Monday, February 28, 2005

Well, hell. Some poor kid from Kentucky coal-mining country got arrested for writing a SF-ish short story about a high school overrun by zombies based on a law against making terroristic threats against high schools. His grandparents turned him in. Is this typical behavior among coal-mining folk? If so, I start to see where Fred's coming from, on the subject. For some reason, I thought that one of the virtues of Appalachian hill-folk was clannishness - you know, protecting one's own. Not turning your grandkids in to the thought police.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Those rumors about Lynn Swann getting ready to run for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Pennsylvania appear to be true. A black conservative football hero as the Republican candidate. That ought to be entertaining, if it comes off. There'd be blood on the wardroom walls in Philly.

Via Professor Bainbridge.
Jessica, I don't know if you've seen this, but I seem to remember that you were playing around with knitting a while back, and I thought that you might be amused by the notion of radical political knitting, and the idea of someone trying to show that knitting is transgressive and "erotic".

That last bit really cries out for illustration, doesn't it? No links to follow, sorry.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Anime Jump is pretending to introduce an anime-con advice column called Con Nazi. Half amusing, half annoying. But the scalding hotness of the pink-haired girl in the "sign whore" photo has left me too busy drooling to complain. Much.

I just submitted a write-up for the year I was con-chair for the Big Anime Con Which Shall Not Be Named, only five years after it was due. The Vice Chair verbally spanked me for naming names in the manuscript. Hey, I'm still the only ex-chair to submit a writeup for his or her year's events, so pttpth. I'll link it when it goes up.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Jack Chalker died earlier this month. He had something of a reputation on the con circuit, and I haven't read one of his novels in years, but he was something else in his prime. I used to devour his novels as soon as they appeared on the shelves in the local bookstores. They got me through some fairly grim and lonesome years when I was a kid. I can't say I'm surprised that he died - he wasn't exactly the healthiest of individuals, even back in the days when I still went to SF conventions - but it's still a bit of a shock.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Fred had something on his blog the other week about Mountain English, and hillybilly jokes. (Fred, I have difficulty telling whether or not the Daily Blatt is back or not. Sorry about delinking you for so long - thought it was in abeyance.)

I have to admit that I've told dumb-mountain-hicks jokes before, and played up the whole "mountain man" routine. To be honest, I'm not hill country - I grew up in the North Hills of Pittsburgh, which, while hilly, isn't Appalachia - more like yunzer territory, strained through a generation-and-a-half of suburbanization. But the full beard and the glower fool people into thinking I'm something I'm not - a local - and thus I'm in a position to play games with expectations. I don't know, is that a sort of blackface? If so, I apologize.

I don't generally have an ear for dialect - I can barely identify my own, let alone replicate that of others'. I do think that dialects are dialects, and t'heck with these goofy half-languages - I don't care if you have an army, you're still mostly English, or mostly Dutch, or whatever. Which reminds me of this highly amusing post about the trials and travails of "UlsterScots", newly-recognized minority-language of the EU.

But I never had to lose my yunzer accent, nor was I pressured to do so, aside from the twice-yearly finger-waving article in the Pittsburgh Press or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the horrors of sounding like a Arn City hunkie. In fact, when I remembered to, I often played up what little accent I had while I was at college, doing my best to drive the Philly folk bonkers. It still drives Dave Asher nuts whenever I propose to "worsh" some clothes.
That's just fucking charming. Choads.
I feel sick. Whenever someone goes on about tradition and honor, think about a young woman tied up in the back seat of a taxi bound for the empty desert. Murderous fucking lunacy. Don't let the bastards tell you it's their religion. This shit isn't about some atheist's projection of "sky bullies" or "bearded vengeance-demons", it's about the self-regard of miserable, selfish old men and their solipsistic and blasphemous worship of their severely over-extended egos.

These men are the same breed of bastard who become family annihilators in the West - those moral cripples who think of their families as literal extensions of their selves, so that when they commit suicide, they start with the outer-most extensions, and work inwards towards the core, eventually reaching their physical selves. Except the honor-killing traditions allow them to just stop with an expendable daughter, or sister - expunging the shame with the least loss to the collective self.

Via K.J. Lopez at the Corner.

"Josve novem svete, tak prohoba speak American!"

Ann Althouse, in a discussion of Greg Easterbrook's nth partial-ingestion of his footwear, on the subject of lingua francas and whether minority languages ought to be neglected or celebrated, linked to this impassioned Irish defense of minority and artificial-nationality languages. [I really ought to re-subscribe to the New Republic. I let my subscription lapse last year, but maybe it's time to go on back, yes?]

First of all, I don't think that Easterbrook would actually argue in favor of enforced monolingualism. He doesn't strike me as that sort of guy - but I will have to find a copy of the full, unexcerpted piece to double-check my assumptions. The excerpts seem to suggest that he's arguing for benign neglect - an absence of celebration of microculture. Musgrave, the irate Irishman, talks as if he's infuriated by this suggestion, but then proceeds to give an account of the Gaelic League, and Irish nationalism's obnoxious use of Gaelic, which does everything but march across a Pyongyang stadium waving flags in synchronized-uniformed-proletarian-crowd fashion to convince me that the politics associated with minority language and nationalities based on minority languages are noxious, fruitless, and scary.

There are two examples of modern nation-states which have used an artificially-resurrected language, reclaimed from the bin of history, as mortar for their new nationalities - Ireland and Israel. Israel's self-invention through the reintroduction of Hebrew makes perfect sense to me, really. The various Jews, Christians, and Muslims who transformed the bulk of the British mandate of Palestine into the nation-state Israel didn't share a common lingua franca. The local Jews, Christians, and Muslims spoke Arabic, as did the Sephardic Jews who fled the Arabic pogroms of the late 1940s. The European Jewish settlers, and later refugees from the Shoah and American Jewish settlers after the founding, however, spoke no such thing. They spoke Yiddish, or English, or French, or Russian, or whatever. The reintroduction of Hebrew, a liturgical language not used in daily life, anywhere, prior to the Zionist foundations of the late Nineteenth Century, provided a common difficulty - the learning of a new language which didn't politically advantage any of the linguistic factions involved in the founding. It was a common linguistic gathering-point for a polyglot collective defined not by language, but religion, ethnicity, and accident.

The Irish-Gaelic counterexample, however, is a completely different story. Here, we are presented by the example of a colonial population, mostly absorbed into the dominant culture, in which the original language is a rural remnant on the decline, even in the countryside. Everybody either speaks the lingua franca, or aspires to do so, for social and economic reasons. The political re-introduction of the remnant-minority was used as part of a non-rational program of cultural idolatry - ancestor-worship through a dying language. There was no need to cement together populations divided by language, because they were already speaking the same, dominant, imperial language - there was just a minority who spoke something else while at home. Note in Musgrave's account, that it wasn't the rural speakers of Gaelic who typically pushed the nationalist-adoption of the language, but rather, academics and middle-class revolutionaries and radicals who saw that adaptation as a form of exclusion, of definition.

The Irish use of Gaelic was not inclusive, but rather analytical - not centripetal, but centrifugal. The Israeli usage of Hebrew was to make Jews (and local natives) Israeli - to weld together a polity. The Irish usage of Gaelic was to make individuals not-English - to renounce membership in the Imperial project.

In many ways, the Gaelic project was compulsive - which rather explains why modern Gaelic is not a living, breathing language, but is rather more of a liturgical language in the Irish civic religion, and seems to be used primarily for official purposes and high-cultural demonstrations of linguistic virtue.

Really, if I had to deal with the Irish political culture on a day-to-day basis, I might find myself searching for a new Empire, a new Imperium, to sweep away the petty cultural fascisms. I might find myself jumping at the chance to drown the Irish state in the post-national universality of the European Union, no matter how idiotic or obnoxious d'Estang's phonebook of a constitutional draft might be.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Sigh. Much better discussion of Steven Gould's Jumper and Reflex than my lame and halting blather. I suppose it might help if I would actually go and read the Count of Monte Cristo one of these days...

Sadly, the actual post links seem to be dead. Where is my fix of Robert McElwaine madness?

Damn your criminal Armenian grandparents! Now I have to go look up Hasan B. Mutlu/Achmed Cosar/Serdar Argic.
Steve Gould is a SF author with a fairly low output - he's only published five or six books in the last fifteen years. However, there are some really excellent juveniles in that meagre collection - specifically, the Wild Side and his first novel, Jumper. the Wild Side is definitively a juvenile - the feel is sort of like H. Beam Piper writing from a Heinlein juvenile-novel outline - but I might have mis-characterized Jumper. At the time, the wish-fulfillment aspects of the plot - victim of child abuse develops a near-godlike ability to teleport, remakes his life as he grows into adulthood - led me to think of the novel as a really, really excellent young-adult novel. The fact that he followed it up with the equally excellent the Wild Side cemented it in my imagination as such. When he started writing adult-themed novels like Blind Waves, I was a bit disappointed - while fine books, Blind Waves and Helm didn't have the spark of his earlier work, and I was afraid that he was "growing out of" his talents.

This is why I was less than enthused when I saw that he had written a sequel to Jumper, more than a decade after the publishing of the first book. Jumper had not really cried out for a sequel - the character-arc was complete, the protagonist's power was such that the real conflicts of the book wasn't between him and the various terrorists, government spooks, and father-figures, but rather within his own skull - his emotional development. That emotional arc was pretty much complete by the end of the book, with him happily married, secure, and well-employed as a freelance spook for the NSA. (Why the NSA? For some reason, the CIA doesn't exist in Gould's Jumper world, or at least, is never seen on stage or mentioned. Peculiar. I'll get back to that in a bit.)

The new novel, Reflex is being advertised primarily with a description of the plot, so I won't be spoiling anyone any further by saying that it begins with the clever kidnapping of the superpowered hero, Davy, and offers an elaborate imprisonment "A story" of operant conditioning, alternating with a "B story" of his wife's quest to find her missing husband.

As a plot-description, it sounded idiotic, a total hash of the original novel, and I had initial qualms. The way Gould moves forward with the story redeems the pulp outline, however, and I found myself tearing through the book in a single sitting. Gould definitely shows himself to be a disciple of Lois McMaster Bujold's "what's the worst thing we could do to this character" school of action-novel plotting, and it's vital to maintaining interest in such an excessively powerful personage as Davy the multilingual, unstoppable, uncontainable supernatural god-of-spies. The villains are terribly, terribly careful in their construction of constraints for the man who can disappear from any pen, any cell, any jail. They're fighting with the basic impossibility of bending to their will a man who can jump to the other side of the world from any given situation, or, even worse, the other side of the wall - right in your face. The fact that the villains make a good show of it makes that part of the novel compelling.

The other half is problematic, in a self-respect sort of way. It's unapologetically pulp, one-half authorial special-pleading, one-half wish-fulfillment, and way more fun than it ought to be. In short, Davy's wife, Millie, ends up inheriting his ability to flick back and forth through space. She "jumps". This is a violation of the premise of the original novel, in which Davy is unique, and unreplicable. There were suggestions that the talent might be genetic, or some sort of mutational freak. Nevertheless, after her husband disappears, leaving her stranded in their insanely-remote West Texas mountain place - called "the Aerie" and inaccessible except via Davy's talent - she discovers that riding along on thousands of "jumps" has somehow taught her the reflex that allows "jumping". Of course, she learns this by nearly falling to her death in an accident while trying to get back to civilization, so it's not nearly as lame as it sounds, but still - comic-booky as hell.

Gould makes some genuflections towards literary and thematic merit by tying together the "reflex" goals of the harsh, ugly operant conditioning at the centre of Davy's story, and Millie's learned reflexes as she develops the family power in her search for the villains. Gould almost pulls it off, but in the end, it's just really brilliant pulp. It isn't juvenile, however - not with all of the torture and sexuality and violent grotesqueries - and I'm not sure if I've mis-categorized the original novel, or if Gould has jumped sub-genres. The wrap-up at the end of Reflex leaves the door open for a trilogy-finale, and I suppose Gould has earned the right to a pulp-trilogy trifecta.

Gould does his best to keep the book moored in a semblance of reality. Davy does chores for the NSA in retrieving North Korean nuclear scientists, and inserting agents all over the world. Real mercenary groups are mentioned, and real situations are cited. Back when Jumper first came out, the novel's fixation on Middle Eastern terrorists seemed somewhat archaic - dated Eighties attitudes towards terrorism. You know, it was the Nineties. We were watching the end of history, and that sort of thing was old-fashioned. Now, more than a dozen years later, it makes a heck of a lot more sense. Strangely, Gould drops that line, and takes an even more old-fashioned attitude which I won't get too heavily into to avoid spoilers. Let's just say that I find his sudden anti-capitalist line a bit peculiar.

Oh, yes - the supplanting of the NSA for the CIA. Most if not all of the work Davy does for the government is through the National Security Agency - the good old "No Such Agency". The strangeness here is that the real-world NSA isn't exactly a two-fisted HUMINT-and-counterintelligence-cowboys outfit. They're wire-spooks, crypto types and electronic surveillance boffins. Instead, they're shown doing stake-outs, running security perimeters, and quarrelling with the FBI. What does this mean? Damned if I know, but it's really odd. Does Gould have a day-job at the CIA or something?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Mmm. Brilliant morning. Yellow and gold and orange with the purple-gray-green mountains in the distance.
We watched the first two episodes of Gallery Fake last night. It's this Seventies-TV-flavored, cool-jazz anime about a rogue art-dealer who specializes in authentication and counterfeiting scams. He runs a small gallery in Tokyo that specializes in really, really good fakes - the eponymous "Gallery Fake" - along with his Arabic-princess little matchstick girl of an assistant. It sounds exactly like my sort of thing, but the writer or writers just couldn't pay off on the premise. None of the scams really make sense, and you leave the episodes more confused than enlightened. He produces "real" versions of fake paintings straight from the deus ex machina, which is annoying in a narrative sense.

Furthermore, I still don't get how the deauthentication scam of the first episode works internally - the conspirators falsely label authentic paintings as fake, passing them out of the museum's collection at fire-sale prices through the suborned dealer. But how do they get back on the market as "real"? I thought the whole point of authentication was that the trail of ownership was known - the provenance of the painting, from painter to dealer to owner and so on. How do they "wash clean" the false accusation? The writers of Gallery Fake don't bother to tell us, don't fill in the gaps. Villains just look shifty and get shafted by the brilliant protagonist, and we're supposed to applaud his brilliance. Except the shafting seems to consist of the protagonist paying three times as much as he was supposed to for the Monet in question. Presumably the conspirators were the ones putting the painting up for auction, through some series of cut-outs or fronts. Didn't he just overpay the villains for their work?

It drives me a little batty, because the subject is sort of interesting. I don't understand the world of high art. I'm a prints sort of guy - a believer in the mass market and art for the general crowd. The one-off painting of unsurpassing fame and vast price is a fundamental mystery to me. The basic aesthetic quality of the multi-million dollar paintings seem to be only a slight fractionate element of the auction price. More important is the uniqueness of the work, the creator's reputation, the work's reputation, and the train of ownership. The metadata about the painting seems to drive the pricing of investor-grade art more than anything intrinsic about the thing itself.

Here is where counterfeiting and fakery become interesting. They produce work which are, on an aesthetic level, no different to my philistine eyes than the true metal stamped from the original press. Even if that aesthetic value of the false work is fractionately less than the true work, since the aesthetic value is such a minor element in the pricing of the work, the metadata surrounding both works is what is important to the investors, bidders, and curators.

The protagonist of Gallery Fake holds great thematic potential here. There are slight suggestions in the narrative that might lead one to the supposition that some fakes could be better than the original work - that the counterfeit might be aesthetically superior to the true metal. Someone who deauthenticates real work exposes the art to the open air of raw criticism - strips it of all pretense and borrowed glory, and leaves it reliant on its intrinsic, aesthetic merits. Such a protagonist would be noble in the existential sense - severing art from art history, ideology from aesthetics.

I suppose I'm expecting too much from a slight bit of fluff like Gallery Fake. But these are the ideas that come roiling to the surface when someone stirs the waters, you know?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Was just talking to an agronomist about the "Asian Rust", the fungus that's been wasting its way north through the soybean growing areas of Latin America, and that made landfall in the US last autumn. Word is that it grows on kudzu as well as soybeans, which means that it's inevitably going to become endemic to the American southeast. No way they're going to gas it out of the country if it's lurking in every kudzu patch from Gainesville to Shreveport.

The question right now is if they can deal with Asian Rust with a single fungicidal spraying per season, or if it's going to take more than that. The profit margins on soybeans are low enough, and the application cost is high enough, that more than one pass per field per year would make the whole business untenable on the east coast. Luckily, our company specializes in weather prediction for agricultural spraying purposes, which means we're in a position to offer predictions as to when the new rust is going to strike in any locality, and when the wind patterns and hydrology is best in the window-period for a fungicidal spraying.

Best case, Asian Rust just becomes one more pest for agribusinessmen to factor in their cost-benefit risk analysis. Here's hoping.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Friday, February 11, 2005

For all of y'all coming here via the Corner, I don't usually make a big deal of it, but I work for an IT company that does a lot of GIS work, which means I get to play with a lot of mapping applications and the like. I'm not so much a map geek as an assistant to mapping professionals of a sort. However, like a lot of wargaming enthusiasts, I do have that giddy fascination for a good contoured map, the representation of reality in two-dimensional color and false-perspective.

DeLorme's Topo USA 4.0 is installed on my work machine, and to be strictly honest, it's my primary tool. We've got various real GIS applications all over the place, and I do a lot of hand-editing on detailed GPS-indexed agricultural data, but that isn't the exciting stuff, is it? Topo USA 4.0 gives the pretty, pretty pictures, and it's actually a decent resource for finding locations in the continental US. Most often, I use Mapquest if Topo USA is letting me down, but in most particulars the software beats the website, especially if you've turned on the topographic features on Topo USA. For online topographic neatness, you can always go with Topozone, but that website is essentially a really comprehensive set of digitized topographic maps at various resolutions, rather than a truly interactive map webapp. Outside of the continental US, you'll be wanting Multimap, which I've found to be pretty useful for Canadian informational searches, and for following along with American blitzkrieg warfare in the Middle East.

As with most things, Google is your first stop for finding the unknown, or refreshing the half-remembered.

Real GIS professionals play with ArcView and other, better tools, I'm told. I used to use ArcView a bit, but frankly, I'm not a real GIS professional, and it's a monstrous pain in the ass. We have our in-house GIS applications which I can't show you due to it all being only for paying customers, sorry. You can contact us if you're really interested, but I doubt we're going to get many agriculture professionals looking for GIS work around these parts, no?
I've been spending time reading the Grantville Gazette, Vol. 1. It's essentially a collection of fanfic set in Eric Flint's Grantville/Ring of Fire/1632 conceit, edited and approved by said author. The irony is that the collection is more interesting than the first volume of the series, which had serious character and writing issues.

I have a weakness for these sorts of collective Robinson Crusoe stories, going right back to Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky. They're like boy's own adventures for entire communities. Steve Sterling, who's wrote a lot of 'em, seems to be saying in Conquistador that the appeal of these drop-the-home-town-in-Ancient-Rome stories is that they're imperialist fantasies, colonial playacting. Maybe so.
I learned the other day that the Bellefonte Wok had been located down on High Street before I moved up here. I had gotten so used to them being in in the Brockerhoff that it never occurred to me that they started out somewhere else. Ironically enough, I discovered this because an online reference site had retained this six-year-old phone and address for the Wok, while all of the paper phonebooks in the county have long since caught up to their new location. So much for the vaunted flexibility of the internet, yes?
Hiccups. I hate hiccups. How can something be so harmless while being at the same time the most misery-inducing condition known to otherwise-healthy man? The only cure I've found so far is to make like a jellyfish in my chair, completely limp. Otherwise, all the cures - gargling water, heavy breathing, tensioning, not breathing at all, bends, etc - seem to be bunk.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

NPR was on about Sharon and Abbas looking to begin a "new age of peace talks". What an unfortunate prospect! To mangle Twain, the difference between a "new age of peace talks" and a "new age of peace" is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.
OK, I'm split on the Shanley verdict. On the one hand, he sounds like a right ripe NAMBLA-founding chickenhawk. On the other hand, if there's two dozen accusers out there, how come the only one they went to court with resulted in a case built on "recovered memory" testimony? Is it some sort of statute-of-limitations bullshit? (I guess so.) As far as I can tell, "recovered memory" is nothing more than guided confabulation with an agenda; the idea that it can be used in a court of law is about as welcome to me as the prospective return of spectral evidence.
Seven in the morning is too early for "Dead Things", FX.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Well, the flu did its best to kill me dead, but I seem to still be here, so nuts to the flu. The office was a real plague ship on Thursday. I was half out of my mind with fever, and they came thisclose to renting an angel-with-burning-sword to get me to go home. The apartment is something of a mess, what with the blankets and used tissues and random crap laying about. My apartment is more a place for storing my books and crashing at night, than somewhere you'd want to be stuck in for long periods of time.

Bedding issues meant that I finally opened a Christmas gift from the relatives, and discovered that I had been gifted with a denim comforter for my bed. Denim. I guess they were out of sackcloth? Well, I suppose I exaggerate - for denim, it was remarkably soft and not-sack-cloth-ish. But it's still a coarse twillish sort of deal, where. I managed to soak the new bedsheets last night, so I suppose I'm gonna have to wash the whole load some time real soon now, anyways.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Gah! Everytime I need to go do something, I come down sick with some sort of bug. Last Friday, it was a head cold. Today, it's an incipient chest-congestion sort of thing. I *had* been planning on going to give blood this afternoon, but I can't go donate if I'm on the verge of something infectious, can I? Bah. They've been nagging me ever since I missed giving in December. Maybe it'll go away by the seventh - there's another blood drive then, over at the Elks'.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

I suppose I should mention that I was off at a convention-meeting that is, in itself, a convention entire. The staff for said anime convention has grown so large that there are more staffers than there were attendee/members at the first convention, back in 1994. I'm theoretically more active in staffing than I have been for years, but I can't claim that I was all that active last weekend. I sat and read a book during the interminable discussions over revisions to the bylaws on membership definitions, and when I finished the book, I took off, while they were still working item e or f of sections a through, hrm, k maybe?

[The book was SM Stirling's Conquistador, his latest love-letter to colonials and imperialists. Well, that's a tad unkind, but really, I'm starting to spot a trend, here, what with the Draka, the Nantucket trilogy, the Peshawar Lancers, and so on. The gist of the story is that a Virginia vet found a way into an alternate-history dimension in post-WWII Oakland,CA, and founded a "Commonwealth of New Virginia" with his war buddies, and what seems like every displaced colonial population produced by the second half of the 20th century. Stirling seems to like to play with the tension between colonial racism and what he sees as the cultural, ecological, and economic virtues of the colonial lifestyle. Personally, I think he exaggerates the environmental wisdom of his hypothetical New Virginia, but hey, it's his soap-box. And you gotta respect a SF writer who spends his spare time baiting the tools on Democratic Underground.]

Otherwise, I mostly spent the weekend playing games with other staffers, and catching up with Todd Dissinger, who finally made it back up from Alabama for a ComCon. Everybody was going on about playing poker on the mailing lists, but I couldn't find a single game all weekend, which kind of irked me. So, instead, I found myself playing the old stand-bys - Citadel, History of the World, etc. We only got three rounds into History of the World - everybody got tired and bored, and called the game less than half-way through. Wimps.
A friend emailed me this site specializing in the history of Bellefonte. I just read this column about a Keystone Cops foot-chase that apparently did a full horseshoe loop around my block, from North Spring over to the alley across the street from the Moose Lodge down towards the elementary school, ending with the robber hiding in a tree and the cop scratching his head a half-block down the alley behind my place. Inconsequential, but amusing.

For consequential, you have a lot of blogs to choose from, no? Just don't fall for another action figure taken hostage by Islamic Farkers, OK?