July 2014
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Sanity Check

In my previous post I revealed two aspects of my personality I’m not particularly proud of, but which I have come to accept: elitism and authoritarianism. I characterized the Murrieta, California protestors—the ones turning back buses attempting to bring immigrant children to a Border Patrol holding facility—as a pack of mouth-breathing racist morons who should be ignored by the media and frozen out of the national debate over immigration. I went on to suggest President Obama send in federal troops to clear the rabble off the streets, not just in Murrieta but at the Bundy Ranch as well.

Really, I don’t know how anyone who’s ever read a word I’ve written could be surprised at my hostility toward know-nothings, and yet at least one reader at Daily Kos, where I cross-posted the entry, pretended to be. I’ve never made a secret of my disdain for the willfully ignorant, nor have I concealed my military background and the authoritarian impulses that come with it. Like I said, not proud, but there it is.

I was in a black mood when I wrote yesterday’s post, but I’m in a better mood today. This thanks to Rachel Maddow, who last night featured a long segment titled “Help for Immigrant Children Grows Amid Border Furor.”

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People all over the country, even in deep-red Texas, are offering help: food, shelter, clothing, legal representation, even education and training in the form of classes and lessons for kids held in holding centers. Some of these good people are acting individually; some are working through church, charitable, and professional groups. Some—like the Dallas County judge Rachel interviewed during the segment—are working within the government. These people began to mobilize not after learning of the shameful actions of a handful of white power vigilantes in Murrieta, California, but weeks ago, when the first waves of child immigrants began to cross the Rio Grande.

I needed reassurance that the Bundy Ranch and Murrieta types are a marginal minority, and Rachel Maddow gave it to me. Most of us, regardless of how strongly we feel about immigration and border security, combine compassion with our support for the rule of law. As much as it pains me to say it, the rule of law in this case is being represented by the Border Patrol and ICE—not the vigilantes screaming for immediate deportation, shooting border crossers on sight, or introducing piranhas into the waters of the Rio Grande.

My only remaining question now is, where are the other major TV news anchors? Is it just going to be Rachel reminding us we’re not all mouth-breathing racists? As far as I can see, the other media outlets are totally focused on the protestors in Murietta, just as they are on the gun nuts still hanging out at the Bundy Ranch. This isn’t balance; in fact it is the opposite of balance.

Thanks, Rachel. I needed a sanity check, and you delivered.


But, But … They’re ILLEGAL!

Black Students Integrate Little Rock's Central High School

Elizabeth Eckford, age 15, pursued by a mob at Little Rock Central High School on the first day of the school year, September 4, 1957. (photo credit unknown)


Anti-immigration activist and immigration sympathizer debate during a protest outside of the U.S. Border Patrol Murrieta Station on July 7, 2014 in Murrieta, California. (Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

The parallels between Little Rock in 1957 and Murrieta today should be obvious. The faces of ignorance and intolerance haven’t changed much in 57 years.

One big difference, if you look closely at the 1957 photo, is the presence of the National Guard. President Eisenhower mobilized hundreds of troops to enforce federal law and prevent rule by lynch mob in Little Rock. Yes, Virginia, there once was a time when presidents were courageous.

I could be wrong, but I don’t remember the media giving the views of white supremacists and pro-slavery advocates as much publicity during the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 60s as they do today. Bigots and segregationists were generally regarded as marginal figures, with nothing but negativity to contribute to the national debate. With the exception of a few prominent politicians like George Wallace, or grotesque buffoons like Lester Maddox, they were pretty much frozen out of the conversation.

Not so today, when everything’s 50/50 and if the President makes a statement you have to give equal time to some ignorant shitbird like Louis Gohmert in the name of “balance.” Maybe that’s why Obama hasn’t acted decisively against sovereign citizens, redneck militias, self-appointed border guards, or mobs of racists at places like the Bundy Ranch and Murrieta. You’d think, more than halfway into his second and last term, he’d have nothing to lose by taking a stand. Obviously, you don’t see the big picture. And frankly neither do I.

I hate jack-booted federal thugs as much as anyone, but if there were ever a time to bring in the troops, this is it. Without sympathizing with them in the least, as far as I can see the federal agencies involved in the latest immigration crisis … Border Patrol, ICE, DHS, etc … are doing their best to comply with laws and regulations governing apprehending, holding, processing, and eventually deporting illegal immigrants. There is a process, and moving these kids to holding centers is, regrettably, part of it.

The right thinks it has the all-time trump answer to those who advocate due process and humane treatment for border crossers. Their answer boils down to one word, which apparently must be typed in all caps: ILLEGAL! I was surprised, though, that one of my Facebook friends played that card when I posted the Little Rock photo there. Here’s how he dismissed the similarity between Elizabeth Eckford in 1957 Little Rock and Central American kids coming into the country today: “She was an ILLEGAL immigrant? I have no prob with immigrants, just ILLEGAL immigrants.”

Oh, lord, where to even start? In 1957, in Arkansas and other southern states, it was illegal for Elizabeth Eckford, or any black person, to attend whites-only schools. To sit at drug store lunch counters. To ride in the front of the bus. To eat vanilla ice cream on any day other than the 4th of July. To fucking vote. Literally illegal … or, as my friend would say, ILLEGAL!

If the illegality of crossing into the USA without a passport means undocumented brown people are fair game for screaming mobs of vigilantes, then I guess the hate-filled white women in the photo at the top of this post were just doing their jobs, right!

Ask yourself this: would any of this be happening if these ILLEGALS! were from Germany or the UK?

Show some spine, Mr. President. Show some spine.


The Glorious Fourth

Coming off a family high, we are. Except for our granddaughter Taylor, who is working in Seattle, we had our little nuclear family together in Tucson over the past week.

I wouldn’t have felt right about shutting myself up in the office to blog while our kids were here, so I let Paul’s Thing slide for a few days. But everyone went home yesterday so I’ll try to catch up with some photoblogging. Just to help you keep the cast of characters straight, we were visited by our son Greg, daughter in law Beth, grandson Quentin, daughter Polly, and boyfriend of daughter David (who is rarely photographed and will not appear here, having successfully eluded my camera yet again).


Chef Quentin

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Polly, Beth, Greg, Quentin, Donna

4th of July 2014

4th of July parade

4th of July 2014

4th of July parade

4th of July 2014

4th of July parade

4th of July 2014

4th of July parade

4th of July 2014

Neighborhood party

4th of July 2014

Neighborhood party

We didn’t have a float in this year’s neighborhood 4th of July parade, but what we lacked in pomp and circumstance we made up for with enthusiasm. There were no spectators this year … everyone was part of the parade, strolling from one end of Sunnywood Estates to the other. The post-parade festivities were at another neighbor’s house, where we shared a potluck brunch and watched the kids swim.

I’d be the world’s worst lifeguard, I think. Not so much in terms of letting kids drown, but by being a total pool Nazi. What is it with the cannonballs and the running, kids? Knock that off right now! This pool is closed!

Happily, we’re having a bit of rain. We got a sprinkle on the afternoon of the 4th, followed by heavy rain during the afternoon and evening of the 5th. I won’t stick my neck out and call it our annual monsoon, not until I see more rain, but hey, it’s more than we got last summer or the summer before. I’m thankful, but that didn’t stop me from grumbling while I swept potting soil from Donna’s flowerbed off the pool decking and patio bricks this morning, a sure sign of a good soaking.


JWs at the Door

Someone rang our doorbell this morning. We heard our grandson answer it, but since he didn’t call for us we figured it was nothing and kept working in the office. When Quentin walked by the office a few minutes later I asked him who came by. “Some guy who wanted you to come to a meeting,” he said. One of my neighbors is a member of the Tanque Verde Democrats, and he sometimes invites me to meetings, so I figured it was him. But then Quentin said the guy left an invitation, and handed it to me.


Definitely not the Tanque Verde Democrats, then. More like the Communist Party USA. Just kidding … of course I knew right away the answer to the third question would turn out to be “Jesus.” I looked through the flyer to see who’s putting on this “free public event,” but it didn’t say. And then, in very small print at the very bottom of the back page: “© 2014 Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.” Jehovah’s Witnesses. Who else?

I’m surprised they didn’t stay to talk, as they usually do. Maybe they’re not supposed to engage children, I don’t know. In any case they just left the flyer, which doesn’t resemble any JW tract I’ve seen before. They must have a new PR department.

Live and let live. Regular readers know I’m an atheist, but not the proselytizing sort. I do my best to live the Golden Rule and wish others would do the same. As long as people don’t try to force me to live by their religious rules I’m fine. Trouble is, a lot of religious individuals and groups want to do exactly that, most visibly in the areas of birth control and abortion, and they have friends on the Supreme Court.

When I first heard SCOTUS had ruled against the Massachusetts law establishing 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics, I almost swallowed the First Amendment/free speech rationale they cited in overturning it, but then I learned the SCOTUS ruling affects only abortion clinic buffer zones, not the 100-foot buffer zone around the Supreme Court building, not the buffer zones that have been set up around polling places for as long as I can remember. And Chief Justice Roberts’ 1984-ish language, describing the screaming verbal attacks and attempts at physical intimidation anti-abortion protesters engage in as “counseling,” well, that cinched it. The ruling had nothing to do with free speech. It had everything to do with restricting access to abortions.

SCOTUS is going after abortion with this ruling, and it’s screamingly obvious they’re going to overturn Roe v. Wade as soon as the right case comes before them. The next tell will to be the Hobby Lobby ruling. If they decide corporations can cite religious beliefs to deny medical contraceptive coverage to employees, that’ll be the signal they’re coming after birth control as well.

Supreme Court appointments are so very very important. Can you imagine the harm another Republican president might do? One more Scalia, one more Roberts, and we’re stuck with a regressive religious right court for a generation, Bill of Rights minority protections be damned.


Air-Minded: Gust Locks & Horse Parts (Updated)

I’ve been following news of the May 31 Gulfstream IV crash at Hanscomb Field in Bedford, Massachusetts. This was the executive jet carrying some VIP or other that reached a high speed on takeoff roll and then ran off the end of the runway and into a ditch, bursting into flame and killing everyone aboard. Preliminary NTSB reports are focusing on a mechanical safety system called the gust lock.

The only airplane I ever flew that had a mechanical gust lock was the T-37. It was a bar you swung out from below the control panel and pinned to the left control stick, locking the stick and rudder pedals in the neutral position. Since the external flight controls were connected directly to the stick and rudder pedals by cables, they were locked in a neutral position as well. You engaged the gust lock whenever parking the airplane to keep wind from moving the external control surfaces and damaging them. The locking bar was painted bright red so you couldn’t miss it during your preflight checks, and of course if you did somehow miss it you’d know right away when you did your flight control check and realized you couldn’t move the stick and rudders.

T-37B cockpit

T-37 gust lock in place (V-shaped red bar connected to left control stick)

The Gulfstream’s gust lock is pretty much the same from all I can determine. It’s more sophisticated in that in addition to locking the flight controls it also locks the throttles so that they can’t be advanced much beyond idle. It’s probably safe to assume it’s either painted red or has a red “remove before flight” banner hanging from it … I did a Google search for a photo of it but couldn’t find one.

The Gulfstream reached a peak speed of 165 knots (190 mph) on takeoff roll but never rotated. Flight recorder data shows the airplane’s elevators never moved during ground ops or takeoff roll. This indicates that the controls were locked. The most likely culprit is the gust lock. The recorder also shows that the pilots didn’t perform a flight control check before attempting to take off.

But things are always more complicated, aren’t they? Obviously the pilots were able to advance the throttles to full thrust for takeoff, and they shouldn’t have been able to with the gust lock engaged. Also,  examination of the cockpit wreckage showed that the gust lock was not engaged, though it’s possible the  pilots disengaged it during takeoff roll, right after they realized the controls were jammed (they’re heard talking about flight controls on the cockpit voice recorder, but the NTSB hasn’t yet released a transcript). There’s also some discrepancy with the flaps (the flaps were found in the 20° position but the cockpit flap lever was in the 10° position), but flap position would not have had much impact on a normal takeoff, so that’s probably just a side issue.

Perhaps the gust lock was partially engaged, locking the flight controls but not the throttles. Perhaps the pilots realized the problem on takeoff when they tried to pull the yoke back and found it jammed, then disengaged the gust lock about the same time they decided to abort the takeoff. Maybe it wasn’t the gust lock at all but some sort of flight control disconnect, where the yoke moved back but the elevator didn’t respond. Unknown at this time, although the gust lock looks mighty central to any scenario.

But don’t let talk of that mechanical gust lock cloud the issue. The pilots clearly were negligent during their preflight checks. Had they performed a flight control check before taxiing, as the checklist requires, they would have discovered the problem. Clue number one would have been their inability to move the yoke and rudder pedals. If it wasn’t the gust lock but some kind of flight control malfunction, they should have discovered it during their pre-taxi flight control check when they noticed the rudder, elevator, and ailerons not responding to cockpit control movements. The fact that the flight recorder shows no indication of a control check suggests the possibility the pilots blew off the checklist altogether, which, as sins go, is somewhere above cardinal, maybe even approaching papal. This is a pilot-caused accident. A really stupid pilot-caused accident … but then aren’t most of them?

Update (6/27/14): I found a photo of the Gulfstream IV gust lock on a professional pilot forum.

Gulfstream gust lock

Gulfstream IV throttle quadrant w/gust lock control

The gust lock is the red T-handle just behind the throttles. It’s shown in the engaged (locked) position. The throttles are partially advanced; according to the poster who sent the photo, this is as far as they can be advanced with the gust lock on.

In all the airplanes I’ve flown, you steer the nose wheel on the ground with the rudder pedals. I know that large transport aircraft have a separate hand control for nose wheel steering. I don’t know what the Gulfstream has. If the pilots had to steer their plane down the taxiway with the rudder pedals, they’d have known the gust lock was engaged the second they rolled out of the chocks, because they wouldn’t have been able to move the pedals. If, however, they were steering with a separate hand control, one that wasn’t affected by the gust lock, they probably wouldn’t have noticed.

If the gust lock was engaged and the throttles couldn’t be shoved all the way forward for takeoff, how did they manage to get up to 165 knots on takeoff roll? Also, you start to feel the air moving over the rudder, elevators, and ailerons between 50 and 60 knots on takeoff. If there was the least bit of crosswind (and there almost always is) the airplane would start to steer into the wind, turning away from runway centerline, and the pilots would start correcting with rudder and ailerons. If the flight controls were really locked, they should have been aware of the problem very early on takeoff roll, with plenty of time to reject the takeoff and abort. Damn, the questions keep coming. Maybe this preliminary NTSB report is too preliminary!


And now for something completely different … among the materials that go into the making of the F-15 Eagle fighter are horse parts. Can you guess what they are and what they are used for?


F-15 C throttle quadrant

See the bristles in the slots below the throttles? They’re horse hair, nice and stiff, and they keep foreign objects from dropping down into the throttle quadrant and jamming the works. Horse hair is probably used in other aircraft as well … it seems to be the ideal material for that particular task.


Grandkids and Other Critters

Our grandson Quentin is here for his annual visit. His parents ship him down on Southwest Airlines. He flies on unaccompanied minor status: his parents take him to the gate at Las Vegas and we meet him at the gate in Tucson. This is the last year he’ll have to be escorted to and from the gates; next year he’ll be twelve and can fly as an adult (of course we’ll still do the gate thing … we’re not monsters!).

The drill is the same every summer: Quentin flies down and spends the end of June and the first part of July at our house. His parents drive down to spend the 4th of July weekend with us, then take Quentin with them when they drive home. We’ve been doing this since he was six or seven.

Every year I try to get Quentin interested in reading. Our first grandfather/grandson outing is always to the library, sometimes Barnes & Noble. He’ll read a bit when he’s here … if I nag him into doing it. I think it’s fair to describe my grandson as a reluctant reader. He’s grown up on TV cartoons, Disney movies, and computer games. I can’t generalize, because I don’t know that many eleven year olds, but I suspect reading is not as popular with his generation as it was with mine. I’m sure this crop of kids’ll grow up just fine, and the few among them who are book nerds will someday have steady careers correcting the rest of their generations’ spelling and grammar mistakes.

I took Quentin to the neighborhood library yesterday and showed him how to identify science-fiction books in the young adult section (they have a little atom symbol on the label). I’m hoping he’ll get hooked on SF, which so hooked me when I was a kid. He came home with two YA SF books and one collection of Tintin stories (which I’ll probably read myself).

We have a second hummingbird nest, this one on a storage hook way up in the rafters over the breezeway between the house and garage. There have been nests there before, but not for the past two years. I like to think this mother hummingbird is one of the chicks hatched in a nest on the other storage hook last year. Or maybe this year … they don’t live very long, so they must have to grow up in a hurry. This nest, being so high, is hard to get to and I don’t plan to risk my neck taking photos. Just the one:


The new hummingbird nest

Sunday we invited some of Quentin’s Tucson friends over for a pool party. There’s always one kid you wish wasn’t in your pool … thankfully it wasn’t Quentin. He had a ball, and so did our two doggies, Schatzi and Maxie, who, even though they suffered in the heat, couldn’t tear themselves away from all the excitement. I wish they were water dogs, but they aren’t and wishing won’t make it so. They’ll go right up to the edge of the pool but they won’t go in. When it’s just me and things are quiet (no shouting, splashing kids), I’ll carry them into the water and hold them in my arms to cool them off, then let them swim to the ledge at the shallow end. I want them to know where to swim to should they ever fall in the pool, and they do seem to know the way.

But not Sunday, not with five screaming kids in the pool. Schatzi kept a close eye on the pool toys, and whenever one floated close to the edge she’d crane her neck down, almost to the point of toppling in, to grab it. I can’t resist posting critter photos, so here goes:


Schatzi scores!


Panting in the heat


Chewie wants treats too


The dinnertime truce

Ha, just realized I don’t have any good photos of Quentin yet, not from this visit. What a crap grandfather I am!


Paul’s Book Reviews: Nonfiction, Science Fiction

In that instant they felt an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment. Though they had failed dismally even to come close to the expedition’s original objective, they knew now that somehow they had done much, much more than ever they set out to do.

– Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage

enduranceEndurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Alfred Lansing

I’ve read a lot of contemporary adventure writing, and all of it has been exciting and good, but this narrative, written in 1959, is of another age. That is a good thing. A contemporary writer would have burrowed deep into Shackleton’s head, unearthing (or simply making up) personal quirks, foibles, self-doubts, and sexual fantasies; he would have probed the personal conflicts between expedition members, poking at them until they burst; he would have made his book two or three times longer than this one, lingering on each individual long lonely day on the ice. He would have sensationalized the sad fate of the expedition’s sled dogs.

Not our man Alfred Lansing, a man of the mid-20th century, no sir. Lansing recounts the historical facts, dispassionately describing the travails of the exploration team and the dangers they faced and overcame in a simple, linear, straightforward manner. Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic Expedition was incredibly daring and audacious; Lansing’s simple recounting of what happened, laid out in the order in which events occurred, emphasizes what an incredible story the team’s survival really is. Any more would have distracted from the story itself, which will stand on its own for all time.

Endurance is a riveting read from cover to cover. It never bogs down. It’s reawakened my interest in old school adventure writing, and now I want to re-read some of the exploration epics I consumed in my youth. Were they all this good?

first fifteen livesThe First Fifteen Lives of Harry August
Claire North

It would be easy to pick at this novel, to gripe that the basic idea’s been done before, to point out that the reader is asked to believe the unbelievable, to make fun of the classic good guy/comically evil guy conflict at the center of the plot, blah blah blah … but I can’t. I just can’t. Claire North’s story is too damn good for that.

One always looks for logical inconsistencies in time-travel science fiction. Claire North’s logic, once the reader agrees to go along with the premise that a few individuals among us live the same lives over and over again, remembering their previous lives in full, is meticulous and thorough. I had a hard time wrapping my head around the method the ouroborans, as they call themselves, employ to to communicate over centuries with past and future generations of their tribe, but it makes sense, and also makes possible a chilling science fiction adventure of the James Bond variety, with a malignant genius set on achieving his own goals, even if it destroys the world.

Harry August lives the same life again and again. By his third life he realizes what he is. Others of his kind contact him and he resolves to live his lives to the fullest. He learns, at great cost to himself, the value of keeping his secret knowledge to himself. He learns that it is almost impossible to change the future in any meaningful way. But then, in subsequent lives, the future does change in meaningful ways. And he thinks he knows who is responsible.

I know, I sound like I’m doing what I said I wouldn’t do in the first paragraph, picking at this novel. But I’m not. When I say it has a James Bond-worthy evil-genius-bent-on-destroying-the-world plot, I mean there’s a superlatively engaging edge-of-your-seat page-turning James Bond-worthy evil-genius-bent-on-destroying-the-world plot.

This is brilliantly crafted science fiction with believable characters and a gripping plot, intellectually satisfying and fun to read. I want more.

ancillary justiceAncillary Justice (Imperial Radch #1)
Ann Leckie

Space opera in the grand tradition. Ann Leckie’s world building is one of the great attractions of this book; reader reviews mention it again and again. So is Leckie’s exploration of the human intelligence/artificial intelligence theme; in her world the differences are very small indeed.

Ann Leckie could easily have written an 800-pager, explaining and exploring the ins and outs of Radch society; how ancillaries are created; what happens to AIs when their ships are sent to the scrapyard, why the Radchaai don’t use gendered pronouns, etc. But she doesn’t; instead, she immerses us in her world and lets us figure it out … and I liked that.

Things I didn’t like: not understanding why Breq, the last human-bodied ancillary of an interstellar warship AI, didn’t simply wink out of existence when the rest of itself, the warship Justice of Toren, was destroyed. Not understanding why Breq decided to save Seivarden’s life the first time, or why Breq jumped off the glass bridge to save Seivarden a second time — Breq was on a mission, after all, and Seivarden was at that time merely a distraction. Not understanding why Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the Radchaai, didn’t instantly vaporize Breq at the Station the second she realized what Breq was.

I would have liked to read about the lives of normal people in Leckie’s world. The few humans we meet are scions of wealthy houses, the 1%ers (and just as insufferable). I’m not even sure Anaander Mianaai was human; I read into the text an implication she was an AI too … I’m still mulling that one over (hope that’s not a spoiler for anyone).

These small objections aside, Ancillary Justice is a damn fine example of old fashioned space opera. I wanted to recharge my science fiction batteries, and Ancillary Justice did the trick.

japan 1941Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy
Eri Hotta

The edition I read, a hardcover by Knopf, contained photos from another book: interleaved with pages of relevant Japanese and Pearl Harbor attack photos were pages of photos of American actor Jack Nicholson at different stages of his film career. I haven’t seen this mentioned in reviews, and now I feel I should have stolen my library copy … it might have been the literary equivalent of the upside-down airmail stamp from the 1920s!

Eri Hotta’s history will fascinate anyone with an interest in the Japanese expansion prior to WWII, as well as the leadership’s decision to attack the USA. With the exception of a leader determined to attack another country for purely egotistical reasons … for indeed Hirohito was no George W. Bush … the actions and views of subordinate Japanese leaders and military chiefs presage those of their American successors during the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.

I was aware of some of the leadership issues Eri Hotta expands on. What I did not know was how enthusiastically the Japanese population, suffering recession and hardships at home as a result of Japan’s occupation of China and Manchuria (which had been going on since 1937) greeted news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Here, at least, Japanese history differs from that of the US, where few people were happy about the invasion of Iraq.

Eri Hotta manages to weave hundreds of minor and major details into a coherent whole. Her history is clearly written, engaging, and easy to follow.

the circleThe Circle
Dave Eggers

I really should give The Circle two or two-and-a-half stars, but something about the story engaged me and kept me turning pages all the way to the end. I enjoyed the read, and by my standards that’s three stars.

What kept me turning pages? It certainly wasn’t Eggers’ characters, who are paper cutouts, as two-dimensional as they come, there only to advance the statement Eggers is trying to make. Nor was it Eggers’ technical knowledge of the inner workings of cyberspace or the social media industry, which is not much deeper than my own. Nor was it Eggers’ subtlety, because he’s as ham-handed as they come. No, I kept turning pages to find out what the main character’s tipping point would turn out to be, the point at which Mae would finally say, no, you’re loading too many time-wasting social media interactions and mandatory zings on me; no, you’re asking me to share parts of my life that I insist on keeping secret; no, what you’re doing to my family and friends is wrong, no, you may NOT follow me into the restroom! Actually … perversely … the thing I liked best about The Circle is the ending. Without wanting to spoil it for anyone, I’ll just say it’s dark.

I read The Circle concurrently with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The two novels have much in common: both are near-future dystopias; both posit unhealthy developments based in current social, scientific, and economic trends; both focus on one or two big-picture issues while ignoring others; both employ a minimum number of characters … most bent on advancing whatever horrible new trend is making the future unlivable, one or two rebelling against it, trying to stave off the inevitable.

When the company’s CEO announces a plan to embed chips in all children … all children in the world … and then track them throughout their lives, everyone cheers. Not one person says hey, wait a minute. Now perhaps you see what I mean when I say Dave Eggers is ham-handed. His people aren’t of this world, where we can’t even get consensus on vaccinating kids against polio and smallpox. Eggers’ people exist to convey Eggers’ message, which is that we should push away from our laptops and desktops and tablets, take a vacation from Facebook. Good advice, but trivial. He’s hardly the first to offer it, but he offers it in a fun way with this little novel.

Don’t expect life-changing insights or William Gibsonesque cyberspace adventures, and you will probably have as much fun reading The Circle as I did. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for dystopian reading with great characterization, technical knowledge, and realistic scenarios, read Margaret Atwood (Oryx & Crake) or Paolo Bacigalupi (Ship Breaker).

Books I Didn’t Finish

book of agesBook of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
Jill Lepore

I thought Jill Lepore’s historical speculation would be interesting, and perhaps to most readers it will be, but after a few chapters I had to admit it wasn’t doing anything for me. Certainly no fault of the author’s … but I have read other histories of the period and know a bit about Benjamin Franklin, and it didn’t look to me as if I would learn anything new here. Jane Franklin, Ben’s little sister, didn’t leave much of a footprint: little is known about her, and apart from a few semi-literate letters to her brother, there’s just not much to go on. Jill Lepore makes much of the few scraps of information available to her, but frankly a lot of what I read was filler … known accomplishments and quotations of Jane’s famous brother Benjamin.


Thursday Bag o’ Empty Calories

cheetosI saw a commercial for implantable contact lenses on TV last night. If “implantable” means what I think it means, what does “contact” mean? Contacting the inner surface of your eye, looking out? Why not just “implantable lenses”? Sort of a Six Million Dollar Man kind of thing, or am I thinking of The Terminator? The thought of sliced eyeballs gives me the willies. I don’t want to turn on the TV lest I see that ad again.

Matter of fact, I was going to title this post Thursday Bag o’ Sliced Eyes, and I even had a photo to go with it, but was too squeamish to go through with it. Be glad of that.

When I go to my local Anytime Fitness, I bring an e-reader. Thirty minutes of my hour-long workout is on a stationary bicycle, where I can read and pedal at the same time. The rest of my routine, though, is divvied up between several exercise machines, and even if I could find a place to prop the Kindle I’m not on any one machine long enough to justify the effort. That’s when I’m forced to notice the wall-mounted television monitors, placed so that there’s nearly always one in my line of sight.

Other gym patrons seem to like Fox News, and most of the monitors are set to that channel. One or two are usually on ESPN. Thankfully, no one turns on the sound … I don’t think I could bear that. Yesterday a notice on the bulletin board said the gym now has cable. Someone had already gone looking for the lowest common denominator and had set one of the monitors over to World’s Scariest Police Videos. The scary part, to me, was the guy sitting on the bench press machine, watching with open mouth. Why is it these police videos always feature black people being beaten and tased by cops? Do they quit taping when they bust white perps? I have to think it’s intentional, that the show’s producers are purposefully playing to a racist white audience. Like Fox News, come to think of it.

But I’m getting off point. The same bulletin board notice said the gym will soon have Pandora on wi-fi. There’s the answer to my second half-hour … listen to Pandora on wi-fi with earbuds hooked up to my cell phone, which can rest in the pocket of my gym shorts. That’ll make the leg presses go faster.

Game of Thrones is over. Fargo is over. What’s there to live for? Oh, right, books … so many books waiting to be read. I’m reading the newest Pynchon novel, Bleeding Edge. Very like the Pynchon of my college days, The Crying of Lot 49Gravity’s Rainbow. I fell away from Pynchon for a long time … decades actually … but I’m enjoying this one. The only problem I have is when I lose my rhythm. Pynchon moves the story along with dialog, characters talking to each other or to themselves, but he doesn’t always tell you who’s speaking at the moment. No problem if you’ve been paying attention and you’re into the rhythm of the dialog, but let your mind wander for a second and you’re lost. Who said that? Was it Maxine? Or was it Tallis? That sort of thing.

On the Facebook Project (the Weaning Thereof), I’m learning that when I don’t contribute no one talks to me. Used to be every time I logged onto Facebook there’d be one or two private messages and at least a dozen comments on things I’d posted. I kind of miss the interaction, but most of that interaction was like eating cheese puffs … empty calories.

Well. When I have something to say, I say it on my blog, then post links to new blog entries on Facebook. I’ve been doing that all along, and will continue to do so. A few Facebookers click the links and visit, so that’s good. They never leave comments here at the blog (well, hardly ever), but they sometimes leave comments on Facebook. I probably will never be able to leave Facebook entirely, but at least I’m cutting back on the empty calorie interactions.

In previous posts I’ve mentioned some of the odd behaviors our old (18+ years) cat is now exhibiting. Here’s the latest: whenever I give the dogs a treat she muscles her way into the scrum and expects one too. This morning I had a dog at my left foot, a cat in the middle, and another dog at my right foot, all crunching away on Mini Milk Bones. Next time I’ll try to get a photo.

And now for something more substantial …

Rachel Maddow has been raising hell about the mainstream media’s unending love affair with the fools who got us into the ruinous Iraq war, which translates into giving them endless air time to undermine the current president and argue for invading Iraq all over again: “It is very frustrating to see that this is the way that we handle debates about foreign policy in this country,” Rachel says. “We take people who were so, provably, terribly wrong and bring them back and treat them like experts on the very subject they were wrong about. It is maddening.”

Yes, it is maddening. But so is her empty call to action: “Hey Sunday shows! Hey op-ed pages! Hey cable news! Hey everybody! We know you are tempted to keep booking these yahoos on these subjects, but if you keep turning to the people who were famously wrong about Iraq to ask them about to do about Iraq, you at least will be laughed at. And you will be embarrassed that you did this. And you will eventually have to apologize or at least explain yourself for why you thought Bill Kristol should be explaining what to do now. We can see what you’re doing, and it’s funny, but not in a good way.”

We laugh along with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert every goddamn night, and it doesn’t change a fucking thing. What makes you think the power brokers of the media will be the least bit embarrassed you’re laughing at them, Rachel?

One blogger is asking you to put your money where your mouth is:

See, here’s the thing.  However shrewdly rubes like me may speculate from way out here in the sticks about how the Hell these Neocon monsters keep getting invited back into the national spotlight, it is impossible me to find out the truth, for sure and on-the-record.  Realistically, the people who need to be asked hard questions are never going to return my phone-calls, nor will their assistants, interns or secretaries.

But MSNBC shares several floors of a building with NBC.

And they cross-pollinate all the time.

If Dr. Maddow really wants to find out why the fuck “we” keep booking “people who were so, provably, terribly wrong” and “treat[ing] them like experts on the very subject they were wrong about” all she has to do — literally — is grab a video camera, walk down the hall and ask her colleague David Gregory or his bookers and producer why they do what they do.

Then air that footage.

And then we’ll all know.

What he said.