Thursday, December 31, 2009

How Books Are Bought In 2009

I was minding my own business, surfing to my favorite blog. Instapundit. He linked to a SF novel twice. The second had an interesting author's story of how the novel got published.

This interested me enough to want the book. But I'm not going out and I doubted Barnes & Nobel has it on their shelves this soon after release. So, I clicked the Amazon link that Professor Reynolds helpfully provided. Sadly, I learned the book is not available on the Kindle.

My sadness was short-lived. "Hey, the publisher is Baen." Those guys aren't luddites. There's got to be an electronic copy available somewhere. So, I bypassed and went to see if they were selling an ebook that I could download immediately. I could.

A few mouse clicks later, I'd purchased the ebook for $6.00. A relative bargain. Moments later, I received an email with links to download the book. I clicked on the link for epub format (for my Motorola Droid and also my SONY Reader) and also mobi format (for my Kindle DX). They arrived on my hard disk and I unzipped them to a scratch directory.

Then I fired up Calibre and imported them into its database. (Think of Calibre as iTunes for ebooks.) Then I plugged in my Kindle DX and told Calibre to upload it. Then I repeated the procedure with my Motorola Droid.

Altogether satisfactory. Less time that it would take to drive to the bookstore. Cost is $6.00. And completely DRM-free. This is the way the future of books and reading should be.

Bleg: We All Make Hell In Our Own Image

I was just talking to High Command about a mutual friend who's going through some unhappiness. From our perspective, it's completely incomprehensible and there's no reason why this unhappy situation should exist and persist. Mid-lament, I remarked, "We all make hell in our own image."

And this is something I've noticed about miserable people. They respond to situations to create web of perceptions that filters whatever reality gets through to them. You can think about Charles Swindoll's comment that 90% of our lives is how we respond to the 10% that actually happens. Mindful of this, I purpose to choose my response. And when I had cancer, I chose to maintain a positive mental attitude, because I knew that was the only thing I could control in that situation.

Thus I've said, "We all make hell in our own image," hundreds of times over the last couple decades. But this time, my wife said, "Did you come up with that yourself?" I remember coming to this conclusion independently, but I seriously doubt that it's original to me.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, I am looking for any "prior art" associated with this aphorism--someone else (and I suspect that someone would be Hindu) who's said something equivalent. I'm offering a small reward, to the person or persons who contribute quotes from philosophy, religion, literature, or bumper stickers that capture this insight.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holmes: Shaken, not stirred

Once upon a time, I ran into an atheist who claimed that the Bible was untrue, because--among other things--it confuses eight-legged bugs with six-legged bugs. Everyone since Carolus Linnaeus began working on his system of biological classification, we know the former are arachnids and the latter are insects. I didn't accept this argument because the Bible was written over 1700 years before Carl Linnaeus was born. The Hebrew word used here is translated into English as "creeping things." At the time of writing, the distinction between insect and arachnid did not exist.

Literary works need to be interpreted in the context within which they're written. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his Sherlock Holmes stories in the 1880s. At that time the public understood a "consulting detective" to be something different than what we understand a detective to be today.

The success of Arthur Conan Doyle inspired hundreds of subsequent mystery writers. The work of this army of scribblers has elaborated the concept of the crime-solving sleuth. The mystery genre has split into two sub-genres: the cozy and the hard-boiled. The cozy probably best typified by Agatha Christie's Miss Marple who solves crimes by her incredible brain without ever leaving her sitting room. The hardboiled is probably best typified by Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer who solves crimes with a hot gat and two fists of iron.

In the last century people have read Sherlock Holmes and they've fit him into the changing categories of thought defined by the cozy and the hard-boiled. Are the Sherlock Holmes stories cozies or hardboiled? If you look at way Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett played Holmes in the movies, it's obvious: The stories about the violin-playing logician residing at 221B Baker Street are cozies.

Thus I was torn when I saw the trailers for the new Sherlock Holmes movie. What's with those explosions? What's Holmes doing in a boxing ring? But, the trailers had this cool steam-punk look to them. That looks cool. I absolutely love steam-punk. But the canon. I'm a big one for a movie adaptation being true to the original literary work. This made me want to spurn the movie. But the steam-punk. I was torn.

It's rather stupid to slavishly insist on faithfulness to the canon when you haven't read any Sherlock Holmes in years (but have seen lots of movie adaptations). As it turns out, the canon is a lot more action-oriented than I'd recalled. For example, Sherlock Holmes of the novels is an expert swordsman and pugilist. Pugilist? I'd forgotten that bit.

The Sherlock Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories is neither the cozy nor the hardboiled detective. He preceeds these categories and he combines properties of each. Counter-intuitively, the fistfighting Sherlock Holmes in the movie trailers is altogether canonical.

Tonight I went to see the Sherlock Holmes movie. Negatives: that Robert Downey, Jr. has a wide face and bushy hair. I would have preferred a longer, horsey face and stringy, thining hair. Christian Bale must have been busy with his Batman gig. That's the ONLY thing I didn't like about this movie. Downey's acting made the character work.

This Sherlock Holmes is a steam-punk James Bond. It seems incongruous that he should become an action hero, but it worked. The inner dialog of Holmes during fight scenes is a delightful trick which serves to show Holmes' cerebrial side. And I thought it worked marvelously.

So, what have we? The Holmes of Arthur Conan Doyle's canon, a character created before the cozy/hardboiled split truly has elements of each. But this movie's screenplay was written in the 21st century, not the 19th. The categories of cozy and hardboiled become thesis and antithesis of a Hegelian dialectic whose synthesis is this movie. Go see it.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Secret News And Other Oxymorons

I came upon this article, "McCain, GOP Secretly Courting Another Demo to Switch." And though I have no interest the activities of John McCain, this news reminded me of a pet peeve. From time to time one sees news articles about secret negotiations here, secret deals there, secret missions somewhere else, or secret treaties with foreign powers.

What bothers me is that if I'm reading about this in the news, it isn't a secret any more. And if it isn't a secret any more, why do the news guys put "secret" in the headline? Don't they realize they've let the cat out of the bag? Don't they care that they have rendered their headline false?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Have these guys always been liars?

One advantage of having gray hair is that you remember ephemera from decades ago. For instance, the pet rock. It was a big hit in the early '70s. Except for the occasional wag who adds a USB port to it, they are ignored and forgotten.

Other things are ignored and forgotten. Everyone just loves Carl Sagan, the dead astrophysicist who taught PBS viewers how to pronounce "billions and billions" with reverential awe. He also used his fame to hype an idea called "nuclear winter." He did so when there was no talk of global warming, but winters had been colder than usual, and James Hansen of NASA was predicting a new Ice Age.

If you ever want to get a Ph.D. make sure you first line up a grant to do your research topic. I've known academics who languish for years in doctoral programs getting jerked around by committees. On the other hand, if you've got a fat government grant coming into the department, you can bet the chairman of the department isn't going to let the committee dilute your efforts with rabbit trail questions. The grant motivates the department to get a result, and your successful completion of your dissertation is part of that result.

So, imagine it's in the early 1980s and the Reagan Administration has no patience with greens suggesting maybe the stuff you exhale is a pollutant. However, Reagan was in the middle of winning the Cold War, and his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, slayer of killer rabbits, had hollowed out the military in western Europe. If the Ruskies came pouring through the Fulda Gap, the only alternative to surrender was to fall back to England and nuke the heck out of the Russian tanks racing through West Germany. This idea wasn't very popular with the West Germans. If you're an aspiring climate scientist, you're not going to get a government grant for global warming. But suppose you can scare the country with talk of a "Nuclear Winter."

Shortly thereafter there were OpEd in the New York Times, Parade & Scientific American magazines with Respected Scientists claiming that even a limited nuclear war would result in the end of civilization and extinction of all life on earth. At the heart of this was a paper flogged by Sagan, et al. in a paper called TTAPS.

Guess what? They lied. A Nuclear Winter won't happen. But that didn't stop a lot of aspiring climate scientists from shaking the government down for research grants to fund their Ph.D.s and Ph.D.s for their favorite students. Turns out Nuclear Winter was just lefty scare-mongering.

Now, imagine you're used to fat government paydays to investigate Nuclear Winter, and further imagine the Soviet Empire implodes making this scary scenario a lot less likely. How are you going to get tomorrow's payday? Isn't that just about the time we started hearing that Global Warming would kill us all?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

If Death Panels Don't Exist...

Months back Sarah Palin was widely scorned by state-controlled media, and those commentators who are wiser than us, when she used the words "death panels." They said that this was untrue. Sarah was lying, that there are no death panels in ObamaCare.

That was the refrain as this legislation made its way through that parliament of whores which is the US Congress.

Today, Mrs. Palin points out that "...the section of the bill dealing with this board can’t be repealed or amended without a 2/3 supermajority vote..."

If I am to believe the Democrats in Congress, not only do Death Panels not exist, but they don't exist so much that it will require a 2/3rds supermajority to repeal them.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Bill Shatner Gets Pwned

Years back I read an article on game theory in Scientific American. It described an experiment where researchers devised a game played by computers against computers. And then they put programmers to work devising game-playing algorithms. I was surprised to learn the winning program was called "T4T" standing for tit for tat.

The algorithm didn't think at all, it just remembered whether the opponent hit him last turn and then it hit back. All sorts of fancy mathematical analysis couldn't beat this fairly simple principle of tit for tat.

We saw this a few months ago when John Kerry made some lame joke about Sarah Palin's dis-appearance. The newsies rushed to get her reaction. A little while later, she obliged by telling a joke about the senator's appearance with the punchline "John Kerry, why the long face?"

Some say the high point of the presidential campaign for Sarah Palin came when she gave her speeches at Dayton and at the GOP convention. Maybe. But I suggest it was the time that I did something I hadn't done for 20 years: watch Saturday Night Live. It was hilarious to see Sarah Palin walk up to Tina Fey goofing on her and then goof right back. Didn't she do a Tina Fey impression sometime during the show?

Mindful of this I shouldn't have been surprised last night. William Shatner has a semi-regular spot on the Conan O'Brian show doing hammed up oral interpretations of books. Last night he did, "Going Rogue." I found his excerpted sentences cringe-worthy. After he finished to everyone's surprise Sarah Palin came out carrying William Shatner's autobiography. And she read from Shatner's book.

The look on Shatner's face was priceless: surprise and apprehension. And deeper concern when he sees that she's carrying HIS book. It's easier to throw punches when you don't think you'll get hit back.

A year ago, everyone thought Sarah Palin was done as a political candidate because she'd been Quayled. Unlike the Vice President from Indiana, Mrs. Palin has devised an effective counter-strategy. Go along in a good-humored way, and then hit back in an equivalent fashion. Winston Churchill once said, "I like a man who grins when he fights."

Winston Churchill would have liked Sarah Palin.

Do you remember when David Letterman said those nasty things about Mrs. Palin's daughters last summer? I don't think its surprising that she went on Conan O'Brian's show. There's just hitting back and there's how one hits back.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Avatar: This Is Not A Review

If I were a lib, I'd write a review of Avatar without having seen it. But I have read some buzz about the film that has disabused me of the notion of assembling the Usual Suspects to go see it.

It sounds to me like this movie suffers from the Hollywood Stupid Tax. And I'm not going to talk about the movie or whether it indeed does do so. Instead, I want to talk about Good Art. Don't mistake my choice of words by thinking I mean High Art. X-Men Comic Books were good art. Babylon 5 was good art. I want to contrast Good Art with Partisan Pornography.

I have a friend who wrote a story where he gave his protagonist the power to grant wishes whereupon the hero had President George W. Bush lose control of his bowels during a nationally telecast press conference. Haw, haw, haw. My friend's partisan leanings are not toward the GOP, and I classify this as Partisan Pornography. Mere wish fulfillment in contrast to the truth of what is. Another wrote a story where all the Socialists were wise and courageous while J. Edgar Hoover was venal and craven. Each depicted the world as he wanted it to be.

Were I to write about an alternate-history where Ronald Reagan served a 3rd term as President, it'd be the same kind of Porn, just different partisans. I am within epsilon of terming Sarah Palin a political pornstar for this same reason. Not that she's ever disrobed before the camera, but that she's become the vessel of so many Conservative wish-dreams. The reality is that Mrs. Palin is not an American Thatcher, though I am not unbiased enough to expect anything less of her.

When the Tigers play the Orioles, I want them to score 20 runs as the Tiger pitcher throws a no-hit shut-out. That's the sports version of Partisan Pornography. Were I a Baltimore fan, I'd prefer the roles reverse.

But the world seldom works like that. And truth is that's a good thing. It's a better game when the score tied 0-0 in the ninth with the bases loaded, two outs, and a full-count on our best clutch hitter facing their best reliever.

Understanding is a three-edged sword the Vorlon of Babylon 5 said: your side, their side, and the truth. Triangulation of this sort is what I think Good Art demands. "The line between good and evil runs through the human heart," said Solzhenitsyn. And thus you can't make plaster saints of your protagonists and utter demons of your villains. Your story must include something that subverts your own side's position and cedes what's right about the other side's position.

You can call this a Hegelian dialectic of thesis vs antithesis. Indeed that's part of my thinking. But not all of it. Mix in some intellectual humility, a recognition that your map does not always match the territory (and neither does his). I think that this is more fruitful than patting yourself on the back and reaffirming what you already know.

I first coined the term Hollywood Stupid Tax when I realized why Star Trek Enterprise had become unwatchable. The show was just too stinking PC to be interesting. It killed the franchise. The closest they came was when they put three episodes in the Spock-with-a-beard alternate universe. It was nice to show them kicking butt and taking names for a change. But that's not right either.

In the original Star Trek series episode, "The Enemy Within," Kirk has a transporter accident and he's split into two parts, a Jekyll part and a Hyde part. Yin and yang. Both are necessary to be interesting. If a writer wants to make good box office, s/he needs to embrace this tension and let the audience negotiate the balance.