Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My First Official Election 2012 Rant

First, let me just come out and say it: against all expectations, Barack Obama has turned out to be the most boring President since George Herbert Walker Bush.

That's not necessarily a compliment, nor is it a criticism. And it's partly a function of the modern news media. When you compare what Obama has actually done and how he governs with the ridiculous heroic image his more fervent supporters once had of him, he seems rather... dull.

The same goes if you compare the real Obama with the hyperbole that you hear from his more preposterous professional haters on TV and the Internet. He just can't live up to the image of an atheist elitist snob who wants to impose Sharia law in an effort to transform America into a European socialist state. Maybe nobody could.

And so now a large portion of the people who voted for Obama in '08 are disappointed, and peeved at him, and ready to sit 2012 out.

After all, what's the worst that can happen? President Romney?

In the general election, it'll turn out that Romney's chief advantage is he's perceived as a stereotypical politician. It's hard to loathe Romney, because he's not substantial enough to loathe. He says objectionable things, but that's because these things are what he thinks Republican primary voters want to hear, so the fault really lies with those primary voters, not with Romney himself.

A Romney Administration won't break the country. President Romney will be an excellent foil for the political left, but he won't actually destroy everything they hold dear. (A win-win situation!) Even among Romney haters, the sense is that our country has had worse guys in office, and it came through battered but basically OK.

In other words, the threat of a President Romney won't be enough to get left-leaning voters out of the house to vote for Obama in large numbers on Election Day. This is why, for all of Romney's essential doofiness that often comes across loud and clear on TV, he's still got a good chance of beating Obama.

And what do I, personally, think? I'll dutifully go and vote for Obama, but the idea of a Romney presidency doesn't exactly keep me up at night quivering with fear. I don't like Romney, but our country really has had worse presidents, and has recovered.

And that brings me, of course, to Rick Santorum.

Unless something extraordinary happens, such a major third-party challenger, I do not believe Santorum is capable of defeating Obama. Remember all those lefty voters who couldn't be bothered to vote for Obama against Romney? If Santorum wins the GOP nomination, they'll be tearing open their checkbooks and writing checks to Obama's reelection campaign, their fingers shaking with abject terror. And they will go home at night and pray to God to help Obama win and to stop Santorum. That includes most of the religious Catholics I've known back in the States.

So it sounds simple. If you want Obama to have at least a semblance of a fight on his hands this November, root for Romney. If you want Obama to have an easy reelection, root for Santorum (or Gingrich, whom Obama would also squash). Right?

Also, you've got the view, articulated most recently by John Helleman in New York magazine, that if the GOP runs Romney and loses, the crazies are likely to take over the party and nominate someone truly unacceptable in 2016. But if Santorum runs and loses, the GOP may well return to sanity.

What that would mean for the GOP would differ wildly depending on which of the two current front-runners, along with the coalition that elevated him to the nomination, is blamed for the debacle. “If Romney is the nominee and he loses in November, I think we’ll see a resurgence of the charismatic populist right,” says Robert Alan Goldberg, a history professor at the University of Utah and author of a biography of Barry Goldwater. “Not only will [the grassroots wing] say that Romney led Republicans down the road to defeat, but that the whole type of conservatism he represents is doomed.”

Goldberg points out that this is what happened in 1976, when the party stuck with Ford over Reagan, was beaten by Carter, and went on to embrace the Gipper’s brand of movement conservatism four years later. So who does Goldberg think might be ascendant in the aftermath of a Romney licking? “Sarah Palin,” he replies. “She’s an outsider, she has no Washington or Wall Street baggage, she’s electric—and she’s waiting, because if Romney doesn’t win, she will be welcomed in.”

But if it’s Santorum who is the standard-bearer and then he suffers an epic loss, a different analogy will be apt: Goldwater in 1964. (And, given the degree of the challenges Santorum would face in attracting female voters, epic it might well be.) As Kearns Goodwin points out, the rejection of the Arizona senator’s ideology and policies led the GOP to turn back in 1968 to Nixon, “a much more moderate figure, despite the incredible corruption of his time in office.” For Republicans after 2012, a similar repudiation of the populist, culture-warrior coalition that is fueling Santorum’s surge would open the door to the many talented party leaders—Daniels, Christie, Bush, Ryan, Bobby Jindal—waiting in the wings for 2016, each offering the possibility of refashioning the GOP into a serious and forward-thinking enterprise.

Only the most mindless of ideologues reject the truism that America would be best served by the presence of two credible governing parties instead of the situation that currently obtains. A Santorum nomination would be seen by many liberals as a scary and retrograde proposition. And no doubt it would make for a wild ride, with enough talk of Satan, abortifacients, and sweater vests to drive any sane man bonkers. But in the long run, it might do a world of good, compelling Republicans to return to their senses—and forge ahead into the 21st century. Which is why all people of common sense and goodwill might consider, in the days ahead, adopting a slogan that may strike them as odd, perverse, or even demented: Go, Rick, go.

That makes a lot of sense. It's logical.

But I can't put my heart behind it. I'm not feeling it.

Part of it is that I have a hard time believing future hypothetical scenarios, especially those worked out by confident experts. The future hasn't been written. We don't know what game-changing unexpected events will happen. Analyses of what a political party is likely to do years down the road in scenario A as opposed to scenario B can be useful food for thought, but perhaps should not be used as the basis of decision-making. Plans and predictions have a tendency to come undone.

And what's more, on a purely visceral, emotional level, I don't want the GOP to nominate Santorum.

I don't want to run the risk of him winning. I don't believe he can beat Obama in a 2-way race, but throw in a third-party candidate who might divert votes from Obama, or some other game-changing event I can't anticipate, and anything can happen.

But more fundamentally, I don't want the media narratives between now and November 2 to be about Santorum's pet issues. I know there are people who say that we need to have a serious national conversation about gay marriage, about church and state, about abortion, about feminism, etc. And I agree. We do.

But we won't if Santorum wins the nomination.

Once you put things into the language of political discourse, you're no longer having a serious conversation. You're just sniping at each other's strawmen. You're talking in the language of emotion rather than rationality. You're making yourselves out to be victims solely for the purpose of making the people you want on your side feel embattled and belittled and defensive. I hate that.

Romney's pet issues aren't really culture war issues. They don't come pre-loaded with emotional resonance for people. Having a Romney-centered general election campaign won't result in millions of dollars being poured into unnecessarily tearing apart American social fabric.

Moreover, if Santorum wins the nomination, everything he says until the nomination is going to get reported around the world with the weight and gravitas of a major-party nominee for President. Yes, every national politician in the United States has said some, irresponsible, crazy stuff, and maybe I am getting a skewed view of Santorum's vocal utterances because the media tends to focus on the more objectionable things he says. But the thought of the news media around the world running Santorum's talking points with the implied weight of half the American electorate behind it makes my skin crawl.

But then, maybe it doesn't matter if the GOP nominates Romney or Santorum. Maybe, to appease the base, Romney would need to pick a Santorum-like VP, if not Santorum himself. Which would result in just as unpleasant a general election. In which case, all I can do is watch from my perch outside the USA, enjoy the wild ride, and remember to send in my absentee ballot for Obama.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Green Mars

Green Mars
by Kim Stanley Robinson
Published in 1994
Published by Bantam Books
ISBN: 0-553-57239-3

Green Mars is the middle book in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy.

Green Mars begins around the turn of the 22nd century. Mars has been settled for several decades. Terraforming projects are incrementally inching the planet's atmosphere (and, increasingly, its developing biosphere) towards a more Earthlike new normal. New settlers are arriving and more Martian natives are being born. Meanwhile, Earth is a mess, dominated by a dozen or so 'metanationals', mergers of 21st-century-style multinationals and nation-states. These same metanationals are in charge of exploiting the natural resources of Mars.

The surviving members of the First Hundred -- the first permanent settlers on Mars and the trilogy's main protagonists -- have mostly taken up the cause of a Free Mars, sovereign and independent of Terran metanationals' meddling. This is not, of course, to say that they agree with each other, or that there aren't deep philosophical disagreements that threaten to tear the cause of Martian independence apart.

Green Mars is about the Martian people's decades-long march towards revolution.

It's been a long time since I read the first entry in the trilogy, Red Mars. (I don't even remember what year I read it in -- I think it was 2008 or 2009.) It was probably a mistake to let my knowledge of the characters and backstory to lie dormant for such a long time, especially as when I began Green Mars I wasn't sure where to turn online to refresh my memory without inadvertently spoiling myself.

If you are the kind of reader who must always have a good grasp of who each character is, what they are talking about, and what the past events they are obliquely referring to are, then you'd better read these three books in order, and (unless you have a good memory for details) without significant breaks in between. These books are vast, they are full of details, and nothing is ever forgotten. And Green Mars offers the casual reader no help at all. There's no helpful list of dramatis personae, and no introductory passage from the Encyclopaedia of Mars about the early years of Martian history, full of exposition to catch the reader up.

On the other hand, if I were the sort of reader who always had to feel cognizant and in control, then I never would have gotten through Lau Siew Mei's Playing Madame Mao. I cheerfully got myself slowly back up to speed by quietly assimilating the references to what had gone before -- all of which, of course, seemed to assume the reader was already familiar with the events of Red Mars.

Working my way through my stack of Kim Stanley Robinsons was practically a New Year's resolution for me. Robinson is a brilliant author, wields very well-thought-out concepts, and his books make me feel smarter. But I'll never call one of his books a 'page-turner'. It's clear throughout Green Mars that the installment will end with the people of Mars throwing off the yoke of their colonial oppressors, in an extraordinarily messy revolution that will require another 700-page novel to pick up the pieces. And Robinson sure takes his time getting there.

Green Mars's sizable pagecount is devoted largely to two things. One is politics, and I just ate that up. I love a realistic depiction of political struggle when it's written as an exploration of human nature, and not for the author to advance some stupid agenda of his own.

The other thing he writes about at great length is Mars, and this is where I found the book a bit of a struggle. And I feel bad about that. It's not like I can complain. I'm not going to write in an Amazon review, Robinson's book about Mars, Green Mars, is pretty good except for the parts where he writes about Mars.

But one of Robinson's main goals in this trilogy -- in Red Mars, in Green Mars, and I expect in Blue Mars too -- is to make the reader feel the natural beauty of the Martian landscape. And he sets out to accomplish this through text. Lavish textual descriptions, filled with geological terminology. And to be honest, they left me rather cold. They are what make the books a long slog for me.

I don't want to harp too much on the dryness of the 'Martian beauty' sections. They're obviously a central part of Robinson's vision. And he always gets back around to human beings and their psychologies and the march of history, which I enjoy reading about far more. My problem might just be that my brain's not wired to easily picture a visual image based on a text description. If I'm to appreciate something's visual beauty, I have to actually see it.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Other Paths of Education

There's been talk in the USA for years of making four years of college education as ubiquitous and expected as four years of high school education. I'm for education as much as anyone, but I'm very unconvinced that four years at a standard American college or university is what every American needs.

It's not that I think there is necessarily anything wrong with what universities offer and it's certainly not about politics. (I should point out that my dad's a tenured professor in the social sciences at a state-run university.)

And I certainly don't think the problem is that some students are smarter and some students are naturally stupider, and this is a natural truth that some people are afraid to utter because of 'political correctness'. I don't believe human intelligence can be represented along a single scale. I think different people probably have different natural aptitudes.

I don't believe this because it fits into some ideology I have. I believe it because it fits the way I perceive human beings operating.

I remember that I've always been very good at taking standardized tests, for example. What they don't tell you in school is that your success in adult life is not necessarily determined by how well you do on standardized tests.

In short, I fully agree with and endorse the ideas put forth by Sir Ken Robinson in his 2010 TED Talk.

I suppose what I'd like to see in the USA is a greatly expanded system of vocational education, for students who have no interest in going on to a traditional university. We need people who know how stuff works. We need people who can figure stuff out. And we need a system that encourages people to master skills which are useful to society, and to leverage these skills to take charge of their own lives.

And -- and this is important -- I would wave my magic wand and change society so that there wouldn't be any sense that people who had vocational training and now work in the skilled labor force are less talented or less lucky than people who went to university. Anybody who can open up and fix a machine or expertly repair leaky pipes is officially far more capable than I am in at least one area of human endeavor, and there is no reason to suppose they are less well-informed about the world or have less of a mind than I do. That's just dumb.

In short, I don't just want to see better options for people who don't do well on their SATs. I want to see these additional paths to a good career to be a serious possibility even for people who did well on all their standardized tests and could get into a good university if they wanted to. Where's the logic in considering vocational training to be second-best? I don't see it.

So that's how I'd like to change American culture.

So is there a way to express vaguely similar sentiments but within a framework of pure assholery? Yes, there is.

Read this report on Rick Santorum's comments on Obama wanting to send all American kids to college.

"Not all folks are gifted the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands," Santorum began. "Some people have incredible gifts and want to work out there making things."

Then he went after the president's call for making college easier for Americans to attend.

President Obama wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob," Santorum said as the crowd howled with laughter and applause. "There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren't taught by some liberal college professor."

Then read this bit on how and why his supporters agree that college isn't for everybody. A couple of them say things that sort of echo my concerns up above, but it turns into this:

“They try and disguise it with, you know, ‘equal opportunity’…” Stephen Clement began.

“It’s communism,” Murrow said, cutting him off. “The professors are all teaching the kids…”

“Where does the social engineering stop?” Clement jumped back in, fired up. “Does it stop after we send everybody to college, or does it stop after we set their curriculum and said, ‘these are the things you’re allowed to study?’ Does it become the Soviet Union?”

Thank you, American political discourse. Not just for redefining the word 'communist' to mean 'generic thing I don't like', which will render us without a sufficiently descriptive vocabulary if actual Communists ever become a force in American politics.

But also, thank you for taking something I actually believe and embedding it within a context I disapprove of. It's a test of my intellectual integrity to see if I still believe something after it's been thoroughly incorporated into a framework I don't agree with.

And guess what? I still believe we ought to support alternative paths of education, and not snobbishly look down on people just because they didn't go to a traditional college.

Who cares how Santorum tries to frame the issue.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Playing Madame Mao

Playing Madame Mao
by Lau Siew Mei
Published in 2000
Published by Brandl & Schlesinger
ISBN: 1-876040-18-1

Chiang Ching was Chairman Mao's fourth and final wife. She made her name early in life as an actress. She became politically powerful during the late 1960s, becoming one of the instigators of the Cultural Revolution, and as Mao became old and senile Chiang Ching's power grew. After Mao died, Chiang Ching and her followers were forced out of the government. She was thrown into prison, and eventually committed suicide in 1991. (The novel does not spell her name using Pinyin, and I have followed its lead.)

Chiang Ching is a Singaporean actress, the heroine of Lau Siew Mei's Playing Madame Mao. Not only does she portray the Chinese leader on the stage, but as the hallucinogenic, phantasmagoric novel progresses, her life increasingly becomes conflated with her character's. Similarly, 1980s Singapore becomes identified with 1970s China. Her husband falls into political trouble for his writings, and she may have contributed to his troubles through her own activities (if we can trust the literal truth of certain passages).

The Singapore of Lau Siew Mei's Chiang Ching is ruled by a repressive government, whose enforcers are known as Red Guards, and which is led by a tyrant known only as the Chairman. (For those not familiar with Singaporean nomenclature, as far as I can tell the phrase 'Red Guards' is not normally used in reference to that country's police, and Lee Kuan Yew's title is never rendered as 'Chairman'.)

Adding to Chiang Ching's (the Singaporean actress, not the Chinese leader, not that the distinction remains so sharp within the novel) subjective confusion, the rules of reality are broached, as Chiang Ching dallies with the Emperor of the universe that lies beyond the mirrors, whose denizens are increasingly infiltrating real-life Singapore.

I felt as if the novel was operating on two levels simultaneously, one grounded in literal reality and one flying high in the realms of fantasy. And there's nothing wrong with that. But while I can appreciate the satirical intent behind conflating Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore and Mao's China, the fantastical elements left me bemused and unsure how to interpret what was supposed to be happening.

The novel ends by offering us a way to rationalize all of the preceding flights of fancy. Whether you accept that explanation of what has gone before is, of course, up to you.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

How the Other Half Thinks: Adventures in Mathematical Reasoning

How the Other Half Thinks: Adventures in Mathematical Reasoning
by Sherman Stein
Published in 2001
Published by McGraw-Hill
ISBN: 0-07-140798-7

Last year I read and reviewed John D. Barrow's excellent 100 Essential Things You Didn't Know You Didn't Know. Barrow's book introduced the general public to 100 math problems and general applications which he related in an engaging and interesting manner.

Sherman Stein's book belongs to the same general genre. Writing for a layman with no specialized training, Stein introduces a handful of problems that mathematicians have tackled through the years, and methodically and step by step he takes the reader through the logic inherent in solving the problem, or proving the proposition.

Barrow's book was divided into 100 sections, each looking at a different aspect of mathematics. In contrast, Stein deals with just eight. In each section, he poses a question, then guides the reader through the logic used by mathematicians to explore it. I deliberately use the word 'explore' rather than 'solve'. Correct answers are almost an afterthought -- the process is the thing.

This book is about logical thinking more than math -- not to imply there's a line where math ends and logic begins! The reader isn't assumed to have any mathematical knowledge beyond how an equation works, how an average is calculated, or what pi is.

In the very first chapter, Stein gives us what appears to be a difficult problem. Imagine you drop a needle onto a floor, and the floor has a pattern of parallel lines which are evenly spaced apart. What is the probability the needle will cross one of the parallel lines? As you can probably guess, that depends on the relationship between the length of the needle and the distance between the lines. (This is known among mathematicians as the Buffon's Needle problem.)

Next, he makes it really interesting.

What happens if we keep the length of the needle and the distance between the lines constant, but we bend the needle? Bend it into a right angle, bend it into a W, bend it into a rectangle, it doesn't matter. How much less likely is it that the needle crosses a line?

The answer -- it doesn't affect the probability at all! -- is counter-intuitive (at least, it was for me), but it is impeccably proven, and proven in a way that doesn't even use what we would consider math.

The remainder of the book covers topics such as infinity (containing the famous old question of whether one infinite set can be larger than another), streaks (concerning the tendency of random processes such as a coin flip to yield surprisingly long streaks if given enough time), and letter strings (in which the strings are ingeniously visualized in two dimensions as road maps).

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Translated by Lucia Graves
Published in 2001
Published by Penguin
ISBN: 0-14-303490-1

Daniel is a bookseller's son living in late 1940s Barcelona. He comes into possession of a novel called The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julian Carax. Daniel develops a years-long obsession with Carax, a long-disappeared fellow Barcelona native, and he tries to piece together what he can of Carax's life story. Is the presumably now middle-aged Carax still alive? Reports differ. Has Carax written anything else? Yes, several novels, and every known copy has gone missing. What does the malevolent and thuggish local police inspector who antagonizes Daniel and threatens his friends have to do with Carax? And who is the mysterious scarred man who stalks Daniel and intends to make sure every last Carax novel is burned to ashes?

Several of this novel's many effusive blurbs compare it to an Umberto Eco work. I can see the resemblance. This is a big, complex book whose plot doubles back recursively; there's a lot going on here, and plenty of characters to keep straight. This onion has a lot of layers.

Fortunately, this one is both a highbrow literary work and a real page-turner. The author knows how to milk every drop of suspense out of having his characters creep around dusty, abandoned mansions at night.

I have only a very basic level of knowledge about the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath in Barcelona, which forms the all-pervasive backdrop to the novel. I know it to be a deep, complex, emotionally loaded subject which I happen to be largely ignorant of (despite having read Orwell's Homage to Catalonia several years ago). The Shadow of the Wind doesn't require its readers to be particularly knowledgeable about 20th-century Spain, but having at least a passing familiarity with the times would be helpful. If anything, this is one of those novels that inspire you to learn more about the historical period in question.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Reading the OED

Reading the OED
by Ammon Shea
Published in 2008
Published by Perigee
ISBN: 978-0-399-53505-5

When he set out to read the entire Oxford English Dictionary in a year, start to finish, Ammon Shea faced a certain set of problems. The task gave him headaches, and he needed to get a new prescription for his eyeglasses. And there was the matter of finding a suitable place for his reading outside of the house, as he tried out libraries and secluded outdoor spots. But none of these difficulties turned out to be impossible to overcome, and Shea was serious about his love of dictionaries and the English language.

Reading the OED is a wonderful celebration of the love of books -- and the love of words -- taken to the furthest extreme it's possible to reach in our contemporary culture. Shea fills most of the pages of his book with the words that particularly struck his fancy, accompanied by his own witty commentary.

For example, just in the As, we have agathokakological, 'made up of both good and evil' (Shea writes, 'You don't have to use it in casual conversation; sometimes it's enough to merely know a word exists in order to enjoy it'); all-overish, 'feeling an undefined sense of unwell that extends to the whole body' (Shea writes that 'It is rare that we are presented with a word simultaneously so vague and so useful'); anonymuncule, 'an anonymous, small-time writer' (Shea proclaims this word 'delightful'); and aspectabund, a word not used since 1708 and meaning 'having an expressive face'. (Shea comments, 'As a word it is almost entirely forgotten, and perhaps soon, as cosmetic procedures continue to work their magic, the very notion of having an expressive face will be forgotten as well.')

An interview with Ammon Shea in which he discusses the book can be found here.