Tuesday, June 8, 2010








Saturday, June 5, 2010

Google Analytics Has Killed All My Pages

I'm writing this using Internet Explorer on the Acer of Doom, our only (currently) functioning Windows system, because I can no longer update blog posts using Safari, Firefox, or Google Chrome, because Google Analytics, which I enabled for both my blogs and my google site web page, is causing an error. I can't even load the web site; I was unable to update the blogs, IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT I DELETED THE GOOGLE ANALYTICS CODE FROM THE TEMPLATE AND DELETED ALL THREE SITES FROM THE GOOGLE ANALYTICS PAGE.

I should be able to view and modify my own work, but I can't and haven't been able to for days. No warnings from Google, no useful advice at all on how to deal with the problem, nada. On a level of one to ten, I'm at an eight or nine. Someone else has basically taken control of my content by taking it out of my hands due to a technical glitch. I don't know how to fix it, only that I've wasted two hours today already looking into it.

This is how technology works, or fails to work. It promises you all sorts of added functionality, then bombs out on providing even the basic stuff. And then it calls to you to waste your time or alter your behavior just so you can try to keep it running.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Book Review: The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

The Lost Books of the Odyssey purports to be a collection of lost stories from Homer's Odyssey, all of which are variants on the events in the "official" version of the epic tale. It also claims to be a novel, right there on the cover.

Neither of these claims are true. The book was a remarkable read, however, filled with beautiful and thought-provoking imagery. It's a new book, I have to turn it back in soon, but I've held onto it in case I want to read through one of the stories again.

 If you like Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Paulo Coehlo, perhaps some Stanislaw Lem, I think you'll like Zachary Mason. He has the same deft magic realist touch, the imagination that is both vivid and thoughtful, and a way of crafting brief passages that draw you into a mood and setting with ease.

Why isn't a novel? Well, I think the simplest explanation I can offer is that if you can pick up a book and start reading any chapter at random without feeling as though you missed anything that came before or learned anything that helps you understand the events described in following chapters, then that book doesn't have a narrative structure that you can consider a novel. It is so unlike a novel that I don't know why they bothered with the label at all.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is a collection of vignettes, pastiches, contemplations, or what have you on the underlying themes of the Odyssey, a re-imagining of many different scenes, several of them more than once, as well as a depiction of many different possible individuals named Odysseus. It's quite hard to describe, yet I think you can pick up a copy, read one of the shorter chapters that is just one or two or three pages in length, and come away with a sense of how the entire project feels. You can sample the first two chapters by clicking the Look Inside option at the other end of the Amazon link above.

Book Review: The Trade of Queens

The Trade of Queens is the sixth and supposedly concluding book in the Merchant Princes series. If you haven't read the earlier books, this one will confuse the hell out of you, regardless of all the efforts to update people on the plot. I found those little summaries of what has happened so far useful to keep up and I've read the other five novels, just not in a short span of time.

Essentially it's a very well thought-out, highly realistic story of alternate worlds whose events and conflicts hinge largely upon differences in economics, politics, social customs, and concepts of law. That sounds dry, but the story isn't--it moves at breakneck speed, with a large cast of characters. Stross does a really nice job of delineating the differences a subtly different America circa 2003, the Norse colonized Gruinmarkt of the world-walking Clan, and the world of New Britain.

I'm particularly impressed at how smoothly Stross moves through complicated nomenclature and jargon within various subcultures.  It's a fun series and this is a decent novel, but as my comment above might suggest, Stross has SO many balls up in the air at this point, so many plotlines going on multiple worlds, that this actually feels a bit rushed and doesn't feel that much like the series has ended. By the standards of some of the earlier cliffhangers in the series, this one wraps up, but there's still so much left to be decided.

I also feel the book suffers from Stross resolving too many of the conflicts that he poses too quickly; there isn't enough time for the tension to really build in many cases. The series is still well worth a read, in my view, and if you do you'll eventually want to know how some of the major plotlines pan out, which is the goal of this novel.

Book Review: The Yard Dog by Sheldon Russell

The Yard Dog is a mystery set in the area surrounding a Nazi prisoner of war camp in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma during WW II. Thousands of Nazi prisoners were brought to the US during the war and held in such camps. The main characters include Hook Runyon, a one-armed railroad detective (or "yard dog"), Runt Wallace, a young man with a twisted spine and legs, Dr. Reina Kaplan, a Jewish academic in charge of the program aimed at reeducating the Nazis while they are being held, and a number of other eccentric folks.

The plot revolves around Hook's efforts to investigate the death of a mentally challenged bum who lived around the railyards. As far as mysteries go, the clues build up very slowly and rather haphazardly, with different characters coming across bits of evidence, so the plot drifts a bit, even though the book isn't that long. The payoff is pretty good, but the journey there doesn't build up as much suspense as I would like. Sometimes the narrative voice explaining the thoughts in the characters' heads feels a little forced and cliched as well.

But the dialogue just crackles off the page, quick-witted and very believable, and the period setting is sketched out with sharp, sure details that really bring it to life. Though I lived many years in Texas and have absolutely no love for Oklahoma, it was really engaging. I genuinely liked many of the key characters by the time the story was finished. Another read I stumbled across just by browsing the shelves in the public library, and I'm glad I did.

Its implied that this will be the first in a series of stories about Hook Runyon and I'll look for sequels, on the assumption that plotting is something that an author can get a little sharper with, but establishing a voice and creating an engaging setting are good skills to build upon. Plus, the idea of Hook, who lives in a caboose, traveling to some different period locales doing his work for the railroad has promise, as long as Russell keeps his focus on some of these lost stories and places from the time.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

My Superhero RPG site

Been spending a bunch of my free time lately working on material for an original superhero setting, adapted to the new superhero roleplaying game ICONS.

You can check it out here if so inclined.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Comics I've Read in 2010

Graphic Novel section [17 total]
[EDIT- added Angel: After the Fall and Invincible Iron Man: The Five Nightmares]
  • Angel: After the Fall by Joss Whedon, Brian Lynch, and Franco Urru. [Whedon was the co-plotter here, but the writing is mainly Lynch, as I understand it. For fans of the Angel TV series, which itself was a spin-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this comic series continues the storyline, which ended with the beginning of a huge battle between all the demonic forces of Wolfram and Hart and Angel and his surviving buddies. I found it kind of disappointing, to be honest. It continues the trend seen in the Buffy comics of throwing in effects and scale at a level beyond what the TV budget would allow for, which is fine as far as it goes, but everything here is a bit too chaotic. They've made big changes to several of the main characters, completely altered the setting by dropping the city of Los Angeles into a Hell Dimension, and they start in media res and take a long time to explain just what's going on. Every chapter (representing an issue) seems to end on a different, shocking cliffhanger/revelation, and by the end of the graphic novel, which also ends in that fashion, I was a bit jaded. There's some snappy dialogue, but I felt as though a lot of stuff got changed just for the sake of changing it. To be honest, this was a problem with the television series as well in its last two seasons, where they made a LOT of weak character decisions and dubious transformations. So if you're a completist, pick this up, but be prepared to need the other volumes almost immediately to make any sense of what's happening.]
  • The Boys, Vol. 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson [I'm not linking to any of these books as I wouldn't want to encourage anybody to read them. :-)]
  • The Boys, Vol. 2: Get Some
  • The Boys, Vol. 3: Good for the Soul
  • The Boys, Vol. 4: We Gotta Go Now [I checked out all four of these volumes at once at the recommendation of a librarian who I talk to sometimes who has suggested some good reads in the past. These weren't among them. Short story: self-indulgent grossness for the sake of grossness, paper-thin commentary on celebrity, laughable pretense at serving the public, nothing worthwhile that hasn't been done better in other series with vastly more taste. I have a hard time believing that this series continues or that these have actually been popular enough to reissue in hardcover. Longer review here. Now I just have to figure out what to say to the librarian if he asks me what I thought of these, because he is a nice guy.]
  • Brit by Robert Kirkman [meh, a lot of action, a couple unusual characters but everything feels really rushed, didn't excite me.]
  • Checkmate/Outsiders: Checkout by Greg Rucka and Judd Winick. [Got this crossover for my birthday. A fun read, but a bit confusing because while I've read all the Checkmate titles that sandwiched around this story, I haven't seen the Outsiders stories that immediately preceded it, just the early Outsiders stuff, and the makeup and dynamic of the team had clearly changed a bit in the interim.]
  • Crisis on Infinite Earths by Wolfman and Perez [Not good, the writing feels very, very dated and melodramatic, but the art by George Perez is great and I had fun reading this with Will.]
  • Gotham Central Volume 1: In the Line of Duty, written by Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, art by Michael Lark. [Really good stories about the police in Gotham who have to deal with cases related directly and obliquely to all the costumed criminals, as well as not knowing what the Batman is up to.]
  • Gotham Central Volume 2: Half a Life. [The story in this graphic novel won an Eisner, I believe. It tells the story of detective Renee Montoya, her public outing as a lesbian, and her dealing with false charges of murder.]
  • Gotham Central Volume 3: Unresolved Targets. [A great and chilling story involving the Joker terrorizing Gotham that I have to think influenced the plot of The Dark Knight movie, followed by a good story involving the Mad Hatter and disgraced cop Harvey Bullock.]
  • Gotham Central Volume 4: The Quick and the Dead. [I liked the opening story about a corrupt forensic specialist selling supervillain related crime scene paraphenalia online a little better than the following story involving little used villain Dr. Alchemy, but the very Hannibal Lector-esque take on Alchemy was fun to read if not entirely original.]
  • Gotham Central Volume 5: Dead Robin [The final collection of the series. The title story, which comes first, is very interesting and plays off an interesting fact--when dead teenagers dressed up as Robin start appearing, no one on the police force has any way of knowing if any of them are the real Robin. They don't even know if there are multiple Robins. The wrap-up story carries the character arc of detective Renee Montoya through to its sad but seemingly inevitable conclusion, and features a death that made me sad, as I'd come to like the lost character. The end to a good series.]
  • Invincible Iron Man: The Five Nightmares, by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larocca. [Wow. I was very impressed by this collection of the first six issues of the recent Iron series. The writing is sharp, the high-tech future intriguing, and the character of Tony Stark presented in a very interesting fashion. The storyline deals with the things that Stark fears most happening in the world, with the most significant being that a supertech terrorist has figured out how to modify his Iron Man technology and improve it in some ways. I don't quite buy the idea that young Ezekiel Stane is able to generate the power that he does just by converting his body's energy more efficiently, even as he's chugging thousands of calories. I could see him having extraordinary reflexes, getting smarter, and so forth, but powering energy bolts that can hurt Iron Man seems extreme given the rationale. But it's a sci-fi superhero, right? Salvador Larocca's art is fantastic, Fraction's pacing is wonderful, and he finds interesting new ways to torment one of comicdom's most tormented icons. Good stuff that had me searching my library for the next volume. Which, alas, they don't have!] 
  • Low Moon by Jason. [A collection of brightly colored, largely silent cartoon panels that display odd twists on familiar themes and a very quirky sense of humor. Did not surprise me to find out that the creator is Norweigian. There's a very Scandanavian sense of melancholy and dry humor running throughout these stories. Very interesting and worth a look if only to see how much story and characterization can be packed into such a minimalist presentation.]
  • Sleeper Vol. 1: Out in the Cold by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.
  • Sleeper Vol. 2: All False Moves
  • Sleeper Vol. 3: A Crooked Line
  • Sleeper Vol. 4: The Long Way Home [These somewhat disturbing graphic novels are the best combinations of noir, crime, and superhero storytelling out there. Double agent Holden Carver, whose unwanted superpower serves to alienate him from his own body and the world around him, gets stranded in a criminal organization when his handler is shot and left in a coma. These aren't your standard supervillains, though their leader, Tao, is a classic evil mastermind in many ways. Carver is constantly pushed into situations where he has to choose between duty, friendship, and survival, and every choice he makes seems to push him deeper into trouble. He has no good choices concerning who to trust. By the end, it's less a matter of wondering if he can get free and more a matter of wondering what the collateral damage to Carver and those around him is going to be. Riveting stuff, well illustrated by Phillips. There's some sex and violence that goes beyond what I typically consider tasteful or necessary, but it doesn't feel gratuitous in Brubaker's hands--there are moral and personal consequences for actions, and material that feels dark is presented as such. So superior to the Ennis crap above that the comparison between the two on one of the book covers made me want to puke. The books have been collected into two volumes, Sleeper Season 1 and Sleeper Season 2, which are the affordable ways to pick them up.]
  • Squadron Supreme by Mark Gruenwald [A classic that still holds up, filled with many plot twists and turns and a ton of difficult decisions for the characters that one didn't see in comics at the time.]

Books I've Read in 2010


  • The Yard Dog by Sheldon Russell. [A good book. Review here.]
  • The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross. [Not as good as the first few books in the Merchant Princes series, and feels a bit like it rushes to the ending. Longer review here. ]
  • The Kingdom of Ohio by Matthew Flaming. [A very unusual story centered on an equally odd romance between a mechanic from Idaho who is helping to build the brand new New York subway system and a princess/mathematical prodigy from the Kingdom of Toledo, which may or may not have ever existed. Edison, Tesla, and J.P. Morgan all make appearances. The novel blends a bit of urban history with colonial history mixed liberally with totally made up history from a closely parallel world, complete with sections replete with thorough footnotes to sources that might or might not exist. There's also a very vaguely described deus ex machina involving instantaneous travel through time, space, alternate universes, or possibly all of the preceding. It's a strange, confidently written novel that kept me turning the pages. As literary fiction with a touch of the fantastic cloaked as weird science, it works. As literary science fiction, it fails, mainly because it's incoherent as to the causes and effects of its central plot devices. So your level of enjoyment will probably be colored by what you're expecting to read. I was in the mood for something odd yet mainstream, so I enjoyed it. I think the faux history sections helped with that; they break up the momentum of the narration a bit, but are very cleverly done.]
  • Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay [Another poetic, epic, and deeply engaging Kay novel, this one set in a fantastic version of the Tang Dynasty in China. It begins with the middle son of a decorated general in the midst of carrying out the task he has chosen to mourn his father's passing: burying the thousands of dead soldiers (from both sides of the conflict) left untouched for many years at an isolated mountain battlefield at the very edge of the Empire. This unusual act draws attention to him, that, combined with less dramatic events in his past and the ties of his family to the Imperial Court, changes his life, and the course of the Empire itself, irrevocably. Highly recommended.]
  • The Last Guardian of Everness by John C. Williams. [An epic fantasy that mixes the modern-day with an everything and the kitchen sink compilation of mythologies, folklores, and legends. The world is about to be overwhelmed by the Dark Lord of the Dreaming. The last guardians of the old order are the only ones who can stop it, but to do so they're supposed to bring about the end of the world. As you might guess, this leads to some hesitation. Can be a little confusing at times, but has lot of interesting imagery. The way in which so many different mythological elements are blended together is intriguing. And the sense of how the passage of time and the simple human capacity to forget can erode the power of those who were once legendary.  Ends on a total cliffhanger, with the fate of the world literally in the balance. A really powerful imagination at work here.]


  • The War in 2020 by Ralph Peters. This book is now nearly 20 years old, so its predictions of future conflict involving a still solvent Soviet Union, a white-controlled South Africa, and a militaristic Japanese economic powerhouse all seem quite dated in some respects. In others, such as its depiction of the threat posed by the warmongering tendencies of various ethnic, nationalist, and fundamentalist Islamic factions in Central Asia, the collapse of order in Mexico, the tension between needing high-tech solutions to battlefield problems and the need for trained and dedicated soldiers to implement them, and social disruption at home, it seems eerily prescient. Not a book that glorifies combat or warfare, but one that does laud the honor and sacrifice of those who fight for their country. More nuanced and better written than much military fiction, though the female characters fall pretty flat. 
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin. [Intriguing and engaging first novel, a fantasy about gods, power, and family politics. The world is ruled by a single family due to the fact that they were the chosen of the Sky God, who won a terrible war with the two other founding deities of his pantheon, killing one and enslaving the other and all his children. So this family holds its power through the simple fact that it has bound gods and demi-gods into its service. At the same time, one must be very careful how to unleash their power. A young woman whose mother, once the heir apparent, was exiled from the family for marrying beneath her station, receives a sudden summons to the Court after her mother's death and is named one of three potential heirs. The rest of the novel is her struggle to understand the true history of the god war, to survive her encounters with her relatives and the enslaved gods, and to understand her true place in the world. An understatement to say that the final transformations involved are quite dramatic.]
  •  Young adult books on the Maya, Aztec, and Inca.
  • Yellow Smoke, a book on how technology and changing geopolitics have impacted the status and goals of the modern American Army. Perhaps a bit too sanguine in its assessment of how technology will supplant the fighting and killing role of ground forces, who will be transformed from primary fighters to recon units who target enemy forces for destruction by a wide array of weapons platforms operated remotely or fired from a great distance. But a lot of interesting insights into how the U.S. military system works and how it could be improved over time.

  • A Gentleman's Game by Greg Rucka. [A well-paced, engrossing espionage novel based on the characters and situations from Rucka's black-and-white Queen and Country comic series. This tale is about an MI-6 Special Ops agent named Tara Chace who is given the assignment to assassinate a prominent imam with suspected ties to a terrorist attack on London. Does a good job of showing how complicated and dangerous the job can be when almost everything goes right according to the plan, because of the politics that emerge when the U.S., British, Israeli, and Saudi Arabian governments are all involved.]
  • Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. [A Young Adult novel that deals with the very serious themes of how civil rights, technology, and national security can intersect with frightening results in the age of terrorism. I read nearly the entire book in one day on my iPod Touch. Some pretentious British jackass who teaches literature poo-pooed this book's Hugo nomination as an example of dumbed-down pap dominating the awards. But this book was very engaging.]
February [6 completed]

  • Counting Heads by David Marusek. [See my lengthy review of this interesting but flawed science fiction novel.]
  • Mainspring by Jay Lake. [An enjoyable steampunk fantasy about a young man on a quest to repair the mainspring that turns the brass clockworks of an Earth in a literal clockwork universe. I liked the first half of the novel better than the second, and the ending was a bit mystical for my tastes, but overall it was a fun read.]
  • Trading in Danger by Elizabeth Moon. [Not a dazzling novel, but a well-crafted and well-written story that doesn't play games with the reader or try to impress us with metaphysics. I enjoyed it and have already checked out the sequel. Longer review here.]

  • Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon [Another great collection of essays about writing and fiction that filled with me wonder and envy. My reading habits and experiences with writing courses in college seem to have paralleled Chabon's very closely, but his drive and talent created light years of distance in the final result.]
  • Supercapitalism by Robert Reich [A decent look at how the growth of corporations has undermined the democratic process. Essential argument is that corporations in the global marketplace maximize benefits to consumers and investors but ignore the needs of citizens, all the while growing more involved in the political arena to the detriment of our good as a society and a democracy. Does a nice job in showing how we got to this point since World War I. Falls flat in prescriptions for change: limit corporate spending on politics (a goal nullified by the recent, obnoxious Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) and stop the legal fiction of treating corporations as individuals.]
  • Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein [This slim volume attempts to illustrate some of the essential concepts of various philosophical thinkers through the use of jokes whose humor is based on those concepts. It's funnier than my description makes it sound. Not sure that I have a deeper grasp of philosophy, but I did laugh at a fair number of the jokes.]
January [2 completed]
  • Lamentation by Ken Scholes [Impressive novel blending sci-fi and fantasy.]
  • Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon [Great collection of essays about being a son, father, and brother.]

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Blame Game

The previous post was triggered in part by an annoying exchange that I had with some friend of a former coworker, who decided to jump into the midst of a conversation about Texas governor Rick Perry throwing around the word "secession" like a drunken Confederate at a states' rights rally and mock the intellectual merits of a sarcastic comment I had made. In the process he made repeated references to "The State," apparently hoping that such initial capitalization would impress upon the rest of us how threatening and neo-fascist/communist/totalitarian the Obama administration is.

I asked the guy where his outrage against the impositions of The State had been while the Bush administration was busy declaring two wars, wiping out a budget surplus, running up deficits, trying to legislate personal behavior, castrating regulatory functions, expanding executive power (with no checks), and pushing for legislation to curtail civil liberties. Because he only seemed to be concerned about the current administration and all the terrible things it has done, with the last eight years an apparent wisp of imagination.

I also asked if it had been The State that caused the financial crisis that kicked off the recession.

He ignored the first set of questions, but to my surprise, he answered the second with a lengthy (by Facebook standards) explanation that Clinton had caused the financial crisis by making it too easy for banks to make bad loans, nay, pressuring them into making bad loans by promising them TARP bailouts.


This is the point where I ended my participation in the discussion by congratulating the guy on his upcoming post as Minister of Propaganda should the revolution ever come.

But I did want to take up his point, because I believe that the initial facts he stated are, more or less, true: Clinton did approve of an easing on regulations and reassured banks that the federal government would bail them out.  Its his entire interpretation of this as somehow meaning that liberal big government is to blame for the financial crisis that is ludicrous.

First and foremost, note how he easily absolves the private financial sector of all blame for making all the absurdly risky subprime loans in the first place. Not only are they to blame for incompetence, they are morally culpable for their actions. The heads of these companies made a huge amount of money up front from accepting commissions on huge deals involving financial instruments that were crap.

At places like Goldman Sachs, people were shorting the same investments (ie, betting that they would fail) they were telling other investors were safe and low risk. These people are still rich and still around, even if their companies are not. The government had nothing to do with the choices these business leaders made to game the markets by creating suspect financial instruments specifically designed to elude existing regulatory statutes, all to satisfy their own greed.

(And this is supposed to increase my faith in the free market and my trust that business can regulate itself? Really?)

Secondly, note how he implies that Clinton, and thus Democrats, and thus liberals, crafted and implemented this plan in a vacuum, bearing sole responsibility. So nobody in the financial markets was lobbying to get the government to make things easier on them? The Republican Congress played no role in trying to ensure that certain instruments, like derivatives and credit swaps, were not regulated? And Bush didn't push for further deregulation during his administration? The impetus for all of this came directly from one party in government, such that The State is to blame for everything?

Does that make any sense based on even a rudimentary understanding of how lobbying, PACs, and conservative pro-business politicians in this country operate?

You can go here to learn more about how the Office of Thrift Supervision, the federal agency in charge of regulating failed financial giant AIG, went shopping for AIG and other big clients in 2003 by pledging to slash regulations and oversight and let business do business.

That happened in 2003.

Clinton did sign the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 into law before George W. Bush took office, and that act did basically create a bunch of loopholes for the financial markets to operate in. I'll just note that (a) the Republicans controlled both the House and Senate in the 106th Congress that passed the bill and (b) again, these things don't just appear out of a vacuum. A bunch of legislators didn't get together and craft a complex plan to cater to select corporate interests without being asked to do so and having mock legislation drafted on their behalf by those corporate interests.

I don't think that the federal government is flawless. Far from it. But it pisses me off to have conservative jackasses like this Facebook fellow barge in spouting facts and figures while pretending that big government and the bailout of corporate America are solely representative of liberal, Democratic administrations. Because that's crap. Bush was not only in favor of a bailout, he signed it into law

And beyond the political posturing involved in closing one eye and holding your nose so that you can attempt to blame everything on a single party, how about this "it's all the government's fault" reasoning?

First off, how the hell does anybody with half a functioning brain look at the events that precipitated the financial crisis and presume that the government caused it to happen and that big business doesn't share the bulk of the blame for its own actions? I thought conservatives were big into accountability?

And secondly, if the federal government was to blame for contributing to the bailout, their greatest failure was not in "pressuring" banks to make stupid and reckless loans and investments, but in failing to regulate the financial markets. How does that become an argument for a government with less authority?

Anyway, Facebook is a terrible medium to try to hold a cogent exchange on such a topic, and the cherrypicking of facts and questions that this guy indulged in, much less his interpretations, made it pretty clear to me that I didn't give a shit what he thought. But that doesn't mean I didn't think about why I thought he was wrong, and when I do that, sometimes it just helps to write it down and purge the system.

Facebook Not So Hot

I have to say, I'm less interested in Facebook every day. I'm generally pretty bored by what I see posted there and I rarely think of anything particularly interesting that I'd like to share. (And even when I do, I rarely get any responses from people.)

The character count limits, while not as onerous as those on Twitter (where I opened an account and then immediately lost interest), tend to make it difficult to establish a point or provide a reference.

The whole collecting "friends" aspect so dilutes the meaning of the concept of friendship that it's almost offensive to me. Acquaintances? It feels neither very social nor like a network. I've gotten more connection through the random process of discovering someone's email and sending them a message than anything else. It might be useful for establishing initial contact with people, but it sustains nothing.

In fact, the most irritating moments I've had on Facebook are when I comment on the post of someone I know and one of their "friends" who is a complete stranger to me replies to my words with something asinine or snarky. It's very jarring, as though someone interrupted a conversation at a dinner party with a rude comment. I've had this happen on forums before, but the truncated format of Facebook seems to make the intrusions more likely to be off-point or misinterpreted.

And frankly, on forums people tend to ignore what I post anyway. But I've gotten asshole know-it-all conservatives, teabagger apologists, and even an alternative music snob passing judgment on comments I made in passing. At the least the music snob was just expressing a snotty opinion; the teabaggers and their ilk are simply completely full of shit, repeating their talking points and trying to sound rational or empirical while pretending they can't hear all the rabid screaming from the right that expresses the true sentiments of the movement they're defending.

Even if there was a way to have a rational conversation on certain political subjects with these people, and these days it seems that there isn't much chance of that, Facebook is a godawful medium to try to have a meaningful discussion, with its parameters limiting input to the comfortable confines of regurgitated sound bites. Plus, these people are apparently friends of other people I know, which eliminates the fall-back option of telling them to fuck off if they get too strident. I don't know, maybe I'm too picky, or I'm isolated or I avoid confrontation or I'm more like my family than most people, but over the years I've just blown off the people who are so far on the other side of the ideological fence from me that we can barely hear each other unless we shout. It kind of amazes me who pops up as friends of friends.

I think the lesson here is that I tend to be happier when I spend limited time online in general and less involved in social networking. So I'm going to start thinking about setting some time limits. Perhaps composing some of these blog entries or my web site updates while offline would be smart.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Purgatory Lost

I had a dream the other night after watching the series finale of Lost, in which, in complete contradiction of the advertising campaign, all my questions were not, in fact, answered. Not even close.

Which came neither as a surprise nor as a letdown, really, because by the sixth season of the show the writers had introduced and then abandoned so many dangling plot lines that there was no hope that they would ever resolve anything.

Lost was interesting as a kind of hybrid between an actual dramatic television show with a discernable story arc and a crowd-sourced meta-media program that had the bulk of its presumed depth bestowed upon it by the feverish imaginings of its fandom rather than by the conscious efforts of its creators.

Whereas most writers try to communicate the content of the plot, by the second season the crew of Lost seems to have focused their efforts on obfuscation. The establishing of mysteries became vastly more significant than their resolution, with new mysteries being introduced whenever the current ideas simply ran out of gas, with no tangible effort at providing clear, consistent, or meaningful answers. 

As time passed, this lack of coherence was labeled by many as sophistication. And in some ways, I think it was. After all, real life offers few concrete answers to its greatest enigmas.

The ideas of examining the paths not taken or of reexaming familiar events from multiple perspectives are interesting literary and philosophical devices that Lost returned to again and again. However, for the most part the show dealt with these concepts in the most shallow and inconsistent of ways. Changes were introduced for the sake of shock or some basic inability to ever complete anything. Let's go back in time! Let's have a parallel universe! Let's suddenly tack on an incoherent and rather flabby, lifeless mythology in the final season!

It's as if the show's creators were absolutely terrified of making any narrative choices.

At the same time, Lost had many wonderful characters and characterizations. It was by far the strongest element of the show. The writers seemed to have recognized this, to the extent that they began introducing new characters the way they introduced new mysteries, hoping that by adding and adding to the already brimming pot they would somehow end up with stone soup.

In the end, Lost ended up being an odd hybrid for me of very poor plotting mixed with generally interesting characterization, of storytelling that could trigger emotional reactions without satisfying me intellectualy at all. I watched all six seasons of the show, though by the last three years I wasn't really hooked. Would I recommend it to anybody who hadn't seen an episode before? Probably not.

Back to that dream.

In my dream, the original plane crash survivors found themselves on an eerie island. They interacted with inhabitants who didn't seem to be quite human and who formed different groups. One of these groups was very Taoist, another very scientific, another religiously dogmatic. We got repeated flashbacks into the pasts of individual characters as they tried to understand their environment and survive encounters with the strangeness around them. They even encountered a small group of people living on the beach, with whom they had confused interactions. None of these extras became major characters on the lines of Linus or Juliet. It was a dream, and none of these interactions were all that coherent.

Eventually, after certain encounters with the things on the island, we started getting different flashbacks, in which key characters relived events we'd already seen, but making different choices and experiencing different outcomes. Some of the beings from the island appeared in these new flashbacks. No time travel to the 1970s. No flash-forwards. Sometimes it seemed that the island contained passageways to other places in the world. There was a fair amount of suffering, but nobody ever seemed to die--those that did would reappear later.

In the end, it was revealed that all the main characters on the show were dead and that the island was a kind of spiritual purgatory where their souls were tested; they had to confront their greatest hopes and fears, to relive key moments of their lives and examine their choices. Some of the beings on the island were souls unable to move on, while others were caretakers and cryptic guides of a sort.

The show ended when rescue came for the Others on the beach, who were the actual survivors of the crash and who interacted with the main characters in dreams or by seeing them as ghosts. By the time this revelation came, some of the characters were willing to move on, leaving this world behind, while others were unprepared and remained behind, and a few chose to become caretakers to help the next group of souls.

Would this version of the show have been as popular as the one with the Dharma Initiative, the numbers, Jacob and the Smoke-Monster, the Others, time-travel, the parallel universe, and so forth? Or even the original show in which the supernatural elements were actually downplayed?

Almost certainly not. But for me, at least, it would have been more coherent and I would have better understood people's involvement.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

We Are Related to Neanderthals? Intriguing.

At least, those of us of European or Southeast Asian descent are, according to recent DNA evidence acquired by sequencing Neanderthal DNA.

There's also a brief discussion of the implications of this discovery on this Caveman podcast from To the Best of Our Knowledge*.

As a very small number of you may know, I've been playing around with the idea of Neanderthals and other ancient hominids assuming the roles traditionally played by mythical humanoid species in epic fantasy. I've explored the idea of interbreeding as a part of that, so this evidence interests me.

*(Following that discussion on the podcast, there's a discussion with archaeologist Brian Fagan about his recent book on Cro-Magnons that I found myself snorting out loud at, due to the utter confidence with which Fagan offered as factual statements a series of completely unqualified assessments as to how the art of the Cro-Magnons revealed the depth of their supernatural belief system and the showmanship of their rituals, in spite of the fact that he HAS to be INTERPRETING and investing with psychological and emotional signifance a limited set of ancient visual and physical evidence that is, by the way, completely lacking in either written records or any kind of explanatory oral history or myths that might actually reveal feelings that are otherwise lost to time. His ideas are interesting, and he may be correct, but what he's stating as facts are conjectures that can't be proven. As someone with an extensive scientific background, his abuse of this distinction between hypothesis and empirical fact was a bit startling to me. Hopefully the book is more nuanced.)

Monday, April 26, 2010

If the Tea Party Was Black

This is a thought-provoking post asking how we would view the actions of the Tea Party if its participants were black, which actually refers to events that have taken place in the name of the Tea Party and the hateful things that people supporting it have said.

Astonishingly, there are still a few people who bothered to offer comments that boil down to just saying, "Nuh-uh!" How anyone can observe the actions of the Tea Party and their supporters and genuinely claim that in NO WAY are they playing up a racial angle defies belief. Those people have to know they are lying. 

I also find it a little humorous how easily dittoheads accuse someone else of being "whiny" while defending the Tea Party protesters, who do nothing but complain. Maybe because they scream, they don't qualify as whining?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Social Class and Adventurous Youth

Michael Chabon wrote some powerful essays in his recent collection, Manhood for Amateurs, that address the way we try to control and protect the experiences of our children today, compared to how freely and independently our parents allowed us to roam our neighborhoods.

This rings very true for me as I look at my experiences with my own kids and compare them with the routine excursions of my childhood.

But when I walk or drive around my own neighborhood, I do see the occasional individual or pack of kids roaming around, heading to the store, the library, or simply wandering along the irrigation canal in the vague direction of a park or open field. What's interesting is that these kids are almost exclusively young people of color, usually Latino or African.

I say Latino because I hear the kids speaking Spanish to each other and because many of them have a mestizo cast to their complexion and features that is familiar to me from growing up in southern New Mexico. I'd guess that they're probably Mexican American, but that would be assuming more than I know.

I say African, not African American, because there's a small cluster of Somalis living in my part of Boise, part of a slightly larger but still small enclave of refugees who were resettled here in the past decade. So while many of these kids have probably grown up here and speak English, they weren't born here and I don't know their citizenship status.

These two groups of kids seem to have two basic traits in common. First, relatively speaking, they're poorer than the largely middle class suburbanites that surround them. They come from one of several apartment complexes, a trailer park, or a few duplexes occupied by a large number of people. Second, I think that many of them come from families where the parents and other adults grew up in places other than the United States of the late 20th and early 21st century.

I suspect that this combination means that their families have both fewer resources (in terms of time or the money to pay other people for their time) at hand to constantly monitor their children and fewer psychological hangups about leaving their kids to fend for themselves during certain times of the day.

So perhaps these kids have the opportunity to explore and create their own adventures that Chabon argues is denied to middle class American kids in our current culture. And I wonder how that will shape their experiences and attitudes. Are they getting a chance to develop a part of their imaginations that will be stunted in my kids and their peers? Or are they just wandering bored, waiting for a chance to play video games or sign up for a youth sports league?

Now, I'm not arguing that being an adolescent member of an economically disadvantaged minority with the freedom to roam around is the same thing as being a middle class kid with that same freedom. It's not. The middle class white kid has fewer basic needs to worry about and certainly finds it easier to fit in to the surrounding society, particularly in a city as white as Boise.

But our neighborhood is a pretty safe place, and the local branch library is nice, and I see a lot of these kids in and around there. So I hope that they are getting a chance to enjoy some of their unstructured, unsupervised time and indulge in that freedom. Because the irony would be a little hard to bear otherwise.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The other Blog

Just wanted to say that I've added some more poems as well as some personal essays to my other blog, Sand Dreaming of Stars. I'm relatively pleased with them.

So anyone who reads this site should also check that one out. One Hand Clapping will still have the political asides, reviews, and comments on my writing efforts.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Drawing Some Maps

Got a bit stumped with my novel outline over Spring Break, largely because there was no real time or space to think quietly with Lisa and the kids all home, partly because I'm stuck on some point of view issues.*

So I decided to work on setting issues today after running some errands. Wanted to get out of my left brain a bit, so I pulled out some maps I have showing possible configurations of the world's continents 250 million years in the future. Then I started modifying them to create some of the geographic and environmental conditions that I felt would facilitate the formation and style of the civilizations I already had in mind.

Relative success on that front. I have two regions roughly developed.

The one for the Draconic civilization features two large inland seas, a bunch of peninsulas, and a chain of volcanic islands off the coast. Geographically, it's kind of a blend of the Mediterranean with northeast Asia, bleeding into the Central Asian grassland/steppe. This works nicely with some of the imagery and city-state rivalries that I had envisioned. Essentially variants of the Hanseatic League, Peloponnesian League, Venetian maritime empire, and Japanese Shogunate are all in close proximity to each other.

This one for the Serpentine civilization has a huge, Andean or Himalayan-style mountain range with glaciers and a high temperate plateau dominated by a pair of large lakes with no outlets. Then there's a lower mountain range that forms the spine of the rest of the landmass. Within this central mountain range lies another valley with a large, fairly shallow lake.

To the west and south of the central range range are tropical highlands and lowlands that experience coastal monsoons. Several rivers flow into the southern portion. Most of this area is jungle.

To the east is a large, barren patch dominated by rocky hills and flat stretches of sand, broken up only by two long eastward-flowing rivers that are the lifelines of the region. The entire landmass lies at tropical latitude; only the elevation of the plateau region gives it a temperate climate.

The sea to the west is dotted with active volcanic islands formed by the collision of oceanic plates. This configuration puts together the three environs suited to the Aztec/Inca/Maya/Northern India mashup I had been working on.

The next trick is visualizing how these two landmasses connect to each other and then determining the proper scale. I have an idea of what I'm looking for here, but I need to think about the distances involved and the latitude effects a bit more.

Also need a lot of work on the names, but that can be done bit by bit.

Really should work on the city map for Cortado next, as that's more relevant to the actual events of the planned novel.

*My thought right now is to go with a central character POV surrounded by multiple points of view from secondary characters; still trying to balance those out and thinking about whether to switch on a chapter or scene basis within the storyline.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Long, Interesting Talk by Cory Doctorow on E-Publishing

From his blog, Craphound. His talk focuses on the economics of electronic publishing and issues of DRM, copyright, and pricing.

This sort of thing is interesting to me as both a consumer and potential author, though the aspects that relate to being a writer are largely in the background because I've got so very far to go before I become competent at producing viable stories that I could sell.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Electronic Textbooks

This post is an expansion of a comment I made on the blog Some Space to Think, specifically on "Blood From a Stone," a blog post about electronic publishing. Someone made the comparison between RPG books and textbooks and wondered what textbooks would be doing electronically in the future.

I work in textbook publishing (originally as an editor for an imprint of Harcourt, now as a freelancer) and I think that RPG books to textbooks is a valid comparison.

However, I haven't seen much progress on that front in the projects I've worked on over the past few years. Most publishers that I've worked with take one of two approaches to e-textbooks: online content distribution through courses presented via proprietary web sites or multimedia CD-ROMs bundled along with a printed book.

The web-based courses typically chunk text content into small pieces and incorporate links to video, audio, databases, and primary sources. In the best cases they can improve utility. But, sad to say, I've never been impressed by the aesthetics or layout.

The CD-ROMs have uniformly sucked. They almost always require the installation of some proprietary software and when that crashes, there's insufficient tech support from the publisher and no local IT for the teacher.

Neither of these approaches is innovative. As it stands now, the textbook business is pretty conservative in terms of technology.

Partly that's because many school boards and teachers are conservative and/or lack the funds to do more than put a few computers in a classroom and subscribe to a proprietary database for research. Partly it's because the cost of producing a technically sophisticated, attractive textbook is pretty high given the skill sets and expertise of their existing staff. Yet people won't pay as much for the electronic version as they will for the hardcopy.

We used to argue that the solution might be offering electronic textbooks as annual subscriptions, with each year providing updates. Fewer big influxes of cash from large book orders balanced out by a steadier revenue stream. But there's some evidence that if you make it too easy to jump publishers, then districts will do so with more regularity. That scares sales people. And you still need to have the display media in place.

The textbook industry is hemorrhaging money and employees right now, so perhaps there is room for a big paradigm shift.

But given that the publishers are conservative and their real customer base (the school boards and teachers who make the buying decisions) tends to be conservative about technology (because in addition to buying it, they have to maintain it*, and I've never seen a school district that had the IT staff it needed) I don't expect any great innovations soon.

If suitable display devices become common enough (such as cheap laptops for every student or some much cheaper version of an iPad), the first thing most publishers will probably do is put out .pdfs of their textbooks, because those are the easiest files for them to create.

*This is a commonly overlooked factor in the quest to put technology in classrooms. Teachers get incredibly frustrated when technology crashes. At the university level, my wife has tech support, but even then she has to have backup plans in place, and that's just to wing a one-hour lecture when the technology fails. Plus to replace a textbook you need a portable device, because the students will need to use it at home. Once it leaves the school anything valuable and electronic is in all kinds of danger.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Once More Into the Breach

I go to send off my Acer laptop to their repair center for the THIRD time. The first two times I paid for shipping and they did the work for free. Which was good, as they didn't fix anything either time. (Well, the first time they replaced the hard drive--supposedly--but that didn't really help much.)

This time my issue has been "escalated" to Level 2 and Acer is paying the FedEx shipping costs. The system is still under warranty.

What I asked for what either a refund or a replacement laptop. Apparently I need to get to level 3 for that.

It's all sort of darkly humorous at this stage. They sent me a FedEx shipping number and a list of authorized places to drop the laptop off at. But no address to ship it to. I asked if I was supposed to ship it to the same repair center that I used the first two times. They sent a reply repeating my question and then not answering it, instead stating that I can drop it off at any of the authorized locations they sent me earlier, but the shipping number is good for only 48 hours. Just in case, I copied that other address and I'm bringing it along. In case, you know, they want a shipping destination. Maybe the shipping number provides that, but it would be brand new in my experience if it did.

I suppose this is all marginally better than a company that sells the computer and refuses to honor the warranty or that never replies to any communications from customers. But I'm not reassured by the fact that no one at any stage in the process has asked me for followup details on the laptop problems when their fixes didn't work. It's kind of a paternalistic system (send it in, we'll fix it, don't worry), but the pater familias in charge seems to be senile.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Saga of My Crappy Acer Aspire

Is, like many classic sagas, a tragedy.

I bought my Acer Aspire 5738-Z* laptop from Amazon a few weeks before Christmas for about $525. That meant my deadline for getting an 80% refund for returning the laptop was Jan. 31, 2010.

*Don't ever buy an Acer product. I would animate this warning with flashing red and blue warning lights and a siren noise if I knew how.

Oh, how I wish I had bitten the bullet then instead of trying to get the problems fixed.

I've returned the computer TWICE to the Acer Repair Center in Temple, Texas, which is apparently staffed by inbred mechanics struggling to manipulate their flipper-hands through an alcohol-induced haze while listening to country music. Once it arrived, they apparently decided not to examine the error messages I sent or to actually test the computer. They simply reloaded the operating system. Oh, and they claimed to have replaced the hard drive at one point, but since I kept experiencing the same problem when it came back, I really have no way of knowing if they just made that up.

I had to pay to package and ship the laptop both times. So I'm out another $30 or so, plus my time, right there.

My last email to the Acer service center, which promises to respond within 24 hours, has still not received a reply some three months later. Opening a repair ticket is a bit easier, but doesn't allow you to communicate with anyone. The notes attached to the defective laptop each time it returns are terse, like the pronunciations of a weather-beaten cowboy as he squints at the horizon. "Reloaded hard drive," he says. There's no response at all to the specific problems I've noted, or the error codes cited, or the questions I've asked. It's a drop-down menu of fortune cookie tech support wisdom.

I have high hopes that my current email to Acer might generate more than the automated response. Well, that's not true. I have a little bit hope. That's all I'm left with at this stage after Acer has managed to underwhelm my expectations with practiced ease.

This suicidal laptop has literally spent more time at the repair center or in the mail than it has sitting on my desk, said sitting time itself exceeding by an order of magnitude the amount of time that it has actually been on before the inevitable crash.

I suspect it's a hardware problem, given that the machine will crash regardless of the application being run (or attempting to run). It could be a Windows 7 problem. Because I am more of a nerd than a geek, the distinction doesn't matter to me at all. I've already spent more than enough time trying system restore discs, installing and reinstalling software, and browsing arcane tech forums.

Here's an idea: when you charge somebody more than $500 for a piece of equipment, it should work at the most basic level. That is, you should be able to use a fancy Windows 7 laptop to actually check your mail, look at a website, read a file, or compose a document before it blows up in your face. Without having to resort to a bunch of bizarre fixes and work-arounds. My fucking first generation iPod can do all of that except compose the document.

Acer screwed up somewhere with this product and it has cost me $550+ and many man-hours to this point to own something that doesn't work. I don't anticipate ever getting even a portion of my money back or of having a functioning machine. It has disappointed the kids so many times now that after it came back from the last "official" repair and we tried to get them to watch a movie on it, they started complaining. "It's just going to crash!"

And they were right.

So, Acer, until you make this right and stop jerking me around and wasting more of my money on pointless faux-repairs, YOU SUCK. I wish the worst business luck upon your company. I hope your stock falls, your products get recalled, and you become a laughingstock of the industry. And I hope your "Repair" Center in Temple, Texas is demolished and the ground sown with salt.

BECAUSE THIS WAS A CHRISTMAS GIFT FOR MY CHILDREN, THE WORST CHRISTMAS GIFT EVER. And after building this piece of shit, you have dangled promises of fixing it over my head for three months, stringing me along as I try to tell my kids that maybe they'll have a cool, up-to-date computer at their disposal for work and play, because dad thought buying a video game console was a cop-out when they could do so much more cool stuff with a laptop if I spent a bit more.

SO FUCK YOU, ACER. Because you are very, very close to the point where you've worn me down and I just can't muster enough energy to care about this any more, at which point you will have my money and I will have a shiny blue rectangle with rounded edges and a high-def screen that isn't even useful as a paperweight.

Don't buy an Acer. Of any kind. Ever.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Small Government Myths

I could never figure out where Bush's credentials as being a small government guy came from, other than his penchant for cutting taxes, thus shrinking federal revenue while he was busy increasing federal expenses.

How exactly did George W. Bush shrink the size, power, and cost of the federal government during his eight years in office?

Was the government budget higher or lower in 2008 than in 2000? How about the deficit? Did the bureaucracy shrink? Did the amount of money pouring into government from lobbyists get larger or smaller? Did the federal government have more power over its citizens in 2008 or 2000? Was the national military bigger or smaller? Was the Constitution in safer hands? Was the government more likely to pry into your private affairs or less likely? More likely to tell your local independent school district how to run things or less likely?

Bush just accelerated the focus of big government from protecting the rights and well-being of citizens to protecting the rights and profits of corporations.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Making Shit Up: The Conservative Case for Torture

Interesting article in the New Yorker dissecting the half-truths and outright lies that make up former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen's "Courting Disaster," a defense of the Bush administration's pro-torture interrogation agenda.

I seen this sort of thing all the time coming out of the Bush camp: the references to secret documents that support one side, testimony of experts who are not in fact experts on the subjects they are commenting on, the attempts to ignore any policy criticisms that emerged from within the administration to preserve the illusion of a united front, and the blatant rewriting of facts. It's straight big tobacco lobby tactics across the board.

It emerges in claims like these:
  • Obama dismantled the pro-torture Bush stance (when Bush himself did it in 2006 in response to criticism),
  • Bush could never have known anything about the dangers of al Qaeda (yet somehow Clinton still could have)
  • Bush didn't change the justification for the war with Iraq after the fact
  • Obama and his democratic cronies are trying to create a police state (ironically, using the very laws that Bush and the Republicans pushed through as necessary for national security and promised would never be abused . . . until they didn't have the gun in their hands anymore, of course)
It's fortunate that we live in a country where the message is controlled by the liberal media, so we never have to worry about this sort of thing getting widespread distribution to people who never, ever look anything up. . . oh wait, that's a load of bullshit.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tea Party Racists and Conservative Apologists

So you can read about the recent displays of Tea Party bigotry here at CNN, here at the AP, here on Slate, here on Salon.

In the comments section on the short Slate article, one particularly brilliant reader opined:
  • "Tea party protesters know any racist behavior on their part will be the sole focus of all the news coverage of their protests so they have everything to loose and nothing to gain from racist behavior. This leads me to believe those shouting racial slurs are plants who want to discredit the tea party protesters."
There are so many things wrong with this statement that it is painfully funny. Let's go step-by-step.
  1. The racist behavior was not, in fact, "the sole focus of all the news coverage" of the protests. As you can see in the links above, this aspect was buried in the AP story and if you look up the protest coverage on CNN, you don't get the article I linked to at all; you get a longer article that links, near the bottom, to the racist events that took place. The Fox News article on the protest didn't mention the racist chants at all. What a surprise! So, the first half of the first sentence is simply, factually, incorrect.
  2. The racist behavior on the part of Tea Party members has been going on for some time in many parts of the country. It hasn't slowed them down a bit, nor has it led to any serious backlash from GOP members who support the movement. A handful have criticized the use of racist slurs, but never when they were at a rally where they were taking place. GOP members just say that hey, the people saying that aren't our real people. As far as the image of Tea Partiers being hurt with non-conservative constituencies . . . um, that ship has sailed.
  3. Oh, and it's "lose," not "loose." Looser.
  4. The idea that the Democrats have cleverly planted faux racists among the ranks of true blue Tea Partiers is interesting, the way that it's interesting when someone talks to you about black helicopters, the evidence that the Moon landings were faked, or the anti-mind control properties of their tinfoil hat. Plus, of course, this guy is completely pulling the claim out of his ass.
  5. Moreover, what always strikes me about these sorts of claims is that conservative Republicans think of these bizarre angles so quickly because IT'S EXACTLY THE SORT OF SHIT THEIR POLITICAL HANDLERS WOULD DREAM UP if they were running the opposition to something. Nothing more fearsome than the thought that the other guys might do to you what you're planning to do to him.
This comment was vivisected in the way you'd pretty much expect on a forum read by anybody who isn't a dittohead or a member of the Bill O-Reilly Fan Club. But this was followed up by one guy who just had to use his immense accumen to make this observation:
  • [name withheld to protect the ignorant], let's see if I can summarize most of the responses to your post:

    1. RACIST!!!1!1one!!1

    Yeah, that's about it. No responses to your argument, or evidence that the event ever happened.
Let me go through this one, because it is also funny.
  1. I'm not sure what to make of the "!!1!1one!!1" string. Perhaps it's a special code. [EDIT: It has been explained to me that this is a special Internet thing mocking someone's lack of self control . That the guy who made this post is confident enough to be mocking other people is even more amusing. It's like someone writing a crappy answer on an exam and then underlining it for emphasis.]
  2. The next bit is fundamentally wrong on two counts. First, it stretches the definition of "argument" to include "wild-ass claim I plucked from nowhere, unsupported by evidence." But let's grant that bit. There were in fact responses to the substance of the original poster's argument. People commented that it was ludicrous, irrational, and one person actually provided alternate examples of racist behavior behaved in by Tea Party supporters at other times and places. These are no doubt confusing to the second quoted poster, because they involve actually reading words and formulating responses to those words, rather than looking into a sack of "handy-dandy conservative sound bites" and tossing out a specious claim. "They're not responding to your argument just because, in addition to pointing out that your argument was weak, they noted that you were likely being knowingly deceptive or simply stupid for advancing such a weak argument." Oh, and by the way, advancing such a pathetic case in defense of racists implies rather strongly that you are at the very least sympathetic to said racists.
  3. I'm really not sure what the second quoted poster means when he refers to a lack of "evidence that the event ever occurred" cited by other posters. If he means a lack of evidence that the racist events ever took place, well, several things are wrong with that claim. To begin with, it's not the job of commenters to verify the facts of the story they are commenting upon--those claims are made in the news story itself. Then there's the fact that these events were reported by a variety of news agencies: look at the I cited above. Of course, Fox News ignored it, so perhaps it does not exist for this individual. So there's a large amount of evidence.
  4. But perhaps our second poster got confused, as he was all the way into his second sentence and could have been losing his train of thought. Perhaps he meant to say that the other commenters had provided no evidence that the conspiracy hypothesized by the first poster had not taken place. If that sentence read a little strange, it's because trying to prove that something did not take place is tricky. It's even trickier when what you're supposed to find is evidence that disproves the ludicrous rant that someone pulled out of their ass or dictated from the scary voices that whisper in their ears as they are standing in line at the post office, DMV, or other agency of the devil. Can we agree that asking people to provide evidence to contradict an argument for which no evidence was ever offered in the first place is kind of asking the other side to do all the heavy mental lifting in your supposed debate? Kind of lazy, but typical for conservative spinmeisters. Not that this guy is a meister at any level.
The impressive thing is that these two managed to shove so many errors into two such short expressions of their inner conservative. But that's one thing that works to the advantage of such dittoheads: it takes much longer to thoroughly expose and dissect their flaws than it does to spew them out.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Longhorns are a Very Dumb Team: Coincidence?

Texas just solidified its status as one of the dumbest, most poorly coached teams in the country by pissing away an overtime game against Wake Forest, which also happens to excel at boneheaded plays and has an awful coach.

The end of regulation was hilarious. Texas missed a two-foot shot for the lead, then Wake got a jump ball. Wake could have sealed the game, but their player ran the baseline, which is only legal after a made shot. Unforced turnover. Then Texas gets a foul and its supposed star player bricks the freethrow that could have won the game.

In overtime, Texas raced to an eight point lead and got the ball with 2:30 left. They followed that up with: a stupid offensive foul, failing to box anybody out on an offensive rebound slam dunk, a 90% freethrow shooter bricking two freethrows, leaving the same guy open on a slam dunk, two free throws, leaving a three point shooter wide open, bricking two MORE freethrows to leave it a one point game, and giving up the game winning jumper. If Texas had been able to shoot better than 2 of 6 from the line, been able to box the same guy out, remembered to guard the three point line when a two-pointer would not have hurt them, or perhaps just played like their heads weren't wedged up their asses, they would have won. Wake tried very hard to give this game to them.

Now an awful Wake Forest team gets a win. Though if Texas had won, it would have been another terrible team getting a win. Basically this matchup should never have been made: neither of these teams could beat anybody competent in the tournament and neither deserved a win.

Hmmm. Texas has bad educational standards and wants to make them worse; the Texas basketball and football teams are notorious for making braindead, stupid plays. Coincidence?

Full disclosure: I went to the University of Texas.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Texas Changing its Social Studies Standards

A few people have asked me about my views on this. There's an article here at NPR and another one here at Salon. But what do I think?

All State Standards Influence Textbooks in Some Fashion
I think it's a little disingenuous to say that Texas is the only state where a big central committee sets standards that every K-12 school district has to follow, because I've been asked many, many times to write or edit social studies textbook material to conform to statewide standards in other states, including California, Florida, Ohio, New York, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, etc.

Think of it this way: you can say that a district is free to adopt whatever books its wants to teach the curriculum. But if the state has a standardized test, and most states do, then the curriculum had better prepare kids for that test. So textbooks are influenced by the tests. And what do you think influences the questions that are put on those tests? The state standards. Plus, publishers don't like to take risks. They will typically look at sticking to the official standards for a state as being the path of least resistance in terms of entering the market. It's also an easier way to gather information; in this economy, everything is being cut, and you don't have solid feedback on the desires of every school district. Not that you'd act upon it anyway, because . . .

Being Big Matters More Than Being Right

It is absolutely true that changes made in Texas influence what happens in the rest of the country. Not because other states care so much what Texas does, but because multiple publishers will compete for the Texas market and write books to fit its standards. They ain't going to do that for Mississippi, New Mexico, Arkansas, etc. The guy is being a little generous to the textbook industry, I think, in terms of how modular it really is. They'll do a lot of supplemental ancillaries and handbooks geared to specific smaller states, but big, five hundred page four color hardcover books at a price those districts can afford? Good luck!

Those Who Forget History Are Going to Get Excited by the Same Old Shit
, Or The Conservative Two Step in Texas Has Been Going on for Over a Decade Now
All the biz stuff aside, the Texas Essential Knowledge Skills, which were followed up by some other acronym and are now at risk of being replaced by this latest wave of crap: the Texas educational standards have always skewed conservative. Fifteen years ago they were complaining about liberal bias and working to institute a bunch of changes. I had to rewrite and edit two unique textbook chapters created just for Texas on the Civil War and Reconstruction because their points of emphasis were so damned different from every other major market in the country.

Now they want to put Jefferson Davis's inaugural address next to Abraham Lincoln's address as if the two were equivalent in quality, historical significance, or even impact at the time they were delivered. You know what that reminds me of? Twelve years ago I had to add a bunch of material, including primary documents, on the Anti-Federalists to counterbalance the discussion of the Federalist Papers. Why? Because the Anti-Federalists were opposed to a "big federal government" and the Texas conservatives wanted the seeds of that stuff planted very, very early in the discussion of U.S. history.

As far as emphasizing free markets, I'm not sure what the hell else they could put in there to make it clearer that in America we believe that free markets are good and everything else is bad, because they wanted that stuff stuck into the colonial history as well, in spite of the fact that we didn't have a damn free market at the time, we had a mercantilist system. So that ship has already sailed as well.

Bringing It Up To Date
In fact, as far as I can tell the main thrust of this latest conservative push is to bring their arguments into the history of the twentieth century, reinterpreting the New Deal (and I recall there were standards downplaying that ten years ago as well), downplaying the civil rights movement, and trying to boost Reagan to Mt. Rushmore status. That's getting more attention now because people remember that shit happening and perhaps the conservative agenda strikes some of them as a little full of crap. But I see it as all part of an ongoing process that starting revising colonial U.S. history and then sweeping forward in time.

Communities, Parents and Teachers
Ultimately it will come down more to the teachers and the communities they teach in as far as how the textbooks get interpreted. You can have all the inclusive history you like in a book, but if the teachers poo-poo it and nobody is ever tested on it, it tends to go in one ear and out the other or never to be read at all. Same thing with the conservative history that tries to exclude mention of non-white men.

Some say that if you don't teach your kids to ask questions, they'll accept whatever they are told. I think that if they don't ask questions, they will believe whatever their community believes. And they're likely to believe it anyway. Texas has a lot of conservatives dominating public politics and discourse, though they spend a lot of time complaining about liberals, which is like complaining that the guy you just kicked the shit out of is bleeding on your boot.

Will It Even Matter? (It's the Economy, Stupid)
The interesting thing to me that doesn't seem to be getting mentioned is, changing the standards does absolutely nothing until (a) you implement tests to pressure teachers to enforce those standards and (b) you actually buy new textbooks with the revisionist history in them. The mandated changes in content don't just magically whisper themselves into the hearts and minds of students and teachers.

I can tell you as a freelancer that both of those processes have ground to a halt over the past year and a half due to state budget cuts. So until the money actually gets disbursed and districts actually spend it on ordering new books and somebody writes the new books and the new tests, this is all smoke and posturing. And this has to happen outside of Texas as well for the change to have the national effect. You know how No Child Left Behind was an unfunded mandate?

Ahistorical History
As a historian, my sad experience is that for people who aren't interested in putting some effort into studying the past and thinking about it, history is little more than a cultural product, like some sort of eternal brand you wear that carries with it a preconceived set of associated values. I'm an American, so by definition I can't be an imperialist, democracy and capitalism are inextricably linked together in spite of much evidence to the contrary, and I live in a melting pot where every real American assimilates. Facts and logic and consistent categorizations don't enter into it, just the story we want to tell. And please make it simple. We would like people to be all good or all bad, brave captains of industry or despicable oppressors of the working class, bloodthirsty savages or noble primitives. An Andrew Carnegie who got rich by creating a monopoly that would be illegal today and using violence against workers who didn't toe the line but then became a notable philanthropist isn't something we're comfortable with. Thomas Jefferson the brilliant philosopher and writer and Jefferson the slaveholder with illegitimate children is a problem, so we play up whichever story suits our interests.

One of the ludicrous qualities of this attitude is that it tends to fix history, as though the character of America never changed over time. If we are a free market society today, we must have always been a free market society, say the conservatives. If we value diversity today then we must have always valued diversity, say the liberals.

And the converse applies at times as well, at least for conservatives. Some deeply Christian people settled in a particular colony, and most people on the whole were more religious back then than they are today, so Christian religion is obviously a cornerstone of our federal government, even though the Founders didn't bother to make that explicit in their documents and actually argued against it. We should be now like we were then if we want to be real Americans. (Of course, if we want to be sticklers that would mean that Catholics and Quakers are persona non grata in our wonderful old-school America, because they were pretty widely disliked back then in spite of being Christian. Shhh.)

I find it kind of sadly amusing that the zealots on each side can't stop themselves from trying to change the presentation of our history. I'm more of a liberal than a conservative to be sure, but I've had moments where I had to slap my head at some requests from the left-wing to frame history the way they wanted. (Such as the request to please add a biography of a significant contemporary Hispanic to the chapter on the American Civil War.)

So in the end, history itself wins, because history is about change over time, about cycles, about people adapting or refusing to adapt to the change around them. And it won't stay fixed until there is nobody left to write it.

In the end, I suppose we get the history we deserve as a society.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Birthday Loot

So I had a delightful haul this year.

I got three graphic novels--Checkmate/Outsiders, The Invisibles: Say You Want a Revolution, and World Below--which I will read and probably comment on in my reading list in due course.

From my Wish List on Amazon, I also received an introductory guide to rhetoric and a collection of essays by scientists and engineers predicting what discoveries or developments will dramatically impact our future (This Will Change Everything). These both look very cool.

I received two New York Times crossword puzzle books, one with Tuesday puzzles (easy ones) and one with Wednesday puzzles (average ones) which is about all I can handle at this stage in my crossword puzzle development, though I do enjoy solving them.

My kids got me a set of DC action figures, the new ones that are smaller than the DC Animated style but have more articulation. It was a pretty cool limited edition Battle for Metropolis set they found discounted at Toys R Us, with Lex Luthor in battle armor, four Lexcorp troopers, Captain Marvel, Captain Atom, and Superman. The kids absconded with the figures almost immediately, but they eventually returned them and they are cool.

I did my usual sudden infatuation thing and tracked down a bunch of used, out of print hardcover books for the hard science fiction roleplaying game Blue Planet. I now have the Moderator's Guide, Player's Guide, Fluid Mechanics tech guide, First Colony city guide, Natural Selection planetary guide, and am awaiting the arrival of Frontier Justice, which details law and order. Now I need to make sure that I read the damn things. Odds of me ever actually playing this game? 5%. But if I enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed, say, the Transhuman Space books, then I'll get many hours of enjoyment in the year ahead.

And I received two of the Great Courses on DVD, Building Great Sentences and Games People Play: Game Theory. I hope to start watching these soon, learning some things of interest, and hopefully being able to apply them. If it goes well, I may look to get another of these courses for Christmas.

I think that's it. A LOT of material to read and/or absorb, but I consider that a win-win scenario. Either I don't get any freelance work in the near future and have the free time to enjoy this stuff, or the arrival of so many books leads to a contract offer, the way that washing your car helps ensure that it will rain soon.

Thanks to the wonderful people who fed my omnivorous reading habits! Rest assured that I will bore each of you with the fruits of my reading and researches at some future date.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Lost and 24 Compared to Comics

Stumbled across this commentary on the television shows Lost and 24 . I agree more or less completely with all the points made.

Confession: my wife and I watch both of these shows. Further confession: I do so out of inertia more than anything else. Both of these series long ago jumped the shark.

My small contribution to the discussion is to compare these series to superhero comics.

Like an aging superhero comic book series, 24 simply ran out of new ideas for catastrophic crises and started to repeat itself. Unlike a superhero comic book, 24 doesn't have the option of staging an epic crossover with other titles to renew flagging interest, reimagining the powers of its protagonists, or dumping a retcon upon its viewers. All of these would violate the parameters of suspended disbelief that its audience has agreed to: violent torture will produce swift and viable intelligence, one guy can kill dozens of terrorists in a 24 hour period without ever being incarcerated or held for questioning for more than 20 minutes, you can drive all around a major metropolitan area without taking more than 15 minutes to get anywhere, and nobody functions worse on when sleep deprived.

24 is in the same boat as a venerable comic book character like Batman. It has to rely on two types of fans: those that have committed to watching/collecting the "character" regardless of who is writing or what the storylines are, and those who are new to the experience and the familiar plots. At the same time, the central conceits of the character have become creative straightjackets for the writers. You can't draw out storylines in 24 because everything has to take place in a frenetic rush as the clock ticks away. You can play up his gadgets or his detective skills, but these days you pretty much have to write Batman as a dark, terrifying hardass.

Unlike 24, Lost actually does employ comic-book inspired techniques such as retconning, time travel, alternate dimensions, body doubles, and paranormal powers to try and stay fresh. But it mixes this madness with an attempt to make us interested in the everyday lives of its characters, which becomes a bit confusing given that the characters are supposed to be normal people one second, supernatural candidates the next.

The biggest flaw with Lost is that the writers obviously never had a clear idea how their story was going to end when they started it, or even what the hell the story was about from one season to the next. It's like a comic that switches the creative team every year, changing the tone and style of the series.

Lost also makes two fundamental mistakes that a typical ongoing comic book series, at least a successful one, avoids. First, Lost very rarely answers any of the puzzles that it introduces. Second, it adds too many new characters and elevates them to major character status too quickly, diluting the focus on the characters that the audience has come to appreciate.

It's kind of amazing how Lost manages to rope in viewers, including me, by continuing to violate basic storytelling principles. On the one hand, I wouldn't watch the show with any regularity if my wife wasn't still interested in it. My main reaction now is amusement at the train wreck the plotline has become. On the other hand, I'm amazed at how fervently many fans seem to believe that there really is a point to the story or an upcoming conclusion that could possibly tie up all the loose ends that have been left dangling.