Saturday, September 29, 2012

Years of Rice and Salt

Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson, was a frustrating read. It's a compelling book, full of 'so wrong it's right' moments, and a very satisfying ending, but it is a slog.

So, if you've never heard of Years of Rice and Salt it's an alternate history novel tracing the six or seven hundred years development in the world once Europe has been completely wiped out by the Black Death instead of only mostly being wiped out. The great civilizations of the world go through revolutions of philosophy and technology that parallel but never recapitulate the events of our own history: Dar al-Islam recolonizes Europe and goes through what might be termed a cultural renaissance in the far-off Central Asian city of Samarkand. A wayward Chinese military fleet discovers North and South America but the colonization and exploitation of the New World proceeds much more fitfully. The Industrial Revolution occurs in Southwestern India in the Travancori states.

As a fan of alternate history, I would say Robinson makes two interesting but risky choices in presenting his tale. The first is in telling the entire history from start to finish. If you are familiar with alternate history tales such as "Man from High Castle" by PDK, you may have grown used to having an alternate history set in an alter-present that mentions the events of the past without dwelling on them. Years of Rice and Salt dwells. It inhabits. It sets up shop, throws out an awing and stays awhile. By the final chapters of the book, Robinson is referring to the cultural reactions to previous fictional philosophical movements in locations and countries that don't exist in our world. I found this part pretty compelling actually, but you don't get there before first hearing an awful lot about Widow's Kang's theory of Cultural Collisions.

An obvious problem with this approach is how to knit together a coherent narrative. In Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson used the device of two generations of families separated by many decades, the struggles of the earlier generation informed the world of the subsequent. Robinson tells his story through the device of a jati, a group of reincarnated souls that pass in and out of each other's lives. There are something like seven reoccurring characters, each one adhering to a naming convention centering around the first letter of the character's name. There is a fiery, impatient revolutionary character ('K'), a placid and patient nurturer character ('B') and a thoughtful observer, ('S'). There's also 'S,' but he's never developed much beyond just being a bit of a jerk. Actually all of these characters are pretty thin and the conflict of their lives, while hinted at, never really comes together. Ultimately we follow these characters because we want to see what outrageous violence Robinson inflicts on the proper course of history.

Which gets to the second risky choice. This one occurred to me late in the book, when the history of Years of Rice and Salt began to finally diverge significantly from our own world. In "A Man from a High Castle," the change to history is an active one. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan defeat the allies. America is now a divided, humbled nation. Something has been done to the world of the characters. In Years of Rice and Salt, the change is an absence. Western Civilization no longer exists but the rest of the world proceeds along pretty much as normal for a good third of the book. Robinson, I believe, recognizes this approach by naming the first part of the book "Awake to Emptiness." The changes to this alternate history are ones centering around what's missing, not what is present. So, ultimately Years of Rice and Salt begins by describing things identical to our history and it's only over time that the slow differences accumulate. The final effect is really powerful but, man, it takes a while to get there.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Romney Moment

Spend enough time on r/ politics and you're bound to get your fill of awkward Romney moments but this really is a memorable one.

I've watched this twice and really I think Joe Scarborough's reaction is, if anything, restrained.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

iPhone Update


Christmas in September has finally arrived. I'm still waiting for my update to finish but I'm excited by the improvements. There's no way I'm getting the new iPhone so this is the next best thing.

My pick for best feature I haven't tried yet? Turn-by-turn navigation. It's the one thing I really miss from my old Droid.

The promise of Siri improved is also intriguing but I'll believe it when I see it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

My problem

...Is there is too much to write about!

That's the thing about having a blog, all of a sudden things I keep finding things that I really, really want to write about.

I don't think of this blog as a diary. I think of it as a collection of very short, very topical informal essays. But after a few days of cool television, weekend recreations and Romney gaffs, I'm floundering. What to talk about first?

Let's go with my gut, which is the Gaffe.

This is going to probably extend well through the rest of the week and a lot of (e) ink has already been spilled on its behalf but let's not lose sight of the crucial point of the 47% comment. Mitt is a bad candidate. He was bad in 2007. He was bad during the primaries. He was bad after the primaries. He's bad oversea, he's bad in a convention. He just sucks as a politician.

Now, some of you are smirking and saying: aren't good politicians the ones you have to watch? I would argue no. I would say that having a person in office that relates well to people, who can 'explain stuff,' like Bill Clinton, who speak to the people's concerns...that's not a bad thing. We want a politician in office but we want a politician who does his or her job. Mitt doesn't know how to do his job.

I laughed ruefully at the SNL opening when Jay Pharaoh had his Obama raise the choice for this election: "Do you want someone who is barely working or that guy?" Obama can be distant, cool, and overconfident but he's learning. Romney couldn't figure out how to sled downhill if you pushed him.

And for me, that's the election.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Quick Impressions from Florence

Florence and the Machine create music that sounds like Dusty Springfield backed by Peter Gabriel's band. The look they carry is that woman in every Art Deco print from the 1920's: green diaphanous dress swirling around a sylvan free spirit framed by pyramids, mirrors and fountains. None of these images really gel together, exactly, as much as flow in and out of each other like the dreamy superimposing of stage shots they projected on the big screen to either side of the Comcast Center's stage.

Florence Welch is another largely undigested blob. She sings with a piercing, soulful soprano, reaching for the emotional urgency of say Aretha Franklin or Donna Summer but always skating away at the last moment of each note into a playful release. Florence struck me as a forest spirit of some type. A pixie, or a sprite, or an elf. She skips around the stage, twirling in her green dress, flipping her auburn hair, accepting tokens from the front row of the audience like a delighted Tinkerbell before once more flitting away in a whirl of silk and pale out-stretched arms. Her band, particularly the back-up singers, at times had to adjust timing or pitch to follow along their capricious singer.

The audience itself was curious to me. It occurred to me, walking into the Comcast Center, that it's been 20 years since I first began listening to what I thought of as "my music." Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and REM seemed to me to be important, necessary, authentic, and part of some great generational shift just then lapping against the collective unconscious of America. To listen to Nirvana was to take part in something in itself, to be joined to something. That's how it seemed to me in high school at least.

But that was a generation ago. Dodging the hordes of pre-teens, post-teens, young adults, and families I was struck by how inclusive music has become in the terms age groups. While everyone pretty much looked the same, Florence produces music that produces a remarkably similar reaction in a variety of ages: to twirl, hop and skip. When did this happen? I think there is still music that is primarily 'teen' music or 'protest' music, but I don't remember entire families going to a concert and enjoying each other's company in a manner so free of irony or embarrassment.

Everyone owns iphones and everyone raises them up during the quiet moments in the songs to capture the forest spirit before she flits to some other corner of the stage.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Back to Skyrim

After finishing Fallout New Vegas, it's back to Skyrim for a few months. I bought Dawnguard and I'm sure I'll plunk down a few bucks on the Hearthsim expansion at some point. Weighty sigh.

So much unfinished business from my last play-through. I only got to maybe a third of the Daedric quests, I really only finished the Mage College faction quests and I didn't even bother with the Civil War story arc. This game is enormous.

But it's also surprisingly compact. I remember in my first play through wandering through the tundra and coming across one astonishing ruin after the other and basically feeling depressed that I would never get to every site again. This time I've paid more attention to how the game achieves that sense of a vast untrammeled wilderness while still piling up all sorts of interesting places to go. One way it does this is by clever world design. As the crow flies, Riverwood is not far from Whiterun, certainly not as far as Helgen is from Riverwood and yet the journey seems to take long because the path the game offers up is filled with these coiling series of switchbacks. By the time you get to the plains around Whiterun you  feel like you've walked across an entire province when in actuality you walked up one side of a hill and then down the other.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Dinosaurs...On a Space Ship!!!

Your enjoyment of the most recent Doctor episode pretty much rests on your amusement at the title of the show and reading of said line by Matt Smith. If you, like me, have always secretly been waiting for just such a line to be uttered by anyone then you will like the second episode of season seven.

In any series as long and convoluted as Doctor Who themes and motifs are bound to appear. A few I could name off the top of my head would include the Doctor as Savior, the Doctor as Destroyer, the banality of evil, 'timey wimey' plot twists, and the nature of reality. This episode falls into a special category I might term 'Sky Sharks,' after the flying fish and sharks that appear in "A Christmas Carol." Basically the idea behind a 'Sky Shark' episode is to take two or more ideas that have no business being included in the same sentence: for example, 'sharks,' 'sky,' and 'carriages' and then slapping them together into some bizarre juxtaposition. At its worst this impulse leads to episodes like "Aliens of London," which basically seems like an excuse to have a guy in a pig costume run around squealing. At it's best, you get episodes like "A Christmas Carol," and "The Next Doctor," which find something new by fusing genre tropes like robots, clockwork robots, sharks, and Charles Dickens. Probably the apotheosis of this aesthetic is "The Wedding of River Song," which has a scene of a train on an elevated track steaming into a Great Pyramid of Giza emblazoned with 'Area 51' sign.

So, for Dinosaurs on Spaceship we get the following elements: dinosaurs, cranky trigger-happy robots, a space ship that looks like a tinker toy model, a big game hunter and Queen Nefertiti. Oh yes, and there's Amy and Rory and Rory's Dad. And a story that ties this all together. And missiles. I think that about covers it. No wait, I forgot the villain Solomon, played by David Bradley with crutch waving glee. It's a mess.

It was one of those episodes that I find really difficult to dislike because I feel like the whole thing was written by the kid from Ax-Cop. On the other hand, as much fun as the episode was, I noticed a few places where hints about the future were dropped. Last week we met the next companion. This week we got dark hints about the Pond's departure. Amy is still the girl who waits but she appears more and more eager to imagine a life apart from the Mad Man in the Blue Box.

Thoughts on DNC

The first sets of tracking polls are beginning to reflect a bounce for Obama. In the vocabulary of pundits, it's difficult to know if this trend will prove 'sticky,' or endure for longer than a week but clearly the convention was well-received. The speakers were more passionate, direct, and effective than the ones on display in the Republican convention the week before. It's become a kind of standing joke, but seriously, can you remember anything that anyone said in Tampa other than what an empty chair was supposed to have said?

Michelle Obama revealed herself to be an amazing political speaker, subtly and deftly mining the deep emotional concerns of Democratic voters. It will also be interesting to see if the demographic shifts in Texas allow Julian Castro to capitalize on a great keynote speech.

Then we have Bill Clinton. Someone suggested to Obama that Clinton become the "Secretary of Explaining Stuff," which I think, in retrospect, was the one thing this administration needed all along.

The feedback to Obama's speech has been less laudatory. The comment I heard most frequently in the wake of the applause was "workman-like," and "free of detail." In truth, I think it was a fine speech but not one of his best performances. I also suspect this might be by design.

I'm guessing that Friday's disappointing unemployment numbers were not a surprise to the President. Thursday's acceptance speech struck me as a very measured response to continued shaky growth. Ask yourself for a second what would have made the greatest negative impact to the president's reelection? A mediocre speech acknowledging trouble ahead followed by Friday's numbers or a rhetorically lofty, pounding oratory followed by the thud of Friday's numbers. I would argue this speech was deliberately calibrated to avoid high contrast. The speech was not quite up to the level of Clinton's but it was also not a belly-flop.

The first rule of politics is do no harm. I'll take an unmemorable speech over gales of laughter at an empty chair any day.