Sunday, February 26, 2006

Review: Local Heroes, Kurt Busiek

Kurt Busiek's Astro City is a post-modernist take on super-heroes, the quintessential American mythos. He relies very much on your latent knowledge of super-heroes, and populates Astro City with clones and derivatives of them --- the Superman clone, the Batman identico, the speedster, and all the correspondent types. His approach is unique in that he does not discuss their abilities and their origins (except in one case, and that was only to provide an interesting perspective on his version of Batman). Instead, he takes the oblique view, providing a look at the heroes from a small, limited perspective.

This collection starts off with the point of view of a doorman at a local hotel, and then rapidly cycles through a host of ordinary people, including a comic book writer, a retired hero, an attorney, a ex-superhero's girlfriend, and a young girl who leaves Astro City for the first time to visit her countryside relatives. Each of the stories come with a little twist, and each tale revolves somehow around a superhero, but from the perspective of an ordinary person. The art is well done and consistent.

Overall, the series and the book is recommended. Kurt Busiek is no Alan Moore in the early nineties, but he is the equal to Moore's current series of books.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Review: What's the Matter with Kansas

This book was all over the political press last year, and frequently cited as a good explanation of why the Democrats keep losing election despite having a much better platform, much better track record of governing, and much more palatable policies.

Written in a style that's sarcastic (that's "witty" for some people), and not without more than a little bitterness, Thomas Frank first provides a short synopsis of Kansas history. Kansas in the 1890s was a bastion of left-winged politicians and reliably Democratic. The shift to conservatism, Frank writes, mostly occured in the 80s and 90s, and is driven largely by culture warriors, not economics.

Franks provides a history of the religious radical right and its seeds in the anti-abortion movement, which was quickly seized upon as a platform to build a far right largely oriented around cultural issues while mostly centered around (in policy) tax cuts for the rich. He interviews interesting folks such as Kay O'Connor, who is not your typical fat-cat Republican, but a relatively low-income person who wishes to "turn back the clock" on cultural issues:

"I'm a happy captive of forty-three years," she tells me, "and I am obedient to my husband in all things moral."

On economic issues, O'Connor says:

"Why should we be penalizing people for being financially successful?" she asks. "When you take from the rich and give to the poor, that really is Robin Hood, and that's just theft. Robin Hood was a thief."

Franks explains that the culture wars can never really be won by the right, since political victories can't do much to change culture (which is largely provided by the entertainment industry), and so these repeated failures to win the culture wars keep the right extremely riled up, despite winning all three branches of the government. It's difficult, for instance, to push creationism in public school, but each loss in the courts only serves to spur the religious right into another frenzy of political activity.

It is only in the epilogue that Franks comes down on the Democrats:

The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the organization that produced such figures as Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Terry McAuliffe, has long been pushing the party to forget blue-collar voters and concentrate instead on recruiting affluent, white-collar professionals who are liberal on social issues... As for the working-class voters who were until recently the party's very backbone, the DLC figures they will have nowhere else to go... Besides, what politician in this sucvess-worshiping country really wants to be the voice of poor people? Where's the soft money in that?

To a large extent he is over-simplifying the issue. Bill Clinton's economic policies were by and large, well-informed, and served the poor well, despite also being good for the wealthy. Free trade does do a lot of good for the poor, despite a lot of hand-wringing from the left. Having said that, I understand where Franks is coming from. In a political environment where the losers from free trade feel enormous hardship without wage insurance or other mitigating factors, I cannot imagine a blue collar worker who cares about his self-interest voting for a free-trading Democrat. To my mind, the charge that "there's no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans" stem largely from the free trade agreements that have been signed by both parties when they were in power without any mitigating policies to help protect the losers whatsoever.

I'm a believer in free trade and its ability to not just help the poor in the US, but the poor in all parts of the world as well. But if you asked me to choose between fiscal responsibility, protecting the environment, providing a reasonable social safety net and a national healthcare system that works and free trade, I'm happy to flush free trade down the toilet any time. The big mistake that the Democrats have made is not realizing that political tradeoff, and with the large decline in labor union, it may never recover. While Clinton's policies were very sane, I think that a largely uneducated population that gets all its news from TV (and Fox News) will never be able to understand why his policies worked as well as they did (yes, he was lucky, but he also had policies that capitalized on his luck), and will only remember him for his relationship with a certain intern.

But the alternative, that the right-wing Republicans capture power for all time is even more scary. A USA where the schools teach creationism isn't going to be fun, even if you're rich. Laws that revoke women's right to votes, ban women from the workplace will make America a poorer place, in spirit and in reality. Research will grind to a halt, and the innovation spurts we are used to seeing will be gone. Fortunately, there will be a backlash before it goes that far (I hope).

In the mean time, I think (as Franks wrote) that I can find it in myself to enjoy the deep tax cuts for the well-to-do that the religious right has forced down my throat to the detriment of themselves and their children.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Figure skating: Sport or Art?

Dan Engber complains that figure skating has become a video game:
Here's how the new scoring system works: A technical specialist identifies each move that a skater performs, and assigns to it a level of difficulty. Then the judges rate each of those moves with a "grade of execution." To compute a skater's total score, get out your "scale of value" chart and cross-reference the move, its level, and its grade. For example, you'd get 7.5 points for completing a basic triple axel. A perfect triple axel earns a couple more points, and a lousy one a couple fewer.

With such explicit scoring rules, skaters have learned to pad their numbers. A brief look at the chart reveals that a string of fancy moves done badly is worth a whole lot more than a string of simple moves done with grace and élan. What about tumbling on your ass? According to the rules, a fall on a jump automatically gets you the lowest grade. (Every fall also earns you a one-point deduction.) But if the jump is fancy enough, that low grade will still be worth big points...

There are required elements, of course, and limits to the number of jumps you're allowed to attempt. But skaters who know the system can treat it like a video game, stringing together fancy combos so they can rack up a high score.

And you know what, I actually think that's a feature! I don't watch figure skating myself (no TV, and no real interest, thank you very much), but to me, that's the difference between sport and art. Art should be flawless and look good, but sport should be about atheleticism, ability to perform on the event, with bounded rules and as much as possible, no subjective judgement necessary.

In a running race, nobody scores points for style --- it's whoever crosses the finish line first, even if he was the ugliest person since Humphrey Bogart. If figure skating wants to be an Olympic sport, it shouldn't be any different otherwise, it's not a sport, and should be thrown out of the Olympics. I don't understand why anyone should complain about the new rules for figure skating. To my mind, if the rules don't encourage risk-taking and achievement of the hardest possible jumps and stunts, then the rules would not be congruent with the spirit of the Olympics.

Review: Shock Rockets

Kurt Busiek first came to my attention through his conception of Astro City, a neo-superhero world that takes a respectful view of the super-hero genre while providing a fresh take on it. (His "Batman" character, for instance, has a secret that was both original and interesting)

Shock Rockets is his attempt at juvenile science fiction, similar to John Varley's Red Thunder. It features a world where Earth survives an alien assault by stealing enough alien fighter planes to turn the tide. Only 6 of those planes survive the war, and are now used to maintain peace in the post-invasion world.

The story starts with a disenchanted kid who accidentally ends up piloting one of the rockets when the pilot dies (with only the slightest tip of the hat to Abin-Sur handing over his ring to Hal Jordan). He then starts to discover that the ships and his world aren't quite what they seem to be on the surface.

The story deals with many interesting social themes, from class resentment to team integration. The slow reveal of the story behind the ships and the world behind the story is also skillfully done, and the art is excellent. The end of this volume provides a plot revelation that obviously leaves plenty of room for sequels, which I hope will be as interesting as this first book.

Recommended.

Review: Akira

I saw Akira the movie several years ago, and it felt like a movie made from a book --- the movie didn't quite make sense, despite the technical virtuosity behind it (the voices from the child actors were recorded first, then the animation drawn to match the voices). It reminded me quite a bit of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a movie that did not make sense to me until I read the Arthur C. Clarke novelization (which apparently was written while the movie was filmed).

So when I went to the source, I hoped that it would be coherent and sophisticated. Unfortunately, it seemed that while the movie did not encompass all the plot points (the romance beteen Kaneda and Kei was removed with the character of Kei being eliminated from the movie, for instance), it held true to the spirit of the manga --- lots of explosions, an inexplicable plot, with no "science" whatsoever behind the fiction. The ending was unsatisfying as well.

All in all, not recommended.

President's Day Ride

I wanted to see if there was any snow left on Skyline, two days after a once a decade snowfall in the Bay Area. I climbed Pierce Road and Highway 9 with no trouble, seeing no other cyclists except a mountain biker on Pierce Road who turned off towards the reservoir. The amount of car traffic was considerable, however, indicating that many folks had the same idea I did. The weather was warm, prompting thoughts that the snow might all be gone already.

A left turn on Skyline Blvd brought further climbing and the temperature rapidly dropped under the shade of pine trees. I stopped at an open space to check out the visibility --- unfortunately, it was not clear to the coast --- a light haze filled the air and I could not see the Big Sur coastline hidden in the clouds.

As I approached Castle Rock State Park, I started seeing patches of residual ice on the roadside. The road surface became sandy and grimy and quite wet. As I approached Castle Rock, I observed that the parking lot was full. Sure enough, there were kids throwing snowballs at each other! The tree branches above me were still laden with snow, the melting of which caused droplets of water to fall on the road (and on me). There was a crackling in the air as pieces of ice broke off from the snow clumps and landed onto the road. I stopped for a couple of pictures and then moved on.

Past Castle Rock, the road began a rapid descent, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the Christmas Tree farm along Skyline was inundated with snow in its open spots. The descent on Skyline is normally enjoyable and fast, but with the road surface dark and wet, I did not want to risk running over any black-ice and kept my speed down. About a mile from the Black road intersection all traces of ice and snow went away and I could relax again and enjoy the open scenery all around me.

Past Black road, Skyline Blvd becomes a one lane road that has relatively light traffic but many blind corners, which I took prudently despite the lack of motor-traffic since Castle Rock. The reason for this lack of traffic became apparently when I ran up to a "Road Closed" sign. It looked like a minor bit of construction, so I walked my bike around the sign and through the construction. The construction was muddy, and some small stones got wedged in between my brakes and the rim, but a bit of extra water and a stick used as a scraper solved that problem.

Except for an unusual amount of traffic down Bear Creek road, the rest of the ride was uneventful.

Snow on Skyline Blvd

2 days after it snowed, there's still some residual snow in trees on Skyline Blvd near Castle Rock State Park. It was cold, with crackling sounds filling the air as the clumps of snow disintegrated as it melted, dropping pieces of ice onto the road. The road was moist and gritty with all the dirt stuck to the pieces of snow, but there wasn't any ice. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Those fluffy things are called clouds...

We don't usually see them in Northen California when it's not just pouring on us, so it was indeed a rare day. Posted by Picasa

Yet another Black Mountain Summit picture

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Snow on Black Mountain

It snowed the last couple of days, so I had to climb Black Mountain to see if I could see some snow. Posted by Picasa

Monday, February 13, 2006

Einstein's Dreams

This is a cute little short book about time. It's a novella full of little montages about alternate realities where time is somehow different. People who know a little bit about the Theory of Relativity will understand the references to special circumstances where time does behave differently, even in our universe (near a large gravity well, at high velocity, etc), but those are merely references, not allegories.

The writing style is light, almost whimsical, and the chapters short and easy to read:

In this world, it is instantly obvious that something is odd. No houses can be seen in the valleys or plains. Everyone lives in the mountains.

At some time in the past, scientists discovered that time flows more sloowly the farther from the center of the earth. The effect is minuscule, but it can be measured with extremely sensitive instruments. Once the phenomenon was known, a few people, anxious to stay young, moved to the mountains. Now all houses are built on Dom, the Matterhorn, Monte Rosa, and other high ground. It is impossible to sell living quarters elsewhere...


This book is recommended as a light read.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ammonite, by Nicola Griffith

This book is not science fiction. First of all, a virus that kills all the men and only 20% of the women is scientifically implausible. That the same virus might give all surivors access to a collective Jungian unconscious is even more implausible. The last straw came when I read the author's afterword at the end of the book:

Women are not aliens. Take away men and we do not automatically lose our fire and intelligence and sex drive...


As far as I could tell, only aliens could have lived on the planet that Griffith describes: there's no easily accessible medical technology, yet every woman survives childbirth. The "men's world" of technology (referred to as The Company)is equally implausible --- despite great scientific advances (ability to manipulate DNA that can create a vaccine without access to an actual viral sample), they are unable to disinfect returnees or provide advanced medical help better than a splint?

As a fantasy, this book fails as well. The protagonist does boneheaded things that in any sane world would have resulted in death or worse. She makes decisions that binds her cohorts and colleagues without consulting them, and then expects them to agree to be bound by them, and in general behaves like a total dick.

All in all, that such a book won the Tiptree Award while David Brin's Glory Season was denied it will lead me to ignore the Tiptree Award in the future as a possible signal for the goodness of a novel. Brin's comments as such appear as a text file here. Download by using "save as" and view using emacs.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Dick & Donna Matthews

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Eric & Cynthia up Canada Road

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Riding along the farmlands of Morgan Hill/Gilroy

Lisa shot pictures of Bill Bushnell and other cyclists who were hanging around near our tandem. Posted by Picasa

"That's all folks!"

Marc gets to the end of the route sheet! Posted by Picasa

Route-Sheet Bingo

Route sheets were in short supply at the Morgan Hill LDT today, so Mark Marc handed out pen and paper and the Western Wheelers played "Route Sheet Bingo". Posted by Picasa

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Merchant Princes Trilogy (parts 1 & 2)

I seem to be reading a lot of Charles Stross lately, and complaining that I didn't like his character development. I also have to stop reading book series where the entire series haven't been published yet (George R. R. Martin, I'm looking at you).

That said, The Family Trade and The Hidden Family demonstrate significant improvements over his earlier works. Stross openly acknowledges his inspiration by Roger Zelazny's Amber Chronicles, which feature a family of world-walkers, people who can travel between parallel Earths through the use of a pattern.

Stross does Zelazny one step better, however, by extrapolating what would happen if a family which didn't have supernatural powers actually did exist, and set out to exploit this ability to gain secular power and wealth. He uses the trick of having the heroine of the story be someone who was unaware of her family's existence stumbling into her heritage as a Duchess, and executed a very well-done play on the "adopted princess" fantasy trope, complete with the "princess" realizing that being stuck in a medieval world just isn't very much fun.

The action in the novels move fast and furiously, with little pieces of exposition thrown in that aren't too awkward. The heroine, unlike many fantasy heroines, isn't one of those people whom you just want to grab by the scruff of their collars and shake, is sensible and intelligent, and does what a smart, well-educated person would do in her position (she's just a little bit tougher than your average person, but not any more unbelievable than Veronica Mars was).

Once the action starts, I found the books hard to put down, and to be fair to Stross, even though its a trilogy, you won't come to the end of the second book feeling cheated even though the ending is yet to be written.

Recommended.

Monday, February 06, 2006

West Old La Honda Road on Saturday

Winter riding in the Bay Area: lush green hills, beautiful weather, and lovely lovely roads. Photo Credit: Roberto Peon Posted by Picasa

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Review: Coraline

Scarlet considers this one of her two best books of 2005, so I checked it out of the library and read it. It's not a bad book by any means, but I don't think it's anything special. It's definitely not even in the same class as StarDust, which I consider to be the best of Gaiman's prose works (by the way, buy the one with Charles Vess illustrations, which is the way the book was published --- the "words only" version are for snotty people who don't think that comic books can't be considered literature).

The horror I find to be rather pedestrian, but then again, I don't think I was ever the kind of kid (or now, adult) who could be horrified or scared by words on a page --- visual horror can terrify me, but not novels or books. The real horror in the book, for me, is the portrait of a child thoroughly neglected by her parents. I guess I can be grateful that my parents always found time to play with me, and gave me such imaginative tools and toys in my mind that I was never ever bored, either as an adult or as a child.

Anyway, it's a short book, so it's not a waste of time.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Two interesting articles in this week's New Yorker

First, there's a Book Review of The Man Who Knew Too Much, a biography of Alan Turing that doesn't sound like it's worth reading. However, the review provides a nice, condensed summary of Turing's life that's very much worth reading. The definitive book on Turing is Alan Turing: Enigma, which I read a while ago and remember as being quite good.

The second great article is an article by Malcolm Gladwell about Profiling. It busts the typical myths about profiling, and uses excellent journalistic technique to illustrate his point. I subscribed to The New Yorker on the basis of Gladwell's visit to Google, and if only every issue was like this one I'd feel like I got my money's worth.

Of course, what annoys me is that we don't have a magazine even half as good as The New Yorker here in the Bay Area. We get crappy stuff like Gentry Magazine, a magazine for people who worship wealth and its privileges, and Sunset Magazine, a vapid lifestyle magazine with no depth. Ah well. In exchange we get good weather and a fabulous outdoor life. Now, if only my copy of the Rivendell Reader would just show up! Now that's a magazine I'm proud to have contributed to, and one that could only exist in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Review: Singularity Sky

This was Charles Stross's first novel. An information war is being waged on Rochard's World, a colony of the New Republic, an authoritarian regime. The regime's response is typically militaristic, but two representative of external agencies attempt to intervene, resulting in a spy story set in a science fiction universe where time travel is possible. Stross was a computer scientist, so at least he attempts to get his physics right, and make references to John Conway's Game of Life, which a lot of software engineers and mathematicians are familiar with.

The characters, alas, are not very developed, and one gets the idea that they exist for the sole purpose of the plot, rather than being real people you could meet and like. In this, at least, Stross has the same problems as other hard science writers like Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter. Just because you're a real scientist/mathematician of some sort doesn't guarantee poor characters, as Vernor Vinge aptly demonstrates.

The sequel to this novel is Iron Sunrise.