Sunday, February 27, 2005

Hogan: Kicking the Sacred Cow—Iconoclasm Is Never Pretty


If you have a taste for serious icon bashing, James P. Hogan's Kicking the Sacred Cow is a well-spring. In the same volume, Hogan presents arguments on the far side in some of the great science debates of our time: Evolution vs. Intelligent Design; AIDS, Medicine vs. politics; Big Bang vs. Steady State; Environmentalism, Policy vs. Ideology. He also takes on some not-so-great science debates, like Velikovsky vs. Carl Sagan.

Hogan is better known for his science fiction: The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, for example, or The Proteus Operation. In the last few years, though, he has turned from fiction to the kind of science philosophy-cum-sniping commentary that is found in Sacred Cow. In fact, many of the arguments in this new book are reworked and updated versions of the essays in Rockets, Redheads & Revolution and Minds, Machines & Evolution.

The arguments Hogan puts forth are well-reasoned, and he does make an attempt to present all views fairly. But as he warns us, everyone in the debate has a point of view, and his is decidedly contrarian. In discussing Darwin, for example, Hogan alludes to the reasoning of Richard Dawkins, Michael Rose and Daniel Dennett (pro-Darwinian evolution) without completely describing their position. This creates a straw-man which Hogan can then dismantle quite easily. Hogan states in the final paragraph of "Humanistic Religion: The Rush to Embrace Darwinism" not his conclusion, but his premises:
Some defenders of the Darwinist view evade the issue by defining science as the study of naturalistic, materialistic phenomena and the search for answers to all things only in those terms. But what if the simple reality is that some questions don't have answers in those terms? taking such a position, science could end up excluding itself from what could be some of the most important questions confronting us.
"Garbage In, Gospel Out: Computer Games and Global Warming" is easily the most enjoyable section of the book. It opens with a pertinent quote from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? and hain't that a big enough majority in any town?
Following this salvo, Hogan successfully demolishes three environmental crisis claims: global warming, ozone depletion and the horrors of DDT. This section builds substantially on those presented in his earlier two science-article compilations. The arguments are well-documented and supported in this case by main-stream science. In exposing the shaky foundation of global environmentalism, Hogan has done an excellent job.

In contrast, "AIDS Heresy in the Viricentric Universe" is pure icon-smashing, and not much changed from the contention published in Rockets, Redheads & Revolution. A Nobel-nominated viral specialist (Peter Deusberg) has proposed that AIDS is not a single infection caused by a specific virus, but a collage of disorders. Hogan puts this together with the fact that the AIDS numbers "just don't add up", and concludes that a medical industry short of a polarizing disease after polio has blown the AIDS problem out of proportion. Hogan comes into this issue firmly convinced that AIDS is not an viral epidemic, and nothing he learns convinces him otherwise.
When you need a billion-dollar propaganda industry to tell you there's a problem, there's not much of a problem.
In short, the book is sometimes informative, sometimes amusing, and sometimes infuriating. If you have the first two volumes of Hogan's essays, you won't find enough new in this book to justify buying it. If you haven't encountered Hogan's non-fiction before, though, I can recommend it. Have fun—but don't take it too seriously.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Albanov: In the Land of the White Death—Surviving the Siberian Arctic

Although I have been a devotee of Arctic and Antarctic exploration for three decades, before 1997 I had never heard a word about the ill-starred journey of the Saint Anna... a French publisher recommended to me an obscure book, published in French in 1928, called Au pays de la mort blanche... originally published in Russian in 1917... I read Albanov with a sense of awe laced with a growing excitement, for it is a stunning revelation to discover a great work in a field of writing in which one thinks one knows all the canonic books.
—David Roberts, Introduction to In the Land of the White Death
Valerian Albanov left Alexandrovsk (now Murmansk) as navigator aboard a hunting and exploration vessel, the Saint Anna, in the late summer of 1912, just six months after Scott had perished in the Antarctic. The ill-equipped expedition set out almost casually—in fact, a young lady, Yerminiya Zhdanko, joined the rag-tag crew in Alexandrovsk in lieu of the doctor, who had missed the sailing. The captain, Georgiy Brusilov, had apparently invited her to party with him, and felt that her nursing skills would be helpful on the voyage. Busilov stocked the British-made ship with food for 30 for 18 months, expecting to be ice-locked during the winter of 1912.

The food stocks may have been sufficient for the trip, but other supplies were seriously short: few anti-scorbutics were included and the crew soon became ill with scurvy. Fuel was also limited. When the ice in which the ship was locked drifted north of the 82nd parallel, there was no chance that summer would bring open water.
On board the Saint Anna, [Norwegian Fridtjof] Nansen's magisterial account of [the 1893 Fram] expedition had become a kind of bible. Albanov had read certain passages so many times he had virtually memorized them. And Brusilov loitered on deck toward his second icebound summer in the serene faith that the drifting pack would liberate the Saint Anna just as it had the Fram.
—David Roberts, Introduction
The approaching winter of 1913 found the ship even further north, in dire straits, scavenging the wood paneling of their vessel to feed their cook fire. By Spring 1914, continuing to drift north, the Saint Anna was 80 to 100 miles from the closest land, and well over 300 miles from the closest human settlement on Svalvard.

This is the point where In the Land of the White Death begins. Written in first person in the form of a daily journal by Albanov, it is an amazing chronicle of gruelling journey of 14 men who left the Saint Anna on April 10, 1914, and set off across the ice pulling sledges loaded with kayaks and supplies, to walk to the Franz Joseph Archipelago, far to the south.

Captain Brusilov acknowledged in his log (brought by Albanov out of the icy wastes) that he was happy to see them go; fewer men to support on the ship gave them a better chance to wait out the drifting ice, eventually to come free into the North Atlantic. He had relieved Albanov of duties as navigator that winter, at Albanov's request, but relations between the two men were strained and tense. The entire crew turned out on that brisk April morning to accompany the travelers on the first leg of their trek.
Behind a high rise that hid the ship from view, Miss Zhdanko and Kalmikov, the cook, decided to return to the ship. The weather was rapidly deteriorating. Two hour later a strong south-southwesterly gale began to blow, bringing with it a raging snowstorm.
   We pitched camp for the night... Our pedometer indicated that we had barely covered three miles.
The men who set out to cross the frozen Arctic Ocean had warm caribou jackets that doubled as sleeping bags. They had warm socks and boots, gloves and outer clothing, a tent and an iron fire box and samovar cooker. They had bags of hard biscuits and powdered meat from the ship's stores, along with tea and a small ration of chocolate. They counted on killing seal and polar bear for additional meat once they got to open water where these animals could be found, so they took several rifles and a stock of ammunition.

Their only map was a hand-traced copy of Nansen's map from the 1893 account. Albanov wrote about two months into their crawl southward across the ice:
...I have been worried by a secondary phenomenon that i have kept hidden, for the moment, from my companions. The ice is drifting to the south-southwest... this rapid southwest drift will cause us to miss land altogether, and eventually sweep us into the Barents Sea... We might miss Franz Joseph Land altogether and still not make Svalbard...
Albanov with a four of his companions made it back to civilization. Of the others, however, as Roberts tells us in the haunting conclusion to his introduction,
...the nine men who died trying to reach Cape Flora; the thirteen, including Brusilov and Yerminiya Zhdanko, who stayed aboard the Saint Anna; of the doomed ship itself—not a trace was ever found.
This is a tightly-written, intense tale of man against the most deadly—and most beautiful—land on Earth, the Arctic. I am deeply grateful to my brother-in-law for the loan of this book, and I recommend it highly to anyone who thrills to the triumph of man in such bleak conditions.

Blogger: The Little Engine Under the Hood (Not a Book)

A little over six months ago, having a lot of time on my hands, I decided to move my reading journal online. I had become used to noting in a little black daily calender thoughts that occured to me as I read, and I wanted to explore this new phenomenon, blogging. I decided to do a blog about books.

I set out to do due diligence. I had to keep in mind the two main criteria: a blog site had to be easy to use and inexpensive. I have two Web page editors already, and a fair amount of dated knowledge about HTML, but what I really wanted was something online that was as easy to use as my little black book.

As for expense, the first thing I saw when I Googled "blogger" was Blogger: Create your Blog Now -- FREE—now, that's what I call inexpensive! At that price, I could afford to try it out, see how easy it was.

Blogger's simple sign-up procedure and "choose one" professional templates could not make the process simpler. In ten minutes, I had a blog online and my first post written. Okay, I admit I cribbed my first posts from my little black book. But the beautiful ease with which I got them online was a revelation to me. I can do this! I can blog!

Since that day, I have become more immersed in this practice than I would have thought when I began. Blogging is seductive, you see. First, I had to tweak the template a little. The folks at Bravenet supplied a hit counter and a mini-poll. I added links to my favorite sites.

Then I read Blogger-in-Chief Biz Stone's article Promoting Your Blog. From a minor self-absorbed online journal, I could actually "market" my opinions. Would anyone come? Would anyone care?

I carefully followed Biz' advice. I connected with, and set up an arrangement to allow readers who are interested in a book I review to click through to the book's page at the US Amazon store. I registered my blog with Technorati and Blogdex. I linked up with the "sinister cabal of superior bloggers on music, books, film, popular culture, technology, and politics" at BlogCritics, discovering the power of cross-posting to one or two select sites.

The best thing about being a Blogger blogspot, though, is the powerful little tool in the upper right corner. Next Blog can take you on a random walk of Blogger-hosted sites. I've used the random-walk technique to sample the amazing and amusing ways people have put the Blogger engine to use. Harish Keshwani (businessorati) is developing a business concept with his postings at BusinessWorks, Inc. PJ-Comix posts a daily humor meta-commentary on online political talk at the DUmmie FUnnies. Zack Yost documents his career-decision process in The Yost Chronicles. The Dialogos of Eide by "Plato" presents a philosophical mix of deep physics and deeper thought. I found all of these by clicking Next Blog.

There are other buttons I love, and use all the time—and not just for my own blog. Spell Check, while not as intuitive as Word's spell-checker, does ignore all the HTML code and other non-text items in my text, while letting me build a reputation as a comment poster who spells things right. That's right, I use my Blogger interface to create comments for other people's blogs and forums online. Preview shows me exactly what my post will look like, and helps me catch HTML code errors.

I also have a draft post (dated 12-2006), in which I keep blocks of code I will use again and again. Just cut-and-paste, and I can keep a consistent look and feel to my posts. Because this item is post-dated, it stays at the top of my Edit Posts page.

So tonight as I write my second post for today (that one is a real book post), I'll raise a glass of port to Blogger, the little engine that could—and showed me I could, too!

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Ivens: Home Networking Annoyances—Your Household IT Department


O'Reilly is fast becoming my go-to publisher for these ANNOYANCES compilations. The latest entry is Home Networking Annoyances, which covers "how to fix the most annoying things about your home network.

Maybe you don't have a home network. Chances are, however, you do have more than one computer, a printer or all-in-one output, modem(s), perhaps digital cameras and other input sources. The largest worry about linking up your home computers may be, "what happens when I run into problems?" It's not like you have a resident IT guy in the basement.

For those of us who leave the help-desk access at the office, who no longer have a teenager at home, Kathy Ivens' book is a godsend. The information is divided in a sensible manner, starting with Hardware, then covering Software, Network Access, and Maintenance Annoyances. Security issues specific to networks get a thorough examination. Finally, Shared-Access and Network Expansion problems are covered.

Some of the tips and answers are well-known to techies. For example, the 12-minute wait for a new computer to "publish" itself on a Windows system: the "browser master" (one of the computers on your network) runs the browser service task every 12 minutes. If you've added a new computer on your network, but it doesn't appear right away, the longest you need to wait is 12 minutes. Once the browser service runs, the new computer will show up in My Network Places.

Some tips are less obvious. There is a limit to simultaneous connections in a Wimdows network that can bite you when you're using one home computer as a print server. You can use Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) with broadband and cable modems.

Unlike the previous ANNOYANCES books, this one has green as the second color. It is much easier to read, yet the command lines stand out from the rest of the text.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown—It's a Classic!


For anyone who's had to write or edit ISO9000 documents, create or review a thesis paper, or wade through technical jargon in an industry magazine, A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown is a wonderful relief. Culled from the pages of the notorious 50s underground publication, The Worm-Runner's Digest, this collection has something in it to make you smile.

Start with "Postal System Input Buffer Device" by Joe and Gil Robertson Obsborne. It's a simple action, dropping an envelope into the corner mailbox, right? Not in formal instructionese, which must specify (along with other qualifications and divagations) that to operate such an input device requires
(a) a passenger in normal working condition mounted upright on the front seat or (b) a driver having at least one arm on the right-hand side which is six feet long and double-jointed at the wrist and elbow.
Then there's F.E. Warburton's "Terns," which reliably informs us that because terns have webbed feet, they will be found in the same books as albatrosses and other waterfowl; further that they won't eat anything but fish, so "it is no use putting out bits of suet and coconut for them in the winter". Besides,
Baby terns just a few days old are the cutest, fluffiest little things. They will sit on your hand just as friendly as anything, going "chirp, chirp" and looking at you with their big bright eyes and vomiting half-digested fish all over your shirt.
Two versions of the 23rd Psalm are included. The first, by Alan Simpson and R.A. Baker, commences: "The Lord is my external-internal integrative mechanism, I shall not be deprived of gratification for my viscerogenic hungers or my need dispositions...". The second, from science fiction writer Lester del Rey starts: "The AEC is my shepherd, I shall not live. It maketh me to lie down in radiant pastures...".

Hugh Sinclair contributed the brilliant "Hiawatha's Lipid," which simply has to be read entire. Sinclair spoofs the classic poem in an effort for which he concedes he "sought inspiration in innumerable manhattans—taken , of course, because they were good for me since the day's immobility of listening to papers on atheroma and serum cholesterol had no doubt silted up my vessels, and alcohol is one of the few effective solvents."
From his briefcase Hiawatha
Took his paper for the meeting...

Started on the introduction,
Giving first a brief description
Of the Proto-Keynesian period
When all fats in equal measure
Raised cholesterol in serum...
Berkeley engineer Charles Siem's paper supplies the book's title. "A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown" includes a wonderfully evocative figure, Force Distribution of Cantilever Beam, complete with rotational and compressional components, in which the beam's profile is distinctly mammalian. The critical element of the force diagram is identified, with the caveat:
If the female is naturally blessed with sufficient pectoral development, she can supply this very vital force and maintain the elemental strip at equilibrium. If she is not, the engineer has to supply this force by artificial methods.

Sometimes the bibliography is more interesting than the paper, as R. Arnold Le Win points out in "Logarithmic and Arythmic Expression of a Physiological Function." In fact, the only thing in this item is the list of references.
7. Shadrach, C., Meshach, H., and Abednego, H. and C.. An anaerobic heat resistant monoflagellate ornithine producing sulfur non-purple bacterium isolated from the rectum of a goat. J.Bact., 70: 1-11,1944.
10. Aschitz, K., and Spitz, G. Urea excretion, growth hormone production, and caudal temperature of the 6-week-old hypophysectomized, adrenalextomized, tonsillectomized castrated albino hamster. Proc.Soc.Exp.Biol.& Med.. 50: 2-4, 1956.
13. Strickstaw, A. The fats of cats. 27.Glycero-1, 4-alpha-feritol, a new liquid component of the milk of the lion. Felis leo.Biochem.J. 73: 108-113, 1946.

I can only excerpt a few high points here. To read the rest will take some digging, since Stress Analysis is, sadly, out of print. A slightly more recent compilation from The Worm-Runner's Digest titled Science, Sex and Sacred Cows may be more available.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Michener: The Covenant—A History of Cultural Conflict

   "What we're looking for is beetles," old Kharu said as they searched the arid land, "but only the ones with two white dots." In fact they were not looking for adult beetles, but their larvae, and always of that special breed with the white specks and, Kharu claimed, an extra pair of legs.
   It was impossible to explain how, over a period of ten thousand years, these women and their ancestors had isolated this little creature which alone among beetles was capable of producing a poison of remorseless virulence. How had such a discovery been made? No one remembered, it occurred so long ago. But when men can neither read nor write, when they had nothing external to distract their minds, they can spend their lives in minute observation... San people had had time to study the larvae of a thousand different insects, finding at last the only one that produced a deadly poison...
Rule of 33; The Covenant by James Michener
James Michener built his reputation as a writer with his histories of contested lands: Israel (The Source), Korea (The Bridges at Toko-Ri), Hawaii, Mexico, Poland, Afghanistan (Caravans), and so on. By examining the land from the first—often before men had even come into the country—he was able to bring a perspective to these conflicts. By writing history as fiction, he communicates these perspectives in a very accessible way.

The Covenant is Michener's novel of South Africa, from the time when only the nomadic San peoples (later called "Bushmen") lived there; to the coming of the Zulu tribes from the north at the same time as Dutch Huegenots settled at the southern tip of the continent; the arrival of the British colonial settlers; the passive rebellion of the Boers (Voertrekkers who left their rich colonial coast farms for the stony inner provinces) and their active rebellion (the Boer War, which the British nominally won); the slim (clever) way in which the former Boer general Oom Paul Kruger and his staff managed to wrest victory from that defeat, imposing apartheid on the nation; and the multicultural society that developed in the 80s when the fence between blanks (whites) and nie-blanks (non-whites) was finally broken.

So in The Covenant, we meet the San and learn their depth of understanding of this land and its animals; this is their land by virtue of their command of its powers. We understand the Boer with his forthright assumption of the covenant of Adam and Moses; this is his land by virtue of his willingness to invest the sweat of his brow in it. We comprehend the Zulu tribes and their drive south to acquire grazing for their cattle; it is their land by virtue of their blood and the blood of their children shed for it. We even learn some of the motivations for British colonialism and the savage investment English-speaking settlers made in the Boer War; for these people, "British" is what their grandfather was—what they are is South African, and this is their land, too.

We know this story too well to assume that Michener's happy people, multi-culturally mixing, will be the end of this tale. But novels must have an ending, a climax and resolution, to their conflicts, and Michener's teams of writers managed to achieve it in book after book. By investing in this research, James Michener brought their biases, perspectives, local knowledge and flavor to each novel. Where Michener excelled was in weaving together these disparate views and stories to create a solid, balanced and in-depth experience of the land in dispute.

Where South Africa will go in the 21st century is unknown—Michener has given us a richly nuanced look at where this troubled country and its conflicted cultures have been.

Monday, February 21, 2005

DVD: Brainwashing 101—Limits of Free Speech on College Campuses


Do we really have free speech on university and college campuses in the U.S.? The answer, according to film-makers Evan Coyne Maloney, Stuart E. Browning, and Blaine Greenberg of On The Fence Films, is a resounding NO. These three men, university graduates, have produced an independent documentary called Brainwashing 101 that illustrates their contention.

You don't have free speech where you must be politically correct, and avoid expressing your opinion if someone, somewhere, may decide to be offended by it.
Still image from Brainwashing 101

By focusing on three specific incidents at three different institutions, the film provides a disturbing look at the effect of unequal application of politically-correct university speech codes. Maloney et al examine a school in Lewisburg, PA (Bucknell Univ.), a rural southern campus in Jackson, TN (Univ. of Tennessee); and a university in California (CalPoly) at San Luis Obispo.

You may be surprised at the extent to which such institutions are willing to go to stifle unpopular speech. We're not talking about hate speech, here. In fact, one conservative student who appears in the film, a Sikh, was prevented from presenting his opinions, while the university system allowed an eMail memo from a school official whom he had criticized (which recommended he or "any raghead you meet" be "shot in the face") to go uncommented. Another was arrested for attempting to post a flyer containing the title of a book by a conservative black lecturer; he was "a suspicious white male passing out literature of an offensive racial nature."

By focusing on three specific incidents, the film avoids being shrill or unreasonable. The film-makers have also gone to great effort to include both sides of the arguments in the film.

Free speech at Columbia includes labelling the flag with accusations of rape and racism.
Still image from Brainwashing 101

For example, in discussing the incident at Maloney's alma mater, Bucknell University, many clips feature a professor of economics, Geoffrey Schneider, whose view is that Bucknell Univ. Conservative Club (BUCC) members are "unconsciously racist." In fact, following their challenges of the gag order which prohibits students from protesting or discussing the "speech codes" of the university, the ACLU had to become involved to prevent expulsion of two BUCC students.

At Cal Poly, Maloney and his cameraman were assured by the campus PR person that they could film anywhere, but when they requested a quote from the University President's office, a slick aide intercepted them and had campus security called to escort them off campus, warning them that if they returned they would be subject to arrest.

They went to Cal Poly because the university had charged a student, Steve Hinkle, with racist speech after he tried to post a flyer for a College Republican-sponsored lecture by black author C. Mason Weaver. Weaver's book title, It's Okay to Leave the Plantation, was the only text on the flyer, along with the author's name and the date and time of the lecture. His picture was also on the flyer. Hinkle had a courteous exchange with a student in the campus center where he wished to post the flyer, and the student called campus security to arrest him for "posting hate speech."

The Cal Poly College Republicans got the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) involved. Eventually, the university reinstated Hinkle and withdrew the charges, and paid him a settlement of $40,000—even though they refused to acknowledge being in the wrong.

The UT incident was the most disturbing to me. On a campus where an entire fraternity had been suspended a few months before, following an off-campus Halloween party which five of their members had attended dressed as the "Jackson 5," aviolent example of hate speech went unpunished because it was aimed at a conservative. Sukhmani Singh Khalsi had written a criticism of the liberal-leaning Student Issues committee. The committee hires speakers for the campus using student fees, hundreds of thousands of dollars worth; Kalsi claimed the speakers were never even centrist, let alone conservative.

Following publication of his complaint, a series of eMail messages was sent to all members of the committee (including one inactive conservative member, who shared the content with Khalsi). The most egregious was from a student member, who suggested that recipients "just shoot these [effing] ragheads in the face". Faculty advisors urged the Sikh, who wears a turban and beard but is not a Muslim, to treat this as a serious threat. However, the author of the eMail was not even reprimanded, let alone suspended. Contrast this with the fate of an entire fraternity over extramural costumes chosen by five of them!

The message of this short (46 min. run time) commentary film is clear: if (as a student) you feel you have been unfairly treated by your college or university due to a similar unfair application of speech codes (regardless of your position on the political spectrum), contact FIRE. Conservative students may also wish to contact the Academic Bias blog.

In the process of collecting links for this post, I tripped over Fellowship 9/11, "One of the shortest and least expensive films of the year," in which Michael Moore "...with his characteristic humor and dogged commitment to uncovering - or if necessary fabricating - the facts... considers the reign of the son of Arathorn and where it has led us."

Sunday, February 20, 2005

This Is Your Brain on Hormones

For DrPat:

Your Brain is 33.33% Female, 66.67% Male

You have a total boy brain

Logical and detailed, you tend to look at the facts

And while your emotions do sway you sometimes...

You never like to get feelings too involved

There are several books that cover the measured (and interpreted or statistical) differences in performance between male and female when doing intellectual or technical tasks.

The test above may have been influenced by the treatise by Mohr and Jessel (Brain Sex: The Real Difference Between Men and Women), who developed a quiz to determine the extent of male/female characteristic in the brain, based on responses to questions or situational decisions. Their book is a balanced mix of technical and accessible:
For the nonscientist, they translate considerable research into the structural and organizational differences between male and female brains, demonstrating how these differences make men more aggressive and competitive and better at skills that require spatial ability and mathematical reasoning, and women more sensitive to nuances of expression and gesture, more adept at judging character. Women, it seems, are more people-oriented than men, who are more interested in things... denying gender differences means ignoring their value.
Baron-Cohen (The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain) also finds evidence in the statistical results, as well as from his studies of predominantly-male disorders (characterized as "the male brain type taken to the extreme"): autism and Aspergers Syndrome.
Men have a tendency to analyze and construct systems while women are inclined to empathize... [but] emphasizing that not all men have the typically "male" brain, which he calls Type "S," and not all women have the typically female brain (Type "E")...
So have fun, take the BlogThing test, and think about your results as we keep an eye on the Larry Summers inquisition.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Heinlein: The Door Into Summer

   While still a kitten, all fluff and buzzes, Pete had worked out a simple philosophy. I was in charge of quarters, rations and weather; he was in charge of everything else. But he held me especially responsible for weather. Connecticut winters are good only for Christmas cards; regularly that winter Pete would check his own door, refuse to go out it because of that unpleasant white stuff beyond it (he was no fool), then badger me to open a people door.
   He had a fixed conviction that at least one of them must lead into summer...

In 1970, Daniel Boone Davis is an excellent engineer and inventor. With patents on a line of devices to ease the burden of housework, his little manufacturing company, Hired Girl, Inc., is doing well. He's his own boss, and his partner Miles does the paperwork and legal stuff, with some help from Dan's fianceé, Belle; Dan is free to think up new gadgets and bring them to life. His best friend is a burly, ginger ale-drinking tomcat named Petronius Arbiter (Pete); he is "Uncle Dan" to Miles' adorable 11-year-old stepdaughter Frederica (Ricky). He has a well-rounded, satisfying life.

His only problem seems to be that his fianceé doesn't like cats.

But Dan has more problems than that. Miles and Belle are greedy; they get married behind his back, and conspire together to boot Dan out of the business. Dan tries to fight back, but before he can get organized to do battle, they drug him and consign him to "Long Sleep"—Dan will be frozen for 30 years. By the time he awakens in 2000, his beloved Pete will be long dead, and little Ricky will have been subjected to 7 years of the poisonous influence of Belle.

Now Dan Davis is not the kind of man to let one little setback defeat him. He sets out his priorities:
  1. Get a job.
  2. Find somewhere to live.
  3. Catch up on technology, to be able to be an engineer again.
  4. Find Ricky.
  5. Find Miles and Belle, and wreak revenge for Pete's abandonment.
Dan methodically accomplishes the first three in this "brave new world" of 2000. What he learns when he finds out what happened to Ricky, however, sends him searching for the door into summer than will take him back to 1970 to set things right...

ATM systems. CAD-CAM and plotters. Manufacturing robots pre-programmed for their tasks. The Roomba floor cleaner. Waterbeds. These are common technology now, but when Robert A. Heinlein wrote The Door Into Summer in 1955, they were a figment of his fiction.

Heinlein's fiction was never intended to be predictive, but as an engineer with an "in" to military development of his day, he was often eerily right about what lay ahead. Just as often, he was drastically wrong; Dan Davis is still using "tubes" for programming in 1970. More grating to non-technical ears are the everyday-technology errors: in 2000, Dan needs to go to a drugstore to use a telephone. No cellphones, no personal computers. And "Great Los Angeles" in 2000 has a well-used public transit system called "the Ways" (no other explanation), and helicopter buses.

But if you can set aside the already-past future of this "futuristic" story, what you have is a brilliant tale of time travel and the losses we all face as we make our one-way trip through time. If for no other reason, read (or reread) it for the pure joy of encountering Pete, the cat who never accepts that there is no door into summer. You just have to keep looking.


Friday, February 18, 2005

Cherryh: Foreigner—10 Years of Atevi and Paidhi

I set about originally with a sketch—I draw—of Banichi, which actually ended up in [cover artist] Michael Whelan's hands. Novels start all sorts of ways, and this one had been a fragment that nagged me... it was just so interesting to write that I kept going... Banichi and Jago have gotten more fanmail than I would have believed. Thank you so much, readers! I haven't run out of ideas, and Bren's job keeps producing trouble of every sort.
—C.J. Cherryh, Spokane 2004.

The 10th anniversary edition of C.J. Cherryh's brilliant Foreigner is out in paperback. Although I have the original paperback edition, I have reread it so many times that a replacement was in order.

Cherryh writes truly alien characters. From the atevi of this series, which their instinctive grasp of mathematics, and their Japanese-style courtesy (and the fascination some ateva have with the human paidhi), to the bear-like Hani sapients of the Chanur ships, her aliens are only superficially the same as other science-fiction tries at describing aliens. Most are B-movie monsters, suitable for portrayal by an actor in an alien suit.

Where Cherryh succeeds is in revealing, through alien interaction with humans, just how unknowably other these intelligences can be. In this, her aliens most closely resemble the Thranx of Alan Dean Foster's Commonwealth novels. Like "two nations divided by a common language," however, the differences in how they think supply a minefield of potential misunderstanding for the humans they encounter.

The humans in this story have gone disastrously awry on their trip to a new colony. Where they wound up, there are no familiar stars, and they barely make it to the home world of the atevi. The colonists choose to abandon the station in orbit for a one-way trip to the surface. Cherryh sets the scene for the first encounter with the native sapients, then flashes forward to "present-day" and continues the tale.

Further information about what happened when the two races made first contact (war, isolation of the humans on the island Mospheira, the subsequent shaky treaty between the two races) is told through reminiscence by Bren Cameron, the human paidhi or interpreter, whose job is much more than supplying definitions to words. Because of their past conflicts, the paidhi must walk a narrow path between simply limiting the human knowledge he will pass on to the atevi, and actively lying to them.

Bren has developed a relationship with the local ruler, the aiji Tabini, which his human heart insists on characterizing as friendship and mutual trust. The problem is, atevi language has no word for trust—and fourteen words for betrayal. When Tabini abruptly sends Bren to a remote castle to stay with his mother, the dowager-aiji Ilisidi, he warns Bren will need all his diplomacy to survive.

Bren stumbles from one life-threatening incident to another, seeking a trust he cannot count on. Is his security chief Banichi trying to kill him? Is the major-domo of Ilisidi's house, Cenedi, an assassin? Did Tabini send him to Ilisidi so that she could kill the paidhi without involving his court?

Can he even trust the human government he works for?

As a stand-alone novel, this is a fantastic read. As the opener for the series, it is a solid foundation for the whole multi-novel set (which may be a decalogy by the time Cherryh is finished.) I recommend it highly.

Gralla: Internet Annoyances—Dam the Spam, Full Speed Ahead!


Following the excellent format I first encountered in Excel Annoyances, O'Reilly has released Preston Gralla's Internet Annoyances to teach us "how to fix the most ANNOYING things about Going Online."

The book is organized into sections dealing with annoyances faced by the greenest net-newbie and the wiliest guru alike: annoyances from EMail and Spam; Connection and Wireless issues; Web host and blog troubles; Browser problems; trouble with AOL and IM; search barricades at eBay, Amazon, Yahoo and Google; and Security and Shopping annoyances.

Each annoyance is succinctly presented in a vignette, followed by the solution (with lots of illustrations not shown in my review):
The Annoyance: I signed up at the National Do Not E-Mail Registry site at to get my name off spammers' lists. Not only did my spam not stop, but I now get more than ever. Is the federal government trying to reduce the national debt by selling email lists to spammers?
The Fix: You've unfortunately been the victim of a hoax. There is no such federal registry. The site you visited, according to the Federal Trade Commission, "mimics the language, look and navigation of the web site for the National Do Not Call Registry, a legitimate free service of the federal government." The FTC believes the site might be collecting email addresses to sell to spammers. The site is currently down, but may rise again. Don't get fooled!
EMail and Spam Annoyances: I like the way this section thoroughly discusses three main issues. First, Gralla addresses the annoyance of receiving spam by covering how to control the influx, and also how to avoid being on spammer lists in the first place—all information consistent with what I learned reading the book by "SpammerX," Inside the Spam Cartel. Then he covers what to do when your email is treated as spam. Finally, Gralla details how to swat annoyances specific to email programs like Eudora and various versions of Outlook.

Making the Connection Annoyances: This section covers general connection issues, including broadband, cable and DSL services, routers and home networks. (Wireless connections are covered in a separate section.) The best tip for me in this section? Why, naturally, how to link a home network into my cable modem without paying my ISP an additional fee for a service they are not providing.

Wireless Annoyances: Since I don't work extensively with wireless, I can't pick a personal best here, but I was most intrigued by the fix for "bandwidth vampires." Gralla's six-step program to halt WiFi freeloaders uses a program called AirSnare, which he warns may not be compatible with your WiFi card. Subsections cover cell-phone annoyances with wireless net connections and "Bluetooth snarfing;" and WiFi security issues.

Web Hosting, Design and Blog Annoyances: Useful tips in this section include how to reduce load time by creating thumbnails for images, why RSS syndication doesn't work with Blogger-hosted sites (and why you can't TrackBack to blogpost sites), and how to unpublish a blog from Google. One great item in this section is a five-page table listing salient points for many Web hosting services, so you can make an informed decision when you want to change hosts.

Browser Annoyances: Want to control pop-ups, ads and Macromedia Flash? This is the section you need—plus you will learn how to delete the Links Favorite/Bookmark folder for good, tame Adobe Acrobat Reader, change your download options back to "Always ask before opening this type of file" once it has been unchecked, and many more desirable fixes. Specific cures deal with Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Netscape/Opera browsers.

AOL Annoyances: Gralla opens this section by saying "AOL users, I feel your pain." And while he acknowledges that "one of the greatest pleasures in any AOL user's life is venting about the service," he still provides tips on reducing the real burden of irritation. So here you'll find out how to shut off the "You've Got Mail!" chirp, how to control AOL's window proliferation, how to get off AOL's spammer blacklist, and dozens of other helpful hints.

IM Annoyances: My favorite tip in this section was for Trillian, a free "universal" IM program that lets you instant-message all the major IM programs. The tip that follows the Trillian suggestion details how to get Trillian to reconnect to AOL when the AIM program periodically closes the door to it.
The Annoyance: I had a thoroughly bizarre IM conversation with a stranger the other day on AIM—it was kind of like talking with a schizophrenic who was still learning English... a tech-savvy friend said I hadn't been talking to a person at all; it was an "AIMBot."
In addition to detailing the fix, Gralla reproduces his own conversation with an AIMBot, which is eerily reminiscent of conversations with Eliza, the program designed by Joseph Weizenbaum as a first stab at passing the Turing test.
Searching Annoyances: I got two great search engine references from this section: the WayBack Machine and a "universal" search engine called Copernic Agent-Basic. In addition, Gralla provides a neat table of Google SearchBar keyboard shortcuts, and shows how to efficiently search Google, Amazon and eBay.

Security Annoyances: I admit, I turned to this section first, after my recent problem with embedded spyware. In addition to some solid recommendations for spyware-proofing, this section also shows two ways to beat phishing expeditions, how to optimize your software firewall, and where to report hackers once you discover them.

Shopping and Auction Annoyances: Tables are the winner in this section. One details restocking fees at popular web sales sites, another tells where to file a fraud complaint. A list of government auction sites was intriguing, and another listing telephone support numbers for sites from Amazon to Travelocity will be a handy feature for the online buyer. My favorite? STOP MY $7,600 AMAZON ONE-CLICK ORDER—if you've ever had buyer's remorse two seconds after sending that order downline, this fix shows you how to snatch your credit card back.

Gralla's manual will make a great addition to anyone's home computer help-shelf!

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Quiñonez: Chango's Fire—Burning Desires in Spanish Harlem


Julio Santana is hijo de Chango, a child of the Santeria god representing fire and lightning. He knows this because the operator of the botanica next door, the high priest of Regla Lukumi, Papelito, told him so.
Black as tar, with no trace of Spanish blood in his lineage, at sixty-eight, Papelito is a man made up of rumors. It is said he can kill with prayers. Papelito is the only gay man who can walk the streets of Spanish Harlem swaying his hips like a cable-suspended bridge and not be ridiculed.
—Ernesto Quiñonez, Chango's Fire
Julio has lived all his life in Spanish Harlem, where he now owns the top floor of a gentrified building. He loves this neighborhood where he built a cardboard clubhouse in a burned-out lot as a boy, where his mother saved his father's life from depression and addiction. Where he watched as the Pentecostal church he had lost his boyhood faith in burned to the ground.
   Spanish Harlem was worthless property in the seventies and early eighties. Many property owners burned their own buildings down and handed the new immigrants a neighborhood filled with hollow walls and vacant lots. Urban Swiss cheese. The city would then place us in the projects, creating Latino reservations... as many who owned real estate burned the neighborhood, collected the insurance, sat on the dilapidated property, and waited for better days.
   Today the wait is over, Spanish Harlem's burned-out buildings are gold mines...
Julio's trial by fire is still to come, though, because he is keeping secrets. His name is not on the deed to his building, because he doesn't want the IRS to ask where his money comes from. His best friend, Trompo Loco (Crazy Top), wants nothing more from life than some attention from his unacknowledged father, Julio's secret boss Eddie. And Julio's secret job is to burn down buildings.
...In the news, we were being punished for being junkies, thieves, whores and murderers. The evidence of God's wrath was the blocks upon blocks of burned buildings we supposedly brought on ourselves. In my church it was a sign, these fires that consumed Spanish Harlem... these fires were evidence of prophecy, of fulfillment, of... "The Truth."
   But the truth was, it was just a guy like me who had set those fires...
Chango and the other Santeria Orishas expect to be paid for their help, for the stories that guide their followers: with sweet cakes and candy, burning of candles and incense, a derecho of $50 or $5—or perhaps everything you hold closest to your heart. Julio wants to help his friend Maritza with her immigrant-filled church. He wants to find a way to help his friend Trompo deal with his father's neglect. He wants to quit his secret job.

Julio Santana, child of Chango, wants to find a way out of the fire. Federal agents, the INS and his secret boss Eddie all conspire to keep him on the job, though. Julio must make a decision. Whatever he does, someone will get hurt.

This is a thrilling story, told in a genuine voice of Spanish Harlem. Quiñonez makes us part of his neighborhood, helps us feel its rhythms and its pain. I cared about these people and their problems, I wanted Julio to find the solution and rescue those he loved. I read until 3 AM, unable to put it down.

This one's a winner.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Legman: The New Limerick—Folk-Art or Poetry?

Here are neatly turned odes of small span,
Much concerned with our bodily plan.
   And the intercorporeal
   Highly sensorial
Lovelife of woman and man.
The New Limerick, edited by G. Legman, is a delightful compendium of over 2,700 limericks, many of which had never been widely published. Even the limericks everyone knows (There once was a girl from Nantucket...") are freshly enjoyable in this context.
A delighted, incredulous bride
Remarked to her groom at her side:
   I never could quite
   Believe till tonight
Our anatomies would coincide.
The Introduction is a scholarly treatise that discusses the art and artistry of the limerick, and wonders why this is usually (though not exclusively) an English form. Although a similar Italian canto treating the lewder aspects of the lives of the saints is cited, it seems obvious to the editor that the terse character and abundant homonyms of English lend themselves to the limerick form.
There was a young lady from Byer
Whose hemlines got higher and higher.
   But the size of her thighs
   Provoked merely surprise,
And extinguished the flames of desire.
What makes this catalog of limericks even more impressive is that it is the second such volume. The first, The Limerick, included "only" 1,700 examples of the verse form, but generated such a stream of new examples that the editor was compelled to create this larger sequel.
There was a young girl with a bust
Which roused a French cavalier's lust
   She was since heard to say,
   About midnight: "Touché!—
I didn't quite parry that thrust."
Isaac Asimov once introduced a book of limericks by saying, "Limericks come in many forms, dirty, lewd, obscene and otherwise. None of the limericks in this collection are otherwise." Like the pun, the limerick relies on the surprise of the wry twist in the terminal line. And for many limericks, as for puns, the sincerest applause is a resounding groan from the audience.
A libidinous peasant named Jack
One time with a spider did shack.
   You may get oddball kids
   Sleeping with arachnids
But oh! those eight legs round your back!
There may also be a charm to the limerick beyond the rhythm and the rhyme. So many limericks build from a personal or geographical name, cleverly rhymed but never used again, that the editor contends this may be one of the draws of the craft. However, this does not explain my own personal favorite:
To barbarity man said adieu
As brilliant inventions accrue.
   To create wheel and lever
   Was really quite clever,
But divinely inspired was the screw.
And while a large majority of limericks insist on the youth of the main character, a substantial percentage rely equally on venerable age and experience:
A learnèd old justice of Trent
Defined what obscenity meant:
   He said, "Duck is not clean,
   But three-quarters obscene;
And fudge is foul forty percent.
Limericks in the U.S. became as common as filk songs for the science fiction aficionado (hence Asimov's entry into the field). An entire category of science-fiction limericks refers to space opera topics, and widens even further the list of person- and place-names available to lampoon.
Flash Gordon, when looking for fun,
Poked Dale with his little space gun.
   Murmured she, "I'm not shy,
   But, quick, button your fly—
In comics, that just isn't done!
There are 2750 limericks in this book, including the execrable in the "Chamber of Horrors", the unquotable in "Buggery" and "Abuses of the Clergy," and the simply over-the-top in "Virginity." I have had to work hard to select those that do not contain one of Carlin's infamous Seven Words.

To read the others, I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Lesko: Free Money—My Plan to Fund Social Security


You've seen him if you watch TV, heard him if you listen to radio. The government will pay you to quit your job, he tells us breathlessly. All we need to tap into the gravy train is his book, Free Money to Quit Your Job. Matthew Lesko is the admitted king of the government giveaway program.

There's Gobs and Gobs of Free Stuff, 1001 Free Goodies and Cheapies, and Free Money to Change Your Life. Lesko has programs that purport to teach us how to write for thousands of dollars of government grants, and he touts them endlessly in his nasal voice.
Everyone qualifies!

Government money programs aren't only for the very needy. Even those who make $35,000, $50,000, even $85,000 a year can qualify for many of these programs. And others programs have no income requirements at all. You can even be a millionaire and get free money from the government (like Donald Trump, Sam Donaldson and even George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did)!

It's Money You Never Have To Repay!
  —Free Money to Pay Your Bills ad copy
The programs he lists are really there, too. While most of the information is available for free or for the cost of postage, Lesko provides a value-adding service by compiling it into one thematic package, organizing it in a more usable format, and marketing it so that people find out about these programs.
Half of the households in the United States own a pet. Free Stuff For Pet Lovers taps into little known services and products that will show how much you love and care for your pet, and will do it for free.
- How To Recycle Pet Poop For Profit
- How TO Give Your Dog CPR
- How to get Free Tarantulas
- Dolphin Therapy For Emotionally Challenged Kids
- Free Help For Sick Chia Pets
  —Free Stuff for Pets ad copy
Don't you agree a better use for that money would be to underpin Social Security? Let's encourage our representatives to close down the free money supply at the source. I don't mind not having a program to pay my bills or fund my return to college. I don't mind that there wouldn't be a grant to pay someone to write a book or work on their invention. I certainly don't want my tax dollars used to distribute giant spiders! I'd rather have all those dripping taps shut off, thank you.

And then there would be no reason to have any more grating Matthew Lesko ads.

I wonder if any of these "hundreds of new programs every year" were part of the $10 million in riders that snuck into the September 11th, 2001 emergency funding bill.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Not a Book: Mozilla Firefox—Leaving IE Forever


Friends with tech inclinations have been telling me for months that I ought to move away from Internet Explorer as a browser. The most popular alternative was Mozilla Firefox. But I had so many other tasks to accomplish, and I didn't want the headaches that were sure to come from a browser swap.

Things came to a head for me when I discovered yesterday that I had backed up (over all three generations of backups) several rather nasty pieces of spyware that my Computer Associates firewall and virus blocker had let through. I updated the firewall, and CA let me know that some other application was also trying to send information from my computer. They advised me to download a free spyware scanner to determine which application was giving problems.

I did. In addition to some virulent applications, it reported two spyware apps wrapped around the core of IE. I could reload the whole Explorer browser from scratch, or jump to a different browser. Nothing like a severe kick in the pants to move me out of my comfort zone!

I axed the IE with its trojan load, and downloaded the Mozilla 1.0+ Firefox browser, anticipating hours of tweaking to get it into a usable state. SURPRISE! Firefox downloaded in a jiffy, asked if I wanted to import bookmarks from my old favorites list, applied them, offered me a choice of home page (I picked my old one), and there I was. Surfing again.

The default interface is decidedly non-IE-like, so I went back to the Firefox site to look at "themes and extensions." Two more downloads later (10 minutes, tops) I had an elegantly simple, comfortable interface.

Changes I love (aside from the relative security of Firefox over IE):
  • A search field like the URL field that feeds directly into one of a pull-down menu of search engines. Googol is the default. You can add (or remove) other favorite engines, although Yahoo, eBay, Creative Commons, and are in the default list.
  • The price. Mozilla Firefox is a free browser. Even better, its open architecture means that developers can easily create tools and applications.
  • Flash animations work again. An anti-spyware selection in IE security had closed down flash animation display. Truly a minor change, but I had not even realized they were gone until I switched to Firefox.

Two changes I dislike:
  • My personal assistant window in my home page refuses to open, even after I changed the Options to allow any pop-up windows from this site. I'm still working on resolving this problem, so after 2 hours of beating on the browser, this is a minor dislike.
  • Three sites with collapsible "tree" menus appear with the menus completely expanded, and I haven't figured out yet how to restore the original look.
So for very little effort and no additional dollar outlay, I finally moved into the 21st century. In my browser, at least.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

SFC Original Movie: Slipstream—Jiggy, Zig-zaggy Time Travel

PROMO TAG: He's got 10 minutes to change the past, or his future is history.
Slipstream, an original film starring Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings' Samwise) and Vinnie Jones (Swordfish and Gone in Sixty Seconds), debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel last night. Despite my reservations. because original movies on commercial stations are usually overhyped, I bought into the tease of the trailers, and tuned in.

Besides, I was stuck yesterday afternoon and this morning with no computer access. By 6 PM yesterday, I was aching for some passive excitement from sofa-central.

Slipstream certainly gave me that. I was never emotionally or mentally engaged, but there was plenty of action. In fact, the chief method used to illustrate the future history, past disaster time manipulation of the plot seemed to be to replay conversations in a jumpy, deja vu montage, with the characters in radically different locations as they repeated their lines.

To jump back, the story involves an underfunded genius physicist, Stuart Conway (Astin), who either is now stealing or has in the past stolen some information from a government project. We never find out the sequence, but there are two FBI agents following him as he takes his paycheck to the bank.

Jump sideways now, because a van-load of bank robbers lead by Winston Briggs (Jones) is arriving at the same bank where Conway is ham-handedly trying to sweet-talk a pretty teller. She reacts as if she's being stalked, and throws a slurpee on young Stuart, just as his stolen Slipstream device (looking like a slightly-futuristic Compac iPAQ PDA) hits a functional 100%, and time slips backward just enough to let him begin again.

Of course, eventually the robbers enter the bank, shoot it out with the FBI, and Conway gets shot. When he asks the female agent (Ivana Milicevic, "Stacey" from Love Actually) to help him reset his time-twisting device, she realizes the implications. Plus, time twists back just enough to negate the advantage the agents had in the first second go-around, and her partner (a poorly-developed love interest) dies in the gunfire.

Okay, now jump forward to a plane coming in for a crash landing, Milicevic gets shot and so does the PDA with the Slipstream program. Jump back. Jump sideways. Do a little dance, make a little love...

Sorry. I just found the unrelenting back-and-forth unhelpful to the story, and very distracting. Contrast it with the elegant science fiction mystery involving time effects as told in Frequency. In this story, action in past and future take place synchonously; when a change is made in the past, its effects propagate forward into the future. Objects around the future observer morph from their previous into the new state as he watches. No jump-jump, no zig-zag. Just story.

In future, I will remember this past wasted hour and a half, and take along the Frequency DVD when we travel to computer-deficient boonies. And I've just got to quit paying attention to original made-for-TV movie promos!

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Disney DVD: Mulan II—Adequate Sequel with Few Extras


When the original Disney film Mulan was in production, I was working for a mostly-Chinese tech firm in southern California. My colleagues were excited for months before the premiere, because they were familiar with the "Chinese Joan-of-Arc" Hua Mu Lan (Fa Mulan). Before its premiere, I heard dozens of stories about this warrior girl, who pretended to be a man to enter the army of China, won many battles, and rose to be a general.

The movie did not disappoint us. I was charmed by the delicate chinoiserie of the animation style, especially the title credits. My co-workers were relieved that Disney had not prettified the story so much that Hua Mu Lan's story was lost in the Mulan cartoons. And my children were enthralled by the message and the music.

When I heard that a sequel would be available on DVD, I had to debate myself whether to buy it. My girls are adults now, of course. Second, perhaps more important, could a sequel do justice to the original? On a moment's whim, I bought the DVD anyway. And I was not disappointed, but neither was I overwhelmed.

Mulan II is also a charming movie, with many of the original voices (Ming-Na Wen as Mulan's speaking voice, with Lea Salonga singing for her; Pat Morita as the Emperor, Gedde Watanabe as Ling, Harvey Fierstien as Yao). A notable absence is Eddie Murphy as Mushu the guardian dragon, but Mark Moseley provides a sufficiently "Murphyesque" touch to the lizard-sized trouble-maker.

The movie starts essentially where Mulan left off, with the soldierly Shang (now General Shang) courting Mulan at her family home. Mulan is teaching the girls of the village that balance in all things is the first step to being a good warrior in a wonderfully "choreographed" sequence, "That's Lesson Number One." This fits neatly with Mulan's parents' advice to the couple, that balance between opposites is needed for a strong marriage.

Before the couple can wed, however, a mission arrives for Shang and Mulan from the Emperor: they must shepherd the Emperor's three daughters to their arranged marriages in a northern province. Mulan is appalled at the thought of arranged marriages, but Shang asks only for three selected soldiers to accompany them.

One of my favorite songs from the original, "A Girl Worth Fighting For," has a short humorous reprise in this story, as Yao, Ling and Shen-Po muse about finding a girl to marry. This song winds through the three soldiers' brawling reintroduction, and foretells (for the adult viewer, anyway) the probable story-line to come.

The three princesses appear to be resigned to their fate, but reveal their doubts in the song, "(I Wanna Be) Like Other Girls," performed by Atomic Kitten. (The music video extra feature, with the pop release version of the song, is composed of a series of clips from the movie. The Atomic Kittens do not appear on the DVD, despite a rather misleading content label on the slip cover.)

How Mulan and Shang use their differences to resolve the problems that arise as they try to complete their mission (despite active attempts of Mushu to break up the couple), and how the three girls resolve the conflict between their desires and their duty, provide the rest of the story.

While not as delicate nor impressively Chinese in its animation, the sequel is still beautifully drawn. I was struck by the difference in the end credits, though. In original Disney films, each character has a development team, responsible for designing, drawing, voicing and coordination for that character throughout the film. In Mulan II, however, the "cast" list shows only the voices. Animators are lumped together in several categories based more on which company they work for than the character they worked on. I suspect that accounts for a little roughness in character consistency, especially with the "supporting role" characters.

Extras include a cute but brief exploration of some topics in Chinese history and culture, with an overt cookie of Mushu explaining the Chinese zodiac. Note: Disney chose to limit the years available to 1964 and later. "Mushu's Guessing Game" seems to aimed at 6-10 year-olds in terms of its instructions and responses, but the difficulty level to guess correctly is designed to frustrate children of that age.

Finally, the "deleted scenes" segment was fascinating to an adult interested in why producers make the choices they do. I would have liked them to rethink the changes in the Mushu character for the same reasons—very small children may be disturbed at the selfish malice the little dragon exhibits.

I don't regret buying the DVD—but I won't be sharing it with my granddaughter until she is quite a bit older.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Bryson: The Lost Continent—Undiscovered America

As a pre-teen boy growing up in Iowa, Bill Bryson read National Geographics and yearned to be a European boy, to travel, to be someplace else. Small-town America was just so rural. And in many books (In a Sunburnt Country, I'm New Here Myself, Notes from a Small Island, Travels in Africa), Bryson has done exactly that. Even better, his witty travelogues invite us to join him for good times and bad.
In Britain it had been a year without summer. Wet spring had merged imperceptibly into bleak autumn. For months the sky had remained a depthless gray. Sometimes it rained, but mostly it was just dull, a land without shadows. It was like living inside Tupperware.

The Lost Continent brings Bryson back to America, back to the rural scenery he once despised. He plans to travel a route across the mid-west in homage to his father. Along the twisted secondary-highway route, Bryson reconnects with the country of his birth, as manifested in the small towns, parks, and wayside stops he visits. His road trip expands to cover the whole American scene, from the largest city to the grubbiest desert cafe-grocery store-gas station. This is Bill Bryson, after all—we visit the pits as often as the heights.
In the morning I awoke early and experienced that sinking sensation that overcomes you when you first open your eyes and realize that instead of a normal day ahead of you, with its scattering of simple gratifications, you are going to have a day without even the tiniest of pleasures; you are going to drive across Ohio.

A Bryson travelogue is a series of poignant or pithy vignettes, stirred together into a potage of unique flavor. It will never be too sweet. New York: "Next door a store sold pornographic videos, right there on Fifth Avenue. My favorite was Yiddish Erotica, Volume 2. What could this possibly consist of...?" Wells, NV, had: "absolutely, in my opinion, the worst food I have ever had in America, at any time, under any circumstances..." Savannah, GA, a Hyatt Regency: "from the F-ck You school of architecture..."

But then he praises Detroit's Henry Ford Museum: "Grudgingly I paid the admission charge and went in. But almost from the moment I passed through the portals I was enthralled." And Charleston, SC: "I walked away the afternoon, up and down the peaceful streets, secretly admiring all these impossibly happy and good-looking people and their wonderful homes and rich, perfect lives."

Bryson's decades living in England make so much about America appear fresh to him, from TV commercials to the "chichi" signs on a shop door. Like many readers, I watched to see if Bryson would visit my hometown, and then waited with bated breath to see if it would receive that rare sweet comment, or strike a sour note. Even Bryson himself is not immune; he detoured from his planned route to visit Bryson City, and found himself regretting he did not have a crowbar to remove a souvenir sign.
I particularly fancied having the Bryson City Church of Christ sign beside my front gate in England and being able to put up different messages each week like REPENT NOW, LIMEYS.

I like Bill Bryson's books; I've been to many of the places he describes, or feel that I have, anyway, after reading them. It's the way he has of taking us along, like passengers in the back seat of the family car. We may not pick the itinerary, but there we are, enjoying and suffering by turns as Bryson drives.

Are we there yet?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Scarborough: Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day—Bipartisan Complaint from a Congressional Insider


It's an American icon: Jimmy Stewart, freshly appointed Senator, ready to take on the machine, in Mr Smith Goes to Washington.
In the 1937 classic an idealistic Jefferson Smith... barnstorms Washington, hoping to make a difference. But the young senator is soon confronted by the awesome might of Washington's political machine... they unleash the political attack dogs, hoping to destroy the reputation of the young reformer. But our Mr. Smith fights back, defeats the political bigwigs, and watches his leaders confess their errors. He even wins the girl.
Throw out that image, "Congressman Joe" Scarborough tells us. It's not how Washington really works. In Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day, the Reagan Republican, one-time Congressional firebrand, now political commentator on MSNBC's Scarborough Country, tells us how it does work, and how badly the mechanism is broken: 7.5 trillion dollars of debt's worth.
...back when I was in Congress, Michigan representative Nick Smith was kind enough to draw diagrams in crayon to help me understand just how hard it would be to pay off America's multi-trillion dollar debt... if I had earned $1 million every single day from the moment Jesus Christ was born until the year 2000, I would still not have earned enough money...
1994. Freshman congressmen meet for the first time on the Hill with their leader, Newt Gingrich. Among 80-some new faces in the House is Joe Scarborough, who parlayed his constituents' dismay with new President Clinton's proposal to "socialize one-seventh of the economy" into a seat long held by a Florida Democrat. These were the contractors with America, determined to keep their historic agreement and siderail Democrat and "Old Republican" spending plans alike.

Along the way, Scarborough had his nose rubbed, again and again, in the ingrained dishonesty of deal-making in the Congress. As he shares his experience, he doesn't spare Republicans or Democrats, Congressmen or Senators—or even Presidents and their advisors. And while a book of less than 200 pages can hardly cover every seamy detail of a seven-year political career, there is enough substance to make this a very disturbing book to read. money can be spent by the federal government unless the House first approves it. As such, all of the finger-pointing toward the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue is a bit disingenuous.
   It is also intellectually dishonest for the White House to blame their Republican fraternity brothers and sorority sisters in Congress for the current fiscal crisis... [because] no budget-busting spending bill can become law without first being signed by the President.
Scarborough details how President Clinton and Dick Morris broke the Republican Revolution of 1994, and why the election of George W. Bush in 2000 did not change the dynamic in Washington for the better. He explains the power of the "Fat White Pink Boys," the staffers and aides and bureaucrats who really run Washington.

Lobbyists, media pundits and his fellow revolutionaries are not spared, either. Scarborough draws parallels between his experiences in Washington, and his dealings with vindictive frat boys on the University of Alabama campus, determined to preserve their lock on the student government.
...if I were charged with the responsibility of starting a superfraternity for the ages, my first two recruiting targets would be George W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton. Bush would be in charge of pledge recruitment, and Clinton would be set loose on sorority row to set up weekend parties.
Scarborough seems to be telling us that our Congress spends like a drunken sailor when one of two conditions are met: Democrats have a majority in Congress, or the White House and Congress are both Republican. In evidence, he lists recent and historic pork-barrel spending, corporate welfare and sneaky riders to popular bills that drain the veins of taxpayer funds. Consider what happened after September 11, 2001.
One depressing example came... while the World Trade Center's ashes were still hot. Soon after September 11th, Congress passed a $318 billion defense bill in response to the national challenges created by the terrorist attacks. Nearly $10 billion was tacked on to the September 11th bill by members of Congress hoping to bring a few extra bucks back to their home states. According to Citizens Against Government Waste, members did this by tacking on "riders" to this crucial bill... [Emphasis mine.]
There is a scene at the end of the movie Protocol, where Goldie Hawn's character Sunny Davis fixes the foreign service bureaucrats with a steely eye and says, "People get the government they deserve—from now on, I'll be keeping my eye on you." Scarborough's conclusion is straight out of Sunny Davis' philosophy.
You have a duty to hold your elected representatives accountable and to let them know you are watching their votes. And if they don't shape up, you will do all you can to send them packing.
Otherwise we can expect the debt to continue to grow, and the focus in Washington not to be good governance, but gaining, retaining and exercising power.