Sunday, April 28, 2013

Authentic Cultural Experience

Back when I was a student in the USA, I liked to go to performances of traditional music and dance from foreign countries. We always thought it was desirable to get an 'authentic' experience of that country's traditional culture.

This video was shot by my wife at a temple fair in Lugang a couple of weeks ago. Westerners, this is what Asian culture looks like when nobody's trying to please people who crave an 'authentic cultural experience'.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

We Know a Famous Cat

I've been reading BoingBoing for years, but this is the first time they've posted about an individual whom I have met in real life. Xeni Jardin reports:

Above: Misha, the manager of Fernando's Kaffe, my favorite place for coffee in La Antigua, Guatemala. Seriously, she runs the joint. After the barista made me my espresso, the barista pushed keys next to the creature's paws and tail to ring up my drink without moving Misha; the cat sleeps right through everything.

Misha does indeed run the place. When Jenna and I were at Fernando's Kaffe in 2010, Misha carefully supervised Jenna's coffee consumption, as can be seen here:

Monday, April 22, 2013


by Peter Watts
Published in 2001
Published by Tor

When I read Peter Watts' Starfish a couple of weeks ago, I wrote the following:

This is not happy, optimistic science fiction. This is horror. There are honest-to-God sea monsters down there. Not to mention the psychological tension and continual sense of unease that pervades the book. You don't read Peter Watts for a happy fun time.

So, needless to say, I went back for more.

Starfish was the claustrophobic story of a team of psychologically damaged individuals -- the Rifters -- working in unspeakably close quarters in a station at the bottom of the sea, with honest-to-God sea monsters swimming around outside. Maelstrom is not claustrophobic. Peter Watts has opened up the setting and shown us the world. And what a horrible place this world is.

As the first novel progresses to its climax, something very dangerous is uncovered at the seabed: a microbe dubbed βehemoth. βehemoth is a relic of the earliest days of life on Earth. It is a life form completely unrelated to anything in our current biosphere; it has several structural advantages that would give it a leg up in evolutionary competition with the microbes we're used to, but pure random chance 4 billion years ago consigned it to the bottom of the ocean. If it ever establishes a foothold on dry land, it will very likely breed and breed, and clog up our biosphere, and eventually kill us all.

And this sets up the remainder of the Rifters trilogy, of which Maelstrom is book 2.

Peter Watts thoughtfully set the events of Maelstrom in the year when I will be seventy years old, a year in which I intend to be fully alive and aware. That helps make the screwed-uppedness of the world more immediate for me. Climate change has wreaked all sorts of unforeseen havoc on the world's weather patterns, and natural evolution (egged on by genetic engineering) has produced all sorts of superbugs that the authorities are busily containing by Any Means Necessary. Large swathes of the west coast of North America are refugee camps full of Asians displaced by climate-related disasters. The situation there is not helped by the massive earthquake/tsunami combo unleashed at the end of Starfish, which most people do not yet realize was triggered by a deliberate nuclear explosion meant to annihilate the Rifters, who were presumed to be infected by βehemoth.

Lenie Clarke, the closest thing the trilogy has to a main protagonist, survives. Clarke, like the other Rifters, is psychologically damaged by years of childhood abuse. But she has formidable survival skills, and can handle herself well in a fight. Not realizing she's carrying the βehemoth microbe, she sets off over land on an ill-defined journey to an uncertain destination. The calculating government bureaucrat Patricia Rowan is determined to track her down and stop her.

There are several other viewpoint characters, some of whom have had their conscience tampered with by the authorities. There are also some who only think their conscience is still being tampered with, which raises some interesting philosophical questions about the placebo effect. And then there is Maelstrom itself, which is the vast wild frontier that our Internet eventually evolves into. Maelstrom is an ecosystem where Darwinian evolution, quite uncontrolled by human beings, takes place among the native life at an astonishing speed. The Maelstrom-POV chapters are fascinating, and the Maelstrom-native life ends up impacting the story in ways that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes quite alarming.

Characters get plenty of development and then die with little fanfare. I don't know how George R. R. Martin ever got his reputation for killing off characters. Trust me, you do NOT want to be a character in a Peter Watts novel.

So, let's recap. The protagonist is an insane woman spreading carnage and destruction throughout western North America as she tramps off on a perverse quest that has no rational basis, who does not care that her actions cause numerous innocent deaths. The antagonist is the person who is in charge of saving the world. And the Internet is where bizarre inhuman monsters live.

This novel is highly unpleasant. I also found it compulsively readable. I've already got the third volume of the trilogy on my smartphone, ready to read.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

News consumption

The other day this article by Rolf Dobelli in The Guardian floated around my Facebook feed.

In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking. That's why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.

Most people were skeptical, to say the least; most reactions were along the lines of 'So this guy is saying that ignorance is bliss? Give me a break!'

I thought that was a bit unfair. Dobelli had a point. The vast majority of news and analysis does not leave the news consumer knowing more about the world than the consumer did before.

What's more, the news media are absolutely crap at communicating the relative importance of stories. With all the horrible things that happen in the world on a daily basis, the American media seem to spend a huge amount of resources choosing a few murdered children every year, seemingly arbitrarily, and giving their cases enormous coverage. From what I've seen, other countries' media are not much different

And that's not even bringing up people who get all their news from within partisan echo chambers, and the twisted view of the world that they develop as a result.

Charles Stross, an author I like and a man who never strikes me as uninformed or ignorant, wrote approvingly of Dobelli's article. His take on it reminds me of the parallel Earth in Neal Stephenson's novel Anathem, where humanity's intellectuals cloister themselves away in monasteries to shield themselves from the day-to-day distractions of pop culture and world events.

All that said, however, I have to agree in the end with people who bashed the article on Facebook. Dobelli, for all his spot-on criticism of the news media, really does seem to argue that it's better to not know so much of current events in his 'News kills creativity' paragraph. He partially redeems himself in his very next paragraph:

Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don't have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.

But that's buried near the end. Much better would have been for him to make it clearer that people need to be well-informed, but genuinely well-informed, not the illusion of knowledge that watching CNN will get you. I like long-form journalism and reading nonfiction books. I wish he'd made that point more central to his article.

And that was where I stood a day and a half ago. Now for my personal anecdote. I live on the opposite side of the world from my native North America, and the Internet greeted me on Tuesday morning with pictures of bloody streets and carnage in Boston. Horrible situation.

There is a prominent blogger I read. He had assembled tweets from various semi-prominent people which represented their early reactions to the Boston bombings.

There were two tweets that made me mad. They weren't from random idiots with Twitter accounts; there are so many of those that if you go looking you can find offensive tweets reacting to any situation, and I frankly don't see any reason to care.

No, these tweets were both from people who called themselves journalists. They were both political commentators. Both are famous enough to have Wikipedia biographies. Both presumably get paid to do what they do. One of them made a really offensive and tasteless comment about the bombings. The other used the bombings to make a snarky comment about a completely unrelated news story.

They both offended me, but what really made me mad was that I knew exactly what would happen next. There would be pushback. People would be offended. The commentator who had made the offensive comment would probably complain she was being lambasted for 'political incorrectness'. The one who made the snarky comment would assume that nobody had 'gotten it', and would 'helpfully' explain what he meant to all those people who had incorrectly been offended.

And I got even madder, thinking about their cluelessness.

And only then, I realized just how screwed-up my emotions at that moment were.

First, I was much madder at these commentators' obliviousness (real or feigned) at their offensiveness, than I was at their offensive comments in the first place. And what's more, I was madder at these commentators' offensive comments, than I was about the fact that some person or people had just torn a crowd of people to shreds with bombs.

Second, there was a funny thing about these commentators' obliviousness. It hadn't happened yet. I was already mad, just thinking about how I expected these dumbheads to react. In other words, I was angry -- really, genuinely angry -- at something I had imagined. I had no idea if they had actually reacted (or would actually react) to the inevitable pushback in the way that I had involuntarily visualized.

In short, I realized that my years of reading political commentators, and getting mad when they said dumb things, had horribly twisted my mind.

One thing I had already done was prune the list of political commentators I read to a very few. (The two chief conditions are that they don't insult my intelligence and they don't try to make me feel waves of anger, for silly reasons, towards political figures I didn't like anyway.) Now, what I'll try to work on is not feeling angry when I see a political commentator being quoted saying something stupid, no matter how illogical and/or offensive their words are.

I will also try to read David Wong's 5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under 10 Seconds every day, until it sinks in.

After five or so years of carefully pruning my news consumption, maybe I'll have developed some rules of thumb that are more useful than Dobelli's well-intentioned but ultimately incomplete advice.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box
by Joe Hill
Published by William Morrow
Published in 2007

Judas Coyne is a middle-aged rock star who lives with his twentysomething Goth girlfriend Georgia in an upstate New York farmhouse. Jude's music is informed by his interest in the occult and the macabre; when his PA helpfully mentions that some crazy lady is offering her stepfather's ghost for sale online, Jude buys it immediately.

Unbeknownst to him, the ghost is real. Unbeknownst to him, the crazy lady is the sister of his previous twentysomething girlfriend, who killed herself after he broke up with her. The living sister and the deceased stepfather are intent on revenge, and Judas Coyne has the most unpleasant time of his life ahead of him...

I'm going to do something that Joe Hill is probably tired of at this point. I can't discuss my reactions to this book without mentioning Joe Hill's father. Horror is a genre I do not read often. I like Peter Watts, but his science-fictional horror seems like a very different subgenre. And while I'm a fan of the short stories of the PseudoPod podcast, I generally won't seek out a big fat supernatural horror novel to relax with. But long ago, when I was a teenager, I read the occasional horror novel, and most of them were written by Hill's esteemed father. Joe Hill, Senior.

I grew up not far from Joe Hill, Sr's house. I never met the man, but he was without doubt the local celebrity, and I read a bunch of his big fat novels when I was in high school. As of now I haven't read any of his stuff in years. However, when I read Heart-Shaped Box, there was no question whose writing style it reminded me of. I suspect I would have thought 'This reminds me of old Joe Hill, Sr!' even if I hadn't known the family connection. That said, this is probably less due to Hill taking after his father and more due to the fact that I haven't read terribly much in this particular genre.

I'm going to admit that I can be a squeamish reader, and there are certain types of bodily injury that reading about can make me feel nauseated and dizzy. Heart-Shaped Box is a very bloody book, and by 'bloody' I do not simply mean violent. I mean this book is full of lacerations and puncture wounds and traumatic amputations, all of them graphically described, and by the final scenes I imagine the surviving characters are leaving trails of blood behind them wherever they go. This isn't meant to be negative criticism; it's more a note that this book hit me in some viscerally unpleasant ways that may have lessened my enjoyment of it; at the same time, though, the sheer bloodiness of it may have also made the story more immediate, more vivid, for me.

With all that said, Heart-Shaped Box absolutely did a masterful job keeping my interest.

About a quarter of the way in, I felt the story (and Judas Coyne's life) was probably about to reach its grim conclusion, and I wondered if I'd maybe unwittingly procured a collection of novellas rather than a single novel.

Then the story threw in a plot twist, and then another, and then another which I did not see coming, shamefully enough. By the time the tale comes around to its grisly, bloody conclusion, I was enthralled.