Saturday, November 21, 2009

First President!

So if in 100 years' time Europe is a single unified country and a major world superpower, are European kids going to learn in school that Herman Van Rompuy was their country's first president? Or will he be more a Peyton Randolph sort of figure - the first president of the Continental Congress in what would become the USA, who no one remembers?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

35 Amazing Science Fair Projects!

Today, a lesson in contextualizing: 35 Amazing Science Fair Projects!

Now, I'm not going to pass judgement on any specific one of these fine science fair presentations. But I'm going to say that I strongly, strongly suspect that this set of thirty-five contains a mixture of sincere projects and deliberate jokes. (My fiancee says there's unmistakable signs of Photoshopping in at least one of the photos.) What's more, I suspect the deliberate attempts to be funny tend to be arranged near the top of the page, and the sincere attempts at a science fair project are clustered near the bottom.

This means that if you look at these sequentially, by the time you reach the kid concerned about the horniness of his/her mom's feet, you're already looking for signs of Photoshopping in case it's been manipulated, and you're trying to figure out the original context in case it hasn't been changed but was meant as a joke all along.

These kids - the ones who meant it sincerely - are going to have their hard work scrutinized by legions of Internet wankers who would have simply giggled and moved on if they'd come across their project in the context of, say, FailBlog. Poor kids.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Advertising hate

Maine's Question 1, which repeals the state's legalization of same-sex marriage earlier this year has passed by a small margin. That makes me very unhappy. I expected it to be defeated.

I can respectfully agree to disagree with people who disapprove of homosexuality for religious reasons. And I've come across secular arguments against same-sex marriage that are intelligent enough to make me think, even if I don't agree with them.

But from my perch here halfway around the world in Taiwan, I hear from the media and my parents that Mainers have been subjected over the past month to all sorts of nonsensical hatred via their TVs and radios, warning them of emboldened queers coming up from out of state to prey on Maine's schoolchildren.

Now, I can't read the mind and look into the heart of every Mainer who voted "yes" on 1. I don't honestly know what influenced them. But if Question 1 had to pass, why did it have to pass following such an offensive "yes on 1" campaign? I hate the idea that someone might think this kind of ad campaign has been validated.

On my fantasy wish-list for humanity, I think I'd like to propose a "no hate-spewing political ads" rule, whereby every political action organization across the political spectrum agrees that political advertisements that encourage hatred against a segment of society cannot possibly do good. Want people to repeal gays' right to get married? By all means you can run TV spots advocating your position, but you gotta do exactly that: advocate your position. Don't feature ominous music and dark lighting to make viewers afraid of the vile faggot lurking round the corner, waiting to pounce on and seduce some pure-hearted straight children.

Sure, scaring voters may be a more effective use of dollars (AAAH! GAYS!). But if my fantasy wish-list came true, we'd all realize that it's bad for society. It increases public ambient hate and distrust. Some people might actually think the ads are real.

This applies across the political spectrum. If some extremely misguided gay rights group decided to make an ad that depicted conservative Protestants and Catholics and Mormons as threats to the well-being of same-sex couples, and used all the standard advertising tricks to make the viewer afraid of the hypothetical hate-filled religious person who could be living right next door, that ad would help us all to hate one another just a little bit more. It wouldn't do a bit of good to anyone.

There's too much ambient hate out there. If you use the powers of TV and radio to stoke it and encourage it to grow, you're just making things worse for everyone - and shaming whatever your cause happens to be.

Monday, November 2, 2009


Apparently November 18 is International Science Fiction Reshelving Day.
Join us this November in a new and unique celebration of science fiction and fantasy literature. Many books from our fine genre are regularly placed in the wrong section of bookstores. This not only hides the books from us, but it prevents readers of those books from discovering the rich tradition to which they belong.

On November 18th that changes. We will go to bookstores around the world and move science fiction and fantasy books from wherever they might be to their proper place in the “Science Fiction” section. We hope that this quiet act of protest will raise awareness of this problem and inspire new readers to explore our thought-provoking genre.

It's on November 18th because that's Margaret Atwood's birthday, as she's the author to claim most infamously that her work isn't SF even though much of it obviously is (most notably The Handmaid's Tale). The probable reason is that she doesn't want to be pigeonholed into what many perceive as a literary ghetto.

I suppose I can try to muster up some small amount of sympathy for her, by assuming she wants people to see her in particular literary tradition rather than another. If you write General Fiction you get shelved here and attract one group of people, if you write Science Fiction you get shelved there and attract a different group of people, and so on.

For instance, one recent book I read was Amy Tan's Saving Fish from Drowning, which is marketed as and universally accepted to be General Fiction. The novel's POV character dies suddenly at the beginning (not a spoiler) and for the rest of the book she's a ghost, able to narrate the events of the story but not able to influence them directly, except that a few times she plants thoughts into key character's minds during dreams which then have a real influence on how events develop. If a short story with the same ratio of the fantastical to the realistic were to appear on, say, PodCastle, I don't think there would be much "Not enough fantasy!" grumbling in the discussion forums. But it would seem somewhat weird to see Saving Fish from Drowning shelved in the "Fantasy" section of the bookshop, rather than "General Fiction".

Why is that? I think it's because we don't see Amy Tan as following in the literary traditions of the books that generally do get shelved in the "Fantasy" section. Tan is seen as a General Fiction author. Atwood wants to be seen as a General Fiction author as well, and she's prepared to say cynical and dismissive things about SF in order to stay there. That's because we all know you can't be both General Fiction and SF/Fantasy, unless your name happens to be Iain M. Banks, and for all we know he's got super powers or something.

This is usually symbolized by the subdivisions within brick-and-mortar bookshops, where each book can be given one and only one classification (General Fiction, SF/Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, etc). You can avoid this to a degree with online booksellers, where each book can be given a variety of tags, but aren't actual physical bookstores that you can go and hang out in more fun?

But when each book can only be marketed as one thing, some arbitrary decisions have to be made. Markus Zusak's The Book Thief usually gets marketed and sold as Young Adult fiction, but if it were shelved under General Fiction instead, I bet it would cause not even a single grown-up reader to end up shaking their head in dismay thinking "This is a kid's book!"

I'm surprised there's not more controversy coming from the fact that many bookstores have separate sections with names like "African-American Fiction", "Gay/Lesbian Fiction," and so on. Can you draw a line separating "General Fiction that happens to be about gay people" from "Gay/Lesbian Fiction"? How do you quantify that?

And I'm wondering if this will be an unsolvable problem for as long as we have brick-and-mortar bookshops where books are physically lined up on neat shelves. Unless people are willing to tolerate having one great big "Fiction" section where the authors are sorted only in alphabetical order.