit lately, so since I'm the stay-at-home person, I recently offered to handle more of the cooking (something she normally enjoys) so that she only has to cook on the weekend. Last night I baked some salmon with lemon and thyme, baked some potatoes, and made buttermilk dressing (with my daughter's assistance) for a salad with some cherry tomatoes from our garden.

So today I made a tomato bisque from scratch, using fresh tomatoes and herbs (basil, thyme, oregano, and parsley) from our own garden (along with some stuff like mushrooms, cream, and provolone cheese from the store). This is a recipe that Lisa has had for a long time, but I think this is the first time I've made it by myself. And we've never cooked it with primarily home-grown ingredients before.

It took a little more than two hours of cooking, a bit more than an hour of that involving hands on work in the kitchen: a lot of chopping, dicing, sauteeing, and crushing (the tomatoes). Then some blending to puree the results.

The result had really good flavor but was a little bit thinner than it is normally. Everyone seemed to like it. So some success.

No Respect for Science Fiction(?)

[These images are painted figures from the gallery at Hydra Miniatures, a site that sells really awesome pulp sci-fi figures. I doubt they care at all about the Booker Prize so I hope they don't mind my using the image here. Check them out.]

There was an interesting article in the Guardian discussing science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson's assertion that the United Kingdom's Booker Prize for literature routinely and unjustly snubs science fiction as a genre. One of the judges, English professor John Mullan, argues that science fiction has become an enclosed world cut off from the rest of fiction and mainstream society. "When I was 18 it was a genre as accepted as other genres . . ." he says, but this is no longer the case.

There is a whole lot of stuff to unpack here. First, Mullan's comment seems wrongheaded to me because it gets things precisely backwards. Growing up, I found science fiction to be much less accepted as a genre than other forms. I was never able to convince an English teacher to allow me to write a book report or a literary critique of a work of science fiction, for example. Moreover, the literary quality of the writing in science fiction, particularly in the terms of the depth of characterization and the richness of the language itself, has improved significantly in the past few decades. There have always been standouts in this regard, but there are many writers these days who can craft a tale involving fantastic settings and social/technological speculation while also presenting characters that go beyond the classic archetypes and stereotypes of the genre.

I also think that there are more mainstream writers crossing over into science fiction-influenced stories and vice versa. Authors like Greg Bear and Orson Scott Card have written what are essentially contemporary thrillers in recent years, while a mystery writer like Walter Mosley has tried his hand at science fiction. Maria Doria Russell wrote a powerful science fiction novel, The Sparrow, and a sequel Children of God, but shifted to historical fiction in later work.

Just because publishers label certain novels in particular ways and bookstores stock them in specific sections should not preclude anyone with the capability of walking a dozen paces or so from checking out what is going on in different fields. The branch of the public library closest to us has all the fiction books mixed together on the shelves by author. I find this quite refreshing, to tell you the truth.

Second, I do think it has become harder to write what is generally accepted as cutting edge or hard science fiction, because the scientific and technological issues involved have become more complex and more likely, if extrapolated to their logical extremes, to transform the main characters into something unrecognizable as human. Someone might craft an excellent book in this regard that utterly fails to grab a reader because they cannot relate to the inhuman or posthuman protagonist(s). Now, this sort of thing might be what Mullan is referring to, but I hardly think it is any more common than were the older sci-fi books that failed to grab mainstream readers because they could not relate to the subhuman protagonist(s), those cardboard valiant engineers and monocultural aliens who fell flat.

Third, the themes of science fiction are demonstrably more relevant today, because we live in a world where the pace of technological change, the clash of cultures, and the impact of modern society on the environment are major news headlines. Positing future scenarios about such circumstances as a kind of thought experiment is precisely the sort of thing at which good science fiction excels. In this sense it is more equipped to inform readers about our modern condition and where it might lead than many other genres, while remaining equally capable of entertainment.

Finally, I found a bit of irony in the fact that I've never found Kim Stanley Robinson's own writing very compelling in spite of his accolades. I've tried twice to read The Years of Rice and Salt to no avail, because it is hard to get a feel for the characters and I have to be in the mood to have to work to understand what he's talking about because he explains things so poorly or vaguely. Never was interested in the Mars trilogy that he's famous for, though I might give it another try in the future. Still, though he isn't my personal cup of tea and I would therefore probably take his own literary award suggestions (as noted in the article) with a grain of salt (or rice), Mr. Robinson seems to be making a valid point here.

It's startling that comic books have probably gained more critical appreciation, and certainly more popular appreciation, in the past decade or so than science fiction has. I wonder if that's because comics translate so easily to the big screen or the television, while most movies or television shows dubbed science fiction are very, very simplistic compared to the current literature in the field.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

How Big Were the Death Stars?

Sometimes you have to see this stuff to believe it. Someone spent a great deal of time and mental energy trying to estimate the actual size of the first two Death Stars, rejecting out of hand the dimensions published in "secondary materials" (such as the Star Wars rpg by West End Games) as unfeasible.

My favorite line probably occurs during the discussion of the X-Wing flight through the big trench on the first Death Star, where the numbers displayed on their targeting scopes are used to estimate the actual length of the trench. "The devil's advocate might suggest that the numbers on the target scopes were arbitrary, merely put there to give the impression that the starfighters were approaching their goal at high speed." (Emphasis mine.)

You think?

One might even suggest that the entire design of the Death Star and the majority of the spacecraft, aliens, and weaponry in the original Star Wars was arbitrary (A galaxy of humanoid aliens? A giant space worm in an asteroid? Blaster bolts slow enough to dodge? Body armor that does nothing to stop said blaster bolts?) to give the impression of cool space stuff when it's really more of a fantasy story. And a fun one. Except for the most recently made movies, which suck.

Later on, I suspect they paid more attention to the design, except for the continued and disturbing lack of guard rails, because there's no evidence that they were paying attention to the plot. Although they did write the dumbest conceivable high-tech military confrontation: robot drones versus amphibians fighting at archery distances on land? Really? That's a set-piece right out of the 17th century. In a galaxy far, far away, military commanders, artificial and biological alike, were idiots.

I didn't note any commentary wondering why the Empire didn't take an actual small moon, hollow out the parts needed for the planet-destroying weapon mechanism and its support equipment/staff, strap on some engines, use the moon's own mass as ready-made armor, and save the Imperial budget untold quadrillions of whatever it is the Empire uses for money.

Because we're not dealing with logic applied in terms of common sense; we're dealing with logic applied to determining what is canonical and what is not. This sort of thing makes it easier to see where the impulse to conduct religious doctrinal debates comes from.