Recent books

2017-Sep-20, Wednesday 18:20
mindstalk: (Default)
Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky. Pretty engaging tome on the history of salt's use and extraction, and its legal or military entanglements. Trying to fund a government off of salt tax or monopoly has been common, and commonly hated, from Legalist China to British abuses in India. The US Civil War can partially be told as a history of fights over saltworks. The Chinese were drilling for brine and using by-product natural gas by 100 AD, and doing percussion drilling around 1100 AD, down below 3000 feet by 1835.

Eye of Cat, Roger Zelazny. Time-dilated alien-hunter Navajo, teleport booths, assassins, psi, Navajo shamanism... a weird book, I don't anticipate re-reading.

The Sharing Knife: [Beguilement and Legacy], Lois Bujold. I'd read this series in 2009, and am enjoying it again. Lakewalker powers and their fight against malices gives me RPG ideas, interacting with inspiration from Martin and Hobb and what I think of as "Wraiths and Rangers". Like much of Bujold, has many laugh-out-loud moments in an otherwise serious story.

Penric's Demon & Penric and the Shaman, Lois Bujold. Novellas set in her Five Gods universe, which I finally got paper copies of from the library. (Released as DRM ebooks, which I refuse to support.) Good, and funny, and I'd happily read more.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Patricia McKillip. My first McKillip after all these years. Enjoyable, with a fairy-tale quality to the story and and writing.

_First Contact_

2016-Jul-10, Sunday 14:41
mindstalk: (Earth)
1987 book I just finished, by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson. It's about the contact between white Australians and highland New Guinea in the 1930s, mostly done by Australian gold prospector Michael Leahy, with Leahy's 1930s photographs (and some 1980s ones, by the book's authors.) It's main sources are Leahy's diaries and 1980s interviews of both surviving Australians and highlanders. So we get views from both sides, though most of the surviving highlanders were teens or kids at the time, naturally.

First half or so of the book is a step-by-step following of the initial expeditions, but it later pans out to further developments and reactions, closing with independence for Papua New Guinea in 1975.

Notes:

* The highlanders seem to have been extremely isolated from the coast. They can't have been entirely so, because shells filtered up as highly valuable prestige/trade/moka items, but OTOH they hadn't heard of the white men who'd been on the coast for 50 years, and on first viewing thought the whites were relatives returned from the dead. The highlanders themselves say that.

* Pretty isolated from each other, it seems, or more accurately a person's radius of experience was pretty short, hemmed in by hostiles tribes.

* Volatile mix of racism, paternalism, and humanity among the whites. Michael could readily go for a lethal show of force to "kill before we're killed" while objecting to the bloodfeud killing of the natives or gratuitous killing by his own coastal native 'gunbois'. One brother went half native, taking two native wives and never leaving; a friend from the Administration went full native, being accepted by the highlanders he lived among; Michael turned into an Angry Old White Man, disappointed at not getting wealthy and ranting to his grave against the independence movement.

* Both major Out Of Context problems and rapid adaptation by the highlanders. Took them a while to figure out if the whites were human and not spirit, but quickly taking advantage of the wealth they offered and assessing the physical danger they posed.

* Highlanders somewhat balking at independence, as they had less negative experience of colonialism than the coastal New Guineans, and feared being dominated by the coastals. A Liberian UN commissioner was really surprised at the feelings he ran into. "Development, then independence." Of course, most of the Australians had no intention of developing NG into economic independence, that's not what colonies are for.

* Examples of both benign and imperial introductions of money and trade. The early prospectors weren't that violently rapacious, though killing a fair number of people to establish "don't mess with our stuff"; they brought in lots of wealth of shells, axes, and other goods to buy food and labor with, but the workers weren't losing their own land, and had a real choice to work. Administration and the coastal colonists didn't like independent labor though, and instituted poll taxes that had to be paid in Australian money.

(The prospectors might have been worse had they ever found major gold prospects to dredge. Happily they didn't, and coffee plantations ended up the main means of wealth extraction.)

* WWII was a push toward independence. No mention of attitudes wearing off from the Japanese or the fact of their pushing out Australia, but the returning US and Australian soldiers are claimed to have been relatively egalitarian, a shocking contrast with the pre-war colonists.

* Colonialism probably really did bring down the violent death rate, here.
mindstalk: (rathorn)
_How not to be wrong: the power of mathematical thinking_, Jordan Ellenberg -- already reviewed. Also the only one of these I read on paper. The rest were ePubs on phone or laptop.

(re) means "re-read" in my private book list.
Uh, so I guess minor spoilers below.

_A Thousand Leagues of Wind, the Sky at Dawn_, Ono Fuyumi (Eugene Woodbury translator) (re) -- fan translation of the second Youko novel of the Twelve Kingdoms series. Still good overall, though the ePub I was reading had a lot of text-level errors. I used to send him corrections back when I followed his translations chapter by chapter... oh well. Still funny in several places.

_The Coin_, Muphrid (re) -- A Haruhi Suzumiya fanfic. At 100,000+ words it definitely qualifies as a novel. It captures the feel and tone of the original novels very well, even while making up a voice for Haruhi herself, who is not a POV character in the novels. So doubly impressive. And it's addressing "Haruhi learns she has powers", so triply so.

_A Study in Scarlet_, Arthur Conan Doyle -- The title is familiar, but the content was at best ambiguously so. Not sure if I never read it, or read some massively abridged version as a kid, or just forgot it that thoroughly. To my surprise, it's the first Holmes story, just over novel length (43K); I'd have thought it started as short stories. Serialization, I guess... Notes:
* Holmes wants to go listen to some woman violinist, Norman Neruda
* A ring is found and handed over to the first caller, no "can you describe it" check
* Villainous Mormons! Based on real rumors. Doyle apparently later said "oops" about that.
* Written 1887, set... estimates vary between 1881 and 1884. Putting Holmes stories on a timeline is a sanity-destroying project, apparently.
* I think it's noteworthy how Holmes and the police separately telegraph Cleveland, Ohio, in a rather casual way, to ask about their victim/suspects.

_Dragon Ship_, Lee and Miller. One of the later Liaden novels. I've now read all other than Trade Secret. As usual, a fun read; I think of these books as candy. I dimly recall, possibly erroneously, some fans griping that while the books are steeped in egalitarian romance, it was heteronormantive. No more! There was male-male in _Dragon in Exile_ or _Necessity's Child_, and female-female in this one. Probably in an earlier one I don't remember, given how Theo and Kara fall on each other. That said, I don't recall any same-sex lifemating, or marriage, vs. FWB.

Though if anyone in this series ends up with a harem, Theo seems a good candiate: Kara, Win Ton, and her ship. I guess her dad has posthumous bigamy in his future, too.

Yes, posthumous.

Hmm, I don't have an icon that's specifically bookish. Have a Hodgell instead.

***

Edit to add: f/t ratio!
Nonfiction: 0%

Fiction: a bit complicated
* female author, male translator. Fuyumi wrote the story, Eugene wrote all the words I read. Author hopefully dominates in influence, but.
* fanfic author of unhinted gender. Demographics of fanfic authors and people who hide their gender suggest female.
* Doyle is not complicated
* Neither is a married couple, really

Roughly even?

The POVs aren't:
* 3 girls
* 1 girl
* Watson
* Mostly Theo, but also Kamele and Miri (F), Bechimo, Win Ton, Clarence and Uncle (M).
f/t ~= 3/4 by book, or 5/6 by major character.
mindstalk: (Nanoha)
I bought this popular math book at B&N, for my quasi-niece G2, for lack of anything obviously better on the shelf. I read it before turning it over to her, and it was fun; I think I would have liked it at her age (12) though I'm not sure if she will. Of course, it was less eye-openingi for me now: I've taken classes on Bayesian statistics, I've given talks on voting systems, I've read about the file drawer problem or the exponential stockbroker scam. Still, I did learn some things.

A big one was what he calls "don't talk about percentages of things that could be negative." More specifically, say the US adds 18,000 jobs one month, and Wisconsin adds 9,000 jobs. Does that mean Wisconsin was responsible for 50% of US job growth? The governor of WI would like to say so. But say that California added 30,000 jobs -- does that mean it was responsible for 166% of US job growth? Uh... The trick being that the US number is a net sum of positive and negative (say Texas lost 21,000 jobs) numbers; taking percentages of that is meaningless.

Another example: it's said that the top 1% have taken 93% of US income growth. Sounds pretty bad. But the next 9% might (I don't recall the numbers) might have taken 20% of income growth. Uh oh... we can balance this by actual reductions of income in the bottom 90%. So this is better and worse: more people are doing well, but the rest are actually falling behind, not just standing still. But the "middle class" would probably be less outraged by learning that they were also doing well.


Berkson's Fallacy was something I'd vaguely heard about, but forgotten. It's explained well at the link (by him, even), but the short version is that two independent variables can look negatively correlated if you select for either of them. Like, if you notice nice people or hot people, you'll find that of the people you notice, many hot people are jerks. But this needn't mean hot people are actually prone to jerkiness, just that you ignore plain jerks.

You can extend that to any two variables of desirable things. Niceness and richness, niceness and political agreeableness... say I put up with people if they're personally agreeable or politically agreeable; this will lead to my thinking that my political allies are unfortunately prone to being jerks, when it's more that I ignore opponents who are jerks.


A couple of geometrical statistics I hadn't know: correlation being the same as elliptical eccentricity, and Pearson correlation being the cosine of the angle between two vectors. Simple that way, ugly as an algebraic formula of the components.

Also, correlation is not transitive, the way that Dad and Mom are both related to Baby but not each other. Portfolio 1 might be IBM and Apple, correlated with P2 which is Apple and Honda, but not with P3, Honda and GM.


Reminders of the ubiquity of regression to the mean, and of the variance of small populations, are always useful.


Slime molds apparently suffer a voting paradox. They like oats and dislike light, it makes sense that you can balance them between a big pile of oats in the dark and a bigger pile under a UV lamp. It makes less sense that if you add a small pile of oats in the dark, the mold starts going for the big pile in the dark.

'hazard' comes from the Arabic for dice.

He talks a bit about the damage done by the cult of genius, when those magical moments of insight and revelation take a lot of work beforehand to prepare your brain.

Proof advice: try to prove it by day, disprove it by night. (More applicable if you don't know if it's true or false.) Might get insight into why it has to be true, or find out you were wrong all along.

Condorcet wanted the Rights of Man for women, Hilbert refused to endorse the Kaiser in WWI, and defended giving Emmy Noether a position.
mindstalk: Tohsaka Rin (Rin)
So, I finally finished the Lets Play of the Fate/stay night visual novel. That sentence probably made no sense to most of my readers, so let me expand:

Visual novel (VN): a Japanese thing I'm not that knowledgeable about. It could be as simple as a novel with graphics, simple animations, and sound (music and dialog). In practice, they usually have you make choices, so it's like a multimedia Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) novel. They're also thought of as a game -- and usually H (for hentai) or ero games, with some sexual content -- albeit ones with far more reading than playing. They also make use of running on a computer: as they're usually about relationships (as it were), you can accumulate relationship points with different characters, which affects branches later on, so it's a bit more complex than a CYOA book.

Fate/stay night: one particular VN by Kinoko Nasu. No one knows what the title means, if anything. The English translation has been described as 800,000 to a million words, twice as long as the Lord of the Rings. It has spawned an anime of the same name, which I'm told is not that good (though popular); a manga, about which I've heard nothing; a prequel light novel series called Fate/zero by Gen Urobuchi (basically canonized fanfic) which spawned an anime of its own; and most recently an anime Fate/Unlimited Blade Works based on the second 'route' of the VN, which I'll explain later. I've seen Fate/UBW (strong start, pacing lags later) and Fate/zero (just plain strong, though dark.)

I imagine that there might be some way to run the VN/game in a Windows environment on my Linux box, with the fan-made English translation files. But, that's a lot of work, and after playing the American-made Black Closet, I'm not sure "playing" this sort of game is really my thing. Happily, some heroic servant of the people made a walkthrough, aka a Lets Play, of the (fan-English) game, including all the bad endings and extras, but excluding the (allegedly bad) sex scenes. I started reading it over a month ago, on October 11th. Last night, I finished.

In addition to being long, the player had snarky comments about Nasu's "words word words", long (not that long) philosophical ramblings at times that didn't make tons of sense. So my ideas for snarky titles were Unlimited Verbiage (as above) or Unlimited Nasu Words, for a closer play on titles.

***

In addition to being longer than LotR, Fate/stay night could also be thought of as a trilogy, but in a different way. It's basically three different stories (also called 'routes') about the same characters and general events. Not three different perspectives on the same sequence of events (which could be interesting, and there is a bit of that in the prologue), but three different main sequences, branching based on early choices by the player. (I guess? I'm actually not sure if it branches solely on that; there seem to be aspects of three different related worlds, with differences that wouldn't depend on your choices. But, not sure, don't care enough to hunt it down.) Two of the routes also have two different good-ish endings each, and across all three routes there are 40 Dead Ends (you die) or Bad Ends (you otherwise fail). It's actually pretty channeled: you have to play the Fate route first, then the UBW route, then the Heaven's Feel route. Another reason I figured I might as well just read it.

So, was it good? It was engaging, at the very least: I didn't take a month to finish because I was slacking off in boredom. It does have flaws and confusing bits; never know what to attribute to the original author vs. the translator, I'd guess some of both. By the end of the UBW anime I was joking that the Holy Grail could punch holes in the plot, not just space.

It has more female roles than LotR, and strong ones. You play as Emiya Shirou (Japanese name order), a teenage boy, but interact heavily -- and not just sexually -- with various girls or women. Tohsaka Rin has been called the deuteragonist, as she plays a major role in all three routes, is the heroine (or love interest) of the second, and even gets to be the narrator in the prologue and one of the endings. (She's also an iconic character of tsundere, twintails, and zettai ryouki fashion... one of my early reactions to the UBW anime was "she's obviously tsundere, but I don't mind, because she's tsundere to *everything* and life in general, not just as a love interest.") And there's various other women, strong in combat, magic, and/or surviving a lot of crap. (And some of them do get a lot of crap to survive.)

It does pass the Bechdel test. I'm not sure it passes it often -- if two women are talking there's a good chance it'll be about Shirou, though "what an idiot" is more likely than "what a hunK" -- but it does.

Shirou's infamously sexist in some ways, like "girls shouldn't fight" despite the girls being able to fight on a completely different level than him, though someone on TV Tropes argues it's deeper than that: that he didn't want Saber fighting because she was *injured*, but (a) couldn't say that well (see: idiot) and (b) thought his life wasn't worth protecting. After barreling through the whole thing, I'm agnostic on the question, aka "I don't want to go back and re-read the first route to have an informed opinion."

The nature of the story allows it to plunder myth and legend at will. Sometimes brutally ("X was never like that!" people say, though I'm "eh, I can see it") but sometimes with research ("Y actually was described as a pretty boy").

It's inspirational: I imagine a lot of fanfic from it (though checking, not as much as I thought; it does rank higher in crossovers than on its own, which makes some sense), and have had some RPG inspirations of my own already. And I can see plundering some of the characters for future PCs. It definitely has memorable characters, of both sexes.

One cool thing for me is that at least three characters are basically Lawful Good (Saber is *officially* LG, she has a stat sheet in-universe!), with very different personalities, and none Lawful Stupid. (Shirou can be dumb but it's more your standard Shounen Stupid). I have an interest these days in how characters can be morally straight-and-narrow yet different people. (Nanoha is also good for that, and to a lesser degree Order of the Stick. Possibly superhero media in general, but that's less my thing.)

Basically, I had fun, and am glad I read it. Should you read it? I don't know if it's *that* good, objectively speaking. Would it be of interest if you hadn't seen related anime, as I had? I can't say.

I know I haven't described what it's *about*; there's a zillion other sources for that, though, so I was going for some underexploited angles, as well as "this was to my taste, if you like my taste you might too."

(Edit: one thing it's about is heroism and the sacrifices made for it. I'm not sure if it says anything deep or useful about it - -I've been more reading than thinking -- but that's definitely A Theme. Maybe even The Theme.)

The new icon is, of course, Rin, apparently giving one of her "now listen up, idiot" lectures.

L'Engle

2015-Aug-20, Thursday 22:00
mindstalk: (Default)
So I've recently re-read two more childhood books: A Wrinkle in Time, and A Wind In The Door. Swiftly Tilting Planet is on my shelf. The printing of Wrinkle I read had forewords and afterwords about the author, especially one by a granddaughter, talking about Madeleine's enthusiasm for science. Which, sure, you can tell in the books.

Judging by the second book, though, she had less enthusiasm for getting it RIGHT.

* Madeleine says a galactic rotation is 200 billion years, off by 1000x.
* I don't have further specific examples, but billions of years or billenniums got thrown around pretty casually.
* Calvin says the number of cells in the brain and in the universe are exactly equal. More like, brains and stars in the galaxy are approximately equal.
* Someone, I think the farandola Sporos, uses parsec as a measure of time.
* Detection of screams in space... via sonic instruments, not radio ones. Also sonic instruments to find farandolae, which are unto mitochondria as mitochondria are to us. I'm not complaining about the fantastic premise of psychic farandolae, I'm just saying I don't 'sound' is really the process at work at that scale. But definitely not space...

Granted, this is the 1970s (urban crime fears!) and you'd have had to go to an encyclopedia or such to look stuff up, and it's easy to misremember billion and million. But still.

As for the books... I dunno. I think the first was stronger. Both have more buildup than climax or denouement, as it were.
mindstalk: (Default)
by Amartya Kuma Sen. I read this back in 2006, just re-read it recently. It's overdue so I don't feel I have the time to do a review, I'll just drop in some points of interest.

As I think I mentioned, being able to know where various states this time around was cool. Go geography!

One of his repeated themes is that India has a long tradition of, if not democracy per se[1], then public discourse and religious tolerance. He hammers on India's religious diversity a lot: for like 1000 years India was more Buddhist than "Hindu"; Sanskrit has more atheistic and agnostic writing than any other classical language; there's doubt about Rama's divinity expressed within the Ramayana itself; Ashoka and (the Muslim) Akbar the Great both sponsored big public councils on religion, with Akbar laying out rules for civil discourse (and trying to create his own integrationist religion; didn't get far.)

Rabindranath Tagore sounds like a cool guy. Gandhi's contemporary, more secular and 'modern', big Bengali poet, picked up and dropped like a fad by Western writers of the time.

Another theme is how India has been exoticized, with Indians even coming to buy into Western exoticism of their own country. The West saw itself as scientific and rational and played up India's mysticism and religions, with many Indians doing the same; this ignores a lot of math and science that came out of India. He quotes Alberuni talking about Aryabhatha's heliocentric theory, from 499 CE. Another medieval Arab is quoted as saying India prided itself on three things: their method of reckoning, chess, and a collection of myths and fables. Voltaire later listed important things from India: numbers, backgammon, chess, "our first principles of geometry", and "the fables which have become our own."

Sen describes three approaches to India: curatorial, a la early British, closest to being objective and open-minded, but still drawn to the exotic and contrasts with Europe rather than comprehensive description; the magisterial, a la James Mill and other 19th century colonialists, condemning all of India without visiting it or reading any native languages; and the exoticist, going straight for what's "cool" and different.

There's a chapter on the Bomb, where he notes that it was a big security setback for India. Before, they had the strategically ambiguous 1970s tests to know that they could go nuclear, and 7x the conventional military of Pakistan. The BJP going openly nuclear gave Pakistan the political cover to do the same, leveling the playing field, and hampering India's ability to conventionally defend Kashmir (e.g. no more cross border raids.) And India still doesn't have a Security Council seat, perhaps because the existing permanent members don't want to create an incentive to blast your way onto the Council.

By absolute numbers, India is the third largest Muslim nation, just behind Pakistan and well ahead of Bangladesh. (Indonesia leads.)

The gender ratios of south and east India are fairly normal; it's north and west India that has the big deficit of girls and women, at birth and in general. He points out that he uses sub-Saharan Africa as his baseline, not just rich countries like Europe.

He notes the irony of Sanskrit and Vedic nativism when those came with the Aryan 'invasion', relative to the indigenous Dravidian and other populations.

One of Sen's professional themes has been how Indian famines stopped outright with democracy; OTOH, persistent hunger and other deprivations like illiteracy haven't been cured, with problems like teachers simply not showing up to low caste schools. Part of the food problem is the government buying up production above and beyond what's needed for famine buffering, to keep up food prices, which helps farmers (some of whom are poor) at the expense of all the other poor people.

Okay, that's it for me. A lot more to the book, but time presses.

[1] Though I've seen it said elsewhere that the historical Buddha was born in a republic, and a 'prince' only insofar as a republic's citizens are all 'sovereign', but this wasn't glorified enough for future hagiographers. Anyway, there's low-detail Greek attestation to various republics in India.
mindstalk: (Nanoha)
Entirely by accident, I just realized.

Pulp

So as mentioned, I Googled Played a bunch of free books onto my phone. I've now read two. The first was A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I'd never before read a Burroughs or Barsoom novel. I wasn't sure I'd get far in this one, I was curious. But the language was engaging straight off, and I ended up reading the whole thing happily. It has a bit of Mighty Whitey trope, not to mention an uncomfortable friendliness to the Southern cause (but that doesn't last long) but then Carter is explicitly unusual. And for an action-packed planetary romance novel it has some nice twists. It also had some personal appeal due to my playing Martian Rails in Chile, which unlike Lunar Rails is quite pulping including a ton of Barsoom references. Red Martians, Green Martians, Helium, thoats, Atmosphere Plant... it was nice to see them in their original habitat.

Twee

And then I read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, author of The Secret Garden, a children's book of my childhood, which had turned out to be somewhat heavily moralistic and piety-pushing compared to my dim memories.

This one... you could call it moralistic or twee. The 'princess' is Sara who's nearly perfectly nice: rich and materially spoiled yet not conceited or arrogant, kind and understanding of others, unusually mature for her age... quite likely it was meant as a moralistic role model: "be more like her." But as a fan of Maria-Sama, Aria, and Nanoha, I find I *like* smart women being really nice. (Not that Maria-sama or Aria emphasize brains that much.) As with Maria-sama, I could see the emotional manipulation strings, but enjoyed reading it anyway, and was tearing up by the end. I don't know if I can recommend the book in general; all I can say is that I liked it, and if you like such things you might too.

I'd say the villain is a caricature, except sadly such simplistic petty evil seems all too realistic, especially where children are involved.

The big surprise, considering The Secret Garden, is that the piety content is pretty much zero. Sara, or for that matter anyone, prays exactly no times. Church is never mentioned. She does think about 'heaven' as a place where her dead mother is (making up her own more interesting version of heaven) but this is a girl who openly says she pretends things to make life more interesting. She also mentions Revelation as having some rocking stories beating even her own imagination. Otherwise, zip. Considering other children's books of the era where learning to pray was a big deal (Heidi, I think Anne of Green Gables) it's rather surprising.

Wikipedia tells me that there are two different anime adaptations, not to mention other series (one Japanese live drama), movies, and multiple musicals of this book I'd never heard of before. One of the anime involves mecha and some seriously trippy plot re-working. If I had time I'd have a new timesink in "Princess Sara", supposedly the best adaptation.

Comparison

The similarity between A Princess of Mars and A Little Princess is almost entirely superficial, in their titles and the coincidence of my choosing to read them in order. Almost but not entirely: both *do* feature goodness and kindness being rewarded in the end. The Burnett, naturally, has 100% less wholesale slaughter.
mindstalk: (atheist)
Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, Josiah Ober, 2008.

Classical Athens is famous for being a democracy, or 'democracy' given the status of slaves, women, and metics (resident non-citizens.) It's also been infamous throughout history for its grand mistakes, like trying Socrates, purging its generals, a disastrous attack on Syracuse, various atrocities, with these used to discredit democracy and 'mob rule' as if alternative forms of government never ever made mistakes.

Ober's book, 5th or so in a series of sort, argues that in fact Athens was supremely successful (militarily and economically) in a highly competitive environment for 200 years, a nigh superpower (my word) among city-states (polis in the singular, poleis plural), adapting to and recovering from multiple setbacks (conquest, loss of empire, imposition of oligarchy, plague killing 1/3 of the people, invading Syracuse) until finally squished by the Macedonian juggernaut that conquered Persia, Egypt, and everything up to the Indus. (And then by the Roman juggernaut that conquered that and everything else around. Point is, Athens didn't fail in particular, it was overwhelmed.)

And, he argues, it was so successful because of its democracy, not despite it. The costs were high: the putative cost of not having a central and expert command-and-control system, instead running things by groups of amateurs, and the explicit cost of running the democracy, as citizens were paid in the thousands for attending the Assembly, serving on juries, or acting as magistrates, along with the costs of public buildings and running a prototype welfare state. To be so pre-eminent despite such costs the benefits must have been even higher, particularly the benefits of marshaling public resources for the public good, generating and gathering knowledge for learning and innovation, legitimacy and incentives to align people to act in the public interest, and maintaining security and social stability.

(Addendum: one thing I forgot I think is worth adding: Athens ran a navy. Not just a militia of all the citizens showing up to be armed, but a standing navy with all the complexity that implies. The best navy around, imperial quality. As a strong democracy...)

Read more... )

The Silver Chair

2013-Oct-17, Thursday 23:58
mindstalk: (Default)
Re-read it. Nice enough. The really fantastic underworld stuff I remembered, the land of Bism with growing gold and gems, is just a page or so, and not even seen directly.

Christian propaganda: follow Aslan's instructions, have faith in Aslan. Probably some more morals-for-children stuff too.
Christian allegory: in the land beyond the world, Caspian is revived from death by blood from a thorn in Aslan's paw. Not really subtle there.

Mention of Narnian food, like baked apples with raisins where the core used to be, and overrich breakfasts, in contrast to sausages half full of bread and Soya Bean, made me check the date (1953) and wonder if the UK was still on rationing. Narnia sounds wonderful in contrast to a dreary England, like the bullying modern school of Experiment House or the pre-Voyage existence of Eustace Scrubb.

Hmm, the Pevensies had been sent to the country in wartime evacuation IIRC, and Lucy's still a girl in Voyage, so the time in-book can't be more than a few years after the War... not even that: http://narnia.wikia.com/wiki/Narnian_timeline places it in 1942.

Pliocene, Narnia

2013-Oct-12, Saturday 15:17
mindstalk: (12KMap)
I re-read Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile recently. Still good. Still geologist porn.

Partway through Book 1 I wondered about sending robust materials back through the time gate, like engraved stone or fired clay. Then we meet someone who'd tried to arrange for such communication, albeit with different materials. Happy that the author addressed that.

I wondered that exiles didn't get more warning or worry more about the Metapsychic Rebels having forced their way through, with contraband equipment no less. If you're going back to hopes of a primitive society and freedom, shouldn't you worry about being Marc Remillard's mindthrall in an orderly society instead? Friend S said that was too small potatoes to fit his profile, which I guess turned out to be true. Plus people thought he was dead. OTOH that makes it worse: the Intervention books showed us how just one maybe adept coercer-reactor can take over a society; the rebels had like 100 masterclass minds.

OTOH brutal despotism was a likely outcome for Exile society anyway, so I guess adding illegal operants and weapons to the mix doesn't change much. And you don't go on a one-way trip to the Pliocene with prudence being a major concern.

I kind of like how fucked up most of the Exiles are. Something like half of Group Green is arguably sociopathic. The rest are not quite suicidal.

I was surprised at how much of a total asshole Marc is at first; I had better memories of him. I guess he earns those in the last book. Still kind of assholish there, for that matter. But early on? Authoritarian cult of personality all the way.

I remember being disappointed in the Milieu trilogy. I don't remember it well, but the Rebellion seeming more pathetic than steeped in grandeur, perhaps. That actually fits better now, I got more a sense of Marc being fucked up even while ambitious.

I'd remembered Felice almost d-jumping through raw power and instinct, and Marc figuring it out with mechanical enhancement. I really didn't remember that *Brede* could d-jump, "as a legacy from my Spouse." That seems pretty wacky, a non-masterclass artificial operant being able to casually teleport across the galaxy (if she had anywhere to go) while a Grand Master psychokinet and Paramount Grand Master creator needs elaborate enhancement rig to learn it at all. And Brede seemed to think she could have taught Elizabeth, if Lizzie had more PK.

Also odd, the word 'teleport' gets used with Pliocene society, but in one context it's clearly applied to a clumsy levitation. People do sometimes "appear out of nowhere" but that could be dropping invisibility instead of whisking oneself into place, and no one teleports for travel purposes.

***

Re-read some Narnia books too. Dawn Treader, Horse, Magician. First two more fun than the third. First has a neat fantasy journey, also various morals for children. I liked the fake Arabic storytelling in Horse, and perceived less moralizing, though man, Aslan's really keeping a close paw on things. Made me wonder if Aslan's always intervening in Narnian lives... per the explicit Jesus analogy, maybe he should be! I also wondered if the Pevensies ever had sex as grown-up kings and queens. Probably they shouldn't have, as good chivalrous Christians who never got married. But Susan was considering marriage! That would have been weird.

Archenland is like Narnia's younger brother, with fewer Talking Animals. The cabbie-king's second son becomes first king there, and I wondered if at the time of High King Peter, Archenland still continued the original royal line. Which then makes me think after the Pevensies disappeared that one of the princes should have taken over Narnia, rather than things falling apart again until the Telmarines came.

What I really want to re-read is the Silver Chair; I remember that as having pretty trippy fantasy without much moralizing. I expect I'm wrong on the second count.

As a kid I'd somehow thought of the Dawn Treader as sailing west, and thought this until I saw a fan map of Narnia. Pretty stupid of me, given the details in the book, or the name of the ship itself.
mindstalk: (Earth)
Taking a break from my other non-fiction books; this is mostly about nice history, not racism and sexism.

Read more... )
mindstalk: (Default)
Subtitle: _The Allegory of the Female Form_. 1985. Seems really thick but that's paper thickness, about 300 pages.

A book I'm reading, found randomly in the art section. I don't know if I'll finish, it's interesting without being gripping. Basically it's about the use of female form in art, particularly as abstract allegorical figures. Lady Liberty, France, La Republique, the Muses, the Virtues, Britannia, etc. Warner notes that not showing women at all in public isn't a good sign, but covering your buildings in scantily clad abstract women isn't a sign of liberation either. Ancient Athens was viciously misogynist, despite having Athena as patron goddess. Paris is covered in ladies and France was one of the later countries to give women the vote. Lady Liberty doesn't mean women are particularly free.

Male statues show actual male individuals; female statues tend to be abstracted. Lincoln Memorial vs. Lady Liberty. No Uncle Sam statue, eh? And as images, John Bull and Uncle Sam have more personality than Britannia or Liberty or France.

First chapter is about the Statue of Liberty. Second is about Paris and all its female figures. Third is about Britannia (ironically, originally a Roman conceit, used to depict the subjection of Britain), with a lot about depictions of Margaret Thatcher. (A "masculine" woman, yet never seen in trousers, and with strong public images as mother, wife, and housewife, i.e. minimally threatening. But not object of desire, that probably would have been politically fatal.)

My vocabulary hasn't had this much of a workout in a while. Entirely new words to look up: quadriga, galantine, riggish, ambulatory as a noun (that was trivial to guess on my own, but still novel). Probably seen before: pollarded. I figured I should look up tympanum (architectural) and pediment as well, as they fell into "I feel like I know them but can't actually define them." Pediment really isn't what I'd think it sounds like.
mindstalk: (atheist)
Subtitle: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States_

An odd but interesting little book, telling of 7 19th century people involved in spelling, alphabets, sign language, deaf instruction, or telecommunications. Many of them shockingly nativist, for all their brilliance.

* Noah Webster, who wanted to create an American language distinct from English, wanted the US free of European influences, created a ubiquitous spelling book, and a failure of phonetic spelling reform.

Lepore also mentions that in the 1790 census the US had 3.9 million people: 3.1m whites, 60,000 free blacks, 700,000 slaves, making slaves 18% of the population. If we assume slave stats were half the white population, slaves would be 31% of that part of the country. I think they were over half the population of some states. Not news, but still shocking. (Relatedly, Jim Crow laws were possibly not a suppression of minority rights, but of *majority* rights, by a terror-wielding minority.)

* William Thornton, who tried to create a universal alphabet -- one system for writing down all languages, or all possible languages, a la the IPA -- out of universalist dreams, including teaching freed slaves to read and write before they were resettled in Africa and being able to write down the languages of Africans. He also designed the Capitol rotunda and became commissioner of the new D.C.

* Sequoyah, aka George Guess, who invented the Cherokee syllabary. Sequoyah didn't know English, or any other writing system; he just knew that whites recorded language somehow, and disbelieved that it was magic. He ended up recapitulating much of the history of writing himself between 1809 and 1821: pictographs! no, those are too limited. ideographs! no, those are too many. syllabary! yes!

Many whites were critical because he hadn't advanced to the final stage of civilization, an alphabet, with the least number of signs needed, but while they were carping, the Cherokee were learning to read and write quickly and in huge numbers. It was said that they could learn it in a day or three, and that by 1838 75% were literate. Missionaries had been working on schemes to write Cherokee, but gave up when they heard of Sequoyah's success.

Sequoyah himself seems to have been rather separatist, and perhaps fatalist about white triumph; sticking to traditional garb, helping sign land away, moving west ahead of not being given a choice in the matter.

I note this incident supports my belief that the alphabet is the result of a freak accident.

* Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who popularized sign language for the deaf in the US, thought it was a universal language shared by all deaf people, and gave speeches about the deaf being a "foreign people" within the US in need of missionizing just like any other heathen race.

John Flournoy proposed a deaf-only state somewhere in the west, for more thorough separation, and to create a state where the deaf could participate in politics beyond voting, as a signing deaf politician was fatally handicapped by his condition. What to do with the hearing children of deaf parents (i.e. most of them) wasn't answered.

* Abd al-Rahman, a Muslim chief's son or prince from modern Guinea, who was taken as a slave, and some 40 years later was freed due to the luck of meeting someone from his childhood, and his ability to write Arabic which upset ideas of savage blacks and played on ideas of north Africans or Moors being a superior race to blacks. His owner freed him on the condition of his leaving the country immediately, but instead he stayed, trying to raise funds to buy his wife, children, and grandchildren from slavery. The chapter talks about the link between literacy and emancipation for other slaves, like Frederick Douglass, and Southern laws that forbade first teaching writing to slaves (lest they communicate and plan), and then even reading (not reading abolitionist literature being more important than reading the Bible.)

An endnote mentions Momulu Duwalu Bukele, an African Vai native of liberia, who invented a syllabary for his own people, also starting from illiteracy. As he did so in only two years, it's suspected he got an idea from American missionaries in Liberia, who included some Cherokees.

Which I just realized means that 1834 Liberia had Cherokees, making history a bit more diverse than I envisioned.

* Samuel Morse, who'd been a decent painter but far ahead of the tastes of early America, which went in only for portraits (like one he did of Noah Webster) and not for his "Gallery of the Louvre", a large canvas of miniatures of paintings which he'd hoped would spark American art. Discouraged, he invented the code he's famous for, which made the electric telegraph usable. He was also paranoid about European influence and a staunch defender of slavery, though also opposed secession. He ended up marrying a deaf woman -- him 57, her 26 -- feeling that she'd be pleasingly dependent and grateful for the marriage. He never learned to sign, I guess they communicated by writing.

(I feel it worth noting that the still widespread aristocracy of Europe, and serfdom only recently abolished or not at all (Russia), may put a different cast on anti-European fears and prejudices in the young republic than we're used to considering. Of course there was also anti-Catholic prejudice as well, but they were also closer to religious wars and politically powerful Catholicism.)

* Alexander Graham Bell, whose father invented "Visible Speech", another attempt at a universal phonetic alphabet, this one based on symbol-pictures for the shape of the mouth. Bell pushed it all his life, more out of a concern for the education of the deaf; early on he approved of sign language, but later feared that that led to deaf-deaf marriages, and the creation of a separate deaf race, which had to be prevented; he was an early Darwinist and of course eugenicist, later concerned about race suicide due to immigration. Bell pere pitched his alphabet as a tool for the British empire, unlike Thornton's Enlightenment universalism: a universal alphabet would make it easier to administer the empire and run the telegraphs, despite the various languages. Bell himself invented devices for teaching the deaf to speak -- they couldn't hear their own sounds, but they could try to make their waveforms match a training set, like early biofeedback -- and then the telephone, which he viewed as less important than deaf education. His deaf wife (former student; age 17 vs. 28 at engagement) disagreed. Unlike many inventors, he got rich anyway. (So did Morse from the telegraph.)
mindstalk: (CrashMouse)
This is a book I just heard of, so clearly haven't read. The reviews I found were interesting:

http://www.ethicurean.com/2011/01/31/meat-a-benign-extravagance/

Monbiot changes his mind about a lot of things:
http://grist.org/article/food-meat-eating-can-be-an-environmentally-friendly-choice-a-geoge-mo/
'This will not be an easy column to write. I am about to put down 1,200 words in support of a book that starts by attacking me and often returns to this sport. But it has persuaded me that I was wrong.'

Long, and seems to downplay the message compared to the first two, but is also a lot more detailed about what Fairlie says:
http://letthemeatmeat.com/post/2773863502/meat-a-benign-extravagance-book-review

Some themes of "free meat", or default livestock production, manuring plants and eating waste or grass; VeganWorld as a sterile one of humans cut off from animals or nature; irony of slow/organic food vs. very heavily processed fake meat products; bad statistics behind "X gallons of water per kilogram" or greenhouse gas accusations; meat production as a built-in cushion against overpopulaiton or bad harvests

Essay by Fairlie himself:
http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/meat-eating-vs-vegetarian-or-vegan-diets
'In short, Happy Valley was producing, from the grass that we all walked on, a substantial proportion of the protein and fat that we required for our nutrition, but we weren't eating it and instead were import-ing it from countries where people go hungry.'

'The authors use it [UN FAO report] not (as one might expect) to argue for a reduction in meat consumption, but instead for a doubling of meat consumption through intensive agriculture and factory farms.'

http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Winter20112012/Critique/tabid/2057/Default.aspx
' Fairlie compares the productivity and sustainability of six cultivation options:'
'strictly in terms of calories, 2.5 acres of arable vegan organic land feeds 8 people whereas 2.5 acres of arable organic land plus 3.75 acres of pasture for grazing feeds 7.5 people.' ...I'd like to know how that was figured.

'With industrial processing of pea, bean and grain protein into artificial meat and milk, a semblance of an animal-based diet could be provided for about 200 million people (in Britain, using the same land take as the other models).”' (Livestock-free chemical fertilizer/pesticide model)

This review also describes Fairlie talking about the phosphorus limit, and argues for more realistic organic productivity limits... generally this reviewer seems be a more aggressive defender of meat than Fairlie.

' Protein is of signal importance in maintaining a full term pregnancy and having a baby of normal birth weight. A vegan diet is ill suited to this task. Animals don’t need to be told this. Even the slow moving panda bear, which eats only bamboo shoots most of its life, prepares for breeding by eating birds’ eggs.'

Rabbits turn grass into meat faster than beef, but take more human labor. (And if your concern is killing sentient beings, you kill a lot more rabbits than cows.)
mindstalk: (Mami)
Outside the Wire: American Soldiers' Voices from Afghanistan, edited by Christine Dumaine Leche.

Ever wonder what it's like to be a soldier in war? My father was a Korean vet, and never talked about it, which seems to be a common thing. As is drinking a lot at times. There are, of course, books out there, like Catch-22 (Heller was a vet.) This book, which I checked out on impulse from a front desk at the Cambridge library, is a collection of short essays and stories by US soldiers in Afghanistan, which they wrote in a creative writing class, itself in Afghanistan, specifically Bagram Air Force Base and Forward Operating Base Salerno, well within the hot zone (e.g. with occasional mortar attacks after class.)

The essays or stories cover combat scenes, the shock of a broken marriage, childhood memories (some as bad as wartime combat), the hurry up and wait excitement-boredom of deployment, incidents on patrols, a raid for a satellite phone to call home with, and more. Perhaps most amusing to me was the final essay, a long one by Andrew Stock, which goes from his wanting to be a tanker -- or a tank! -- to thinking of Robotech and Ultraman when he heard "mechanized infantry" at recruitment, to his Buddhist mantras and prayers on the front.

Leche finishes with an essay on the healing powers of writing, and the usefulness of veterans-only classes as a space safe against the well-meaning (sometimes) but dumb questions of civilian fellow students. Writing about trauma is said to be good for physical and emotional health, even if no one reads it. She mentions an NEA video "Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience" which encouraged her students; she also talks about the gulf between military writing and speaking -- short words, short SVO sentences, short paragraphs, avoid all ambiguity, brevity and clarity (if you know the acronyms and jargon) above all -- and the complexity and playfulness of creative writing; one of her prompts says "Use at least three metaphors and/or similes."

Practicalities: it's quite a short book, with only 127 pages for the soldiers' essays themselves. 32 writers, 12 female (plus one "J. J." with no clues.) I don't know if that reflects the demographics of the modern US military or of the soldiers who choose to take a creative writing class in Afghanistan.
mindstalk: (Default)
To complete my obsession: it was one day to Smoit's castle. But otherwise it all seemed very big.

One thing I'd not mentioned: there's this big river, Great Avren, and Dallben seems to be the only on living on his side of it. They never meet or mention anyone else; all of Prydain is on the other side. This book did mention Avren Harbor, but plausibly just as a place to tie up your ship, not an active port.

For that matter, not many people live on the Avren, period: no river fisherfolk or shipping ever mentioned.

The book was an enjoyable read but basically an action-filled climax as predicted, and to a large degree, remembered; I think Castle of Llyr and Taran Wanderer might be more fun and deeper respectively. Though this does have Eilonwy as sword-wielding pants-wearing action heroine. (Also has her threatened with rape, if you're old enough to read between the lines.)

The end of magic at the end is completely out of the blue. Taran Wanderer with its skill over magic items did kind of foreshadow it thematically, but the actual events, no. Sons of Don going home after Arawn's defeat, that's fine, they came here to fight him. All enchantment fading, and Eilonwy being forced to the Summer Country? No, just no. It's like a very ham-handed "growing up and putting aside fantasy" metaphor tacked on at the last minute. One could fanwank: maybe Dyrnwyn was forged out of the font of magic, or Arawn had stolen and linked himself to such a font. But it'd be pure fanwanking, and the text itself is a total surprise. Not like LotR, where the elven call to the west, and the possibility of the elven-rings being linked to the One, were mentioned early and often, and there still wasn't any hard cut-off (except for the elven-rings.)

When we first see Eilonwy again, it's notable that she's prattling away like she always has, but Taran's language sounds much more formal and "grown-up".

Nobody seems to think that the Cauldron-Born could be entangled or disabled, even if they can't be killed.

It's impressive how one little coffer of papers that Gurgi grabbed and forgot about manages to hold all the craft secrets of Prydain.

***

Unrelatedly, I was looking something up in the Hobbit, and right after the first Rivendell song it says that he loved elves and seldom met them. This implies he had met elves before. This is perfectly plausible given that they traipse through the Shire in LotR but it puts a different perspective on pre-adventure Bilbo; they do seem to keep to themselves, so he'd have had to seek them out. Not very Respectable for the gentry of Hobbiton!

That made me think that they sang out his name from having met him, but then the text says he'd never met these elves before, so we're back to elf magic or gossip.

I hear there's going to be a movie. I'm afraid. I didn't like Fellowship and still haven't seen the other two.
mindstalk: (Default)
Okay, I went back and checked. Early in the Black Cauldron, we get explicit day transitions, and it takes Gwydion's group 3 days to get from Caer Dallben to Annuvin; they attack that night. Some fleeing later, it's a day from Gwystyl's waypost to the Marshes of Morva. At 20 miles a day I'd say Prydain's 80 miles across.

In this book, it is "many days" to Morva, and many days back, just to Smoit's domain/cantrev, which itself is 3 days from the border to the castle. It's like it grew up with Taran. Or he had a better idea. Or he just need more room to accomodate Taran's wandering. I wonder if the next book will stay big enough to spend weeks crossing or will shrink again for fast plot needs.

First book: Taran makes bad decisions
Second book: Taran makes hard decisions
Third book: wheee, travelogue!
Fourth book: Taran makes wise decisions and invents a windmill. More travelogue!
Fifth book: action climax? I remember the most scenes from it, and the ending, but not the plot.

I've remembered the map. Various bits and pieces have been recalled or seemed familiar. Overall, reading has been like rediscovering the books, though; I haven't halfway through a book gone "oh yeah, I remember the plot now."

I liked this one and don't have anything snarky to say about it. I suppose I could work up something about how Taran's now good at almost everything and gets kingships offered to him, but meh. I do wonder if next book will remember "oh yeah, I could totally be Smoit's heir."

One bit I did remember fast was Llonio the Lucky, with all his nets and optimistic attitude toward flotsam and jetsam; he was so unusual and impressive that it sticks with you. Funnily enough, there's been modern research on 'luck', that says it boils down to making lots of opportunities and bringing an optimistic and open-minded attitude to them, which is *precisely* what Llonio does, decades earlier. He puts out nets and boxes, checks them, patrols his area, and can find a use for almost everything. Lucky! Depressed people who don't leave the house are never lucky.

I was surprised by one character not getting killed, I thought he totally had Tropes of Meaningful Doom written over him.

One wonders how Arawn stole away all the craft secrets of the world. Magical implements, sure, but secrets?
mindstalk: (Default)
I got paperbacks of the Prydain series for a quarter each from NESFA, and I re-read The Book of Three last night. Reactions:

* Where's my map? These little paperbacks don't seem to have the map. Even the larger volumes. I had to go find it online. I feel cheated.

* It's very hard for me to not believe this was heavily heavily influenced by Tolkien. I know, "Welsh myth", but Lloyd Alexander admits his Arawn is way more villainous than the 'real' one. And in corruptive ways that sound almost exactly like Sauron, maybe more elaborately so. And of all the Welsh personages to vilify, yes Arawn was Lord of Death, but his name also *sounds* like Sauron. Granted, there's a Devil archetype underlying both Sauron and Arawn. Plus the Sons of Don Dunadain, Aragorn-like Gwydion (both in ranger ability and in directly opposing Arawn), the fading of magic at the end, the Gandalf-like Dallben (granted, Merlin as archetype.) Gurgi sounds like Gollum, though is much nicer.

** In checking dates on Wikipedia, I find that Tolkien didn't like the title The Return of the King, because duh, spoiler!

* Alexander also says in his preface that Prydain isn't that big. No kidding. "Postage-stamp sized" started coming to mind. Okay, Gwydion spent a month going from Caer Dathyl to Caer Dallben. But I'd swear Taran makes the reverse journey in two weeks top, much of it in a week, despite lack of roads and going over (or under) mountains and evading pursuit. It's like a couple days to Spiral Castle, a week up to Caer Dathyl from there. Gwythaints can fly from Caer Dallben to Annuvin in less than a day. I'm thinking 200 miles maximum length, 100 more likely, like the Lord of the Rings squished into the Shire, with Sauron lurking south of Michel Delving.

* I remember liking the series a lot as a kid; I remember the map after all these years. But it feels a lot more immature now. Granted, almost everyone in it *is* immature, but even Gwydion's words are a lot more hackney and cliched. I feel a bit like how did when I re-read Wind in the Willows right after Watership Down, except i haven't been reading any great fiction recently. (Unless you count Banks' Hydrogen Sonata. Which is certainly different.)

Oh, and if Taran et al. make in a week, Gwydion must have moved even faster, from his hell-experience in Achren's magical prison west of Spiral Castle, back north in time to save the day.

Oh well. It was light fast fun. Maybe the others will be better. But I had a similar reaction to the writing in the two Vesper Holly novels I've read; it really feels like writing down for kids.

I wonder how the Black Stallion would hold up. That series is the first I remember really liking. (I wanted to be a jockey until I saw Feynman on NOVA at age 8; then I wanted to be a Physicist Like Feynman like half the other entering class at Caltech.)
mindstalk: (Witch)
Over on RPG.net people sometimes have "Where I Watch" or "Read" threads about series or books. A couple years ago I started one on Robin McKinley's _Sunshine_, stopped, but now I've resumed it here. Some people go for great amusingness or insight or such; I'm going mostly for a fine reading of the text, and calling out interesting details in the light of one comes later, since I've read the book several times.

If you haven't read the book the thread probably won't be that interesting, and also massive spoilers. If you have, you might be struck by little observations.

We'll see if I finish; I'm up to page 51 out of 405... last time I stopped at page 27. A bit of that was because I started in Chile in 2010, and there were Distractions like kids and games and Christmas. Oh, and then I moved to Boston, and had been using S.'s book, and didn't get mine until at least a few months later. Okay, I guess that explains a lot of it...

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