Monday, April 27, 2009

Just a nice weekend

(more JAW Cooper here)

An eventful weekend.

This weekend had one of those somewhat rare (but not as rare as they used to be) April heat waves. So Ben, Wendy and I visited the Cambridge Science Festival where we fired water rockets, figured out how to shoot air, petted an alligator and saw different mutations of fruit flies. And other things. Much fun.

That night, I racked up the two red wines I've been working on. One will, hopefully, be a Concord grape port. The other is just a Marechal Foch red but exciting nonetheless since 2007 was the first year we had enough M/F grapes that we could make a wine rather than blending it with other grapes. We still have the 2008 Concord and M/F grapes to go through. I'm considering trying my hand at making a sherry.

Sunday, we hung out on the homestead and worked around the garden and such. Put in a fence. Examined the budding crab apples. Went to a party and then came home and made a red beer. Then, sleep.

Just a terrific weekend.

On another note, I finished re-reading Slan by A. E. van Vogt and I'm in the process of re-reading The Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester. More on them, later.
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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Consideration of Works Past: The Transfinite Man

(Picture from here.)

When I read The Transfinite Man by Colin Kapp, I enjoyed it. I found this during the period between 1964 and 1969 when I devoured the contents of the Huntsville Public Library. Rereading it now, it surprises me it was there at all. Those southern librarians were more on the ball than I thought they were.

David Langford talked about TTM in the March 2009 F&SF Curiosities column. He suggested that much of the imagery and ideas in TTM were either derived from or in homage to Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination. Stars was published in 1956 and TTM was published in 1964 so there is some reason to think this. Ivan Dalroi and Gully Foyle are both ubermensches with hidden powers of the mind. Foyle, in Stars, is cast as messiagh. Dalroi, in TTM, is cast as anti-christ.

Given that, I think TTM is a reply to Stars rather than being derivative or a homage. It's the comic book approach to great power: you become hero or villain. I don't think it's an accident that Stars was written in 1956, the second Eisenhower election, and TTM the year after Kennedy was shot.

The problem is, of course, Colin Kapp is no Alfred Bester. Bester was redoing revenge such as in The Count of Monte Christo. Foyle must become the equal of the forces that are arrayed against them and in so doing removes the reason for the revenge.

Dalroi, in TTM, also has a revenge thing going but it's thin. The idea under the book is sort of interesting but it's like watching the Star Wars movies. What a great idea. I wish someone else was doing this other than George Lucas.

Both TTM and Stars attempt something very interesting in SF: the idea that SF stories could be made from unlovely characters. This was a case of the outside world of literature invading SF. Certainly, Norman Mailer knew this. So did Mickey Spillane or Raymond Chandler. SF took a little longer.

If Colin Kapp was Mickey Spillane, then Alfred Bester was Raymond Chandler. There's a reason we still read The Long Goodbye and not My Gun is Quick. If Colin Kapp had been a writer of bigger caliber, his reply to Stars might have been more interesting.

I think it would have been a great movie. George? Are you listening?
Links of Interest
Lightest Exoplanet Discovered
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Friday, April 17, 2009

Consideration of Works Past: Crazy Weather

(Picture from here.)

Before I get going on Crazy Weather, I learned this morning two items of interest. J. G. Ballard died over the weekend and Stephen Hawking is in the hospital. J. G. Ballard was a fantastic writer and Stephen Hawking has proven himself to be one of the greatest physicists of the last 100 years.

I'll do a bit on J. G. Ballard's work (notably the world books: The Drowned World, The Burning World and The Crystal World.) But for now, here are a number of links about Ballard: Here. Here. Here. Here. Here. Here.

Stephen Hawking is amazing for his brilliance, his handling of his handicap and his ability to present information to the public. I'm hoping he will live for as long as he wishes.

Now, on to Crazy Weather.

Charles L. McNichols and Crazy Weather are both finally getting a little recognition. (See Here. Here. Here.) I've never been able to find out much about McNichols-- he was an aviator in World War I. He worked as a stuntman in Hollywood. He grew up in Arizona, the location for the book.

My mother had a rule in the house. I could read any book I could reach. Mom kept books she didn't think were appropriate out of my reach. She didn't take into account that I could climb and this led to reading James Jones' From Here to Eternity when I was ten-- which my wife tells me explains a lot. But that's another story.

I found Crazy Weather when I couldn't have been more than seven. I have no idea where she got the book or why she purchased it. Later, when I was older and smarter, I asked but she said she didn't remember.

Crazy Weather
did two things for me. It first defined to me the "coming of age" novel for all time. More on that in a moment.

The second was to start a love for American fiction between the years 1920 or so until the first real waves of European immigration of the late thirties. Not that there weren't waves of immigration before that. But the period from just after to World War I until about 1938 or so is uniquely American. The voice of that period is different from American fiction before or since.

I remarked on the Clifford D. Simak post that he had a gentleness and tenderness that was rare in science fiction. It's not so unique in this period. Along with the excoriating works of Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, we also have in this period Harold Saroyan, John Dos Passos and early John Steinbeck. As fiction since 9/11 is different from fiction before, so fiction prior to World War II is different from fiction after.

Crazy Weather is the story of a young man named South Boy. South Boy is the white son of a rancher in Mojave country-- an area once controlled by the Mojave Indians but now shared between the reservation Indians, the ranchers and the US government. South Boy has been raised as much by the Mojave as by his white parents. His mother is a devout Christian woman and wants South Boy to become a preacher. His father would like South Boy to become a rancher. The Mojaves believe South Boy would be a good Mojave.

The story covers four days in his life beginning when he encounters his good friend, the Mojave boy Havek. South Boy wanders through the Mojave world being beset by temptations and inclinations to proceed into either the white or Mojave world, until he passes through a true dark night of the soul to emerge with enough self-knowledge to make his own decision.

South Boy makes his decisions in full knowledge of the advantages and short comings of both worlds and it's not clear what his decision will be until quite late in the novel-- it's not even clear which is best for him or that he has made his choice for the right reasons. Crazy Weather is strongly influenced by Huckleberry Finn in this regard. There are a number of points where Huck's character grows in response to decision he makes. It's possible McNichols was interested in this particular process and derived an entire novel from it. Like Huck, South Boy bounces back and forth between these worlds and makes choices that he then must renounce-- recall that Huck was going to turn Jim in more than once but then decided against it. Both characters vacillated until reaching their final decision. In Huckleberry Finn, the vacillation and ultimate choice is an important part of the work but not the center. In Crazy Weather it is the centerpiece of the book.

Modern "coming of age" stories are typically told as Young Adult stories. This puts them in the same category of stories as morality plays: stories we tell our children to make sure they make the right decision. Such stories weight the choices so the right choice (or at least the authorial choice) is obvious. Then, the chacter in the morality tale either chooses the right one (everything turns out well) or the wrong one (everything turns out badly).

Such tales aren't really "coming of age" stories at all. They're not even good fiction. "Coming of age" means taking on the mantle of adulthood, which means making your own choices and standing by the consequences. Most adult choices are not cut and dried or black or white. They are choices that are morally gray or where the consequences are finely sliced. Do I save for my retirement or my son's education? It's my duty to educate my son but I don't want to live on cat food. Or, as I saw in the south, do I help that black man (a morally correct thing to do) or do I protect my family from the Klan (a morally correct thing to do). Many modern "coming of age" stories so stack the moral choices that there's no real choice at all.

Crazy Weather is not such a story. South Boy has the freedom to make his own choices, which means he has the opportunity to make mistakes and fail. He also has the clarity of vision to realize that neither choice is going to be perfect or even comfortable. There's going to be conflict and disappointment regardless of what he chooses. The choices he wrestles with are significant: leave his family and become a Mojave or forsake the Mojaves and follow his family.

This is a story a seven year old kid could sink his teeth into.

Heck, I've reread it as an adult and it's still terrific.
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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Consideration of Works Past: Clifford D. Simak

Clifford D. Simak is an odd duck. His work absolutely science fiction. There's no frippery in it. It's not hard SF in that we don't learn the nuts and bolts of things. It's more humanistic than that. He postulates things and then plays with human reactions. He's in the vein of Edgar Pangborn or (sometimes) Ray Bradbury.

But what makes Simak interesting, to me, is the gentleness of his fiction. I'm going to talk about three books: The Werewolf Principle, Time is the Simplest Thing and The Goblin Reservation. (Curiously, full text of The Werewolf Principle is here as well as others.)

Let's set the stage.

The TWP and TGR were written in 1967 and 1968. TITSP was written in 1961. I moved to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1964 and left in 1969. During that period I devoured every science fiction, fantasy and mystery book that existed in the Huntsville Public Library-- which contained more than you might think. Many of which I can barely remember. There was one piece of drivel called Hyperspace, which involved voracious creatures of the fourth dimension that liked to eat buildings.

It must have been during this period I read these three (and also some other works) by Simak.

Simak wasn't afraid to talk about love or fear. Many more "modern" works seem to have to paint over love with sentimentality and fear with horror. Simak wasn't like that. He was, I think, a throwback to earlier kinds of fiction like William Saroyan's The Human Comedy or Ross Lockridge's Raintree County. These were works more about how people lived their lives and any insight gained about their inner psychology derived from thoughts and actions deriving from those acts of life. Simak seemed to understand that people treat themselves gently most of the time.

That said, much of Simak's work followed a common plot where a man (almost alway) had achieved a status quo, an event drives him from that and the rest of the novel follows him finding a new equilibrium. The Werewolf Principle starts with a man having no memory of who he was but he's been declared normal and given a place in the world. But he starts transforming into different creatures. The Goblin Reservation tells the story of a professor who returns to earth only to find he had already returned previously and died. Time is the Simplest Thing posits a world where telepaths explore other worlds and encounter aliens. One of these gets a copy of an alien's mind and then must flee.

In all three, humans are not lords of creation but neither are they low scum. Aliens are often not particularly threatening but often have their own agenda-- living their (alien) lives just like humans.

What I found in Simak's work, and these three novels in particular, was a tenderness. It's very clear Simak loved his characters. I expect he enjoyed people-- at least, that's what I've gotten from his work. Both are rare qualities in SF. Tenderness is an emotion felt towards those who are vulnerable and most SF writers just don't view humans in this way. Heck, most writers don't view humans in this way.

I have to say I've consciously tried in several stories to emulate this qualilty. I've had some success. It's easy to get maudlin-- which, of course, destroys the effect.
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Life in Antarctica that could be on Mars

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Consideration of Works Past: Stranger in a Strange Land

(Picture from here. I'm the ant. Heinlein's the finger.)

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein was important to me for a couple of years. Many people absorbed this book the same way a previous generation absorbed Ayn Rand's work. I read it when I was eighteen and loved it. The fact that Heinlein could write rings around Rand probably had something to do with my preference of Heinlein over Rand. My love for the book lasted for about 3 years and largely revolved around sex. When sex was more available, I lost interest in the book.

However, I've been going over works that were important to me in my childhood and it seemed incumbent to re-read this one.

I'm not going to review the book. It's such a famous book that better minds than I have analyzed it. Instead, I want to show a few things I discovered I had incorporated into my world view. These are:
  1. The way language drives thought
  2. An appreciation of the works of Rodin. How to look at art in general.
  3. How to introduce a world
  4. Patience == waiting
1. The idea that language maps the world to the brain is not original with Heinlein-- Heinlein didn't have very in the way of original ideas in the book. But Heinlein used an alien language as a map to drive superhuman changes in the human brain.

Later in college I ended up studying neurophysiology-- an interest I've kept ever since. The idea of language driving a physical change in the brain has been controversial. In recent years, new neurological techniques have shown brain differences in users of different languages. (See here. Here. Here. Here.)

I used to speak Spanish-- never fluently but well enough to get by. And after a while when I was in Mexico, I did begin to think in it. It was unnerving because it was like one of those dual illusions when you can see one of two images but no both at the same time. When I was thinking in Spanish, it would only last so long as my knowledge would support my thoughts. Which wasn't long given my limited ability. Then, I would crash back into English.

2. I was fortunate to get to the Saint Louis Museum of Art after I'd read SIASF. They have several works by Rodin and I was, of course, struck. What has always amazed me about his work are the faces, the hands and the feet.

The Museum also had an exhibit of the studies Rodin drew in order to design The Thinker. This introduced to me how artists create their works. In many cases, the studies were unintelligible scribbles-- unremarkable except they were studies of a great work and therefore begged to be examined closely.

But what was discussed in SIASF-- the important thing Heinlein said about viewing art-- was how we should bring our own self to the experience. Heinlein was first and foremost a storyteller and he brought that storyteller interpretation to the viewing of Rodin. This, not surprisingly, struck a chord with me. However, I'm also an engineer, untalented musician and indifferent painter. So all of those figured in. The Thinker without a viewer is a corroding hulk of bronze. We bring our own context to the viewing. But it was also important to understand the context surrounding the work of the artist.

This was brought home to me many years later in the book Dear Milli, by Wilhem Grimm of the Brothers Grimm. It's a beautiful story about a little girl lost and found by her mother, all colored by the distant rumbling of war.

So. I read this book. I was moved. But I couldn't figure it out. It seemed different from the other Grimm fairy tales. Darker in some says but more specific. The second sentence says, "Her children had died, all but one daughter whom she loved dearly." I looked around again. Dear Milli was written in 1816 as a letter to Grimm's friend, a little girl. Well, I thought, Wilhelm is in Germany. In 1816. What was the context?

The Napoleonic Wars, that's what.

Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo the year before the story was written. The distant thunders of war and death were his wars.

I don't know that I developed an interest in artistic context with reading SIASL but I think Heinlein crystallized it for me.

3. This is pure technique. I have to say, I've gone back to Heinlein several times to see how he does this. It's particularly interesting in SIASL. He starts in distantly-- on the third planet of the sun... And at some point in the narrative he goes from a list of items that are occurring in the world to the point of view of a single character. Karen Joy Fowler uses an almost identical technique in Sarah Canary-- a truly brilliant book I would recommend to anyone.

This is a particular problem in science fiction (and, in some cases, fantasy) where the world has to be explained enough that the rules are understood. Heinlein does this brilliantly.

4. Waiting. I didn't realize the extent that this idea had permeated my life until I re-read the book. This is probably the single most important concept I got from the book and though it's salient in the main character's nature, it's not a particularly important piece of the book. It's more armature than motor.

But, apparently, I absorbed it down to the root.

I'm not a patient person. I have a strong temper and neither repetition nor rote memorization are my friend. Yet, somewhere I embraced the idea of letting something lie. Not forever. I do finish projects-- though it's likely some projects will outlive me. But I do not hurry. I would rather leave a project unfinished and return to it later when I have a fresh perspective than hurry through it. I have a fiberglass canoe project holding down the ground next to the garage. It's been there for two years. I have a couple of old appliances I want to tear down for parts but haven't got to yet.

My wife does understand patient and is very patient with me.

But I do get them done. And when I do, I'm often satisfied with the results.

To myself I've referred to it as delayed decision making.

Where this relates to me is in the emotional compulsion to finish things immediately. I've developed over the years into someone who thinks a long time between bouts of work. This has been known to drive my managers crazy. But I think it's worked out over the long run.

That's what SIASL has meant to me.

Navel gazing is probably less fun for you than it was for me. But I won't do it often.
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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Make Your Mistakes Count

There are a lot of stories about how mistakes lead to something great. Or something not so great.

Ben and I are building a guitar. We taped up the guitar and applied a stain to the neck. The stain ripped right through the tape and formed a viscous goo which stained the body-- not where we wanted at all. Fortunately, Only the body was stained. The belly was left untouched.

So we've been trying various experiments to remove the stain with some success but there were still a couple of points where there was still black discoloration on the body.

At one point one of us (or Wendy) suggested covering it. I remembered I had several sheets of veneer and over the last few weeks figured out how to cover the offending points with veneer. But if I just covered it and then stained the body as planned, there was no way I could ever mask what I had done.

I took a lesson from Julie Taymor, the set designer of The Lion King. She said that there was no way to fool the audience. But by nakedly presenting the materials you must use to make the theatrical illusion, you can actually increase the esthetic experience. I strongly urge anyone out there to listen to her talk at TED.

Similarly, Robert Pirsig said something similar in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance regarding "stuckness". How to creatively manage the situation when you've been pushed out of the groove. Out of your preconceptions into a new and naked reality.

So, I took the veneer and cut it in a pleasing shape and meshed that shape with similar veneer on the shoulders. The plan is to stain the back a mahogany red color and stain the veneer a different color. It should give an old "country" feel to the guitar.

The lesson: make your mistakes count.
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The Great Boston Molasses Flood
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Cautious Optimism: Spring is Here.

It's beautiful outside. I had to take off my sweater to walk in. The sun is shining. The wind is a gentle breeze. The temperature is fine. There are no bugs out yet.

This is as good as it gets.

Doesn't mean we're not going to get a blizzard tomorrow. Only that it's unlikely to come today.
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Monday, April 13, 2009

Post Easter Notes

(picture from here)

If you can wade through the advertisement, you can see Galileo's telescope here. It will be on exhibit in Philadelphia. It's a pretty hefty thing. Then, if you're bitten by the bug, go here to see how amateurs do it.

What's amazing is how smart we are about some things and dumb about others. Clear refutation of the "intelligent design" theory of evolution.

That said, along with telescopes we also have invented bread and wine-- both based on yeast. We bottled the Zinfandel this weekend. In celebration of Easter, a hymn to spring and rebirth, we opened up not one but two of my late father-in-law's wines: a grape and a dandelion wine. Forty years will mellow even the harshest of vintages and this was another good one. I'd never had dandelion wine before and it was interesting and complex.

Then, we went out and tried to fly kites in 30 mph, 42 degree winds. After the nose and fingers dropped off, we returned to the house and nuzzled the Boston cream pie. No fingers, you see.

I'll call this a pretty good day.
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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Recalling Ecuador

One of the most interesting places I've ever been is Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

In 1990, when Wendy and I were planning our honeymoon, we'd planned to go to India. Especially the northern, Moslem, area. Then Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. It was pretty clear we were going to war and the time frame looked to coincide with our honeymoon. Hm. Going to a Moslem country when the USA is at war with a Moslem country. Could be heaven. Could be hell. We went to Ecuador. Two weeks bumming around the country capped off with a week in the Galapagos.

I won't list here all the things we did and the point at which the vacation became an adventure. That's for another post.

But I will talk for a moment about the tortoises.

Everybody's seen pictures of them. They are amazing and wonderful beasts. They don't have any particular fear of man-- something that has not done them well. They looks like boulders with the breath of life.

At one point, we went up into the highlands on Puerto Ayora. The weather of the islands have the lower altitudes dry and the upper altitudes have more rain. This, of course, makes for a greater plant life and also make the higher farmland more attractive. It also is a place where the tortoises like to go to forage. So, in the grasslands, we found tortoises.

They liked to eat in a line. They would rest in a good spot, munch grass for a while, then reach out their elephantine legs and drag themselves forward a little bit, eat some more grass. The locals have trouble keeping them out. They can't kill them and when they cart them down the hill, they come back.

However, humans are nothing if not ingenious. They found that if they take a tortoise and tilt him on his back or sides, in a way he can't recover back to his feet, for a day and then cart him back down the hill, he doesn't come back. Tortoises can remember some things.

So, in this anniversary of Darwin's birth, I remember his tortoises. If I lived farther south, I'd like to raise them.

The largest of them, Goliath, is nearly 900 pounds: here.
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Spring in New England

(Picture from here.)

Spring has come to New England.

Outside of Boston, the crocuses have bloomed. The daffodils have come up. There are a scattering of bright green tulip buds that are desperately trying to open before they're eaten by the deer.

In the city, the signs are not so obvious but they are there if you know where to look.

The bicyclists have returned. Not the hard bitten ones that have been slogging through snow and over sheet ice since November. No, these are sleek, tanned even, in their oil slick shorts and aerodynamic, though not cold hardy, helmets. The winter cyclists, their fingers frostbitten and faces wind burned, sneer at them with contempt: where were you this winter?

The drivers, dazzled by the new sun and (somewhat) warmer temperatures, forget where the lanes are, drive through red lights and stop at green ones, go up one way streets the wrong way. Okay. They do it more.

Everywhere people are dressing in hopes of spring, from the tatooed, spike haired young man dressed in black T-shirt and fifties cuffed jeans to the tight skirted young woman feeling a certain air of freedom for the first time this year. Everyone, middle aged men driving BMW convertibles, smokers venturing out from under the eaves to catch some futile sunlight, businessmen wearing their summer suits, all defying the bluish tinge of their skin, their chattering teeth and trembling hands, the aching of every muscle of every hair as each follicle stands ramrod straight in a desparate attempt to hold onto the minuscule available heat, insisting, loudly, that it's not that cold.

Over at MIT, the Lyndon LaRouche volunteers have shown up asking for signatures. We always watch them carefully. After all, if they see their shadow, we get six more weeks of winter.

And make no mistake. Up here in New England, April notwithstanding, it's very possible to get six more weeks of winter.

Finally, the joggers and walkers have come out. In shorts. Slim. Trim. Grinning with rampant health.

I, of course, my fingers frostbitten and face wind burned, sneer at them with contempt: where were you this winter?
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Links of Interest
The Physics of Baseball
Humans as selector for anti-human snakes
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Is she 130?
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There is no God: Cacao trees under threat
An alternative to pap smears
Leaden Menopause
Fixing the National Grid

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Question of Use

(Picture from here.)

Sometimes life is like a lobster fight with a butter knife: the weaponry just isn't up to the task.

I broke my lathe over weekend. Tried to peel down some maple I had in the back for a while to see if it was usable. There were a lot of grub holes containing wood eating grubs so it's not so likely. It's part of my attempt to take advantage of discarded things.

That's the basis for the DIY links at the bottom. I wouldn't say it's a new ethic with me but I've been trying to see how far I can push it. If you ever visit third world countries, one of the obvious visible differences is in the nature of trash. Here, we throw away a lot: old hoses, screws, nails, pieces of wall board, 2x4's, engine parts, etc. There you rarely see more than what can't be used or burned: styrofoam, bits of rags, splinters of wood, rotten food-- and not much of the latter.

So: I'm trying to see what can be recycled. I mean, really recycled. I now have a fair collection of old AC motors, a defunct air conditioner and dehumidifier, etc. There must be some use for all of this stuff.

I have no answers to this issue but I think the question of use is interesting.
Links of Interest
The Autistic Gaze
V: A-Pod
Chimp Prostitution
Neural Activity and Alzheimer's
Excel Stories and here
The Ice Free Pole

Composters: Here. Here.
Many Different Things
Cat Cave
Bicycle Stool
Pipe Bed