Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Yesterday's Tomorrow's Past's Future's Imperfect

Robert A. Heinlein
The Past Through Tomorrow
1967, G.P. Putnam & Sons, NY

Rating: -1.3 (Scale -12:12)

If you read SF, then you know that Robert Heinlein is one of those writers. You know, the giants of the field who you can't possibly criticize because they're too influential, too big, wrote too much that was too popular.

In other words, they're sacred cows. You can't touch them, which is funny, because Heinlein spent a significant pile of his career taking down what he saw as the "important" sacred cows in the society of his day.

Picking on the science in old SF stories is easy, and truly unfair. It's not the science that's the problem with reading it. So I'm not going to; it's the equivalent of saying that fantasy sucks because magic doesn't work. That's not the point. The point is that Heinlein's societal views are at best outdated and at worst problematic.

So then, Heinlein's society. What's wrong with it? Well, there are no minorities. Everyone is white. This is occasionally fair, as in the story Coventry, one of the stories in the collection at hand; all of the people who won't submit to magico-psychic treatments so they don't punch other people are sent to a reservation in Wyoming. They're all white. So, this is good, right? We're not ghettoizing minorities, just the whites. But the whites are also everywhere else. He seems to be predicating his society in what America isn't, and even wasn't at the time of his writing.

The other problem is the rampant misogyny in the book. Even female rocket engineers (The Menace From Earth) are depicted as mostly helpless, whiny, and unlikely to be able to do anything other than push their husbands into action through nagging. Since there were plenty of female entrepreneurs and activists in America while these stories were written, the segregation of women into these crappy traditional roles and tropes is, honestly, painful.

There's other problems, too; the road cities that he suggests are dumb. These road cities are served by huge conveyor belts; cars have become obsolete. Cities exist stretched across these giant superhighways. Anyone who has looked at urban planning once the highway system was started in the 30's would have realized that this would never work - roads like Route 1 go through towns because they're constructed from main streets, not the other way around. Controlled access freeways have been the trend from 1930 on; Heinlein's vision of "road cities" seems hopelessly dated, even from when it was written.

The long and short of this book is that women and religion are dumb and that science and men are great. If this is your cup of tea, then you'll probably enjoy this book more than we at Elfstar Industries. If you prefer actual characters, or actual human interaction, then this book is not for you.

Monday, February 27, 2006

5 Pages per Page!

The Monitor, The Miners, and the Shree
Lee Killough
1980, Del Rey Publishing
Rating: -2.4 Scale (-12:12)

The size of the picture that we at Elfstar Industries were able to plunder from an unsuspecting website will give you some idea of the lasting potential of this novel. First published in 1980, I don't believe that this little SF set-piece has ever been reprinted; while single-printing books are common in SF, and are often undeserved, this book is one where the single printing is actually fortunate for the world.

The basic premise of the book is as follows: there's this galactic empire, right? And they want proto-cultures to develop without outside influence and join up when they're ready, rather than being pushed from the Stone Age to the Space Age with no middle ground. But, well, capitalism still runs the day, and the planet of Taim is full o' tasty minerals, and people want to mine it, even though the Shree, a flying Stone-Age race, live there.

Sounds political, doesn't it? It's not. Trust me.

The protagonist, Chemel, is first in an all-alien cast of characters. She's the leader of a scientific team out to spy on the Shree to see what stage of culture the Shree are currently living with. But there are miners there already (big damn surprise, thanks Mr. Title) who kill two of the survey team members and cause the rest of them to have to split up, where they're kidnapped by the Shree. Then the book gets Stockholm-a-rrific.

So, why is the book a -2.4? Well, first of all, it's boring. I mean, I didn't even want to read it. This little 190-page vignette read like it was a 600-page monolith. The all-alien cast seemed at first like it would be fun; instead, it read like everyone was a different breed of European nationalist. Not even, really; French-German interaction would have been more interesting than the interactions between these remarkably homogenous aliens. The Shree, on the other hand, share their literary heritage with the "Yes, bwana" school of writing.

The plot was blah, the characters were blah, their motivations were blah. Killough might have written good books, but this particular one was not worth reading, writing, printing, or even editing. It may have been acceptable as a 60-page novella, but I don't expect that even Joseph Campbell could have turned it into a fun read.

The St. Hallmark's Day Beet-Off!

So those of us without anything significant to do (excepting Sarah and John) on this year's St. Hallmark's Day decided to give Borschtmas a send-off in style. Unfortunately, I couldn't convince Matt to be elected as Remus and run around beating the girls with strips of flayed beet skins, maybe next year.

Nonetheless, much borscht was consumed and even more borscht thrown away, a beet cake was made, and candied beets graced the table. Then the ultimate St. Hallmark's Day movie was watched and much pass-outs followed. Ah, St. Hallmark's Day.

In case you're wondering why this would possibly be posted, or even interest you, here's your very own recipe for candied beets:

Jack Daniel's whiskey
black pepper

Wash and peel the beets, slice very thinly. Arrange in a baking dish. In a bowl, combine whiskey and honey in a ratio of 2:1. Add spices, mix well, pour over beets. Toss the beets in the sauce. Bake for one hour at 375 degrees farenheit. After half an hour, add more whiskey and toss again. Serve hot.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Broil the Vote!

This article is one that I blog about with a certain amount of trepidation, mostly because of my incredibly mixed feelings while reading the article. To summarize the article quickly, it looks like Rock the Vote might be going out of business. They've got horrible financial problems. They've fired 90% of their workforce, keeping only their political director and their webmaster. The quoted steps that they're taking to solve their horrendous financial problems don't seem likely to work. And the political director might "take time off" in the following year.

Parts of my mixed feelings should be obvious. Registering 18-24 year olds to vote is important, even though it didn't seem to make too much of a difference in the last presidential elections. So, okay, this part of what they did is good. Right.

Yet, in the elections the first year that I was in this town, when I helped out with the local elections and lived with a friend who was very involved in the local independent party, I remember all the hubbub surrounding trying to get the voter registration information from Rock the Vote. Since I live in a student town, the local Rock the Vote registration lists would have been very useful for the campaign that the independents were running as a perfect form of targeted advertising. But Rock the Vote would only hand over said registration lists to the Democratic Party. Who, ironically, were the ones that the independents were running against; there isn't even a Republican Party in this little town in which I live.

Maybe if there was a Republican Party, they would have given the registration lists to them too. I don't know. And remember, this is mostly hearsay. While we did get the official county lists, targeting the Rock the Vote lists would have made much more sense for our campaign.

Since then, fairly or unfairly, I've been unable to look at Rock the Vote as anything other than another Democratic machine. Now, while I look at them this way, their board of directors apparently looks at them as simply another way to promote their musicians, keeping politics and profits still interchangably linked.

What it all comes down to is that it looks like Rock the Vote is dead. What that will mean for getting out the youth vote in the next elections will have to be seen. Maybe local groups will pick up the slack, maybe they won't.

Whichever happens, I just hope that all the anger and frustration from the last presidential elections sticks around and actually causes something to happen this time around. My paper couldn't help it, and Rock the Vote couldn't help it, so I'm thinking that the answer is, it won't. But my political Pandora's Box has been thrown fully open, and the original held hope too, right? Who cares if the Ancient Greeks considered hope simply another evil.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Lard of the Dead! Lard!

George Romero
Universal Pictures, 2005
Rating: 2.0 Scale (-12:12)

I have to start this off with a confession: it's not just that Dawn of the Dead (the original, you scumbags, not the remake) is my favorite zombie movie, its that it is one of my favorite movies. Period. Perhaps this is a sign of bad taste on my part; I have certainly been accused of worse. Nevertheless, it means that I'm unfairly prejudiced both in favor of George Romero and against Land of the Dead, so this review is probably not worth reading. This is not an unbiased review.

Anyway. On to the movie! So, Pittsburgh is like the only city left, right? Everyone else has been eaten by zombies. Aside from just the inherent cultural crisis of Pittsburgh as the sole outpost of civilization, the world is in bad shape. The people of Pittsburgh need to range farther and farther afield in the search for canned goods to eat--they're not farming or ranching or anything--and the city is ruled by a obsolete and overly decadent elite. Also: the city is surrounded by zombie hordes.

Pittsburgh is a good choice for defense, though, cause they've got rivers on two of three sides, meaning that you can just fence off the last leg of the triangle and you're safe from zombies. Right. If they were safe from zombies, there wouldn't be a movie. They're not safe from zombies because one of the bastards has worked out how to use tools. Not make, mind you, but use.

Of couse, defense brings up how I'd do it. You've got a city surrounded by both suburbs and zombies? Burn down the suburbs. For serious. Strip them of useful material and burn them to the ground. There's already the underground coal fires, for pete's sake, just burn the buildings down too. There's a river that'll keep your city from burning, and if the zombies come you can see them. And that's important.

Not that the ruling class of the city has any interest in actual zombie defense, preferring to run the Romanesque game of "entertain the citizens and they'll ignore the fact that they're living in poverty," the favorite game of ruling classes everywhere. (Planning on enjoying the Superbowl today?) Dennis Hopper plays the leader of the overly decadent elite, and has an overly limited script. His continual screaming at the zombies of "You have no right!" is one of the weakest points in the film.

The shame is, you actually find yourself, well, not rooting for the zombies, per se, but definately feeling for them. The remnants of mankind are so useless that the zombies don't really seem like a bad choice. Even the men you're supposed to like are maybe just bad actors.

The movie follows the Romero formula well, with the initial zombie attack, then some plot building, then the full-on "we're hip deep in zombies." Which is every movie Romero has made, near as I can tell. Where this one really breaks away is in the production values: this one is far cleaner, with far better camerawork, and far better editing. Which is set off by the lack of a script and the overt metaphors, which are far less satisfying than the more subtle statements made in Romero's previous movies.

However. If what you want is gore, this movie delivers in spades. The gore is both excessively gory and occasionally actually stomach turning. There's one point with some zombie fingernails that actually made me shudder. And the thing with the bellybutton ring? Whatever it cost to get put in, that sort of removal is priceless.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The State of Our Union is... meh.

Well, the Internet is good for instant repsonses to things that happen, right? Perhaps, though, the true strength of the Internet is that it allows us to harp on things that happened one entire week ago!

The State of the Union Address is, and has been as long as I've been watching it, one of the best political dog-and-pony shows out there. Fortunately, Bush is more than a one-trick horse. There were a few things that particularly enraged the party, and myself, and I shall simply hold myself to commenting on these things. This is not meant to be a cogent political analysis of the content of the speech; plenty of other people have done this online. Instead, this is simply an expression of my rage at the current King and Court of our country.

First of all, I don't know if you were counting, but there were 63 applause breaks during the 52 minute speech. We know this, because we were counting. Lisa won the $17 in the applause break pool by betting high on the completely unreasonable guess of 34 applause breaks. Ah well. However, if we were to assume a mean of 15 seconds per applause break - and some were far longer - then we're talking almost 16 minutes of clapping during an overall 52 minute speech. You can finish the math.

The speech. I'm almost not sure what to say from here. Everything that smarmy jerk says offends me, okay? I am enraged when I see his face on the screen. When I hear his voice. But there were a few things that he did that really drove me over the edge:

1. Promoting coal as an alternative energy source. Like for serious? I mean, I'm no huge fan of nuclear power, but there's damn good reasons we've been moving towards nuke plants from coal plants. Coal is not an alternative energy source. Coal is more polluting than oil, is just as limited as oil, and is far uglier to extract from the ground. The idea behind alternative energy is sustainability and cleanliness, and coal is neither of these. What is this man thinking?

2. "No human-animal hybrids." While, on one hand, I'd dearly love to have centaurs and minotaurs running around the place, I somehow don't think that this is what Bush is talking about. No, what he's talking about are the Stanford mice with more-human brains. Which is not to say human brains, of course, but animals used as research models, mostly for drug research. Now, I have to say here, I'm not a huge fan of animal research, and look to work in a field to help cut down on it through computer modeling. So in that very same vein, I'm in favor of this. Let me explain:

The main objection to this stuff is religious, that we shouldn't put human DNA in mouses because it's wrong, because our DNA is holy or some such. Well, it ain't, and there's not that much difference anyhow in brain structure between us and mice. Which is not to say no difference; just not as much as you'd think. So if (some) mouse brains were carefully modified to be closer to human brains in some respects, we'd get better models for research. And better models for research means less animal research overall. Would it be better to get away from animal research entirely? Sure. Of course it would. Unfortunately, the systems that biochemical research deals with are too damned complex to cut out animal research entirely. What we should be looking for are ways to cut down on the amount of research that needs to be done. Computer modeling is one way to do that, and using better research models are another way.

3. "History is written in courage before it is written in books." What does that even mean?

So how was the party, you might ask? Well, if you watched the address, then just scroll down and look at the game shown two posts below. How was the party? Fan-freaking-tastic.