Monday, November 29, 2010

Review - Fantasy & Science Fiction: Volume 119, No. 5 & 6 (November/December 2010) by Gordon van Gelder (editor)

Stories included:
Dead Man's Run by Robert Reed
Plinth Without Figure by Alexander Jablokov
Swamp City Lament by Alexandra Duncan
Death Must Die by Albert E. Cowdrey
The Exterminator's Want Ad by Bruce Sterling
Crumbs by Michaela Roessner
Venues by Richard Bowes
Planning Ahead by Jerry Oltion
Free Elections by Alan Dean Foster
Ware of the Worlds by Michael Alexander
The Closet by John Kessel
Teen Love Science Club by Terry Bisson

Full review: The November/December 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a fairly strong issue, loaded with a very strong featured story about a kind computer generated ghost, three more traditional ghost stories and several fairy tale like stories. Also included are two post-apocalyptic stories. Overall, every story in the issue is at least average, and several are good to very good, making for a an enjoyable reading experience.

One of the two stories featured on the cover, and the longest entry in the issue, Dead Man's Run by Robert Reed is a murder mystery dealing with a death that has struck a small seemingly close knit community of aging runners. The "dead man" of the title is a virtual version of the murder victim, who keeps in contact with the various other characters, prodding them to find out who killed the real version of himself. The mystery unfolds against the backdrop of training runs and races. All the runners are filled with nostalgia, recalling the halcyon days of their youth when they were faster and stronger (and, it is implied, the world was a better place), which highlights the fact that the virtual reality version of the dead man has nothing but memories. The killer is eventually uncovered, although the final resolution is ambiguous in a way that raised some fairly disturbing questions. Although the story seems at times like it is going to descend into triviality, but in the end the story smacks the reader in the face with the danger that has been lurking behind the surface for the whole story, exposing the true danger posed to people by the technology some of them have unthinkingly adopted.

The magazine also features three more traditional ghost stories, featuring ghosts of the supernatural kind. Plinth Without Figure by Alexander Jablokov is a quirky story mixing urban planning architecture with something of a ghost story. The story revolves around two architects, former lovers, and the seemingly supernatural encounter they had years before the events of the story. The story has some interesting things to say about the place humans hold in an urban environment, but doesn't really go anywhere with them. Venues by Richard Bowes is another quirky ghost story, this one centering on a publicity seeking writer and the ghosts that seem to show up at his appearances. There seems to be a message concerning the fleeting nature of fame hidden in the story, but it is pretty subtle. The final ghost story in the issue is Death Must Die by Albert E. Cowdrey, featuring a somewhat upset ghost, and a more upset homeowner that hires an investigator to deal with it. The character of the ghost-antagonist is fairly interesting, and the story as a whole seems to be a commentary on the lies that people tell themselves to justify their actions. Of the three traditional ghost stories in the issue, I found it to be the most satisfying.

The issue contains two post-apocalyptic stories with something of a comic bent. The first, The Exterminator's Want Ad by Bruce Sterling, takes the form of a combination of a want ad and a personal ad. The exterminator, living in a future in which all of the worst fears of climate change have come true. All of this comes out by way of the exterminator explaining why he is a criminal, but not a bad guy, with the whole tale told quite humorously. The second, not as openly comic in tone, is Swamp City Lament by Alexandra Duncan, another future in which the characters live in the aftermath of widespread ecological disaster. In this case, they live in a dusty world in which no plants grow and human fertility has dropped to the point where a woman's most valuable sexual asset is her ability to bear children. This would seem infertile soil for a mildly humorous piece, but Duncan weaves comedy with the tragedy as she follows the main character about the edges of the palace intrigues that dominate the lives of those scrambling for the scraps of civilization. The story is both depressing and hopeful.

The very short story The Closet by John Kessel also has something of a humorous element, but for most of the story it is basically just a description of a fairly ordinary day in the life of a fairly ordinary person. In the end the reader finds out exactly why the story is titled The Closet, which provides a dark but still moderately amusing twist to the tale.

Most of Planning Ahead by Jerry Oltion seems to lack much in the way of a speculative fiction element, the story centering on a man who becomes an inveterate hoarder after being unprepared for an impromptu sexual encounter. The story is told well, but I was prepared to be annoyed at the lack of speculative fiction in it when the science fiction popped up at the very end and threw a twist into the story that was both unexpected and thought-provoking. The main character in Ware of the Worlds by Michael Alexander is a kind of mirror image of the protagonist in Planning Ahead, at least by the end of the story. The plot reminded me of LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven, but if the protagonists power to change the world with his thoughts extended to everyone. As one might expect, the plot progresses fairly rapidly until an equilibrium is reached that might not be what one would expect. It is a pretty good story, although it ends happier than I would have thought it would given the initial set-up.

Crumbs by Michaela Roessner is a kind of reverse version of Hansel and Gretel, told from the perspective of the evil witch, with a different, albeit somewhat predictable ending. As a horror twist on a classic fairy tale, it is fairly decent. Free Elections by Alan Dean Foster and featuring the recurring character Mad Amos Malone is an Old west style tall tale involving a sit off between a villainous blackmailer and Mad Amos. The story is fun to read, but not much more than light entertainment. I will warn potential readers that the title and the resolution to the story is an example of groan inducing wordplay. Though somewhat dark, Teen Love Science Club by Terry Bisson is told with something of a fairy tale sensibility. Set in a reality that seems reminiscent of Atwood's misogynistic dystopian in The Handmaid's Tale layered with some creationist wingnuttery the story follows a high school girl as she tries to navigate her way through the pitfalls of teen love while indulging her love for the school's science club. The story has something of a happy ending, although not for everyone. Overall, it is pretty good, even if the symbolism is a bit heavy handed.

With its collection of average to well above average stories, the November/December 2010 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction is quite good. The best story of the issue is probably the feature story Dead Man's Run, but every story is worth reading. As usual, this publication delivers a solid issue that will probably be an enjoyable read for any speculative fiction aficionado.

Previous issue reviewed: September/October 2010.

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Review - A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins by Michael D'Antonio

Short review: The Russian launch of Sputnik signals the beginning of the space race.

Sputnik plus a dog
Kick the U.S. into gear
To reach outer space

Full review: A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey: 1957 - The Space Race Begins is a tightly focused history concerning the brief time period between the launch of the first Sputnik satellite by the U.S.S.R. and the formation of NASA as an effective agency of the U.S. government responsible for space exploration. Looking back from a perspective of more than fifty years, D'Antonio recounts the heady first days, from the quick succession of Soviet public relations triumphs in the early going of the space race, to the mixed response in the U.S., past the inter service rivalries that characterized the early U.S. space efforts, and finally to the creation of NASA to marshal the U.S. effort into a unified front that, as history shows, allowed the U.S. to leap past their Soviet rivals in technological prowess and claim the Cold War prestige of being the dominant player in space exploration.

The book starts with the launch of Sputnik I, a tiny piece of hardware that amounted to little more than a ball with a radio transmitter. D'Antonio then takes the subsequent events in more or less chronological order, detailing the combination of fear, admiration, hysteria and indifference that Americans displayed in response to this Soviet achievement. D'Antonio puts the Sputnik I launch into historical perspective, but also details how Stalin sought to leverage it for public relations and why the Eisenhower administration's response, at first, seemed to be little more than a yawn. Taking events more or less in chronological order, the book then describes the Soviet follow up to launch the dog Laika in Sputnik II and points out the huge consternation caused by the now little-remembered fact that Laika's trip was, from its inception, a one way ticket to the dog's demise. And D'Antonio details why the U.S. government's response to Laika's fate was muted, due to its own use of animals in aircraft and rocket testing. But where the story really gains traction is when D'Antonio recounts the bitter feuding between the U.S. Army, Air Force, and Navy over which service would take precedence in the U.S. space effort, and Eisenhower's determination that the primary U.S. effort should be civilian, and not military in nature. Focusing on outsize personalities like the egotistical General Bruce Medaris and the officially sanitized ex-Nazi Wernher von Braun, the story shows how unfocused and haphazard U.S. efforts were, and how this inter service conflict served to hinder U.S. efforts, and diminish the civilian NACA (National Committee for Aeronautics) at a time when it should have been pushed to the forefront.

D'Antonio assembles a collection of impressive resources, ranging from government documents to media reports, and interviews with a wide variety of people who were involved in the early U.S. space program, from those intimately connected with the program, to reporters who covered it, to those who were only tangentially involved by being at the right place at the right time. Some, such as the reports of Bradford Whipple, among the first to hear Sputnik I as it orbited the globe, and who was involved in a strange clandestine theft of Sputnik I from the Soviet pavilion at the world's fair, or the accounts given by Cocoa Beach resident Roger Dobson whose family owned a trailer park where many of the early rocket engineers who worked on what would become Cape Kennedy made their homes give a very human feel to what could have been a story dominated by political infighting, cold war paranoia, and engineering reports. Others, such as Jay Barbree, a reporter in the Florida area who covered all of the rocket launches serve to give a perspective on the media response to the repeated U.S. failures, and the handful of triumphs. Among the more interesting elements of the book is the information concerning Wernher von Braun's past as an SS officer directing the construction and use of the V-2 rockets in World War II, and the efforts made by the U.S. government to sanitize and hide his past and true involvement in war crimes (and the involvement of many of the other German rocket engineers brought to Huntsville, Alabama to work on rockets for the U.S. Army). Even with the perspective of fifty years distance, it seems almost shocking that a man who was directly responsible for selecting concentration camp inmates to work as slave labor to build missiles could have his image rehabilitated to such an extent that he would appear in Disney specials espousing the wonderful future that space travel would bring to the U.S. populace.

The most important element of this book is that it covers a time period in U.S. history that is cloaked in nostalgia and recounts it with all its glories and flaws with an unflinching eye. Sweeping away the nostalgic vision of a happy America presided over by the grandfatherly Eisenhower, D'Antonio recounts how Democrats such as Lyndon Johnson jumped at the chance to score political points at the expense of a seemingly out of touch Eisenhower (whose health problems, including a minor stroke, went unreported). Also breaking up the idyllic view of the era is the treatment of women and minorities (despite most of the rocket research being done in the South, minorities are almost completely absent from the book, and oddly, one of their strongest advocates is ex-Nazi von Braun). Most accounts of the U.S. space program, such as The Right Stuff, more or less begin with Project Mercury, with NASA already an established fact, and the rocket program already well on its way. A Ball, a Dog, and a Monkey, in contrast, ends with project SCORE, an unmanned launch of an Atlas rocket intended to do little more than show that the U.S. could throw four thousand pounds of payload into orbit just after NASA had been created, but before it had actually pulled together all the elements that would eventually make up the space agency (including von Braun's rocket research group, explicitly blocked from joining NASA by the Secretary of the Army). The account in this book, demonstrating the repeated and frustrating failures to even successfully fuel some of the rockets that the U.S. expected to use to get itself into space puts into perspective the truly brilliant triumphs of the later years, and how it seems almost a miracle that there were no human fatalities on any of the launch vehicles until Apollo 1. Reading this history makes it seem almost amazing that only twelve years separate the fitful and halting efforts described in this narrative and Apollo 11.  Anyone interested in the history of the U.S. space program should read this account of its painful birth of NASA and first feeble steps taken on the path that eventually led to the Moon.

Michael D'Antonio     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, November 22, 2010

Review - DragonFire: A Novel by Donita K. Paul

Short review: The Dragonkeeper Chronicles almost find a story to tell, but then all dramatic tension is lost when a supposedly scary villains is killed by accident, and other supposedly scary villains turn out to be no threat at all.

While Kale dithers
Evil Wulder kills thousands
Oops, the bad guys died

Full review: The primary weakness of The Dragonkeeper Chronicles is not that Mrs. Paul attempts to mix fantasy with Christian mythology in what seems to be a morality play designed to give the story a "correct" moral message. After all, this is a fairly common practice indulged in by even the grandfathers of modern fantasy such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien who infused a Christian message into their fantasy. And the roots run much deeper than that, one need only look at Spenser's Faerie Queene or Andre Norton's translation of Huon of the Horn to see the lengthy pedigree of the entanglement. The weakness of DragonFire and the remainder of The Dragonkeeper Chronicles is that when Mrs. Paul inserted a collection of pseudo-Christian messages into her books, she forgot to include much in the way of an interesting story as a vehicle to carry them.

The opening chapters of DragonFire illustrate this point fairly well. In DragonKnight (read review), the previous book in the series, the knight Bardon declares his interest in the wizard Kale, who states quite quaintly that she desires to be properly courted. But in the opening pages of DragonFire one learns that not only has the story the reader is allowed to see skipped over showing the reader Bardon and Kale's courtship, they got married three years prior to the start of the book. A handful of pages into the story, we learn that Regidor and Gilda have also fallen in love and gotten married, and not only that, Kale has discovered a way to reverse Gilda's incorporeal affliction, once again, all reported to the reader as already accomplished facts. Instead of actually engaging the reader with the story of the characters and their relationships with one another, which might pull the reader into her fictional world and make one care about them and their struggles, Mrs. Paul clearly considers it more important to have her characters spout quotations concerning correct moral action from the "Tomes of Wulder".

This doesn't mean that the pseudo-Christian moral lessons are delivered particularly well either. Mrs. Paul seems to take it for granted that the reader will see the correctness of her characters' moral pronouncements as self-evident, and usually doesn't bother to effectively illustrate them in the story. In the early going in the book, our heroes run across an eccentric elderly emmerlindian who holds less than orthodox views concerning Wulder. Bardon reflects that this will hamper the effectiveness of the assistance this emmerlindian provides them, but of course, the confirmation of this is nowhere to be found in the book. Apparently, the reader is just supposed to take for granted that Bardon is correct, since he is, after all, correctly quoting from the "Tomes of Wulder" and the emmerlindian is not. This sort of sloppy storytelling runs through the entire book, as plot thread after plot thread is simply dropped without any kind of real resolution other than some character mouthing platitudes from the "Tomes of Wulder".

What makes DragonFire really disappointing is that in the middle third of the book it seems as if an actual story might break out - Kale and her father head off to try to find the dragons of Amara and rally them to Paladin's cause, and Bardon and the other characters all head off to try to halt the warring armies of Burner Stox, Crim Cropper, and The Pretender, all of whom have fallen to fighting one another for not particularly well explained reasons. The fact that the characters are actually doing something more or less proactive is tempered by the fact that they had to be told to head off and take action directly by Paladin, once again reinforcing the call to passivity that had been a theme of the prior books in the series. But true to form, the characters quickly abandon any kind of proactive action and let themselves be pulled along by events - Kale and her father abandon looking for dragons when they stumble across a pilfering ropma, and of course, getting side tracked from their goal leads Kale and her father directly to their goal, because everything is part of Wulder's plan and therefore you should just drift through life and not actually try to focus on any goal more distant than one's feet. Of course, this seems to cause the characters trouble, as Bardon, afflicted with the childhood illness of "the stakes" is captured just outside his main headquarters because he didn't think to post any guards to keep Crim Cropper's bisonbeck patrols more than a hundred feet from his camp.

But even this tiny bit of tension evaporates away. When Kale and her father finally confront Burner Stox, a horrible evil sorceress that has been built up as a dangerous villain since the first book in the series, she is killed by accident by a well-meaning but stupid dragon. Crim Cropper's death is more dramatic, but before he dies he clumsily allows Bardon to escape from imprisonment. In the end, even The Pretender turns out to be no threat at all. First, despite accepting a gift from The Pretender, Kale suffers no untoward effects, and the gift turns out to be entirely beneficial to her and Paladin's cause. So much for The Pretender being effective at deception or seduction. And then, when confronted by Paladin, it turns out that The Pretender is powerless because Wulder has decreed it so. The primary villain turning out to be no threat at all may be correct pseudo-Christian theology, but it makes for a pretty uninteresting story. Further, given that all of the events of the book are clearly stated to be according to Wulder's grand design, one has to wonder about the cruelty of a deity like Wulder who seems to have, as part of his plan, the wanton slaughter of hundreds, if not thousands of people at the hands of the various evil forces. Rather than convincing the reader of Wulder's supposed love for the people of Amara (and consequently, God's supposed love for the people of Earth), one finds oneself repulsed by such a callous and unthinking deity.

The questionable morality seems to be a theme through to book too. At one point, The Pretender performs some sort of mind-control over a collection of grawligs (or mountain ogres) to make them relentlessly hunt down kimens, drawn by the scent of the diminutive beings. In one of the few instances of planning by the heroes, Bardon builds timber stockades to entice and entrap the grawligs. Once the grawligs are trapped, apparently Bardon and his troops are squeamish about killing the enraged ogres. Squeamish, that is, until the kimens suggest shooting them with kimen arrows. These apparently won't actually harm the ogres, but will make them smell like a kimen, causing the other grawligs trapped in the stockade to attack and kill them. I'm not sure how one reconciles the idea that killing grawligs (as sentient beings) is wrong with the idea that goading them into a frenzy in which they kill each other is not wrong. And this is only one instance in which the weird twisted morality espoused by Mrs. Paul's heroes makes one scratch one's head, especially since the book is clearly trying to promote these ideas as something that the intended audience should take as a valuable life lesson and emulate.

With undeveloped characters and undeveloped interrelationships between characters (both of which are kind of amazing given that this is the fourth book in a series that features the same characters throughout), a plot that more or less just drifts from place to place, and ineffective nonthreatening villains, DragonFire is, like the rest of The Dragonkeeper Chronicles, a limp and uninteresting exercise in didactic instruction of dubious moral lessons. Though it makes a feeble stab at having an actual story, which raises it above the other books in the series in terms of quality, the fact that huge chunks of the story are told "off-camera" (including the climatic battle against The Pretender's own army) and those parts that are told are mostly just characters reciting the dubious morality of the pseudo-Christian "Tomes of Wulder", the book is simply a decidedly below average piece of young adult fantasy fiction.

Previous book in the series: DragonKnight: A Novel.
Subsequent book in the series: DragonLight: A Novel.

Donita K. Paul     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Musical Monday - We Are All Connected by Symphony of Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson
This is yet another music video made by melodysheep in which clips of scientists talking about the beauty of the universe are set to music and autotune software is used to craft a beautiful song. The song is We Are All Connected, which seems to me to be apropos for Thanksgiving.

Featured in the video are Carl Sagan (from Cosmos), Neil deGrasse Tyson (from The Universe), Richard Feynman (from his 1983 interviews), and Bill Nye (from Bill Nye the Science Guy). Like all of melodysheep's other videos, it is beautiful, inspiring, and illustrates why science should fuel the dreams of the future.

"We are all connected: To each other, biologically, to the earth, chemically, to the rest of the universe atomically" - Neil deGrasse Tyson

"Across the sea of space, the stars are other suns." - Carl Sagan

This song is unavailable on Amazon, but you can acquire it for free (or a donation of your choosing) on the Symphony of Science Collector's Edition.

Go to previous Musical Monday: Fear the Boom and Bust by EconStories
Go to subsequent Musical Monday: The Big Beginning by Symphony of Science

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Biased Opinion - Dairy Goat Journal Does the Right Thing

In an earlier post here I wrote about Suzanne McMinn and how Dairy Goat Journal misappropriated her photo of a trio of goats and then tried to dodge her questions when she tried to get compensation. Well, I'm a little late updating the developments here, but it appears that Dairy Goat Journal has made things right and is compensating Mrs. McMinn. Mrs. McMinn attributes the swift response she got to the power of the internet, and I'd like to think I helped just a little bit, and so did everyone who took the time to contact Dairy Goat Journal and let them know that using material without compensating the copyright holder is unacceptable.

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review - Year of the Fires: The Story of the Great Fires of 1910 by Stephen J. Pyne

Short review: The U.S. Forestry Service is born in a baptism of fire that was probably misguided and unnecessary.

The forest ablaze
Heroic firefighters
Sacrifice in vain

Full review: Names like Gifford Pinchot, Richard Ballinger, Henry Graves, Coert DuBois, Joe Halm, Ferdinand Silcox, Ed Pulaski, and William Weigle are probably completely unfamiliar to the majority of people in the United States. This is understandable, since most of them are fairly obscure figures who were involved in politics and forestry in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, but it is also, to a certain degree, unfortunate as these people and their actions largely determined the course the U.S. government took in administering the vast public lands of the American west for most of the Twentieth century. Year of the Fires focuses mostly on the pivotal year of forest fighting in the northern Rocky Mountains in Montana, Idaho and Washington, and the events that led to the embryonic U.S. Forestry Service's determination that all forest fires must be fought in the name of progressive virtue. But the real crux of the book is the conflict between science and ideology, and the dangers of allowing ideology and public sentiment to triumph over science, and the cost that this can entail, not just in terms of money and resources, but also in terms of human lives.

At its heart, the book is about the conflict between Teddy Roosevelt's protege Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the nascent U.S. Forestry Service and President Taft's Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger over the proper administration of the national forest reserves. Pinchot was a committed conservationist, but one who would brook no opposition to his view of how conservation should be undertaken, and as a result, he clashed with Ballinger, who was technically his superior, as well as just about every other Taft administration official in the Department of the Interior. But what was the clash about? As Pyne details, the clash was a conflict of ideology with Pinchot and the progressive movement on the one side buttressed (somewhat) by the newly formed Yale School of Forestry, and basically everyone else on the other. Pinchot and his followers, who populated the newly formed Forestry Service, were eager, brash, well-meaning, and committed to their cause. They were also, as Pyne amply illustrates, probably dead wrong in their views.

The basis of the problem was that the Forestry Service needed to find a reason to justify its existence, and the newly minted graduates of the Yale School of Forestry needed to find a purpose for their chosen profession. Pinchot, like many conservationists of the era, was an believer in the idea that the U.S. was wasting its natural resources (and waste, to a progressive activist at the time was an anathema), variously espousing the views that the U.S. faced an impending timber famine, that forests were needed to regulate climate, and that forests prevented flooding. Unfortunately, almost all of these arguments were shown to be at odds with the science, which left only the question of fire policy to serve as the sine qua non of the Forestry Service's existence. Fire, in the minds of the progressive conservationists of the era such as Pinchot, was nothing but a destructive force that harmed the natural beauty and wealth of the nation. Unfortunately, the denizens of the rural countryside of the time saw fire as a potential tool, to be used to clear land, drive out or kill vermin, reduce the available "slash" or fuel that might keep bigger , uncontrolled fires going, and a number of other purposes. As Pyne writes, 'the rural South was alight with flame". Further, Pyne shows that the available science seemed to suggest that fire was not wholly bad, was probably necessary, and was likely responsible in large part for the majestic nature of the vast western forests the Forestry Service purported to be guarding. Scientific studies on the effects of fire commissioned by the U.S. government suggested that not only did some species not suffer from forest fires, but some depended upon them as part of their reproductive cycle. Native American practices predating the arrival of white settlers in which Indian tribes would engage in controlled burning of forested regions were highlighted as evidence that fire, when properly used, was actually advantageous to the health of a forest.

But these pieces of evidence conflicted with the ideology of the progressive activists, and were swept aside. The studies that indicated the benefits of fire were either dismissed or suppressed. The Native American forest management practices were tagged with the derogatory label "Pauite Forestry", and treated as little more than the foolishness of savages. Fire, Pinchot and Harry Graves (Pinchot's successor as the Chief Forester) declared, was always bad, and should be prevented if possible, and immediately stopped if not. There was no such thing as a good fire, no matter the source, all forest fires should be fought, and further, it was the Forestry Service who would do the fighting. It was this conviction that led to the Forestry Service taking the lead and placing its foresters, its hired crews, and the U.S. Army in the path of the great forest fires of 1910 which created the story that dominates much of Pyne's account in Year of the Fires.

Unfortunately, it is this element of the book, focused on the individual foresters who hired, equipped, and led the crews through the firefighting season of 1910, that is the weakest. Pyne follows the various firefighters - men like Joe Halm, Will Morris, Major William Logan, and Ed Pulaski among many others - through the year with a month by month account starting in January and running through November. Pyne shifts from one story to another on a chronological basis, tying all the threads together in the "Big Blowup" of August 20-21, and then letting each play out to the end of the season. But by structuring his story this way Pyne's narrative isn't able to gain any momentum. As he is determined to keep all the dozen or so thread up to date through the book, just as soon as one forester's story begins to pick up steam, Pyne abandons that account, shifts to another forester and brings him up to date, and then shifts to a third, and a fourth, and so on before returning to the account of the original forester or Army officer and picking up where he left off. This means that all of the individual stories are hard to follow, and the overall narrative lacks substantial power, as the reader is always having to make mental notes to keep all the players straight. Further, since the reader is always up to date on all the stories, many of the dramatic (and highly publicized) turns of events of the summer (and most especially the Big Blowup) lose their impact. When William Weigle is told, for example, that Ed Pulaski and his entire crew have died in the fire, the moment has almost no emotional impact for the reader, since the reader knows (because Pyne has told him) that Pulaski and his crew are not dead, merely cut off from communication by the path of the fire. If Pyne had instead told each individual fire fighter's story in turn, or at least in larger chunks than the rapidly rotating snippets in the book, then not only would the history be much easier to follow, it would allow for much more emotional impact, and impress on the reader to a much greater degree how these events played out to the public.

Because as Pyne makes clear, it was the mythologizing of the brave foresters who stood against the fires that carried the day for the Forest Service's firefighting in the face of contradictory science and theory. The fact that during the Big Blowup of August 20-21 between 70 and 90 men died (Forestry Service and U.S. Army records are contradictory as to the actual number of the dead) as the fires they were fighting, stoked by the winds, swept over their lines and sent them running for any refuge they could find, allowed the Forestry Service to create a cadre of heroes who would have been dishonored should the nation decide that the cause they fought in was not justified. Never mind that no actual foresters died fighting the fires, and those who did were mostly men who were considered so unreliable that the Forestry Service could not give them their train tickets to travel to the fires directly for fear that they would immediately cash in their tickets and head for the nearest saloon. (One interesting aside is that the events of the summer of 1910 seem to indicate that while you can induce a man to take a dangerous job with the promise of high pay and good food, this is insufficient inducement to get him to care enough to actually do the job well). Never mind that many of the men who fought the fires were employees of the less than popular railroad and lumber companies, or Army privates grumbling about the damage the fires did to their uniforms as they were ordered into action. Never mind that when called upon to compensate those injured in the flames and the families of the dead, the Forestry Service proved to be difficult to deal with at best. The resulting account of the Big Blowup was written by three heroic foresters, whose most important qualification was that they lived, and filed reports with their version of events. And because they crafted the account, the lesson of the Big Blowup and the rest of the terrible fire season of 1910 was not that the policy adopted was misguided and should be revised, but rather that what was needed was simply more commitment to the cause, more money, more men, and more effort.

And this is why U.S. forestry policy from 1910 until the 1990s was one of almost rigid adherence to the doctrine of fighting fires no matter how small they might be. True the policy relaxed somewhat in the 1930s, when the service began to allow some naturally occurring fires to burn out on their own, but on the other hand the creation of the Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps gave the Forestry Service a massive number of available bodies to throw into their fire prevention and fire fighting efforts. What makes Year of the Fires compelling to read is the careful account given by Pyne that illustrates how a government service clinging to an ideology with almost no substance behind it managed to secure its vision for the administration of public lands across the entire United States for the better part of a century. Despite the sometimes confusing nature of the account, Pyne's thorough and comprehensive treatment of the data that was at best poorly preserved will allow a careful reader to understand how ideological advocacy and a little myth-making can triumph over fact, and exactly how dangerous this truly is. This is, in the end, a superior piece of historical scholarship, and well-worth reading.

Stephen J. Pyne     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Friday, November 19, 2010

Review - The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell

Short review: The story of the depressing life of a young girl living in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse.

Temple flees zombies,
Has a ghurka knife fetish,
And dies anyway

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: The Reapers Are the Angels is a post-apocalyptic story set in a world where zombies have killed off most of humanity and the remnants are left to try to make their way in a world filled with hostile, brain eating "slugs" (as the zombies are called in the book). The twist in the book is that the protagonist, a teenage girl who goes by the name "Temple", was born after the zombie takeover and collapse of civilization. Temple is tough, carrying and almost fetishizing a Gurkha knife, while having a very different vision of herself than the many people who want to dress her up like a doll do. The book will remind readers of McCarthy's The Road, but it is told with a narrative style that reminded me of McInerny's Bright Lights, Big City. Other influences seem to be Apocalypse Now, Dhalgren, and even the X-Files episode Home.

The story is pretty basic: Temple starts in the Florida Keys, begins moving when the "slugs" catch up with her, and drifts about the American southeast stumbling into various plot points. She seeks refuge in a large fortress in Georgia where she kills a man who tries to rape her, which sets his brother Moses Todd on a quest to kill her. She picks up a mentally impaired man and sets about trying to find him a safe place to stay, a relationship laden with healthy dollops of symbolism as he becomes a kind of surrogate child to replace the family she lost and that she apparently could never have even if she decided to. She runs across the Grierson family living in seeming denial of the reality around them who reminded me of the de Marais family in Apocalypse Now and the Richards family in Dhalgren. She tangles with a collection of inbred mutant hillbillies who reminded me of the Peacock family in the X-Files episode Home. Temple drifts west, she drifts south, on the way securing something of a purpose to her wandering, but mostly just making her way across a hostile countryside, spurning both refuge and assistance on her blood-drenched journey.

The novel seems to want to apply literary sensibilities to the typical zombie tale, and this creates an interesting work, but also results in some problems. Bell's writing flows very well, allowing the reader to eat through pages quite quickly. But he has a tendency to overwrite at times, giving very flowery descriptions for much of the action. When characters for whom this would be suitable are about - such as the aging southern belle Mrs. Grierson who spends her days teaching her younger son to play the piano while being waited on by a patient staff of house servants - this fits the book. But when the book focuses on hillbilly mutants, weathered hunters, or even Temple herself, this language seems wrong for the story. The story is told almost entirely from Temple's perspective, which makes the story quite linear, but this turns out to be something of a strength, as it casts an air of uncertainty about the actions of those around her. If a person leaves Temple's sight, the reader also loses sight of them, a device that makes Moses Todd seem much scarier than her would have been if his actions tracking Temple about were detailed. Where the story is strongest is in the scenes of interactions between the characters - Temple overlooking a destroyed city while talking with James Grierson, Temple's friendship with the hunter Lee she meets on the road, Temple's impromptu date in Texas, and her bizarre relationship with Moses Todd. Unfortunately, for much of the book Temple is either on her own or paired with the mute imbecile Maury, limiting the potential for substantial interaction.

However, the first substantial problem I had with the book is the lack of explanation for anything which leads to fairly weak world-building. Given that the story is told almost entirely from Temple's perspective, and she was born after the zombie apocalypse, her lack of understanding becomes the reader's lack of understanding. While some ambiguity is to be expected, and even welcomed in a book like this, there is simply no rationale given for almost every element of the book. Temple's real name, for example, is apparently Sarah Mary Williams, which she uses on occasion. But the reader is never told why she adopted the name Temple, or really why she switches between them. The zombies are an ever-present fact of life, but no explanation is given as to where they came from. Similarly, though civilization supposedly collapsed a quarter century before the events in the book, there are functional cars sitting on the sides of the road, gas stations with gas and packaged food (although one wonders how one pumps gas when there isn't electricity), in places there is electricity and one wonders who keeps it on, people live in compounds housing many people with no visible means of growing enough crops to feed them, and so on. Every settlement Temple runs across seems to have coke and ice, and a generous willingness to hand them out to her. The Grierson family is a salient example: They are supposed to be living in an unreality where they pretend that playing Chopin on the piano and building model ships are worthwhile pastimes behind their walls, and because they are supposed to be rich, they eat like comparative kings. But other than a passing mention that one of the brothers scavenges once in a while, they have no apparently substantial enough source for all the food they eat. The hillbilly mutants also seem to have limited food sources, although the missing explanation concerning them is how they figured out the discovery that makes them giant, which seems to have eluded everyone else. While one would not necessarily expect answers to any or all of these questions, the characters in the book don't even bother to try to figure any of them out or even spend any time considering them, which one would think would be pretty close to the forefront of everyone's mind.

And this leads to my second substantial problem I had with the book: The world doesn't seem nearly as dangerous as it should be. The unexplained plentiful resources make living off the land seem pretty easy for the survivors. Temple and Maury never seem to be in danger of going hungry, or being exposed to the elements, or any of the other hazards one might expect people to face twenty-five years after civilization collapses. Granted other post-apocalyptic novels like The Stand also have people living well by scavenging through the remnants of civilization, but in a novel like The Stand the collapse is supposed to have just happened (in fact, it takes place in front of the reader's eyes), so having supermarkets filled with canned goods and packaged crackers doesn't seem wholly unreasonable in that book like it does here. A side issue this raises is the fact that the events described in the book are twenty-five years after the collapse and no one has moved on to using technology that isn't scavenged. Despite a story that wanders about the American south, we never encounter anyone riding a horse, no one ever uses a tool or weapon made after the collapse, and so on. But the most glaring example of the lack of dangerousness of the world is the zombies. The zombies are a collection of genre conventions: They are slow, they have an insatiable desire for human flesh, they are mindless animals, to kill them requires destroying their brain, and they spread the "zombie plague" by biting. But the zombies that actually show up in the book are almost laughably harmless. They are so slow that everyone calls them "slugs". They are so clumsy and so stupid that outwitting them and outfighting them seems almost trivially easy. In short, whenever the "slugs" show up, Temple seems to handle them so easily that one wonders exactly how they overwhelmed civilization.

The only real threats in the book turn out to not be either the post-apocalyptic landscape of the zombies at all, but rather the seemingly minor threat posed by the mutant hillbillies and the more dangerous threat posed by Moses Todd. I suspect this is intentional, since Temple dismisses the moral significance of the zombies in an almost offhand manner, but the evil of the hillbillies and Moses is front and center. With respect to the hillbillies, I think that their evil is supposed to be intentional, but I think that Moses Todd is supposed to be an ambiguous character. Bell seems to have tried to set up a conflict between Temple, who considers herself evil, but is actually good, and Moses Todd, who I think is supposed to be morally ambiguous - sort of a good man sent by circumstances to do something bad. But Moses Todd as a morally ambiguous character (and thus the ending of the book) simply falls flat on its face. Todd's actions and attitudes are simply unjustifiable as anything other than evil. In short, the intended morality play doesn't work out, in my opinion, because "revenge for my rapist brother's death" is simply not sufficient justification for Moses Todd's actions.

In this book it is clear that Alden Bell aimed high. The intent was seemingly to create for the zombie apocalypse a work of literary quality that would highlight the morally ambiguous landscape that an anarchy red in tooth and claw would likely create. While the book is quite readable, and Temple a fairly likable character (and hence enjoyable to follow around the countryside), the inherent contradictions of the setting coupled with a pretty weak moral conflict and an unconvincing resolution results in a flawed book that I cannot regard as any better than average.

Alden Bell     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Realms of Fantasy May Not Be Dead

After it seemed all but certain that Realms of Fantasy magazine was dead, having already been through one attempted resurrection, it appears that there may still be life in the publication. Or at least enough unlife for the zombie to rise yet again. And that may or may not be a good thing. The good news is that Realms of Fantasy has been bought by Damnation Press, LLC. The bad news is that it appears that there are some concerns about the business practices that Damnation Press has engaged in. So, for better or for worse, it seems like the magazine will live on. Their website has been updated, and things appear to be business as usual. Assuming that the ethical problems Damnation Press has had in the past don't transfer over to the newly acquired publication, and they continue to offer fantasy fiction of similar or superior quality to that which Realms of Fantasy has offered in the past, this promises to be good news for speculative fiction fans.

Biased Opinions - Real Trials Sometimes Result in Acquittals

I have to admit, this scares me quite a bit. Not the fact that Ahmed Ghailani was acquitted of almost all of the counts against him. That doesn't bother me, even though it seems to me that he is probably a pretty nasty person. No, what bothers me is that the fact that he was acquitted is seen as a "failure" of the civilian court system, and a justification for overturning the Constitutional protections intended to prevent the government from running amok. What is even more disturbing is the idea expressed in the article that if Ghailani had been acquitted on all counts, the government would have simply taken him into military custody. In other words, even if the trial had found Ghailani not guilty, he would not have been a free man.

There's a term that is used for proceedings in which a conviction is intended to be preordained. They are called "show trials", and the United States spent most of the twentieth century criticizing totalitarian regimes for engaging in them. Even now, the United States protests when Chinese and Iranian dissidents are tried and convicted in these sorts of sham trials. And with good reason. A show trial subverts the entire concept of justice.

"One of 285 counts is not exactly a track record for a prosecution team to be proud of," said Kirk Lippold, former commander of the U.S.S. Cole, which was attacked by al-Qaeda in 2000. "I think the administration is now in a position where they have to get serious about using military commissions. This case sends a clear and unmistakable signal about using civilian courts: It didn't work."

"I am disgusted at the total miscarriage of justice today in Manhattan's federal civilian court," said Rep. Peter T. King (R-NY), the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee. "This tragic verdict demonstrates the absolute insanity of the Obama administration's decision to try al-Qaeda terrorists in civilian courts."

With due respect to Messers. Lippold and King, this sort of sentiment is dead wrong. The system worked perfectly. It just didn't give the result that these two gentlemen wanted. But an uncertain outcome is the nature of a trial. If the system is rigged so that only "acceptable" outcomes result from the process, then the system can't really be considered fair. In short, if you are deciding the verdict first, and having the trial afterwards, you are simply doing it wrong. The problem isn't that they are expressing shock and dismay over the fact that Ghailani was acquitted, but that they are expressing the opinion that an acquittal should not have been a possible outcome of the trial and the system should be changed so that it is rigged in to ensure conviction.

One might argue that holding and convicting dangerous men like Ghailani (and Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, and other Guantanamo detainees) is too important and we have to make sure that the process results in verdicts against them. But that's an argument that could be applied to any person accused of committing a crime. Holding and convicting accused serial killers is important. Should we discard Constitutional protections when prosecuting them? How about people just accused of murder? Or those who have been accused of rape? Or those who have been accused of manslaughter? And so on down the line. Once you start down this road, there will always be another crime that is just slightly less serious that isn't covered by the "enhanced" procedure designed to ensure convictions. Eventually we could very well end up applying these standards to people accused of drunk driving and other petty offenses. Either we apply the protections of the Constitution to those accused of crimes, or we may start ourselves down a fairly dark path and wind up with a criminal justice system that would make Than Shwe proud.

One might complain that Ghailani and his ilk would happily overthrow the very institutions that protect them, and that if the roles were reversed they would not bother with the niceties of trials before dispatching those they consider to be their enemies. And these contentions are completely correct. And they are also entirely irrelevant. Ghailani, Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, Osama bin Ladin, and all of the other jihadists are barbarians. We are not. At least not yet. We should be a nation that upholds the rule of law, and provides justice rather than revenge via our court system. The fact that we are fighting a barbaric enemy that does not share our values should not be seen as a justification for discarding our values. If we lose this conflict it will not be on the battlefield. While al-Quaeda and their sympathizers can cause chaos and random destruction, they cannot match the Western world militarily. This is a time when we should hold fast to our values, because this is a war of ideology, and quite frankly, our ideology is better. But it is only better if we actually show that we believe in it and are willing to live by its principles. And one of those core principles is "those accused of crimes are entitled to fair trials with appropriate protections against arbitrary action by the government".

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Biased Opinion - An Open Letter to Judith Griggs

I have no sympathy for you whatsoever. You brought this on yourself. And every time you open your mouth, you just dig yourself deeper into the hole. After your non apology received such a cold reception, you'd think you'd have figured out that the villain in this piece is you. But no, rather than face up to the fact the being a serial copyright infringer makes you the source of all the problems you have faced, in what can only be described as an act of colossal hubris, posted this whiny defense of and attempted justification for your sleazy business practices. (Note: Cooks Source's website appears to have gone dark. I can only hope that someone thought to mirror their whiny rant before it vanished for all time). Not only that, you attempt to blame Monica for your woes, when the person you really should be pointing the finger at can be found by looking in a mirror.

You say that the problem is that Monica Gaudio contacted you when you were traveling all day and you were tired and overworked. I'm sorry, but that excuse just doesn't wash. This was not an aberration. Aside from your claim in your e-mail to her that everything on the internet is "public domain", and she should pay you for your slapdash editing hack job, it has become clear that misappropriating Mrs. Gaudio's work was not a mere oversight, but just one instance of a standard business practice for you. At this point, you have no credibility, having thrown it away by your repeated transparent lies and attempts to evade responsibility. You aren't even a very good liar, as evidenced by the fact that you've been caught red-handed in so many of them. Your attempted defense about "how" the article came to be in your magazine is laughable at best given the clear pattern of infringing that you have engaged in - and exposes that you remain ignorant of basic copyright law because copyright attaches to a work the instant it is produced, regardless of whether there is a copyright notice on it or not. Unless specifically noted otherwise, all work is copyrighted. I also find it amusing that you claim you were too "bleary-eyed" to type in an article from one of the multitude of books sent to you (which would have been copyright infringement in itself), but you apparently considered yourself bright-eyed and bushy-tailed enough to "improve" Mrs. Gaudio's article with some editing.1 You further indicate you have no idea how copyright works by insisting that by leaving Mrs. Gaudio's name on her work you didn't "steal" it. But by leaving Mrs. Gaudio's name on her work you merely avoided plagiarizing it, by publishing it without her consent you misappropriated it by violating her copyright.

As with everything else in your letter, your additional attempts at justification and empty and hollow. Your assertion that other writers have written for you for free is meaningless - you didn't do them a favor, they did you a favor - you cannot compel someone to do you a "favor" by misappropriating their work. The fact that foolish organizations send you books and press releases doesn't justify lifting other material. In fact, unless they actually gave you permission to reprint their content, it doesn't give you the right to reprint their stuff in your magazine even if they mailed you a copy. I notice that although you offer as a defense that a mean nasty reporter who "grilled you seriously" (and with good reason) was shown all of these promo books, and clip art, and the allegedly mean e-mails that Mrs. Gaudio sent you, you don't indicate what his reaction was? I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that is because he didn't accept these as any kind of justification for your sleazy, slimy, unethical , and illegal business practices and kept right on grilling you.

Your attempts to shift the blame for your troubles onto Monica Gaudino are odious. She did nothing wrong here. You claim she "blasted" you on the internet, but quite frankly, given your offensive conduct, she was quite tame in her reaction. Once again, your assertions about how she "didn't give you a chance" just don't carry any weight. You've got no credibility left remember? And as Mrs. Gaudio has been more than willing to put all of the exchanges she has had with you on the record, it seems that you've been caught in yet another lie. Your repeated plaintive whine that you paid her as she asked is particularly offensive, as it is clear that you only actually offered to pay her as a desperation maneuver to try to save yourself after it was clear that you were caught stealing from her and the personal consequences you would suffer as a result of being caught stealing were going to be unpleasant. The problems your magazine has had, and the supposed negative consequences your advertisers have suffered, have as their genesis only one source: You.

You complain that this has forced Cooks Source out of business. I can only say: Good. The world will be better off without a magazine that seems to consist primarily of misappropriated content run by a sleazy editor who thinks that she has the right to misappropriate other's work and then has the temerity to complain when there is a backlash against her misdeeds. You seem to think that by running a commercial enterprise you are somehow providing an irreplaceable public service. The simple truth is, your fly-by-night operation could probably be replicated easily if there really is a need for it, and by people who aren't crooks. Given that you misappropriated material from so many organizations, I suspect that you aren't going out of business because of the opprobrium you've received from irate netizens, but rather because of the mounting tidal wave of legal action you probably face from places like NPR, Food Network, and Disney.

You cannot shift the blame for this onto Mrs. Gaudio, or the evil denizens of the internet, or anyone else. The blame for all of the troubles you complain you have had heaped upon you since this whole fiasco began rests upon your head, and your head alone. The troubles you allege have been faced by your advertisers are because they associated themselves with your slimy publication. The communities you say you are so concerned about will suffer, to the extent that the loss of a business built upon criminal practices will cause them suffering, because of your actions. In the end, you are going out with an unconvincing, self-serving whine that is unlikely to convince anyone that you are anything but a thief who is only sorry she got caught. The only thing we can be certain of is that you are really only sorry you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar. Quite frankly, the world is better off with your magazine out of business and you on the unemployment line. I hope you have an extended stay there, and never work in publishing again.

1 As an aside, despite your repeated assertions about how experienced you are as an editor, I am amazed at the volume of grammatical errors in the material that you have put up on your website. For example, I'm not sure what this sentence is supposed to mean, "[w]hen putting together a magazine, a publishing firm usually has a staff of many, a stable of writers and proofreaders. Cooks Source doesn't, it is just us two . . . and believe me we would if we could use more help." If this is an example of your crackerjack editing, then not only should you be forced out of business because of your sleazy ethics, but also because your editing work is slapdash at best.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review - Between a Roc and a Hard Place by Danny Birt

Short review: An orphaned dragon, a nest of Roc's, a morality play about living together and environmentalism.

A baby dragon
Raised by rocs becomes a bridge
To protect the wild

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Between a Roc and a Hard Place is a cute little book that starts off as a kind of fish out of water story and ends up delivering a message about cooperation and environmentalism. Aimed at younger readers, the book is short, and a quick read to boot, which is both a strength and weakness for the book. Because it is short and quick, a younger reader is more likely to actually finish the book, but the story the author wanted to tell seems too large for the limited space it is packed into. As a result, some of the fantastical elements aren't explained well enough and a lot of the story development is presented in a manner that feels hurried.

The opening chapter shows the desperate attempts of a female dragon to save at least some of her unhatched offspring from the predations of a group of dragon hunters intent upon slaying her and her progeny. The chapter is actually the best done part of the entire book, putting the reader in the middle of the action, giving just enough information to give a clear idea what is happening without bogging the narrative down in extraneous detail. The problem I had with the book is that this doesn't last too much further into the book, which becomes increasingly about telling the reader about what the characters have done rather than showing them in action, glossing over large chunks of character and plot development. For example, a later critical plot development - the fact that a nearby human king is gathering forces to try to kill the main character - is related to the main character as a second hand retelling of a third hand rumor.

And this is a shame, because the broad strokes of the story are fairly interesting, even if the message, which ends up with the central character taking on the role of both the bridge between two (and eventually three) opposed groups and the world's most dangerous park ranger, is somewhat simplistic. Given the age range that this book is clearly targeted to, a simplistic message is probably what is called for, but it would have been nice to have just a little nuance in the story. Since the story is told in such broad strokes, almost all of the characters remain almost entirely undeveloped. The real weakness is that the fantasy elements are dropped into the mix without a whole lot of explanation, which seems to me likely to confuse readers of the intended age group. I also noted a couple instances of language that was probably too complex for the intended age group, such as a reference to "aviafauna".

As a whole, this book is only average. While the plot of the story is interesting, and there is a potentially really good young adult fantasy here, the weak character development and the extraordinarily broad brush used to deliver the story weakens the end product. If the characters and story had been more fleshed out, this could have been a brilliant book. In the end however, while the book is a decent little tale, but doesn't rise above that.

Danny Birt     Book Reviews A-Z     Home

Monday, November 15, 2010

Review - Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else by Rob Neyer

Short review: Rob Neyer fact checks numerous tall tales told by and about baseball players and finds many wanting and makes debunking funny and interesting stories funny and interesting.

A good baseball yarn
Is fun and interesting
But often untrue

Full review: Baseball history is full of stories. The baseball yarn, usually told by an aging ex-player that begins with some variation of "there I was . . .", is a familiar and time-honored event. Every baseball fan can probably recount at least a half-dozen such stories from memory, if not more. Some of these stories have become treasured lore, woven into the mythology of the game. If you are a person who loves these sorts of stories unconditionally, then you should avoid this book at all costs. If, on the other hand, you are curious about the origin and veracity of these tall tales of the diamond, then this is the book for you.

Modern technology, by placing information at the fingertips of everyone from news reporters to your brother, has become the bane of faulty memories, puffery, and the tall tale. The availability of information can catch people in lies that change their careers, as Tim Johnson, former manger of the Toronto Blue Jays discovered when he was fired after it was revealed that he had lied about his service as a Marine in the Vietnam War. In Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends: The Truth, the Lies, and Everything Else, Neyer turns modern technology (mostly databases of boxscores and newspaper records) to a less serious purpose: checking up on a number of colorful yarns told through the years about baseball and figuring out if they can actually be confirmed as true, or were just made up as entertaining anecdotes.

The format of the book is pretty straightforward. In some ways, the book is sort of like a Mythbusters for the baseball yarn. A baseball story is presented, usually with attribution to one or more sources. The potentially verifiable facts of the story are then identified. Then Neyer sets to work, combing through team rosters, boxscores, and contemporaneous newspaper accounts to determine if the story is potentially true, or if it simply doesn't match the concrete data. Each story gets the treatment, and most are examined to see if you slightly change the facts that they could match. If there are similar stories involving different players, different teams, or a different time and place, they are usually examined as well. The stories range from the obscure, like the first one in the book concerning a shower of boiling beans, or whether a Chinese player was in organized baseball in the 1920s, to more notable ones like Lou Gehrig's supposed impostor, to the most famous of baseball legends Babe Ruth's called shot. Each story is presented with quotes and anecdotes from players, managers, umpires, and reporters while Neyer tries to match all the often varying accounts of events against the known facts.

At first blush one might think a book devoted to using boxscores from 1956 to fact check some story told by umpire Tom Gorman would be dry and uninteresting, but Neyer keeps the writing light and conversational, making the pages roll by. The stories are drawn from a wide range of baseball eras, from the early 1900s all the way up to the 1980s. Some of the stories will no doubt be familiar to most baseball fans, while some will probably be completely unknown, and some of the fun of the book is reading these obscure baseball stories which are often quite entertaining, even if they stretch the truth a little (or, as often seems to be the case, quite a bit). So, for a baseball fan who doesn't mind if the legendary exploits of his boyhood heroes turn out to have been a little exaggerated, this is highly recommended.

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Musical Monday - Fear the Boom and Bust by EconStories

Okay, so there's this long-standing philosophical conflict in the world of economics between John Maynard Keynes (author of The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money), the most famous economist of the twentieth century and possibly of all time, and F.A. Hayek (author of The Road to Serfdom and The Fatal Conceit), a relatively obscure, but highly influential figure who is mostly only well-known among economists. Well, Spike TV executive John Papola and George Mason University economics professor Russ Roberts teamed up to produce a rap video titled Fear the Boom and Bust that gives a surprisingly comprehensive account of the two contrasting views of the economy. The video, in which Hayek clearly wins the debate (this should be unsurprising, as Roberts is a proponent of the Austrian school of economic thought, which stems from Hayek's writing) shows Keynes engaged in a wild night of partying and drinking and Hayek serving up some harsh reality during the inevitable hangover the next morning. The video includes several nice small touches, including Hayek showing up with a metro pass while Keynes hires a limo, and the bartenders' name tags showing as Ben (and in Bernake) and Tim (as in Geithner). There is also a pretty good clip where John Papola discusses how the video was made at a meeting of the Mises Institute.

John Maynard Keynes
The most interesting thing to me is that Keynes has become something of a superstar whereas Hayek languishes in obscurity. As Steven Kates points out in this presentation, there has never been a Keynsian stimulus that has seems to have worked. Even more damaging, as Kates points out, most of Keynes' ideas were not original to him, and relied upon economic ideas that had been discarded by most economists prior to the 1930s. But Keynesian ideas dominate because they are appealing. The implication of the Keynesian theory is that the boom phase of the business cycle is not only good, but it is the natural state the economy should be in, and a recession is an aberration that should be cured. And a recession should not only be cured, it should be cured by government action, which makes it attractive to politicians who want to be seen as doing something when economic downturns happen. Hayek, by comparison, offers no comforting vision of reality, rather taking the position that recessions are simply a natural part of the economic cycle and that governments action generally only serves to make them worse. Given these political incentives to favor his ideas, it seems natural that Keynes would be loved by governments, and Hayek would be ignored (and it seems almost a miracle that Hayek is as modestly well-known as he is).

F. A. Hayek
Even though I have some reservations about the Austrian school of economics (it's aggressively anti-empirical stance bothers me from a philosophical standpoint), their arguments certainly seem more cogent than the ones advanced by many other schools of economic thought. But, despite Roberts' own ideological leanings, the video gives a comprehensive (and quite fair) account of Keynes' theory before Hayek's rebuttal. The video is simply as brilliant an economics lesson as one could pack into seven minutes and thirty-three seconds (its not actually that long, after about six minutes, the remainder is credits). With governments around the world recovering from their scramble to pour stimulus money into their national economies and the Federal Reserve set for a second round of quantitative easing, this video is as timely an economics primer as one could hope for.

"Prepare to get schooled in my Austrian perspective." - F.A. Hayek

Go to previous Musical Monday: The Arlington Rap by Remy Munasifi
Go to subsequent Musical Monday: We Are All Connected by Symphony of Science

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review - The Far Side Gallery 3 by Gary Larson

Short review: Another large collection of the weird and funny single panel comics with an introduction by Stephen Jay Gould.

Cows! Insects! Lions!
An introduction by Gould
All seen off-kilter

Full review: The Far Side Gallery 3 is, as one might expect, the third omnibus collection of Gary Larson's very funny but always off-kilter comic strip The Far Side featuring the usual cast of cows, cavemen, nerds, insects and other strange denizens of Larson's twisted imagination. The single panel comics that make up the bulk of the book are the usual collection of weird but funny windows into a strange alternate reality where lions open car doors with coat-hangers to get at tourists and praying mantises argue over who ate whose husband. As usual for his collections, Larson recruited someone interesting to write the introduction to the book, in this case the noted scientist (and co creator of the theory of punctuated equilibrium) Stephen Jay Gould who merely introduces himself as a paleontologist and taxonomist who studies snails.

Though depreciating his own talents at humorous writing, Gould dissects why Larson is so popular among scientists, noting that by Gould's estimation 80% of the doors of his colleagues are decorated with a Far Side strip or two. Gould's introduction examines why this is the case, as he says, it isn't just the chuckles. And the fact that, as Gould notes, Larson has such a keep eye for reality and the weirdness that is just a hair away from reality that makes his strips so enduring. The idea of a cow in a hamster ball rolling about the house is funny because it is silly, but so is the idea of putting a hamster in a ball and setting him loose about the house. we just don't think about the silliness of the hamster in a ball until Larson makes us. Over and over again, Larson takes the mundane, rotates it slightly and gives us flies examining their garbage filled baby nursery or birds getting excited over cocktails served with skewered bugs or cavemen playing rock paper scissors before paper and scissors were invented. Almost every strip is funny, some will make you laugh out loud.

(As an aside, I only found one comic in this book to be not very funny. It is on page 181, and involves a brother playing a prank on his sister. There's nothing offensive about the strip, in fact it is just so boringly mundane that it seems like it should be filler in Family Circus rather than something in The Far Side).

The comics in this collection are from Larson's prime as a cartoonist, and it shows. The comics are almost all at least funny, and over and over again a strip will hit just the right comic note to make it hilarious. If you like The Far Side and its strange humor as I do, then this book is a must read.

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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Biased Opinion - Thomas Jefferson, Still Not On the Side of Religion in Government

Thomas Jefferson
After I pointed out that Jefferson didn't have much use for religion, and was probably as close to an atheist as a public figure could in in the 18th century and still be a public figure, I got an angry response accusing me of slicing quotes and not taking into account Jefferson's inaugural address, which they claimed showed that Jefferson clearly intended for the U.S. to be built upon a religious foundation. They then pointed to a quote of their own from Jefferson's inaugural address that they asserted supported thus idea. The quote in question is this:

"I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations."

This sounds pretty good for the pro-religious people. Until you actually read through the quote carefully. And until you read through the entire inaugural address. And then, as usual, the "the United States was based on a religious foundation" claims fall apart entirely.

First off, let's remember that Jefferson was giving a public speech as a public figure in a time in which a certain appeal to religion was expected. Leaving out a reference to God would probably have ended Jefferson's public career as a politician, and you can bet he knew that. As a counterpoint, I'd note that Obama spent about as much time in his inaugural address making appeals to God as Jefferson did in his, and somehow I don't think that the "conservative" rabble that wants to jam religion into every aspect of government is exactly lining up to extol Obama's inaugural address as a high point in religious sentiment.

We can also take note of the fact that this was Jefferson's second inaugural address. But what did Jefferson say about religion in his first address? Well, he made a fairly oblique reference to the blessings of providence as part of an overall listing of the benefits enjoyed by the country resulting from geography and the good character of the citizenry:

"Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?"

Things look pretty good for the pro-religious foundation people now, don't they? They should bask in the glory right now, because it's going to be a short-lived moment for them. You see, in both of these quotes, Jefferson is not talking about the government, he's talking about the citizenry. So what happens when Jefferson talks about the government you ask? Well, in his first address you don't have to look far, because he tells you what he thinks the role of the government is in the two sentences immediately following the one I just quoted. He says:

"Still one thing more, fellow-citizens - a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities."

Notice that he says this is the sum total of good government. Not to involve itself into religion, or moral issues, or anything other than preventing people from hurting one another and leaving them otherwise free to do whatever they want. But things get worse for the religious foundation proponents, in Jefferson's second inaugural address. Remember that paragraph I quoted near the beginning of this post? Jefferson is calling for people to pray that the officers of the government will be wise in fulfilling their duties in office, a call for private prayers made by private citizens. But what does Jefferson say about the involvement of the government in the area of religion? Well, he toes the Constitutional line set forth in the First Amendment and which he defined as a "wall of separation between church and state" in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association:

"In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies."

In short, it seems that Jefferson was comfortable speaking about private religious observances when making a public speech in an era in which this sort of pronouncement was expected. However, when it came to mixing government and religion, Jefferson was cognizant of the fact that seems to elude many "religious conservatives" now - that the United States, from its inception, has held to a policy that divides government and religion. On this point, Jefferson was quite clear, and no amount of jumping up and down can change this.

The Founding Fathers steered quite clear of any implication that the two should be joined, probably because they understood, as the religious right seems not to, the danger to religion that mixing the two would pose. Think about it: From the perspective of the non-believer, putting religion into government merely involved injecting silly and meaningless superstition into the public sphere. But if you are a devout member of a particular faith, inserting religious teaching or practices into government could very well mean legally mandating that you participate in heretical practices. For a nonbeliever, it is an inconvenience. For the religiously observant, it is potentially an anathema. For this reason I am always befuddled when people with strong religious convictions agitate for religion in government. If you are religious, the last thing you should want is government involved in religion. Before you decide to put government into the business of religious ideas, you would do well to remember this quote, from our first President:

"Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action." - George Washington

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Review - The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Short review: Murder is impossible in a world with telepaths, but a man tries anyway.

Ben Reich is insane
Says Tensor, said the Tenser
Is caught, demolished

Full review: In 1953, the first set of Hugo Awards were handed out. The first novel to win the Hugo was The Demolished Man, by Alfred Bester. Though some might quibble that Simak's City or Sturgeon's More Than Human are better books, The Demolished Man is, in my opinion, an instance in which the Hugo went to the right book. The novel is a murder mystery set in a future full of telepaths in which murder, or any other serious crime, has become effectively impossible because anyone who formed an intent to commit such a crime would give themselves away before they could commit it and be considered to be mentally insane.

Eight, sir; seven, sir;
Six, sir; five, sir;
Four, sir; three, sir;
Two, sir; one!
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tenser, said the Tensor.
Tension, apprehension,
And dissension have begun.

But Ben Reich, the owner of Monarch, an enormous industrial conglomerate is locked in a struggle with his bitter rival Craye D'Courtney, the owner of the D'Courtney Cartel - a struggle that Reich knows he is losing. Pursued in his dreams by the Man with No Face, Reich determines to do the impossible, and murder Craye and then do something much harder - get away with it. Reich turns his vast fortune towards the task, setting events in motion to hide his efforts to accomplish his deadly task and cover his tracks, including placing the "Tenser, said the Tensor" repetitive jingle into his head that becomes a recurring theme of the novel as Reich focuses on it whenever confronted by a telepath, or as they are often called in the book, a "peeper".

The events of the book move at a rapid clip, with little wasted time spent on exposition or explanation. At the same time, Bester is able to work in such extensive background that this book influenced the depiction of telepaths in a vast array of subsequent science fiction works, most notably the Babylon 5 television series. One would note that it is no accident that the most prominent telepath in the Babylon 5 was named Alfred Bester. The Psi Corps itself was clearly inspired by the Esper Guild, although the Esper Guild as described in The Demolished Man is much more benign than Babylon 5's Psi Corps. The Demolished Man influenced Babylon 5's depiction of telepaths in so many ways - including the numerical rating of telepaths, and the conflict between telepaths and "normals" ("normals" would be those of us who do not have telepathic abilities), the hunt of latent telepaths, genetically approved marriage requirements for telepaths - that listing them all would take forever and so would listing the number of science fiction works that have also been influenced by Bester's book. Just to give one more example, the idea of preventing crime before it takes place shows up in Philip K. Dick's short story The Minority Report (which was the basis for the film The Minority Report). In short, if you've read a science fiction book that features telepaths that was written in the last fifty years, at least some part of it can probably be traced back to something that first appeared in The Demolished Man.

The bulk of the book follows the cat and mouse game between Reich and the telepathic police commissioner Lincoln Powell. Powell knows almost immediately that Reich is the man he is after, but because telepathic evidence is not admissible in court proceedings he has to build his case against Reich by more conventional means. The only real weakness in the plot of the book is that Bester establishes that Powell must prove Reich's motive to be able to secure a conviction against him, a point that becomes critical to the plot. This was somewhat grating to me, because while motive is usually a nice bonus for a prosecutor to establish, it is in no way required to prove motive in order to convict someone of a crime. Bester's overarching plot relies upon this, however, and while this bit of legal silliness is mildly annoying, it is necessary for the story to work, and can be forgiven on that basis. The novel, in many ways, is so tightly constructed that there is essentially no wasted material - if something shows up as a background detail early in the book, it eventually becomes an element of the plot. Bester also never over explains, trusting the reader to put connections together on their own, making the book almost a case study in how to build science fiction background without weighing down the story with clumsy infodumps. Even the concept of "demolition" is not explained for much of the book, even though it is referenced from the very start. Preserving some mystery about these sorts of elements makes them more ominous: all of the characters agree that demolition is something to be avoided, and their fear gives it power that an early explanation would have drained away.

The book is, however, not perfect. It has a couple of other minor problems resulting from being written in the early 1950s. It relies too much upon the now mostly discredited Freudian conception of the human personality, and the women in the book fill decidedly 1950s era roles as secretaries, wives, harlots, or damsels in distress. Some of the supposedly advanced technology seems fairly laughable today, such as a computer that feeds out piles of typed paper as its only output method, but that is true of almost all older science fiction. On the other hand, Bester's conception of a future society seems quite forward thinking in other ways which keeps the book from suffering too badly in the aging department. Bester's tendency to avoid over explanation is carried too far in some places - late in the book Reich takes on increased personal importance for reasons that are only half explained in the book and could have been improved if they had been expanded upon. Finally, Powell, who had spent the whole book adhering to the highly idealistic precepts of the Guild for the bulk of the book, throws those ideals over the side for a while towards the end of the story. This development only hints at the potentially sinister nature of the Esper Guild (a hint that J. Michael Straczynski followed up on in Babylon 5), which was kind of disappointing as it would have been interesting to see Bester himself follow up on this potential thread.

Overall this is a very strong work of science fiction, that has held up quite well despite its age. Coupling a rapid moving mystery with strong but unobtrusive world building, Bester delivers a vision of the future that remains a compelling and enjoyable story in spite of the handful of cracks that have developed over the years. Anyone who is interested in a gripping science fiction murder mystery, or who is interested in reading a story that is part of the roots of modern science fiction, or who is just interested in a really good story, should pick up this book.

1955 Hugo Winner for Best Novel: They'd Rather Be Right by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley

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