Sunday, October 15, 2017

Livejournal, Goodreads, book reviews, Asimov, and inspiration

I'm sure that I've said it before, but my relative inactivity on this blog is a source of some consternation for me. A bit of inner struggle. There have been times, not especially frequent but nevertheless pronounced, when I've gone back and perused the archive of my old Livejournal, which I maintained for six years. My reasons for doing this vary, but what always strikes me is how those old journal entries off their clues, their hints as to what I was doing at a specific time in the past. I get little glimpses into what my life was like. My memory is jogged as to just how such and such things were going at such and such time. And so on, and so forth, and anyway this is something I value. And this blog never really lived up to it. Well, why the hell not? I can't be sure, but I've pondered several possible explanations...
  • Something about me changed. Could be good, could be bad. Looking back, my LJ activity ran from early 2004 to early 2010. So, it was the tail end of my high school experience followed by the rest of the 00's. Those must have been some of my hardest years. Not that there is a definite boundary between that time and other times or that it was all bad. Far from it! But a lot of this was a trying time for me, with a sense of despondency and a bitter struggle against that. Much of the time I was out of work, or broke, or dissatisfied with school. I walked around at night talking to myself. Good times. Well, without getting into the details of what changed, how, and when, I could reason that perhaps I didn't need the outlet that LJ provided.
  • When I became a UW student, it swallowed up my time and I never got back into the habit of journal-writing. Yeah, I moved away from LJ in early 2010, but I intended to use this very blog as a replacement. And at first, I did so. The content did shift, but not in a sharp, immediate way. I started at the University of Washington in 2011 and that really affected things, sharply and immediately.
  • I started to make plans for grandiose projects and didn't follow through. Or at least, generally didn't follow through. I actually did a long, multi-post exploration on, of all things, the mechanics of the Necromancer character in Diablo II. Yikes. To be fair, I still sometimes play that game. Anyway, I distinctly remember planning to do big posts or series of posts on my experiences in Europe (seven years ago and didn't do it), as a UW student (four years ago and didn't do it), and working as a labpack "field chemist" (up until last year, and again, no post). I even explicitly mentioned my plans to do a big post of some sort on the subject of feminism, and of course that never happened either. But really, huge events have happened and I've been living my life, and there's very little hint of it here. Instead, I thought, "This deserves an extensive post." Only at least a short post would have been something instead of nothing.
  • Livejournal was a kind of social site for me. I'd go there to read what my friends posted, and while I was there I'd write my own content. When I lost that, I lost my close attachment to the site where I'd post my own journal/blog. At the time, I didn't notice that my "friends page" had any connection to how often I wrote my own journal entries, but in retrospect I'm pretty sure that was how it worked. It seems like Facebook replaced LJ in some ways, but for me that never really worked.
I'm not going to pretend that I've arrived at a solution. I'm not even really sure that this is a problem. It's just that I had something from 2004 to 2010, and I feel like that something is missing for 2011 to 2017, that no matter how I change my approach in the future, I won't be able to do for this part of my life what I did for that part. But I haven't forgotten. And I'm not leaving. I'm just, I suppose, a bit torn.

Well, that preamble went off on a tangent. But my point was going to be that in my quest not to abandon this blog, one mode of content that I adopted was a kind of book blurb. Sometimes I binge-read and sometimes I only read for a few hours a week, but I'm almost always in the process of reading something. I used that as an anchor to bring me back to this blog. No matter how little I updated with real content, I'd always pop in to announce what I'd read. The problem with this approach was that I felt like I had to say something about my reading. Like a book review. And I don't like book reviews. Actually, I have nothing against book reviews, but I am crap at writing them and I know it, which makes me dislike the process. Worse still, there was that "grandiose" problem of wanting to write longer posts and then procrastinating. Some of the books that I focused on the most and thought a great deal about were the ones that I didn't bother to review in any capacity at all, like all of Terry Goodkind's books and a bunch of books by Frederik Pohl. Yeah, the "book review" idea for this blog wasn't working and I recognized that, so I just kind of went for brief updates, often covering multiple books at once, which meant even fewer visits to the blog.

Last year, the book posts pretty much dropped off entirely. But my reading didn't! And I'm belatedly announcing the replacement to my clumsy non-reviews. Primarily, this is of interest to me, as I'd like to have a record of what I read and approximately when I read it. And I have a solution: Goodreads! Someone, I believe that it was Nick, turned me on to this site. And I like it. So it's what I'm going with. You can view my bookshelf here:

Goodreads offers me the option to write book reviews, but I don't intend to ever take advantage of it. However, its star-based rating system is quick and easy, so I do plan to use that to roughly state whether I liked a book and about how much. It's not that I don't want to say anything. I love talking about books. If you want to talk to me about a book that I've read, absolutely feel free. Totally. That would be cool. I just don't like writing reviews. Feels different, you know?

The last book that I read was what really got me thinking and motivated me to write this post. Earlier this year, probably on the FOCL (Friends of the Covington Library) booksale shelf, I picked up an old used copy of a book called Gold: The Final Science Fiction Collection by Isaac Asimov. I immediately recognized it and knew that I had to buy it. That I recognized some book is not unusual. That I recognized a relatively obscure posthumous book of uncollected writings from decades ago is probably a bit odd (for me). But what is important is how and why I recognized it. You see, Gold is one volume of a posthumous collection of Asimov's work. It was published in 1995. He died in 1992. There was a companion volume, Magic: The Final Fantasy Collection published in 1996. I read it in 1997, about twenty years ago. And at that time, I had no idea who Isaac Asimov was. I can confidently say, with no exaggeration, that that book changed my life.

I wasn't especially interesting in science fiction. Didn't have anything against it, but I just didn't know anything about it or especially care. I liked books, though. I was always looking for new books to read. Somehow, while performing different searches on the KCLS catalog (it was computerized, even back then), I came across the title. It had both "Magic" and "Final Fantasy" in it. I hadn't heard of Isaac Asimov before in my life (although I'd later discover that his work had hugely influenced a whole lot of things that I did know about). But I had recently become enamored both with a card game, Magic: the Gathering (which I still play) and with a video game, Final Fantasy VII (which is probably a bit hamfisted in retrospect, but it impressed me at the time). So with nothing other than a title that piqued my curiosity, I checked it out. My eleven-year-old mind was thoroughly blown. It's not so much that Magic was Asimov's best work, but that it exposed me to a world I hadn't seen before. The fiction was fun, fascinating, and really hooked me in. But the nonfiction in the collection was something I'd never imagined, something so totally novel to me that it was, well, I can only describe it as formative. I had to have more! Magic led me to looking into Isaac Asimov, which led me to I, Robot, which I recognized as the title of an Alan Parsons Project album, so I checked that one out too. But the copy I checked out came bundled with Foundation, so I also read that, which subsequently transformed me into a science fiction nerd for life.

If I'd been pressed to cite the most important book I've read in terms of its influence on me or my appreciation for it, I'd probably start thinking of things like Alastor, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Death Gate Cycle, East of Eden, The Gods Themselves, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, or maybe even The Lord of the Rings. And then I met Gold. It's a fine read, don't misunderstand. But I am perhaps uniquely affected by it. The stories are interesting and the nonfiction is, for those with a specific interest in the world of science fiction publication in the late 20th century, enlightening. But for me, this book was heartwrenching. It was so evocative, so similar to Magic, a book that had been buried in the back of my mind. I'd forgotten how damn impressed I was by that book, how it had driven me in the sorts of books I sought out thereafter, how as a kid I'd gotten a kind of crash course of insight into topics I'd never even considered. The memories came flooding back. I'd seen that Gold was the other volume back then. But I didn't find it at the library back then and eventually I moved on. I came full-circle twenty years later, by sheer coincidence.

Asimov had been dead for five years before I ever ran into him. And it would be another twenty before I realized just how much he inspired me.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Excerpt I like from Anathem by Neal Stephenson (published in 2008)

Boredom is a mask that frustration wears. What better place to savor the truth of Fraa Orolo’s saying than a penance cell of the Warden Regulant? Some cunning architect had designed these things to be to frustration what a lens was to light. My cell did not have a door. All that stood between me and freedom was a narrow arch, shaped in the pointed ogive of the Old Mathic Age, framed in massive stones all scratched with graffiti by prisoners of yore. I was forbidden to stray through it or to receive visitors until the penance was complete. The arch opened onto the inner walkway that made the circuit of the Warden Regulant’s court. It was trafficked at all hours by lesser hierarchs wandering by on one errand or another. I could look straight out across that walkway into the vault-work of the upper chancel, but because of its parapet I could not see down to the floor two hundred feet below where Provener was celebrated. I could hear the music. I could gaze straight out and see the chain moving when my team wound the clock and the bell-ropes dancing when Tulia’s team rang changes. But I could not see the people.
On the opposite side of the cell, my view was better. Framed in another Mathic arch was a window affording a fine view of the meadow. This was just another device to magnify frustration and hence boredom, since, if I wanted, I could spend all day looking down on my brothers and sisters strolling at liberty around the concent and (I supposed) discussing all sorts of interesting things, or at least telling funny stories. Above, the Warden Fendant’s overhanging ledge blocked most of the sky, but I could see to about twenty degrees above the horizon. My window faced roughly toward the Century Gate, with the Decade Gate visible off to the right if I put my face close to the glass. So when the sun rose the morning after Tenth Night, I was able to hear the close-of-Apert service. Looking out my cell’s doorway, I could see the chains move as the water-valves were actuated. Then by stepping across the cell and looking out my window I was able to see a silver thread of water negotiate the aqueduct to the Decade Gate, and to watch the gate grind closed. Only a few spectators were strewn about extramuros. For a little while I tortured myself with the idea that Cord was standing there forlornly expecting me to run out at the last moment and give her a goodbye hug. But such ideas faded quickly once the gates closed. I watched the avout take down the canopy and fold up the tables. I ate the piece of bread and drank the bowl of milk left at my door by one of Suur Trestanas’s minions.
Then I turned my attention to the Book.
Since the sole purpose of the Book was to punish its readers, the less said of it the better. To study it, to copy it out, and to memorize it was an extraordinary form of penance.
The concent, like any other human settlement, abounded in nasty or tedious chores such as weeding gardens, maintaining sewers, peeling potatoes, and slaughtering animals. In a perfect society we’d have taken turns. As it was, there were rules and codes of conduct that people broke from time to time, and the Warden Regulant saw to it that those people performed the most disagreeable jobs. It was not a bad system. When you were fixing a clogged latrine because you’d had too much to drink in the Refectory, you might not have such an enjoyable day, but the fact of the matter was that latrines were necessary; sometimes they clogged up; and some fraa or suur had to clean them out, as we couldn’t very well call in an outside plumber. So there was at least some satisfaction in doing such penance, because there was a point in the work.
There was no point at all to the Book, which is what made it an especially dreaded form of penance. It contained twelve chapters. Like the scale used to measure earthquakes, these got exponentially worse as they went on, so Chapter Six was ten times as bad as Chapter Five, and so on. Chapter One was just a taste, meted out to delinquent children, and usually completed in an hour or two. Two meant at least one overnight stay, though any self-respecting troublemaker could bang it out in a day. Five typically meant a stay of several weeks. Any sentence of Chapter Six or higher could be appealed to the Primate and then to the Inquisition. Chapter Twelve amounted to a sentence of life at hard labor in solitary confinement; only three avout had finished it in 3690 years, and all of them were profoundly insane.
Beyond about Six, the punishment could span years. Many chose to leave the concent rather than endure it. Those who stuck it out were changed when they emerged: subdued, and notably diminished. Which might sound crazy, because there was nothing to it other than copying out the required chapters, memorizing them, and then answering questions about them before a panel of hierarchs. But the contents of the Book had been crafted and refined over many centuries to be nonsensical, maddening, and pointless: flagrantly at first, more subtly as the chapters progressed. It was a maze without an exit, an equation that after weeks of toil reduced to 2 = 3. Chapter One was a page of nursery-rhymes salted with nonsense-words that almost rhymed—but not quite. Chapter Four was five pages of the digits of pi. Beyond that, however, there was no further randomness in the Book, since it was easy to memorize truly random things once you taught yourself a few tricks—and everyone who’d made it through Chapter Four knew the tricks. Much harder to memorize and to answer questions about were writings that almost but did not quite make sense; that had internal logic, but only to a point. Such things cropped up naturally in the mathic world from time to time—after all, not everyone had what it took to be a Saunt. After their authors had been humiliated and Thrown Back, these writings would be gone over by the Inquisition, and, if they were found to be the right kind of awful, made even more so, and folded into later and more wicked editions of the Book. To complete your sentence and be granted permission to walk out of your cell, you had to master them just as thoroughly as, say, a student of quantum mechanics must know group theory. The punishment lay in knowing that you were putting all of that effort into letting a kind of intellectual poison infiltrate your brain to its very roots. It was more humiliating than you might imagine, and after I’d been toiling on Chapter Five for a couple of weeks I had no difficulty in seeing how one who completed a sentence of, say, Chapter Nine would emerge permanently damaged.
Enough of the Book. A more interesting question: why was I here? It seemed that Suur Trestanas wanted me removed from the community for as long as the Inquisitors were among us. Chapter Three wouldn’t have taken me long enough. Four might have done it, but she’d given me Five just in case I happened to be one of those persons who was good at memorizing numbers.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Crap from Facebook: February 23rd, 2017

I always approach the prospect of actually writing about anything in the general sphere of feminism stuff with considerable trepidation. Becoming obsessed with this sort of thing is something I'd like to avoid, if possible. I suppose that I feel a bit guilty, like I could be turning my attention to something worthwhile, like something exciting in the sciences. It's not that I'm firmly committed to not discussing topics of this, ah, conformation. But at the very least, I've aspired to keep it toned down. For every feminism-related item that makes my "Crap from Facebook" roll, there are dozens that I mostly just ignore.

And then there's this article. Well, that's not fair. One might get the impression that I find it uniquely deplorable or something. Far from it. Timing is part of this. I don't think that anyone is still reading this blog, and even if people were, I have a well-established habit of not putting content here if I wouldn't want people to see it. VSEPR has become a sort of peculiar hybrid of something totally public and also something meant exclusively for me. Resisting any sort of analysis of feminism here has been something I have done for my own sake. In bits and pieces in conversation with other people, I have elucidated some of my thoughts relating to the morass of feminism-issues-stuff. But to actually put work into writing something substantial? When I could have spent my effort writing about something else? I'll at least say that I'm reluctant. And some day, I'll say why that is. Some day, in the near future, I want to make the post on feminism for this blog. It'll have a title like "The Feminism Post" or something like that. But I digress, dammit.

This article is different. It's not the same run-of-the-mill stuff I see on the internet when it comes to feminism. For one thing, I have to admit that Jessa Crispin is smart, which is more than I can say for the sources of most of the other crap I'm talking about. She demonstrates a level of intelligence and depth of thought sufficient for me to speak of her as an individual beyond the "this idiot it not worthy of respect" reaction that I might have in other cases. Uh, for example there was this time I wrote briefly about Lindy West writing something stupid. Lindy West is stupid, but more than that, she is stupid and also does not put very much thought into what she writes. Jessa Crispin is intelligent and also puts thought into her work. She is committed. Driven. And before I end this paragraph leaving the impression that I admire her, I should add that her philosophy is diametrically opposed to my own. I won't say that I do not respect her, but I just want to make it clear that to the extent that there is respect, it is a very particular flavor of respect. I respect her devotion to her own conviction in the same way that I might respect the strength of a large bear that is charging at me. Yes, I can be impressed, but that doesn't mean I like it.

For anyone who happens to be reading this and is a feminist (let's face it: that's no one), I do highly recommend reading that interview. I'm hoping that'll be the last time I ever link to Jezebel, but it's worth it in this case. Ask yourself if she represents you. Do you find yourself thinking, "Yes, this is how it should be. This is an accurate take on what is wrong in the world."? Or do you find her too extreme or perhaps taking things in the wrong direction? I find myself vaguely remembering something Michael Ruse said in some totally different context. When the revolution comes, I'll be sent to a reeducation camp. But you, what will happen to you? If the revolution is run by people like her, what will become of you unworthy, impure feminists?

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Pastwatch by Orson Scott Card

I think that I first read about the existence of this book when I was in high school I was intrigued by the premise and really wanted to check it out, but the library didn't have it available at the time and I moved on to something else. It wasn't until earlier this year that I saw it at Fred Meyer, bought it, and eventually read it. Conclusion: I really liked it and found it to be my favorite work by the author. Recommended and such. Blah blah blah. It's good. A bit silly in parts, but that adds to the fun.

One of the most striking things I've noticed about this novel is that much of the reception, at least these days, fails to separate the work from the author. Some readers seem desperate to find a way to read between the lines and find something terrible about this book. And I think I know why. A huge portion of Card's audience read some of his earlier books, especially the "Ender" saga starting with the 1985 Ender's Game. They were introduced to Card through those books at a young age, fell in love with them, usually turned away at some point due to the diminishing returns in quality of the sequels, and branched out to read other authors as they got older. They may or may not have known that Orson Scott Card was Mormon (it has nothing to do with most of his books). The years went by, the world wide web swelled in importance, and through it, Card's former fans discovered that he was actively campaigning against gay marriage and writing some intense vitriol on the subject of homosexuality (this was a major movement by Mormons at the time, with every Mormon I knew of doing at least a bit of rallying to stop gay marriage, and I'm convinced that there was some sort of church-impelled mandate going on, not that this would absolve the individuals involved). For this beloved author of their youth to write something they found so vile, Card's former fans felt betrayed. And that is what I'm seeing reaction to in recent reader reviews of Pastwatch. Commonly, there's an insistence that the book is Mormon propaganda or at least some sort of culturally conservative propaganda. Many facts in the book fly in the face of this interpretation, but the people imputing hidden propaganda messages on the book, published in 1995, are more interested in how scandalized they were by what Card was saying in 2009 than by the actual contents of the book.

Orson Scott Card has a talent for using language and selection of detail to make fictional technology seem like gritty realism. He skillfully gets into the heads of characters, exploring their emotional motivations, even while not fully fleshing them out. Beyond that, he's a competent writer, not one of the greatest of all time, but certainly not bad. And this is his best work I've read so far. It's full of plot holes and splits too little time between too many major characters, but it's a fun read with some compelling philosophy.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Crap from Facebook: September 19th, 2016

Every time I think about actually bothering to post something even vaguely related to feminism in this series, I cringe. Then I ask myself, "Is this one really worth paying any attention to?" It's clear that several of my Facebook friends strongly identify as feminist and are passionate about the general sphere of issues that entails. They wear their philosophy on their sleeves, I guess. And it occurs to me that they probably don't know the first thing about my position. This is, I've decided, a failing of mine. I'll have to do something about it, once I figure out how.

Anyway, the content in the link above isn't the most egregious thing I've seen on Facebook lately; not by a long shot. But it is notable because I saw it from several different sources, and I know that some of the people who shared the link diverge from each other sharply in other respects. They aren't people who I'd think have much in common, philosophically or socially. This Gretchen Kelly article struck a nerve with what I gather is a broad spectrum of people. And this is super weird to me because the whole article strikes me as insubstantial, practically rebutting itself. It shouldn't warrant a real response. That would be silly. So I won't do it! Nope, I won't even try. Instead, something else...

The article concludes by imploring men to listen. I humbly suggest something else, videlicet this: look. Look into her eyes. Yeah, that picture at the top of the article. The one with no caption or apparent relevance to the article itself. It's a close-up on part of the face of a girl with piercing blue eyes, her hair at least partially disheveled and sweeping a bit in front of her nose and eyes. Someone put it there for a reason. We don't know anything about the girl in the photo. I can't even tell how old she might be, although it's pretty clear just from seeing part of her face that she's rather young. I don't know enough about photography to specify the technical terms for what is going on here, but I contend that the angle, focus, zoom, placement of hair, and use of a youthful-looking model are tools that convey vulnerability. It's an image that was designed to evoke an emotional response. And it works. It certainly works on me. Seeing that picture at the top of the article, I feel a surge of sympathy for the nameless girl. She looks like she might be in trouble, and I find myself wanting to protect her from whatever it is that is troubling her. The people who set it up so that an image like that went on the top of that article are attempting emotional exploitation. Don't let them bullshit you. It's a cheap trick. See right through them.

In other news, there's this...

And here's this obligatory bullshit that comes around every four years. People who would vote for a third-party presidential candidate are told that such an action would be useless, wasteful, vainglorious, petulant, etc. As this article inadvertently demonstrates, there just aren't any arguments made to dismiss votes for third-party candidates in general that cannot just as easily be used to dismiss votes for candidates in either of the two major parties. The author tries a lot of shit-slinging, but bitch, I'm rubber and you're glue. Every argument he makes could be used to hoist him on his own petard. Go ahead and check. I'll wait.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Into the Sea of Stars by William R. Forstchen

Mom, Rachel, Matt and I flew to New Jersey and visited Josh for a week. I read this one on the plane trips there and back. As cheesy 1980's science fiction goes, it was pretty good. I later realized that this is the same guy who wrote the Arena novel for Magic: the Gathering and also the same guy who wrote that famous "One Second After" book about the U.S. following and EMP attack. While Into the Sea of Stars isn't ever overwhelming, it's a fun read and I'll keep the author in mind for the future.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Crap from Facebook: July 20th, 2016

It takes a peculiar state of mind to see that something happened somewhere else and to say, "That didn't happen here, but some other, different thing did happen here, and when you wrote about the thing that happened somewhere else, you didn't mention the thing that happened here." I don't know whether the statistic mentioned here is true, but the author is disingenuous anyway...
  • This appears to be a Canadian newspaper, but the author appeals to a U.S. statistic and then says "U.S. and Canada." No need to bring us up at all. You want to compare Canada to Pakistan, then do it.
  • The homicide rate in Pakistan is much higher than in Canada.
  • While I think "honor killing" is a stupid term, it does have some meaning. It refers to the killing of a person by that person's family due to cultural factors indicating that the victim dishonored the family. In some places, this is legal. In others the government turns a blind eye toward it. While that's all rather vague, it's far removed from the statistic presented that "three women a day are killed by their male partners" in the U.S.
  • It's still the case that most victims of homicide are men. That didn't stop being true.