Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Half-Made World

 

Author: Felix Gilman

I think the allure of Westerns comes down to two points: the mystery of the frontier and the simplicity of the white hats versus the black hats (though often those white hats are trying to wipe clean the tarnish of their past). 

It’s hard to capture the spirit of exploration these days.  There are few mysteries left to the surface of the Earth.  I can crack open Google right now and see any place on the planet.  Mention the name of an exotic culture, and I can find out most of what there is to know about them from Wikipedia in a few minutes.  How do you capture the since of vastness of the world that Westerns have provided to generations past when the whole of the world seems known?

In The Half-Made World, Felix Gilman solves the riddle.  Set, roughly speaking, in a parallel 1860s, the world exists on a continuum between the well-known, well-solidified East, and the mysterious, tumultuous West, where Creation itself is not yet complete.  In between is the vast frontier of the Half-Made world, stable enough for living, but plagued with Powers unintentionally called forth from mankind’s subconscious.

It would be easy to label Half-Made World as Steampunk.  After all, it’s got steam – in the form of the demonic Engines that rule the bureaucratic army that is the Line – and it’s got punks – the chaotic Agents of the Gun.  But to label it as such overlooks the fantastic (in both senses) elements.  The Line and the Gun are engaged in a Great War between mankind’s lesser attributes – as the Agent Creedmore put it, humans made the Gun out of their spite, and the Line out of their fear.

While Gilman solves the riddle of the frontier by making the world only half-made, our heroes are not white hats.  One might be, the Doctor Liv Alverhyusen, who is broken but ultimately recognizable as a civilized person.  But Creedmore, possessed of a demonic Gun and a certain joie de guerre, is complex but ultimately sympathetic.  The clear villain, Lowry, is a middle manager of the Line, proud and ambitious despite the Line’s distain for individualism.

All three are charged with recovering a General whose mind was nearly destroyed by a weapon of the Line.  But this General may know a secret would could forever change the balance in the Great War.

The book charges through at a bullish pace, but if you cling to, you’ll come to learn a lot about these conflicted characters as the evolve under the pressures of their missions.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the book feels almost unfinished (I’ll spare you the wordplay).  This isn’t quite fair, the story promised in the opening is the one that is closed.  But there’s a cliffhanger – a clear invitation to a sequel.  The story I wanted to see finished will carry on, probably for many books to come.

But, really, if the worst you can say about a book is that you want to read more of it, that’s hardly so bad, right?

Advertisements

On the other hand, it’s a pretty good name

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn hates government waste.  I mean, who could like it?  It’s right there in the name: waste.  Only junkyard rats could like it.  He hates it so much that he publishes a database of earmarks in the omnibus spending bill and an annual Wastebook.  His principle is to bring the citizens’ attention to wasteful spending, and hopefully have it stopped.

So far, so good.  The problem is that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  Highlighted among the Wastebook projects is a $700k study of methane production by cows.  Now, to a Climate Change Ostrich like Coburn, that seems like an extravagance.  To a person who understands science (and is not merely “trained to read scientific documents”) and the risks posed by climate change, methane production is a very important part of the greenhouse picture.

This puts me in mind of the recent YouCut program, wherein citizens are encouraged to search for soft-science-sounding words in the NSF grant programs, and then to send in whichever ones they think don’t sound sciency enough.  This is a dangerous trend – science is hard, and its benefits are not always readily apparent- but it has an upside.  This should force working scientists to make better efforts to bring their work to the public and to make them understand why it’s important.  This will be tough going for those working in basic science – for example, semiconductors were the obscure toys of condensed matter physicists for decades before they revolutionized the world.  How do you explain that the fruits of your labor (and the citizen’s patronage) might not be realized for decades?  But they have to try.

One has to hand it to Coburn, though.  He’s not attacking science funding for the sake of it – he also criticizes the antiquated paper publication of government documents which simply go right to the recycling bin (and that costs 1000 times more than the cow study, which got top billing), and takes a hard look at the defense budget.

And Wastebook is a pretty fantastic name.


The Great Mashup

I was starting to write a post about the potential for futility in the sport of blogging.  The thesis was something like, “My thoughts are statistically unlikely to be unique, so what’s the point in expressing them when someone else has probably already done so?”

Then I realized that this question applies to virtually all creative human endeavors, at least in the age of the internet when all works become accessible to basically everyone.  This itself is obviously not a novel thought – “there is no new thing under the sun.”

So, what exactly is the value of the rehash?

I feel like I should discuss how I think I came to this crisis.  I spent years in graduate school and a postdoc to master the scope of human knowledge in a narrow field (like so).  I knew what was known and a fair bit about wasn’t.  And, best of all, I knew an original idea if I heard it (or had it).  Why?  Because I knew what there was to know in the tiny segment of inquiry in which I was engaged.

And there are few areas in which one can do that.  According to Malcom Gladwell, it takes 10,000 hours of effort to master a field.  You’ll live for about 700,000 hours, but for half of that you are probably sleeping or fighting entropy for daily existence.  So, in principle, you could master 28 things during your adultish (over 15 years old) lifetime if you did nothing else.

That actually sounds like a lot.  But remember that it would take 12 hours of daily sustained effort to reach that.  So, realistically, if your job isn’t super-demanding, maybe you could master 10 things in your life.

You can blog about 7 topics (when you’re 80.  For now, probably fewer). Not too shabby, really.  Unfortunately I’m too young at this point to have mastered that many things, and I’m interested in discussing topics beyond the narrow focus of my professional expertise – I get enough of that in my professional life.

So, to have a broader conversation I have to go beyond the limits of my  expertise.  Fortunately, anyone can use the internet to get up to speed on a particular issue.  Unfortunately, any contribution they make afterward is potentially non-unique in two ways – one, their knowledge on that issue is predicated directly on the thoughts of others, and two, with enough people focusing on a given topic, many people will generate the same ideas in parallel.  So bloggers shall bloggily blog their blogged blogs with the information they found and entering into the discussion, but, because of the reasons listed above, their contributions are redundant – they’re more often remixing than composing.

So that’s what the blogosphere is, really, The Great Mashup.  We riff and rap off of one another, introducing plenty of new blood, and progress is made incrementally across the entire sea of contributors – new samples, if you will.  The value of blogosphere is that incremental achievements are amplified and disseminated (though, so are competing ideas).  But that’s not just the blogosphere, that there is what you call civilization.

So, that’s my answer, if I need one.  I’m contributing to the Great Mashup, trying to add a little more cowbell along the way.

*Thunk*


Television What I Did Watch Today

I don’t know whether you go in for British comedy panel trivia shows, but if you do, you should watch QI.  And if you don’t, you still should.

Like so:


Lamb

Lamb

Author: Christopher Moore

Chris Moore is a very capable writer who skillfully mixes humor, fantasy, and truly deep emotional elements into very compelling novels.

Lamb is perhaps his most famous (notorious?) work, a story of Jesus’s childhood as related by his buddy, Biff. Biff tells us of their travels, their travails, and the growth of Jesus’s understanding of his role.

Some may have a reaction against such a premise, but despite Moore’s generally irreverent humor, Jesus comes off very sympathetic. Essentially, Jesus plays the straight-man to Biff’s goofy, lewd, or numskulled comedy.

The book in genuinely hilarious, yes. But interestingly, it explores some interesting philosophical terrain with shocking depth. There are a few lines that I’ve added to my own personal worldview as a result.  In particular (though I’ve been unable to confirm whether it is original):

The three jewels of the Tao:  compassion, moderation, and humility.  Balthasar said compassion leads to courage, moderation leads to generosity, and humility leads to leadership.

There are scenes that made me squirm – sexualized young teens, for instance – but these are few, and can be defended as appropriate for the book, both in terms of history and plot.


Gilding

Welcome to my tlog- that’s “internet log” for all you n00bs. I hope you enjoy.

For starters, I’ll be importing book reviews that I originally wrote for another blog, most of which will show up before this post.