Sunday, January 31, 2010

Johnson & Wright

...

“Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

(Attributed to Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784.)

One day I’ll read the great man’s biography. As a matter of fact, it sits on the shelf behind me, a daunting 587 pages of double-columned small-type. Must be close to half a million words. Not for the weak of heart. I almost feel it necessary to study at the feet of Evelyn Wood before attempting to climb such an Everest.

Speaking of which, that calls to mind an old joke from the Eighties:

“I was laying in my room one night when Evelyn Wood came in and read Moby Dick to me in eleven minutes. I got seasick and threw up all over the bed.”

(Attributed to Steven Wright, 1955- )

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Resurrectionist


First thought: I read this as a kid and understood it?

A significant chunk of my little world-bubble of 1979 consisted of a certain three books, all borrowed from the local library. Accustomed as I was to the golden age science fiction of Asimov and Heinlein, or the poetic science fiction of Bradbury, or the James-Bond-secret-agent-man science fiction of Poul Anderson, these three books were a dangerous vision indeed.

They were all written by Gary K. Wolf. Killerbowl is about a football league where gladiatorial violence is both expected and encouraged. A Generation Removed is about a literal war against aging, via enforced forced euthanasia. The Resurrectionist, his last book of the Seventies, concerns itself with what might happen if someone gets lost in a world-wide network of teleportation lines. Gritty and ticking-time-bomb intense, they grabbed me by the throat, slammed me against the lockers and stole my lunch money, cackling maniacally all the while.

I read them over and over and over.

Then, the years went by, disappearing into the nethervold like calendar pages twirling off with the wind in those 1940s noir flicks.

I mentioned them, now long out-of-print, from time to time. The wife bought me eBay copies of Killerbowl and A Generation Removed as an anniversary gift one year. But The Resurrectionist sat in limbo for close to thirty years until, one day a few weeks back, I decided to search for it on an online used book site. The book came a week later, and I read it in five hours spread over four days.

Imagine one of those archetypal Seventies movies; Network, I think works well, and use that as your cultural background. Now insert a teleportation-through-copper-wire transportation system that’s considered ho-hum run-of-the-mill. Finally, mix in the crisis of, say, what happens when a very high profile celebrity gets lost in that system. Disappears. No – even better – dissipates. She steps into the transfer booth at Point A and never materializes at her destination, Point B.

I read this as a kid and understood it?

In this Wolfian world, like so many good thrillers, techno or elsewise, nothing is as it seems. Indeed, things sometimes change two, three, four or more times as the story progresses. Many characters are not who we think they are. Nor are many things what we first suspect. Same for situations. I enjoy novels like that – keeps me on my toes. But it also jades me a bit, taking me a bit out of the story to see if I can trip up and second-guess the author. With The Resurrectionist, I was pleasantly surprised four or five times, not bad in a 180-page novel.

Though I liked the premise and the surprises, there were a few minor things that nagged at me. The lead characters were somewhat stereotypical: the hard-boiled ex-cop troubleshooter and his ex-wife eeevil corporate CEO. Their bickering banter felt more than a little scripted. But Wolf balances these out with some unique supporting roles that come to life. And the ending wrestles with some fairly intense moral issues which I wish were explored a little more in depth – there’s plenty of gut-wrenching emotional agony that I wanted more of there. There’s a one-page denouement, a definite plus, that balances the law of unintended consequences with a Rod Serling punchline. That was not a surprise, because it was the only thing I recalled vividly from reading the book three decades ago.

I grade it a B, though I have to stress this is from a somewhat world-weary and much more experienced reader. As a youngling all of Gary Wolf’s books floored me. If forced to rank them in terms of enjoyment and fascination, The Resurrectionist would probably be third in this list; Killerbowl, which I’m saving to re-read once things settle down, would be tops. Still, a great blast from the past and a decent read, even if you’ve never come across it before.

* * *

[Never heard of Gary K. Wolf, one of my favorite childhood authors? In 1981 he wrote a book called Who Censored Roger Rabbit? which was made into that groundbreaking film a couple of years later. And just recently he teamed with my Archbishop, John Myers, a childhood friend of his, to co-author Space Vulture, a throw-back homage to the golden age of SF. That’s a book that is on my radar, too …]

Friday, January 29, 2010

SOTU Observation


One thought’s been bouncin’ about my head. I heard a lot of the word “responsibility” in the President’s State of the Union speech Wednesday night. Particularly in his declarations on the responsibilities of Wall Street, banks, and business.

I think this whole concept of responsibility, as the President is voicing it, is flawed. Since I have not heard or read this point analyzed anywhere else, well, here goes:

Banks and businesses are economic entities functioning in the system of free market capitalism. Wall Street is just a collection of such entities.

What is the “responsibility” of such an economic entity?

I’m no economist, but what I have learned and absorbed about the dismal science tells me intuitively that the fundamental responsibility of any economic entity (including such entities as, say, families and the individual) is self-perpetuation.

Survival.

For banks and businesses, survival is found only in profit.

That’s it. Survival measured by profits and profitability is the only code of morality economic entities have. That’s our economic system, for better or worse. Though they are required to operate within a legal framework, our economic entities are not assumed nor required to adhere to any greater morality, whether it’s the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or even the Golden Rule.

Forcing additional “responsibilities” upon these economic entities just doesn’t work. Indeed, it makes absolutely no sense.

For example, take the notion the President spoke about that banks have a responsibility to lend out money to small businesses in need of fundage. What exactly does this mean? They lend when it’s prudent: when they are confident the loan will be repaid and they will make a decent return. Does it mean they must make loans where they won’t make money or even get the principal back?

I don’t know what exactly the President means, but I think that last sentence is what banks think he means. To them, that is contrary to survival. And that’s why they’re white-knuckling on tight to their money, and the economy is stagnating.

If Obama truly wants the economy to turn around, he can’t stand there wielding a big stick, dictating self-contradictory and self-destructive “responsibilities” to various economic institutions. But since he does not believe in any other course of action, as we clearly heard in his SOTU speech, we are in for at least another nine months or so of malaise.

Until November 2, 2010.

Now. If anyone can explain to me – clearly, concisely, logically, as well as economically – how any stated policy of Obama’s can turn the economy around, I would really, truly, love to hear it. Honestly.

Please!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

BP

So I was in my library yesterday, a 26-pound Patch squirming in my arms, when my eye catches a book about “common delusions.” I haven’t read it through yet so I’m not sure whether or not I want to publicly plug it for perpetuity, so I won’t give the title and author. But it’s a 300-page large-size paperback whose purpose is to dispel common misconceptions we habitually accept as facts. Things like, “Napoleon was a short man,” or “leap years occur every four years.”

I settled in over a bowl of chicken noodle soup – Patch napping and Little One at kindergarten – primed for some light and interesting reading through this book. And BAM! it hit me. Right on page one. Pure gold!

Under the second listed “delusion” (“The Neanderthals died out”) I spotted this line:

The Neanderthals … lived between approximately 150,000 and 28,000 years BP (Before Present) in Europe, where Homo sapiens sapiens appeared about 40,000 years BP.

BP? “Before Present”? What the heck is this?

Hackles raised immediately. I now had a project.

First reaction: Another example of post-modernism’s hatred and/or fear of Christianity. You know, that silly, quixotic and ulterior attempt to change the way our culture has traditionally labeled Time - the whole BC and AD thing. I posted on this in the early days of the Hopper, here, in case you’re interested.

Second reaction: They’ve upped the ante. Apparently, the attempt to hijack traditional chronology with BCE and CE backfired, and it must be due to that “C”. PMers want that C to stand for “Common,” as in “Before the Common Era,” and “Common Era.” But we all know it really stands for “Christian,” because, ultimately, the number of the year still maintains the birth of Christ as its central reference point (even though it was miscalculated in the middle ages by anywhere from 4 to 7 years).

Then I went down to the writing office and powered up the PC. Patch was stirring and the big hand on the clock was waving frantically at me to go get my daughter from school. I went to Wikipedia (I know, I know) and found out about BP.

Apparently, it’s been around a while, though I never heard it nor read it. Admittedly, I don’t do much reading in archaeology or geology, where it’s used most frequently, and mostly in regards to radiocarbon dating. And perhaps, too, I initially overreacted. It seems that “BP” was created sometime in the late Fifties by the scientific community (before it became so party-line atheistic, I assume). They established January 1, 1950 as the “Present” partly because extensive nuclear testing from the Fifties onwards slightly skewed the global ratios of carbon used in radioactive dating. At least, that’s what Wikipedia tells me. I don’t have the time or energy to research scholarly journals on this further.

So, I’ll ascribe the most altruistic interpretation to “BP” as it relates to radiocarbon dating techniques.

But I don’t want to start reading that Socrates died in 2349 BP. Or that our country declared independence from Great Britain on July 4, 174 BP.


UPDATE:

It seems the author of my library book only uses the BP designation writing about the distant past. A few pages later she switches to BC while talking about Stonehenge, Babylon, and Ancient Egypt. Good for her.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

CSI: Miami

...


OPENING SCENE: Camera pans up from a half-empty jar of peanut butter on a beach, to an ATM swaddled with crime scene tape. Flashing lights. A group of CSI agents silhouetted against a sepia sky. A pair of girls in bikinis strolls by.

WHITE CHICK: So what do we have here?

BLACK GUY: Seems like some sort of electronic theft.

WHITE CHICK: Electronic theft?

BLACK GUY: Yeah, it’s where money is taken out of your bank account without your knowledge or authorization.

HISPANIC GUY: Wait, they can do it?

WHITE GUY: Happens all the time. (disgusted) Big banks …

BLACK GUY: Here’s our victim.

VICTIM, elderly woman, sweater, hair in a bun: (confused) Hello officers.

WHITE CHICK: Can you tell us what happened?

VICTIM: Well, I put my ATM card into the ATM –

WHITE GUY: ATM?

HISPANIC GUY: Automated Teller Machine. It’s a service most banks offer to enable their customers easy, 24-hour access to their money.

WHITE GUY: (disgusted) Big banks …



WHITE CHICK: Let me get this straight. You put your ATM card into the ATM and –

BLACK GUY: Hold on, hold on. ATM card?

BLACK CHICK: Yes, it’s a plastic card, similar to a credit card (split-screen and triple-split screen shots of her showing the officers some credit cards from her wallet). See?

WHITE GUY: I don’t get it. Doesn’t make sense.

HISPANIC GUY: This strip, here, contains information about your account (black-and-white close up of the back of Victim’s ATM card). The ATM can read it once you punch in the correct PIN.

WHITE CHICK: PIN? I don’t follow.

BLACK GUY: Personal Identification Number. It’s a four-digit number you choose for yourself, kind of a specialized lock you put on your card.

WHITE GUY: So you select your own PIN?

BLACK CHICK: Right.

WHITE GUY: And the ATM reads it?

BLACK CHICK: Bingo. (to VICTIM) What happened next, ma’am?

VICTIM: My sight’s not so good, so I have to read the Braille keypad –

HISPANIC GUY: Braille?

WHITE CHICK: It’s a system consisting of raised bumps which enable blind people – or people with limited eyesight – to read. Each cell consists of a recognizable pattern corresponding to a certain letter, number, or grammatical symbol.

WHITE GUY: Keypad?

BLACK GUY: Yes – this (raps knuckles on ATM keypad). It’s a set of buttons arranged in a block to facilitate the inputting of information into a computer.

HISPANIC GUY: And then what happened?

VICTIM: My fingers got stuck! It was as if someone smeared peanut butter all over the keypad! Then the readout said that I had no money in my account! Can you imagine that? My fingers are all sticky!

RED-HAIRED ALBINO GUY: Looks like our Automated Teller Machine ... has its own set ... of sticky fingers.


ROGER DALTREY: Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Road Trip

Well, we’re back from quite an eventful 72 hours.

On Christmas Eve, my wife’s grandmother, affectionately known as Gram, died after a brief illness at age 91. She lived out near Toledo, Ohio, where most of my wife’s family live, so I’ve only seen her, and them, maybe three or four times. The little I knew of Gram first-hand showed me a woman with a very sharp wit and downright funny personality. I recall driving in car with her, my wife, and my mother-in-law, racing to get to a wedding five years ago, and Gram mercilessly and – to be quite honest – laugh-out-loud hilariously berating my mother-in-law’s driving. I also remember her looking lovingly at our first daughter when Little One was only three months old and saying, in a quiet voice, “She looks like a little elf.”

So a memorial mass was being held this past weekend, a date selected when most of the family could get back in town. For us, this entailed a nine-hour drive to Toledo. Packing for two toddlers, the wife, and myself for three days plus a nine-hour drive has now given me a superb appreciation of Napoleonic logistics. First, we had to empty out the Impala’s trunk of all my wife’s company stuff. Then, in goes in the portable crib, the stroller, four bags of luggage, overcoats, suit jacket, board games, and a whole extra bag of toiletries. In the backseat goes the spare booster seat, the portable DVD player, a CD player, bags of food, bottles of water, cases of CDs and DVDs, a bag of books, blankets, stuffed animals. Up front with us is my wife’s twenty-pound bag (I still don’t know what she carries in it), and a couple of books for the passenger to read.

Anyhoo, we left Friday morning just before 9 and got to our destination by 6:30. Two stops – a short one for gas and a bathroom break, the other for lunch, all totaling up for an hour. So, 590 miles in 8.5 hours … comes to about 70 miles an hour, I think. Not bad, considering I drive like I’m 70 years old and the wife drives like Bonnie after Clyde’s held up another rural bank.

Our hosts were very lovely people, really superb, who went so far out of their way to accommodate us and C’s parents, and without complaint. I can’t compliment my wife’s family enough. They are all positive and all successful – without exception. There’s a doctor, a lawyer, a pair of architects, a yoga entrepreneur, two teachers, a super salesman, and all their children excelling in high schools and colleges, some overseas. I felt truly welcome and – very important for a nervous introvert like myself – I felt at home in their homes.

Saturday we had to get up early and make quick use of the showers. Gram’s memorial mass went off without a hitch, and was quite moving, particularly the short introductory eulogy given by my wife’s cousin. C did a reading, and I sat in the pews with a sick Patch flooping in my arms, getting all prideful, thinking: I can see her doing this full-time. It’s a running joke in our family that my wife would make a great politician. I’m talking about, say, mayor of our town. She’s extremely friendly and outgoing, yin to my yang, and, well, I saw her up there and thought she did a great job.

There was a two-hour luncheon afterward. I met some very friendly, interesting, and funny people there. Little One hooked up with a whole bunch of other little ones, and they ran through the entire restaurant (closed save for this party) like a pack of wolf cubs. I had a big hunk of lasagna and primarily attended to Patch, who was coming down with something funky. Warm, lethargic yet unable to get comfortable. We gave her Baby Tylenol, but sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

Got back to C’s aunt and uncle’s place. There was a family get-together there, spent reminiscing about Gram and the talk turned to further funeral planning. I felt out of place, so I went to our bedroom and began reading The Resurrectionist, by Gary K. Wolf, another blast-from-the-past. Then I napped for 2 hours straight. When I got up, Patch was feeling very overheated. My mother-in-law and her sister were going out to bring back some take-out, and would also buy a thermometer. They got one of those new-fangled thing-a-ma-bobs that you just place against the baby’s temple for twenty seconds and you get a reading. We monitored Patch all night and it never went up to a 100, though it came close. We continued the Tylenol regimen.

Next morning, however, it hit me. From both ends. I had some sort of flu. Was it from Patch? Hmmm.

C’s uncle made them all omelets; I had a bowl of Honey-Nut Cheerios which I threw up an hour later. We showered, packed, and got Napoleon’s army back on the trail to Moscow again, only now we had one more stop. Feeling achy and crummy, I could only repeat: Just get through this. Just get through this.

We stopped for an hour-long visit with my wife’s other aunt and uncle, a few towns over. Extremely nice people; the visit made my physical discomfort go away. They have a high-school aged daughter who played Hands Down with the Little One, and later they baked some sugar cookies. The visit regrettably had to be cut short, for it was getting close to 2 o’clock, and we wanted to be home before midnight.

What a trip home! Not only was I feeling quite under the weather, the weather was feeling quite pissed at us. I swear it was as if a massive thundercloud sat over our car and followed us east, at 70 miles an hour, pounding us relentlessly. Winds were so heavy at times the car actually moved six inches to the right or left. C took the first 300 miles, I took the rest. And after I was in the driver’s seat for two or three hours, rump petrified, every one else asleep in the car, we hit the fog banks in the Pennsylvanian mountains. It was one of the most surreal things I ever saw. I had to slow the Impala down to 40 mph, that’s how thick this stuff was. I half-expected to see golden gates and a stairway (escalator, actually) leading straight up to St. Peter’s toll booth.

And Patch! How can a 16-month-old hold so much liquid! Twice she threw up – bits of banana and chicken mixed in with pints of icky-smelling fluid. Both times we had to pull over and change her in the rain, swab down the baby seat and various dolls and blankets she spewed out upon. Thank God she wasn’t crying through all this. Kinda taking it stoically, and floopily. We deduced she and I had the same thing, some type of a stomach flu.

Well, we got home, finally, at 11:20. C put the girls to bed, I fired up the boiler and jacked up the thermostat. Trembled with fatigue and illness, I managed to unload most of the car with her help. Then, I stripped down to my undies, fell on the couch, pulled over a comforter, and was out, until 8:45 Monday morning, when the Little One padded down the stairs, came up to me, kissed my forehead, and announced, “Hungry!”

Monday, January 25, 2010

Nother Noonan

“… In any case, I think I’ve noticed a crude and imperfect but serviceable way to judge which women’s religious communities work, are constructive and faithful, and which are not. The more old-fashioned the habit, the more Catholic the nun. The more distinctive the dress, the more removed from the world, and the more faithful. A nun in a veil probably prays; a nun in a two-piece suit with nothing on her head but a gray crewcut is somewhat more likely to be thinking of spirit winds and new ways to refer to Jesus as ‘she.’ ” (John Paul the Great, by Peggy Noonan, pg. 179)

I like this quote. I’ve read similar sentiments in places to many to count in the Catholic blogosphere, and I believe statistics support the trend that more “old-fashioned” and more faithful communities are growing while more “free-spirited” communities are in sharp decline. And that line – “nothing on her head but a gray crewcut” – is awesome!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Stand and Face Your Test

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HEROES

Words and music by Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister, Phil Campbell, and Mikkey Dee


Look over on your left,
Look over on the right,
There’s nothing you can see out there,
But this ain’t no fair fight,
A lot of people dying,
Men driven raving mad,
They scream out there for hours,
And it makes you feel really bad,

Heroes …heroes …
Nobody wants to be here,
Nobody wants to fall

Fools … fools …
But no one walks away from here,
Backs to the wall.

Stand your ground and fight,
You know that our cause is right,
We are the ones, whose hope has gone,
Hold and stand fast,
Stand and do your best,
Stand and face your test,
Until you fall, you must obey the call,
For we are the last.


Do you understand
How you became a fighting man?
You must be hard as nails,
And kill with sword and hand,
You march on our command,
You fight until the death,
You fight ’til life runs out of you,
And you draw your final breath,

Heroes … heroes …
We must hold them on the line,
They must not advance,

Fools … fools …
So if you would be legends, boys,
This is your chance.

Stand your ground and fight,
You know that our cause is right,
We are the ones, whose hope has gone,
Hold and stand fast,
Stand and do your best,
Stand and face your test,
Until you fall, you must obey the call,
For we are the last.


One day men will look back here,
To see the bloody day,
When we stood at the edge and fought,
And no one ran away,
The story will get bigger,
As it’s handed down the years,
And so pass into legend,
To tell what happened here.

Heroes … heroes …
We know we can’t win here,
But we must not run,

Fools … fools …
Now get yourselves ready,
For the last attack comes.

Stand your ground and fight,
You know that our cause is right,
We are the ones, whose hope has gone,
Hold and stand fast,
Stand and do your best,
Stand and face your test,
Until you fall, you must obey the call,
For we are the last.

***

Something tells me that the Truth lies somewhere between Diaphenia and a Motorhead song.

But that is not to say that in life we should not experience our share of Diaphenias and Heroes.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Daffadowndilly



DIAPHENIA

Diaphenia like the daffadowndilly,
White as the sun, fair as the lily,
Heigh ho, how I do love thee!
I do love thee as my lambs
Are belovéd of their dams;
How blest were I if thou would’st prove me.

Diaphenia like the spreading roses,
That in thy sweets all sweets encloses,
Fair sweet, how I do love thee!
I do love thee as each flower
Loves the sun’s life-giving power;
For dead, thy breath to life might move me.

Diaphenia like to all things blesséd
When all thy praises are expresséd
Dear joy, how I do love thee!
As the birds do love the spring,
Or the bees their careful king:
Then in requite, sweet virgin, love me!


by Henry Constable (1562-1612)

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Fluger


As a youngling with a skull full o’ mush in the 1970s, I read tons and tons of SF. My first books, if I’m remembering correctly, were a half-dozen masterpieces by Isaac Asimov, followed by a couple from Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury’s short stories. When my local library beckoned, I feasted on the two- or three-hundred SF titles in its one little section. There was a trio by Gary K. Wolf I loved, three or four by Ron Goulart, a couple by Roger Zelazny, a Bob Shaw, some old stuff by Edmund Hamilton, Watership Down by Richard Adams. Countless now-forgotten others.

During the summer of my twelfth year I read a short DAW paperback by Doris Piserchia, The Spinner, that unequivocally floored me and primarily shaped a big section of SF stuff that I enjoy, be it movies or novels.

Now, The Spinner ain’t Tolstoy, that’s not anywhere near the idea I’m pushing forward here. Part of my personal definition of good art, I suppose, is somewhat utilitarian: it does exactly what it sets out to do, and does it perfectly. As I blogged about briefly, here, this book is the perfect mix of science fiction and horror. Plus, it’s a monster story, and a black-and-white one at that. The Spinner is evil. It hates us, and that’s why it kills us. We didn’t create it. We didn’t trespass on its turf. We didn’t ruin its habitat. No; we’re the good guys, pure and simple. And the Spinner is the devil.

Which brings me to The Fluger. This book has been on my radar forever, but since it’s out of print, I finally had the bright idea to go through one of those online books stores and – voila! – here it is at my doorstep. Four and only four hours later, I’ve read the slim, oh-so-beautiful paperback, and there are still goosebumps on my arms.

There are many similarities between the two books, so many that I find it odd that both books were published the same year, 1980. I’d sure like to know the backstory. Imagine if James Cameron was the creative force behind Dances With Wolves, not Kevin Costner, and he released that movie the same year he released Avatar. That’s what this is like. The books are classically “similar but different.” Still, though, I’ll take two minor masterpieces over a crapshoot any day, regardless of how much word-of-mouth or good print the longshot may have going for it.



Warning: Here Be Spoilers …



Corradado is an alien beastie called a Fluger. Think of a cross between a lion and a triceratops, encased in yellow armored skin, armed with teeth and claws so sharp they can burrow through solid rock. That’s Corradado. Intelligence: something greater than an animal, yet not quite that of a man, but it’s a predator’s intelligence – cunning, merciless, relentless. And the beast is filled with rage. In fact, it has developed nodules in its brain to pour more and more vitriol hormones into its bloodstream, a survival mechanism from its hellish homeworld of Fluga.

Stowed away in an spacecraft, he finds himself on Earth – specifically, Earth a dozen or so centuries in the future. All the megalopoli have condensed into great dome cities. From the opening pages the Fluger is ravaging through Olympus, or what was once known as New York. Faced with this unstoppable menace, the mayor of the giant domed city contracts off-world for a “fixer” who can succeed where all the Olympian armed forces have failed: destroying the Fluger. Then, the mayor commits suicide.

Kam Shar is the Eldoron – alien – assassin. Part Exeter from Metaluna, part puma, and part miniature angel – don’t worry, it’s all revealed slowly and somehow makes sense – the second nonhuman visitor to Olympus is equally tsunamic. First, the contract killer does not reveal details of the deal he made with the recently deceased. Second, since he’s been paid, he is morally obligated to do what he was paid to do – kill the Fluger – and nothing will stop him. Third, he seems omnipotent and omnipresent.

Send a monster to catch a monster, as the novel’s byline tell us.

Several surreal scenes stuck with me. Corradado, engorged on human flesh, lounging lazily on a pool diving board, staring into the dead eyes of a woman floating in the red-stained waters, bit in half. Hundreds and hundreds of men and women streaming into a tunnel, offering themselves as martyrs to the Fluger, because it must not go further – just beyond them are the domes holding the city’s children. The way the monster refers to humans as … shriekers. And, of course, the final half-dozen pages of the novel.

What’s up Kam Shar’s diabolical sleeves? Is he the savior of Olympus, or its judge and jury and executioner? He has the abilities to manipulate our mere thirtieth-century technology at will. His multiple selves give him access to everywhere in the city. Indeed, he shows up at the new mayors’ quarters, and also encounters five other characters in the novel – and injects them with something. But to assuage their fears, he also injects himself.

Corradado, having slaughtered thousands and consumed hundreds, is feeling the need for sleep. His species sleeps only a week a year, so Kam Shar must act now. Only, he’s not going to go after the Fluger as it sleeps. No, he’ll wait for when it awakes, when it will be most hungriest.

The assassin seals up the six humans, with himselves, in the great reactor room of Olympus, where the deadly monster slumbers. They will be bait. Upon awakening, the Fluger will be ravenous, and they will be the main course. But why? It’s all part of Kam Shar’s plan. The Fluger will go after the first man he sees, and when he kills him, he, Corrodado, will die. How? Injected into each man is a superadvanced compressed-molecule package – hundreds of cubic feet of whatever material packed into an area nanometers in size. What triggers the expansion? The electrical signal from the brain when its owner realizes his immanent death. Corrodado will die a relatively slow death as the package grows within him and grows past him.

There is the always agonizing gallows scenario as the men await possible death. Well, certain death, for at least one of them. And for a being so simplemindedly evil, Corrodado’s demise kinda moved me. He is, after all, a glorified animal, doing only what he had evolved to do. But as his stomach distends, and he loses all desire to hunt down the remaining shriekers in the reactor room … as he feels pain for the first time … as his limbs grow sluggish as the packing material grows within his innards … into his bloodstream … his lungs … surrounds his heart … and the last thing he sees before his eyes fade …


Verdict: Solid A

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Waterboarding?

There’s one argument I’ve heard expounded by those on the “pro” side for waterboarding that I feel is disingenuous, yet I never hear it refuted on conservative radio programs the few times it comes up. The argument is this: Waterboarding does not fit the definition of torture, simply because thousands of American servicemen have gone through it as part of their training.

Hello! Can’t anybody recognize the difference between undergoing waterboarding as part of a training exercise, done to you by your fellow officers and teachers, with waterboarding being done to you, as a captured and imprisoned combatant, by your enemy? Assuming there are controls in place, and it is the will of our government, no long-term physical harm will come to the enemy combatant, just as no long-term harm, we’d expect, would come to the trainee. The difference is what happens in the mind of the individual being waterboarded. In the first, he knows it’s a training exercise. In the second, he knows only that he may be killed.

Is threatening someone with death morally wrong? Sinful? Even when there is no intent to actually kill that person?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in section 2297, condemns both terrorism and torture, defining torture as “physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred.” Do we look the other way because this prohibition fails to mention the phrase “gather intelligence”? And might the intentional perceived possibility of being killed fall under the term “moral violence”?

No one seems to acknowledge that torture or enhanced interrogation techniques, or however one wants to label it, contains two components: physical pain as well as mental pain. Both need to be brought into the discussion somehow to get a clearer handle on this issue.

Therefore, I think this comparison to mandatory training techniques by enlisted US personnel is irrelevant and a trumped up distraction.



For the record, I consider myself a faithful (as opposed to dissenting or “cafeteria” ) Catholic first, a social and fiscal conservative second, a “republican” (I’m not registered) a distant third. That being said, I am conflicted over the whole torture issue. On one hand, as a Catholic, I understand and believe in the value of human life, every single human life, made in the image and likeness of God. Even the lives of men trying to kill me and my family. On the other hand, I recognize and accept the harsh realities of this dangerous, fallen world we live in. The fact that there are men willing and able to do harm and have indeed done such harm to keep me and my girls safe at night is one of the most terrible paradoxes we have to live with.

Actually, I have refrained from doing the heavy lifting on this issue for myself. But I find the arguments on either side not fully convincing. The pro-waterboarding side leaves me feeling dirty and uncomfortable, and the pro-life side leaves me feeling helpless and gullible. I don’t see a way out of this predicament, for me, so I will go ahead and resume my ostrich-like position.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Little One's First Story


The first work of fiction from my Little One! How proud she made her dad! I must say she does have my overactive imagination, which can be a good thing, when appropriate. And if she continues to exhibit my wife’s extroverted, confident personality, who knows what success Little One may wind up with in this crazy world of ours.

Translation, if too difficult to read:


I was in my room and I was doing my homework and all of the sudden a monster came and said Roar!


Note the purple monster at the top left and my daughter, scared and shrieking, at top center. She’s an artist, too!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Man On Wire


© 2008, 94 minutes

Want to watch something really, really cool? Rent the documentary Man on Wire. It is flat-out, awe-inspiringly amazing.

Did you even know this happened? In August of 1974, the day before Nixon resigned from the presidency, French wirewalker Philippe Petit walked a 1-inch metal line illegally rigged under cover of night some 150 feet between the two almost-finished towers at the World Trade Center. For an hour. Over 1,300 feet above the streets. He even laid down at the midway point between the towers.

The movie details Petit’s obsession with the towers and the intricate plans and subterfuge he and his accomplices enacted to bring his dream to fruition. Photographs. Small-scale detail models of the towers. Impersonating French journalists and interviewing workers at the top of the towers. Business and construction worker disguises. Archery, even. You know he pulled it off – you see film and pictures of the event. But – how did he do it? With convincing and quite entertaining flashback re-enactments, interviews, and footage of the actual walk, you find out.

To me, this man Philippe Petit is absolutely, one-hundred-percent certifiably nuts. However, there is something undeniably inspiring and charismatic about the man. He does something I could never, ever do; indeed, it is his all-consuming passion. Ah – there’s the key – the pure electrifying power of the magnificent obsession! Now, I’m not scared of heights, but there is something about imagining myself on that wire that actually makes me freeze up with fear. As detailed in the documentary, the high winds between the towers move the wire side-by-side and, since the towers themselves sway in the winds, the wire goes up and down. As Petit talks about the glorious death that could be had, should it come to that, you absolutely believe he absolutely believes what he’s saying.

My question to you: I don’t expect you to walk a wire, but let’s say one of those rescue winches and harness was set up between the towers. How much would you have to be paid to take that journey? $10,000? $50,000? $100,000? Think about it. You’d be safe, and it would only last two or three minutes. What’s the minimum amount of money you’d accept to do it? After some debate between ourselves, I settled on a cool million, while the wife stood firm on ten million as her basement-level starting point.

Philippe Petit spent large sums of his own money to do it for the simple, zen experience of doing it.

The combination of the thrill of walking a wire a thousand feet above the ground, the crazy inspiration and awe that this man Petit brings, and the bittersweet memories of the Twin Towers … I don’t see how anyone can watch this and not come away moved in no small way.

Grade: A+

Based on Petit’s book To Reach the Clouds, which I’ll pick up eventually in my travels.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Words I Hate IV

...

Health Care Provider


Let me clarify. I don’t hate the noun “Health Care Provider.” I don’t wanna sound like a “Get off my lawn!” kooky krank. I’m a writer, after all, and I love words. All words – their sound, their rhythm, the images they convey. Their genealogy, so to speak, be they Latinate or Germanic or something entirely else, and all that that brings to the table. I love words, even the way they look. And yes, I realize that this may make me sound kooky, but in this regard, I don’t care.

It’s the way words are used to convey ideas that just grate on me that I don’t like. And it’s more than just ideas that grate – it’s ideas that attempt to change, replace, and destroy the wonderful, useful, life-affirming aspects of our Judeo-Christian heritage. And to be completely honest, a lot of it has to do with militant feminism.

Anyway, I’m banging away on my laptop a few weeks back, the radio playing softly somewhere behind me. A commercial comes on, and, between thoughts, I’m listening to it and it catches my attention. It’s something about either the health care bill or some current health issue – that’s not what I’m listening to. I hear this nice-sounding lady talking about the issue, and she smoothly says this phrase: “As a mother and a health care provider, I …”

Wait a minute. Something does not sound right.

I can buy that the actress is portraying a mother, intentionally so. The sponsor is going for the heartstrings, and that’s okay.

But, why the phrase, “health care provider”?

By definition, she provides health care. Unless there’s a third category I’m unaware of, she’s either a doctor or a nurse. (She could be a medical technician of some sort, like a CT-scan operator, but I don’t think that’s what the commercial’s sponsor was trying to convey.) She can be either a doctor or a nurse. In this era of women’s emancipation, of which I have absolutely no problem, I think that if this was a real individual, she’d be proud to say she was a doctor. Wouldn’t you? But in the commerical she labels herself as a “health care provider.”

So I immediately thought: What’s wrong with the word “nurse”?

I’ve known something like two or three dozen nurses over the past year. Not a single one of them introduced herself to me as a health care provider. They would say, “Hello. My name is Mary, and I’ll be your nurse for today.” I even had three male nurses, who refered to themselves the same way. Apparently there is no problem with the word “nurse” in the nursing industry, unlike, say, “stewardess” was a few years back in the air travel industry.

The message I took away from the commercial is that someone has a problem with the word “nurse.” Why, I have no idea. Using that spidey sense us writers have with words, when I contemplate “nurse,” I see this:

Angels.

I have never met a nurse who was ill-tempered, inconsiderate, angry, selfish, bitter, negative in any way. They have always been, to me at least, selfless and concerned only with the well-being of their patient under their care. The most angelic of those I’ve met helped me to my feet one night after surgery. I was shaky, and began coughing uncontrollably, and my sutures ruptured. Blood splattered on the floor. This woman who didn’t know me at all, immediately thrust her bare, ungloved hands against my wounds and pressed to stop the bleeding, while getting me back in bed, rebandaged, and cleaned up.

So, yeah, I guess I have a problem with anyone who has a problem with nurses. Even if it’s just a problem with the word, “nurse.”

There is nothing wrong or demeaning with the word “nurse.”

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Singing Sands


Just finished Josephine Tey’s final mystery, The Singing Sands (1952), published shortly after her death at age 55. Caveat: I’ve written earlier that I am not a mystery aficionado. This is only the third one I’ve read as an adult, the other two being The Hound of the Baskervilles, a Holmesian novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, and Tey’s own The Daughter of Time. As a kid I read about thirty or forty Encyclopedia Brown stories. That’s the extent of my experience with mysteries. So if you happen across this little review and you’re a huge fan, and I say something sacrilegious, don’t rake me over the coals. You’ve been warned.

That being said, I liked it. The story unfolded with the gentle ease of an author who knows exactly how it should, chapter by chapter, page by page, paragraph by paragraph. Her personality does come through in the writing, and it’s immensely likable. Her characters are immensely likable, too; even the ones we’re not supposed to like, we like. There’s humor and humanity in her pen, and I found that uncommon and enjoyable.

Detective Alan Grant of Scotland Yard is suffering from claustrophobia brought on by overwork. Deciding a rare vacation is in order, our protagonist takes the train up to his cousin’s place way up north in Scotland for a few weeks of fishing, relaxation, and recovery. However, as he’s exiting the train at his destination, he accidentally happens upon a corpse – a young man, discovered prone on the floor of his compartment with a shattered skull and an empty bottle of whiskey. Inadvertently Grant winds up with a copy of the newspaper from B Seven’s compartment, and later that day comes upon the poem –

The beasts that talk
The streams that stand,
The stones that walk,
The singing sands,
…………………
…………………
That guard the way
To Paradise.

The poem stays with him those first few idyllic days of his vacation, and, powerless to prevent it, his detecting instincts kick in. Soon his entire vacation is devoted to finding out just who exactly this corpse in B Seven was, and if it was the accident it appears to have been.

As you may guess, things are not what they seem. Grant’s investigations take him all throughout Scotland, back to England, and even to the continent. The key is that one line in the poem to which the book takes its title. The Singing Sands. What does that mean to you? It winds up referring to something that has always been a minor but vivid interest of mine, and because of that, the pages turned quicker and quicker as the book reached its conclusion.

My only cause for pause is that it seemed so gentle. Yes, there is murder, and there is treachery and plenty of vanity, the basest of all human traits and the cause of all evil, according to Grant. But the story proceeds from A to B to C … all the way to Z very casually. In a way, that’s reassuring; reading a Tey mystery (at least the two of her half-dozen I’ve read so far) you know the crime will get solved at the end, incrementally. The reader is not required to solve the crime, merely to journey with the detective and marvel at all the clues and sleight-of-hand that the character picks up which he, the reader, may have overlooked.

Could it be that Encyclopedia Brown in the fourth grade turned me off to mysteries forever?

Anyway, I like Ms. Tey a lot. It is a shame so talented, so effortless a writer died relatively early, when she could easily have published fifteen or twenty more novels. I’ll keep my eye out for more of her stuff, and if I come across it in my travels I’ll pick them up. Somehow, it’s reassuring to visit a world where the bad guys never truly get away with their crimes, and the good guys are so warm you wish you could really sit down and spend some time with them. Even if for only a week or so.

Grade: B+

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Guitar Work II


So, what’s LE playing on his trusty six-string nowadays?

Since our last episode back on December 1st, I find myself constantly playing a new crop of tunes on my little wooden stringed friend. As you may recall, the acoustic guitar sits stoically and helpfully in my dining room, in the corner between the living room and kitchen, probably the most well-trod route in my house. And I pick it up, still, a good twenty, twenty-five times a day and play it anywhere from twenty seconds to twenty-five minutes at a pop.

Here’s what I am playing of late:

1. 1983 … A Merman I Should Turn to Be, by Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix’s most psychedelic song, and one of his longest, is an epic multi-multi tracked piece that could be considered a forerunner to the epics of Yes and Rush. Ever since I first heard it 20+ years ago I could only play the melodic line over the chorus. I came across some tab and bam! slap my head! everything came together and fit so well I just can’t stop playing it. I even thought of blogging about it, as the song is a legitimately unique science fiction scenario.

2. Do You Feel Like We Do, by Peter Frampton

No, I don’t do the ten minute talk box solo. But its such a fun song – the opening melodic riff, the power chord verse, the D – F – C – D (A C ) chorus. Whenever I hear the live version on classic rock stations, I’m immediately transported back to those crazy drinking party days, when you had no worries about bills or careers or health, no, indeed, you felt like you would live forever.

3. Shangri-La, by ELO

My whole family was into ELO when I was growing up, so I was too, by extension. I don’t know why I’m playing this song in particular, other than it’s a neat tune, and the chords just came to me one day. Plus it has my favorite chord du jour, Gmaj7.

4. Florida Suite: By the River, by Frederick Delius

The second movement of this mini-symphony is so beautiful, so enchanting, that it still causes shivers to ripple up and down my arms when I hear it. The melody is so lovely and so simple that I have thought: This is what philosophers are thinking about when they talk about aesthetics and beauty and truth and goodness. On my guitar I play it in the key of B, and it’s nothing technically amazing; a beginner could play it. I’m just hooked on it right now.

5. Goodbye Song, (Goodbye, See Ya Later), as performed by the cast of Yo Gabba Gabba

All right, all right. Just when the five-year-old turns her nose up at Yo Gabba Gabba, the sixteen-month-old is just getting into it. I know all these kiddie shows by heart by now. I guess I’m a dad now; it’s official. Truth be told it’s fun to strum along to – as much fun as it is watching a 26-pound little girl joyfully moving her arms, legs, and behind to the beat, fascinated by Muno, Foofa, Brobee, Toodee, Plex, and DJ Lance on the flat screen and her daddy playing along with them.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Mind Over Muscle

Or, how smart-ass brains defeated dumb-ass muscle.

Now, kids, don’t try this at home. I’m not exactly proud of what happened, in view of that much-improved vision known as hindsight. But the following is a true story; only the names have been changed to – you know. Well, it’s true if by true you recognize that I’m strictly following my own 85/10/5 rule.

Anyway, let’s go back in time a bit, shall we? A little over two decades ago. Ah, summertime in the late 80s! Van Halen and hair bands shredding on the radio. MTV actually played music videos. Ronald Reagan hard at work smashing communism and driving college professors nutty. Speaking of college, I was between them in the midst of my 11-year degree plan. I did have a full-time job that netted me $180 a week. I also had no real responsibilities, either at work or at my parent’s home, where I still lived. I never left home without old faithfuls like my $1.50 pack of Marlboro Lights and just about every night me and my buddies drank countless cans of Coors. My body laughed at fatigue and alcohol poisoning. It was a great time to be alive.

There was a group of us that hung out together at that time, a group of eight or nine or ten of us that met just about daily at this one guy’s house. We did a lot of things in all sorts of various permutations. Loitered around the Jersey shore before it became associated nationally as the turf of self-involved idiots. Went up to the mountains in my parent’s weekend house when it was available. Massive parties at my place when my parents were away. We’d all go out to see movies together, back in the day when you could still smoke in a movie theater. A few of us were musicians and tried to get bands going. Concerts – I recall seeing, in no particular order, AC/DC, Joe Walsh, The Who, a Roger Waters-less Pink Floyd, the Allman Brothers, REM, and a whole smattering of other groups in 87 and 88.

A’right, ’nuff background; here’s the story. One superhot weekend in July or August the group of us decided to go to one of those water parks. There were a couple we went to, such as those man-made mountains of waterslides on the piers at the shore, but this one was an actual mountain. Can’t recall the name or location, but we went there a few times. It had just about everything: mini-white-water-rafting, rollercoaster-sized water slides, an underground slide into an ice-cold lake, and a group of pools where you could sun yourself dry or get a chlorine fix.

We bought some lockers and changed into our swim shorts and hit the slopes. About midway through the day, after lunch, we decided to chill for a bit at one of the pools. Five of us, I’d guess, left the food courts and headed in that direction. The lanes snaked this way and that, past attractions or whatever devoted to separating you from your money, when Steve pointed over his shoulder and said, “Let’s cut through here.”

It was an area walled off by a wooden fence where the park stored its dumpsters. About twenty yards across, and then there was the pool. There was no one there, and the gate was slightly ajar. Sure, we all decided. It would save about ten or fifteen minutes of meandering about.

Well, just as we got to the other side and could hear splashing in the pool just beyond, another kid suddenly pops out in front of us. He seems as startled as we are. Oh, and he’s a lifeguard; he’s wearing officially-logo’d shorts. He’s also the polar opposite of us: muscle-bound, ripped abs, crew cut, tanned. “Hey, you can’t be in here!” he barks at us.

“Sorry,” Steve says. “We didn’t know. We just want to go to the pool.” I can see the pool just beyond muscle boy.

The lifeguard decides to exercise some power. He blocks the gate. “No, you can’t come through here. You have to go back the other way.” He points to the gate we came through.

Is this guy kidding? What was the big deal? In five steps we could be at the pool. He really wanted us to walk all the way back to the gate we came in, twenty yards away, and then walk a hundred or two hundred yards to circle through the park and come into the pool area the official way? I think some of us even say as much to him.

But the lunkhead is not giving an inch. Even though we outnumber him five to one, we acquiesce.

It actually takes us almost an hour to get to the pool. We pick up two other friends, have more grub. We buy stuff, and get distracted by other stuff. Eventually, though, we cross those golden official entrance doors to the pool, and Bob grabs my shoulder.

“Look who it is!”

The muscle-bound jerk is sitting in the lifeguard chair. We hesitate for a moment, but hey – it’s a free country, right? We paid our money to get in to the park. Then, lunkhead jumps off the chair, points to a kid in the water, and shouts full-force at the top of his lungs, turning beet-red: “NO JUMPING OFF THE WALL!” The pool is divided by a small wall that juts out of the water about two feet. A lot of kids are sitting on it, and apparently, it’s a big no-no to jump off this wall.

Bob, ever dramatic, pulls us into a huddle. “You know what we gotta do, don’t you?” he asks all of us, making eye-contact, one-by-one, his win-it-for-the-gipper speech.

“We gotta jump off that wall.”

I remember being struck immediately by the cosmic justice of it all. It was as if God, my very immature, non-believing conception of God, wrapped up for us all a nice little Christmas present and handed it to us free-of-charge. Here, take it, my son Guido over there needs some humblin’, and you are the men to do it.

The only problem was the very real threat of being ejected from the park.

Then, inspiration struck me. “We need to enter separately, and sit at different parts of the wall. Only one of us should jump off the wall at a time. You jump, wait to get yelled at, get back on the wall, and someone else jumps. That way we won’t all get thrown out at once.”

So, four of us get on the wall, and take turns jumping into the pool. One at a time. And every time, lunkhead leaps over to the pool’s edge in fury, screaming like Neidermeyer in that Twisted Sister video: “NO JUMPING OFF THE WALL!” He even yelled at me, and added, eyes wide in disbelief, “DIDN’T YOU JUST HEAR ME?” as I jumped in a little too soon after he screamed at my friend.

All in all, we torture the kid for about ten minutes before growing bored. The kid has yelled at each of us, one at a time, about fifteen or twenty times in total. He looks like he’s ready to faint, but he’s too proud to admit defeat. But we know it when we see it. We all wave to him, and head out of the pool area.

I noticed Steve didn’t jump off the wall, and I ask him why not. “I was waiting for him to get back on his chair,” he says, “and then I was going to push it into the water.”

Poor little muscle-bound jerk. He didn’t know how close he came …

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Sarychev


I thought this was kinda neat. On June 12 this past year the Russian volcano Sarychev erupted, surprising astronauts aboard the International Space Station, flying a mere 220 miles overhead. The fairly active volcano lies just northeast of Japan, and its fairly active outbursts routinely disrupt air traffic every coupla years. Astronauts took several photos along with video of the event. I was most interested in finding out just how high that volcanic plume rose into the atmosphere (it seems to almost menace the ISS, though I know it really doesn’t), but the three or four sites I went to didn’t seem to have any info on that.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Came By Post Today

...
The Fluger was five meters long, had four
thick legs, a body of impenetrable molecular
density and numerous teeth capable of chewing
diamonds into powder. It was four hundred massive
kilos of violence, savagery and hatred.
When the Fluger arrived as unlisted cargo in the
enclosed city of Olympus, it launched itself on a
murderous rampage which couldn't be halted. It
presented that terrified utopian community with the
problem of how to stop an irresistible force. The
only answer seemed to be a hired alien assassin -
an outer-space humanoid about whom the citizens of
Olympus knew next to nothing except that he
was a professional killer who would not quit
until his job was done.
But when the irresistible force met the immovable
object they turned that fragile city in the sky
into a raging battlefield, and their "savior" looked
to become as much of a menace as his monster
counterpart.


From the back page of my latest paperback purchase ...

Can't wait to read this, The Fluger, by Doris Piserchia, author of one of my favorite childhood books of horror SF, The Spinner. Been on my list forever, and I ordered a week ago from an online used book seller. Both novels seem, at least on the surface, quite similar, almost like re-imaginings, so I am extremely curious to see how the plot unfolds in this new story.

This and this may help you understand my weird fascination with Piserchia's works. Or not.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Suggestion for Science


Would it not be an admirable idea if one of those general-interest, for-the-public science mags, like Discover or Popular Science, put out a special issue on this very important but rarely discussed question: What is Science? Make it Scientific American; in my experience it seems to be the most prestigious of such magazines. The magazine could interview, say, the top one hundred scientists throughout the broad spectrum of scientific studies, asking for, oh, five hundred words or so on that question.

One of the themes I would hope such an issue would bring out is the fact that the word “science” is overused, and often used improperly. A decent working definition of science might be, “a systematic, testable organization of facts and theories describing to the natural world.” The essential point I want to make is that “science” has now morphed into an umbrella term which covers much more than the narrow requirements of this definition, particularly that inconvenient truth about testability.

How about a moratorium on the broad, irresponsible use of the word Science? Instead, why not introduce a continuum of categories within Science? A new labeling system, if nothing else. Science already is subdivided by subject, inclusive of everything from the hard sciences (mathematics, physics, chemistry) to the life sciences (biology, psychology, sociology, etc). You can notice that as one moves from harder to softer, Science takes on a more subjective character. Verifiable results from the duplication of experiments becomes more difficult, if not impossible. Indeed, some of the softer sciences are really more collections of developed opinions than what has traditionally been thought of as the thing known as Science.

Why not subdivide Science by the “degree” of Science, in addition to the current subdivision by subject matter. Gradations of verifiability might be a good baseline standard for “degree.” The “strongest” Science would be that which is proven, non-disputed, replicable and testable. It’s almost unbreakable. Most math, I’d guess, would fall into this category, as would huge chunks of physics.

But Science is not just facts and cause-and-effect correlations. It is also the attempt to solve the riddle of the natural world. So, another area perhaps one degree removed from “strongest” would be for theories undergoing the rigorous proof process. The important thing to note here is that verifiability is possible. We have the know-how and the technology, all that remains is to actually do the experiments and submit them to intensive peer review.

This naturally leads to a third category of Science: theories which we do not have the know-how nor the technology to reproduce its predictions. Because of this, its really intelligent and informed speculation, rather than Science. String theory would fall into this category, as would, I’d imagine, hot topics today such as Darwinian evolution and climatology. Of course, as decades go by and man’s technical abilities increase, such theories may move into the previous category devoted to ideas in the process of being tested.

Obviously, this can’t be done in a rigid sort of way, the way one would like to have scientific theorems proven. But I think it still might be beneficial, if for nothing else to regain the “purity” that the term Science has now obviously abandoned. Who could do such “labeling” and what might the names of the labels be? Scientific American might be a good place to start, though it might not be sufficiently ideologically unbiased. How about journals and the governing bodies of each individual science? Again, there might be bias (mostly through the taint of the whole mess of the government funding business). Perhaps a new governing body might need to be created, something like the Nobel Prize committee was at its inception a decade ago (but no longer is now, mind you). Or some body similar to the ones that grew up around the development and expansion of the Internet.

As far as labels go, why not Strong Science, Potential Science, and Speculative Science? Or something similar; anything, really. Let’s be creative, eh? The gist is to never use the word Science without it’s corresponding adjective.

So, we have three categories of Science. Theories tested and proven, theories currently undergoing testing, and theories which we do not yet have the ability yet to test. Testing, to me at least, has to be the yardstick here. Anything that can’t be tested does not belong under the umbrella of Science. Move it under Philosophy, or Theology, or anything else you want, but don’t give it the legitimacy of calling it Science.

Just some thoughts off the top of my head …

Monday, January 11, 2010

Paranormal Activity

Verdict: Very, very, very, very, very good.

This haunted house flick was all the rage a few months ago. Made by a pair of amateur filmmakers for the unbelievable sum of only $11,000, it sat on the shelves for a year or two unable to generate any studio interest until it came to the attention of Steven Speilberg. It has since made something like a billion percent over and above in profit. And it has done it for one simple reason, a simple reason that continually keeps Hollywood scratching its head and trying every single possible way to circumvent it.

It tells a scary story.

That’s it. It’s a horror film that is legitimately scary. How rare and wonderful, and it deserves all the praise it’s getting. So much crap coming out of Hollywood these past, well, decades, I suppose, just fails to get it. They don’t know how to be genuinely frightening. Paranormal Activity contains no booming, ear-splitting outbursts of soundtrack Telling You To Be Scared. There are no spring-loaded screeching cats. There are no scenes of decapitations, dismemberments, gallons of blood, blah blah boring blah. No character is sadistically tortured. None of any of that. What it does so very effectively is create a palpable tone of creepiness from the first couple of scenes, building relentlessly over the 85 minutes of running time.



A young couple has been experiencing some odd events in their house off and on for a while. Strange noises such as muffled bangs, faint scratching sounds, barely audible whisperings. Sometimes a faucet is running inexplicably. Other times a light will be on in the morning, after everything was shut off the night before. Nuisance things, like keys on the floor in the morning when they were left on the counter the night before.

Brave but dumb boyfriend decides to go on the offensive and purchases a camera and some expensive high-tech recording equipment, initially hoping to get some ghostly footage on film for an easy buck. Very quickly, however, things escalate as the entity makes its presence known more and more, and at the end –

Well, let’s just say you need to see it. Oh – only if you have the constitution for very, very scary flicks. This movie is NOT for the inexperienced.

Now … go out and rent it! Better yet, buy it and watch it every Halloween!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Go Scope


This past Christmas I got the quite unexpected gift of a telescope. It’s an Orion Go Scope, and while still technically a low-magnification starter scope, it is much better than the other two or three I’ve had throughout my life. You store it in a backpack that’s about eighteen by eight by eight inches in size, and the whole thing weighs less than ten pounds. And it’s all designed for quick setup. Latches and sliding pieces coordinate easily so a guy with two left thumbs, like me, can get from backpack to observation-ready in about five minutes.

Well, we here in the northeast US have been undergoing something of a deep freeze since the end of December. Brutal winds routinely whip around my house, tugging and twisting and beating the power lines coming to us from the telephone poles on the street. We lost power briefly once, and lost our cable for about two hours one morning. There have been three instances of snowfall, in amounts of six, three, and two inches. Temperatures have been erratic, too. It’s seems to be some weird inexplicable Gorian pattern, something like sub-zero for two days, then a balmy forty degrees, then repeat over two weeks.

Anyway, my buddy calls me up out of the blue yesterday and suggests a night-sky viewing session. I go out on my deck, and, yes, for once the skies are crystal clear. I see brilliant white Jupiter hanging low in the southwest, and immediately to my left, facing due east, great god Mars. Forty-five degrees up in the southeast Orion lumbers drunkenly on his side. Directly overhead is the glittering Pleiades, a magnificent inferno of stars which oddly resembles the dipper when under magnification.

It’s a go, I tell him.

I get everything ready: Go Scope, January edition of Astronomy magazine, flashlight, gloves, wool hat, thermal underwear, sweatshirt, big hulkin’ winter jacket, and, yes, even my opera glasses at magnification of three. Steve pulls up at 8:30 (we both had to help our respective wives get the younglings in bed), and we’re off to the mountains. He’s brought two Cokes and a bag of pistachio nuts, plus his own flashlight, a mean metal mace-like thing with the power of a searchlight and the heft of an aluminum bat. About a half-hour’s ride to the north and we’re in the deep woodland regions just over the New York border.

We find a secluded parking area next to a boat launch. The frozen lake before us goes on and out for perhaps a mile or two, an eerie white expanse ringed with trees on the low mountains surrounding us. The main road is about fifty yards above us, at something like a sixty degree angle, so headlights from passing cars (passing at a rate of about one every fifteen minutes) don’t bother us.

The sky above us is a brilliant jewel box that only seems to show itself at wintertime, and absolutely takes my breath away.

From my house, on a moonless, cloudless night, I can see about fifty stars or so. New York City is fifteen miles to the west, so light pollution from the Big Apple effectively kills any amateur astronomy where I live. But here, a mere fifteen or twenty miles to the north, with hardly a streetlight or houselight about, the celestial dome sparkles.

Orion now hunts with a posse of a hundred glittering fireflies. A quarter-sky turn away, at his feet, sits the Great Square, or Baseball Diamond as I’ve heard it argued before. I follow Andromeda zenith-ward and edge over towards Cassiopeia, but still fail to spot the Andromeda Galaxy, the farthest thing most of us will see with our unaided eyes. It’s eluded me for a while now, and despite easy assurances from books and magazines, I still have not been able to spot it, even in skies dark as this. Oh well.

Directly overhead is the Pleiades, and Ares, fat and cyclopedean, shimmering in the heat curtains of the atmosphere, stares down at us from the top of that sixty-degree hill hiding the main road. We have all our targets.

It’s sixteen degrees out – Sixteen degrees! – and I have to take off my gloves to assemble the Go Scope, put on the finder, put in the eye pieces. In a minute my fingers are numb, and a minute after that they’re starting to hurt. It takes ten or fifteen minutes before I’ve assembled it, and Steve has to help.

I have to give up on the finder, though, and after a few game minutes, Steve, much more handy and practical than I ever will be, can’t get it working either. We take turns manning the scope, and, surprisingly, I’m able to find the objects of our search without Steve’s help. Our first target is Mars, and after five minutes of searching we get it in our sights. Despite its red-orange brilliance, however, the planet fails to resolve itself into a disk, and remains a shimmering starlike point in the telescope’s field of view.

Now, I’m not expert on focal lengths and lens diameters and all the accompanying equations, but I expected to see something sphere-ish in form, especially since Mars is now this month the closest it will be to Earth in a 26-month cycle. In one of my previous telescopes I was able to resolve Venus to a crescent, so I felt a little cheated by the great god. So, Mars was the great disappointment of the night.

We turned to the Pleiades, but because it was at zenith the Go Scope had a tough time keeping it in view. The telescope kept moving slowly along its north-south axis; I don’t know, something must not have been tightened properly. Anyway, it’s getting cold, and with the Andromeda Galaxy a no-show, Mars a Betelgeusian imposter, the Pleiades escaping the new telescope’s tracking ability, there’s one more sight in the sky I want to try for.

You know Orion, right? You know his belt, those three stars almost equally aspaced, right? Even if you don’t know it by name, you know it by sight. Below the belt, perpendicular to it, lays his sword, and just fractionally off to the sword’s side sits the Orion Nebula, M42. I never saw it before with my own eyes, so now’s the time to do it, before our toes become gangrenous with frostbite.

Incredibly, I find it on my first try.

Awesome! If it wasn’t subarctic I’d have goose bumps raised along my arms. In the field of view I see two bright points of light, a seeming quarter-inch apart in a diagonal, surrounding by two flaring whisps of grey-white blur: the whisps of the nebula, hot gas in this fertile region of new star formation. I’m really looking at a nebula! The light from this stellar factory that’s now entering my eyes left when Europe was plunged in her Dark Ages and the Muslim conquests were first raging over Arabia. I feel connected with something bigger and deeper than myself, plugged in to something on a scale so great that I truly can’t comprehend it at this moment.

And all thanks to my Go Scope! Go figure.


Well, after an hour-and-a-half of observing, we’ve had it. Numb and tired, we pack everything up and head on back home. By 11 I’m out of my clothes and into some sweats and a t-shirt, eagerly scanning through back-issues of Astronomy to find a picture of M42 to show the wife, patiently putting up with her geek of a husband.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Noonan on JP II

About half-way through John Paul the Great, Peggy Noonan’s book about her personal ruminations on and experiences with the greatest man of the twentieth century. Since I’m not done and haven’t even begun to digest some of the truly remarkable observations I’ve come across, allow me to simply quote Noonan’s words. Please do yourself the favor and read through these slowly …

“So many times in so many ways over the past twenty-five years I could go back and forth. I would follow the implications of my interior knowledge and embrace belief, and read great classics of religious thought, reach out to those who, it seemed to me, were more knowledgeable, more highly evolved. I would go to church and pay attention. I liked being there. And then I would step back, and stop, and become immersed again in the stupid and alluring world of No Belief. The French in another context call this ‘the nostalgia for the mud.’ They mean a bourgeois romanticization of impoverishment, which is to say they mean it to some degree in economic terms. But I mean it in spiritual terms. Every time I recognized the truth and lived it, I was happy, and when I did not, I was not. And yet I always returned to not-happy, as if that were … warm and happy mud.”

***

“I think finally coming to believe in Christ is like getting well after an illness: You can’t say at exactly what point the recovery commenced, but you know when you’re getting better and stronger, and at the end you know when you’ve recovered.”

***

“My eyes filled with tears. The pope proceeded down the line. As he came closer, I tried to think of what to say. Of all he meant to me. But it was too exciting. There is no right thing to say when you meet a saint in the flesh, when you meet a giant who wants to shake your hand and keep going. And suddenly he was inches from me, to my left. I just wanted to touch him. He came closer and his frozen face was before me. One eye bigger than the other, and tearing. I touched his left hand with my hands. When later I thought of his face, I would think of the scene near the end of the Tom Hanks movie Castaway in which he is floating on his raft at sea, and a giant whale rises from the deep and looks at him with an ancient eye.”

Hey – I remember little of that movie, but that scene has always stayed with me!

***

“I still have the picture of our meeting. I never saw anyone take it and was surprised to receive it in the mail from the cardinal’s office. I look happy, transported. John Paul looks serious.”

***

One of my fervent desires in this life is to meet someone like John Paul II, and be inspired and motivated and … transported, I suppose … willing to do all for Him, at 110 percent instead of the normal 5 or 7 percent that I churn out on autopilot.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Science and Faith Cage Match

There’s a lot of friction nowadays, it seems, between those two umbrellae of generic capital-nounishness, Science and Faith. Particularly, at least how I’ve encountered it, on the side of Science against Faith. Good case in point is the sprinkling of snide throwaway lines that cornerback blitzed me in the book I recently posted on, Life As We Do Not Know It.

The truth – or Truth, yes, allow me another capnoun here – the Truth of the matter is that this need not be so.

May I digress for just a moment? Okay. I come at this problem from both angles. As a young padawan, I see with hindsight that I was equal parts Science Boy and Religion Kid, though I didn’t explicitly know it at the time. Nor did my ultimate light cone or faith journey take me down either path. My point is, simply, that it was not uncommon for me to browse intently through my First Child’s Illustrated Bible then flip reverently through the world’s greatest physics book (lavishly posted on, here). I loved them both, and still love their grown-up counterparts.

So it pains me somewhat to see shining lights and exemplars of apectic mankind on both sides of the aisles at each other’s throats. Because it’s really unnecessary. “And the Unnecessary is the enemy of the Good, or the Beautiful.” (Sorry, that’s a serious line from some terrible black-and-white flick mercilessly lampooned on MST3K. I think.)

I subscribe to the Sandburgian theory of the Meta-Meta-Ness of Ontologicity. Carl Sandburg, that is, that strange and wise and brusk and pithy poet of the pre-modern America we’re saddled to suffer through. The guy who writes poems about Grass and self-aware midwestern cities, and volumes upon volumes of the most intriguing of United States presidents. But the applicable teaching of Dr. Sandburg, the theorem to navigate this hazardous cold war between Science and Faith, lies in the thesis laid out in the poem “Circles.”

You may remember it from third grade. Conceited white man draws a circle in the dirt with a hickory switch (I guess), and says, “This is what the red man knows.” * Then, he draws a larger circle encompassing the smaller one and says, “This is what the white man knows.” Wise sage Indian thinks a moment, then draws a third, even larger circle, encircling both the others. “This is what the white man and red man know not.”

All kidding aside – and most of this post has been non-to-semi-serious twaddle – here’s how I view the conflict. First, there is no conflict. “Science” is that first circle, ever-widening, changing our lives, mostly for the better. Science as a thing, like most things, is morally neutral. It depends on how its used. Thus, Science can bring forth life-prolonging pharmaceutical miracles, and also the atomic bomb. Science pushes ever outward.

But what is it pushing into? A greater circle, which I label with the hopefully inoffensive and non-loaded term, the Transcendent. That’s where we sit, in a circle called the transcendent. I read somewhere that Voltaire, no friend of Faith, once described God as a Circle Whose center is everywhere and Whose circumference is nowhere. Sounds to me like a fourth-dimensional sphere, though I haven’t been able to envision higher dimensions since I gave up hard drugs in the sixties. Anyway, Faith lies within that second, greater circle.

It’s an imperfect analogy, and one I haven’t spent but a few minutes on in thought. But I like it; it fits; and I don’t worry about it.

Thanks, Dr. Sandburg.


* “White man” and “Red man” are Sandburg’s terms – not mine! I’d hate to get the thought police all up in my business. If those terms offend you, may I suggest substituting the terms “Person of European descent” and “Person of Native American descent”? The resulting aesthetic ugliness is the price we pay so someone somewhere does not have his/her feelings hurt.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

A Clash of Kings

Finished reading George R. R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings Tuesday night after a marathon reading session (over a hundred pages of stealth reading each of the last three days). I couldn’t put the darn thing down. And earlier yesterday, coupon in hand, I drove down to my local book retailers and bought the third book in his four-book-to-date series.

As far as A Clash of Kings goes, what can I say that I haven’t said before, here and here? The first book of the series, A Game of Thrones, purchased used as almost an afterthought, completely and utterly blew me away. I can’t write strong enough how good these books are, and I’m speaking as one who really isn’t a fantasy geek. Martin continues his multi-thread epic, following a dozen or so main characters and a cast of hundreds. Kingdoms and castles, island nations, sea battles, sorcery, the undead, deceit, scorched-earth, armored armies and cruel mountain bandits, three or four belief systems with corresponding gods and goddesses, the ceaseless circle of struggle and triumph. It all undeniably flows, and you care about these people; you want justice for the wronged and for good to ultimately win the day.

However, I’m detecting a pattern. A Game of Thrones was 807 pages long; A Clash of Kings 969. Looking through my newly-purchased copy of A Storm of Swords, I note that it is 1,128 pages in length. It seems each book is 160 pages longer than its predecessor – hey, that’s an average-sized science fiction paperback, like the dozen or so I have unread on my bookshelf behind me. After Thrones I read a couple of short peripheral books. I’m going to continue the tradition. This time, before starting on Swords I’m planning on reading The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey and A Case of Conscience by James Blish.

To the uninitiated (and I am basically one myself), Josephine Tey was a master mystery writer of the 40s and 50s who died too young. I read perhaps her most famous novel, The Daughter of Time, back in November of 2007, while recuperating from my first heart procedure. Incidentally, the novel’s protagonist, one Inspector Grant, is also recuperating, only from an accidental injury he got On The Job. Bored and laid up in a hospital bed, Grant turns his inquisitive mind on solving a centuries-old crime: Did King Richard III of England kill the two young heirs to the throne in the Tower of London to gain power? What develops and how it develops and Grant’s conclusions I found very enjoyable, entertaining, and enlightening. I saved the book to re-read one day.

Anyhow, The Singing Sands is Tey’s follow-up to Daughter. Grant is still the protagonist. And, if I believe correctly, Ms. Tey died either before the novel was published or shortly thereafter.

Blish’s A Case of Conscience has been on my radar for years, and I finally found it by chance a few weeks ago. It got bumped up in the reading rotation, and I should get to it next week. Expect a big post about it as the novel details some difficult ethical questions, and I can’t wait to roll up my sleeves and wade into the thick of it.

Oh, one more thing about the world of A Clash of Kings. I mentioned in an earlier post that it could be thought of as either Tolkien without the elves or like a modernized version of The Once and Future King. But experiencing how Martin fleshes out strange lands and peoples, their geographies and customs, their beliefs and their belligerence … well, it reminded me of Shardik, by Richard Adams. Adams is best-known as the author of Watership Down, but Shardik is a more in-depth, more mature and brutal work. I recommend it heartily, and if you’re interested, you can check out my thoughts on that work, here.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Cave Mnemonics

Wanna know a mnemonic that I came up with when I was little? Okay! It condensed out of my deep-tier memory banks when I was reading that astrobiology book a few weeks’ back.

Ever been in a real cave? See how it looks like you’re in a gaping, fanged mouth? Well, those teeth that hang down from the roof and poke up from the floor have names. As an amateur scientist, I came across them often as a kid, and could never keep them straight. You may have, too. Which are stalactites, and which are stalagmites? I could never remember until I came up with this memorization trick.

Stalactites are the fangs hanging down from the ceiling of a cave.
Stalagmites are the fangs poking up from the ground.

Got that?

StalaCtites – Ceiling.
StalaGmites – Ground.

C – C, and G – G.


I have since learned that I was not the originator of this mnemonic, as you can probably gather from the photo of the pretty lady, dating from one of the Roosevelt presidencies. Still, though, not bad for a ten-year-old, eh?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Don and Doof

...

Don’s hanging with his friend, also named Don, but for clarity’s sake, let’s call the friend by his last name, Duferschand, or Doof as he is often called. It’s a hot summer day and they are riding their skateboards through what they think are the abandoned corridors of their high school. The school doors are open because one wing is used for Art School for children of varying ages, and another is used for Summer School. Don and Doof will be freshman there in two months. Both will spend time in the summer school wing.

Anyway, they’re skateboarding up and down the hallways, whoopin’ and hollerin’ up a storm because they think they have the whole building to themselves. The smooth tiled floors and arched ceilings, combined with rows and rows of closed lockers, amplify the ball bearings of their wheels by at least a factor of ten. The lockers, too, prove too much a temptation. Doof has the bright idea to take a stick he’s found somewhere and rattle it off the locker handles, making the ruckus borderline deafening.

Admittedly, the high school’s a big place, and the teachers teaching art and remedial whatever hardly hear them, but hear them they do, since it is July and there’s no air conditioning, and all the windows and doors are open. These men are just doing this for a paycheck, and no one wants to be there, and I can’t blame them. Someone sends someone to see someone at the main office, and while Don and Doof are speeding up on their second lap, the principal, grumbling over some headache-inducing paperwork, is informed of their presence.

Just past the gym the duo spot a bald angry man stepping out of a room about twenty or thirty yards in front of them. Momentum will do little but stop them right at the fuming man’s feet. “Oh, shoot,” Don says, realizing their predicament. The man carries an air of authority about him, and both Dons know they’re in trouble.

But Doof has a plan. “Hey, Don,” he says, under his breath as their boards slow them down before the apoplectic principal, “whatever you say, don’t give him your real name. We can’t get in trouble that way.”

“Okay,” Don says.

After a five minute verbal lashing, the principal falls into well-known routine. “What are your names?” he demands, pulling out a small ringed notebook and a pen from his chest pocket. He points at Duferschand first.

“Ron MacDonald,” Doof says. They just came from Mickey D’s, so that’s the first name that pops into his head.

The principal scratches it down, then turns to Don. “And what’s yours?” he hisses.

Don’s mouth drops open, and for an agonizing moment he’s helpless. Whatever you do, don’t tell him your real name …

“Don Duferschand,” he says.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Life As We Do Not Know It


[Scientific life as we (sadly) often know it too well nowadays.]

Life As We Do Not Know It, by Peter D. Ward, © 2005


Kinda disappointing, from my own internal buildup, I suppose. Found Life As We Do Not Know It in the used science section of my nearby Big and Nameless Booksellers last year, and it got destroyed in the Great Flood of ’09. A generous relative found another copy on a used book website, and it came in the mail last Spring, and was promptly put into my reading queue. Well, I finally got to it the last week of last year, and it aggressively underperformed as a book on life science.

The theme of Ward’s book is the possibility of life beyond the biosphere of earth. We start out with a tour of both “common” and “unexpected” life found on earth. From this we try to derive basic principles to determine what that elusive thing we know as “life” is. Then, we speculate on where it may be found in our solar system, and what exactly we might find.

Sounds better than it’s actually executed.

Where might we find alien life? Possibly the acid clouds of Venus, the ocean beneath the frozen crust of Europa, the methane-ammonia seas of Titan, the hydrogen swirls of the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, maybe somehow on Triton. The Lunar and Martian crusts would be excellent places to forage for fossils. In fact, in a “manifesto” in the final chapter, Ward pushes for sending paleontologists to Mars and biochemists to Titan.

All well and good, and interesting when a pure discussion of facts and rigorous speculation. That is, after all, why I purchased and read it. The problem with Life As We Do Not Know It is that Ward insists on thrusting himself into just about every paragraph.

Now, I never heard of Peter Ward, and I admit that I am not a keen follower of the heavy hitters in biology today. I come from a physics and astronomy background and wanted to read the book to enhance my ability to write science fiction. Ward might be the Gandhi of astrobiology for all I know; I only know him from his own words. But after getting through Life, I realized early on that he himself is the problem with it.

Maybe he’s a revolutionary in his field. He certainly mentions it often enough. Maybe he knows everyone who’s doing cutting edge research. It’s possible. The fact that there are no footnotes in the work might be okay, since he lists dozens and dozens of books, magazine articles, and journal entries at the very end, chapter by chapter, and this is not a scholarly work submitted for peer review. But then he goes around throwing his name to new taxonomic categories, creating and naming them fully expecting acceptance and implementation. I’m a little confused.

But what got me most, what immediately took me out of the spirit of the work (the hunt for alien life, remember) were the sprinkling of completely unnecessary and irrelevant posturings. About a third through the book it ceased to be a learning experience and became a hunt for evidence of ventings and ramblings of a potentially crazed-angry-liberal-atheist scientist. Want some examples?

“Benner then tried some experiments, using a specific borate mineral named colemanite, which is found in Death Valley. Pretty ironic too, considering that St. Ronald Reagan, no evolutionist, hawked the stuff that might have been the key ingredient in the evolution of the first life itself …” (pg. 94)

Huh?

St. Ronald Reagan, no evolutionist

Are we insulting men and women of faith, here, or conservative-minded folk, or both? Is it really, really necessary for a dig at Ronald Reagan, in this book, printed in 2005?

“This notion of a steady state universe seems ludicrous to us now, but in the nineteenth century it was gospel.” (pg. 142)

So, gospel = ludicrous? Might not Mr. Ward chosen a more neutral set of adjectives to pair up? How ’bout, “This notion of a steady state universe seems ludicrous to us now, but in the nineteenth century some of the finest minds in science accepted it.” Perhaps I’m being too sensitive. After all, the Reagan-insult-out-of-the-blue sent my spidey sense a-tingling. I’ll give him a pass on this one.

Then, this:

“One of the earliest worries by both NASA and the scientific community was that soon after the Bush announcement, there was no trickle-down request for new science to accompany the ambitious new proposal for missions to the moon and Mars. We all know what a deep and scientific thinker our president is. Soon paranoia began to accumulate along with the normal chatter between scientists.” (pg. 167)

Oh no! BDS!* Evil genius yet incompetent buffoon Bush is at it again, wreaking havoc this time in the scientific community!

This was quickly followed by:

“I will reproduce the entirety of its executive summary, for it details why we need to go back to the moon and why it matters to those interested in life on any planet, even if it is of little interest to those born-agains who now rule our planet …” (pg. 167-168)

Those darned knuckle-dragging born-agains! Who rule our planet! Confound them!

Every now and then in my frenetic reading I come across this strange phenomenon: the irrational, counterintuitive, counterproductive, completely unnecessary compulsion for an author to arbitrarily insult a good percentage of his audience. Maybe Ward’s target audience is 95% liberal atheistic scientists, though I don’t think so since he himself claims it’s also “a science book for the public” (pg 47). If so, why would you go out of your way to insult even 5% of your potential audience? Do you disdain potential unit sales and corresponding income that much? I just don’t get it.

So, I don’t recommend the book. I’ll still be on the hunt for another work out there that will help me write harder SF when it comes to what authentic alien life might actually be like.

* Bush Derangement Syndrome.