Friday, November 02, 2012

What Charlie Pierce Said

Charlie Pierce often crystallizes, cogently and entertainingly, something that I think. His endorsement of Barack Obama for re-election is a good example of this.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

I miss Molly Ivins

The late great Molly Ivins said of George W. Bush (and Rick Perry): "The next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please, pay attention."

I feel the same way about Mitt Romney and Massachusetts.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Review: The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker

Every so often a book comes along that literally changes the way I think about the world. Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions was probably the <cough> paradigm case for me.

Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is one of these books.

His core thesis, supported by a huge array of data and documentation, is that violence has declined dramatically over time — not always smoothly, not always consistently, past performance does not guarantee future results — but there's a clear downward trend.

The kernel of insight is one of those really-obvious-in-retrospect ideas that changes perspective on a huge amount of history: if you look at conflicts and categorize them not by how many people they killed, but by how many people they killed per capita (i.e. divided by the world population at the time), then generally speaking, the fraction of people who die in armed conflicts has been getting smaller over time. A lot smaller.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Review: Among Others, by Jo Walton

I recently read Among Others, by Jo Walton, of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day fame. (She blogs entertainingly at She "live-blogged" re-reading the Miles Vorkosigan saga in publication order, which I found quite interesting. And I commend her post on The Suck Fairy.)

Among Others came out last year and got such effusive praise from other writers that I wondered whether it was a case of a book from "a writer's writer", who (similar to "an actor's actor" or "a comedian's comedian") is someone doing stuff that is interesting but not compelling to anyone other than people in the same field. I am happy to have been proven wrong. Or maybe what it is is that Jo Walton is "an SF reader's SF reader", and since I'm an SF reader, it really worked for me. I do fear that it would not work as well for someone who hadn't been an SF-steeped 15-year-old.

Among Others is the (first-person) story of fifteen-year-old Mori (Morwenna), who has fled her half-insane mother in Wales after an accident that killed her twin sister and shattered her leg. In the summer of 1979, she ends up with her father (who had abandoned them as children), because British law prevents her extended family in Wales from being able to take her in. She is sent to an English boarding school, where she is basically the designated outcast: Welsh, semi-crippled, academically talented, and constantly reading SF and fantasy, which buffer her from the pain of her life.

Oh, yeah — there are also fairies and magic. The magic is (usually) subtle and intertwines slowly through the story.

Half-autobiography (Walton explains in an afterward that getting her own childhood right was way harder than historical research), half-fantasy, this setup could have been a twee or treacle disaster. But Mori's whip-smart, clever-but-not-worldly, astringent voice is a treat to read. I laughed out loud multiple times and subjected everyone within earshot to (sometimes extensive) quoting.

You could argue that "not much happens" in the book — most of the action is interior, but that hardly matters. I enjoyed reading it immensely.

As much as anything, the book is a love letter to reading and interacting with other readers, and to libraries and librarians. A central part of the plot is Mori discovering an SF reader group in the town where her school is located; she had performed a small magic to find herself a group with which to fit in (a karass, in Kurt Vonnegut's language from Cat's Cradle), and it is an open question (for Mori herself as well as for us) whether the magic caused this or if it was just luck, or fate. We get to see Mori read, discuss, and analyze books that were just coming out (or just arriving in England), and there are occasional in jokes for those of us who have read the books she's reading (e.g. Mori wonders about the implication of some feature of a book that, which that book's [still-in-the-future for Mori] sequel will address).

If you've ever been fifteen and reading was an escape, or "merely" a joy, and especially if you were reading SF at that point, I strongly recommend Among Others.

Also of potential interest: Jo Walton's "Big Idea" post on John Scalzi's Whatever blog.

Places to purchase Among Others: Amazon BN Powell's Harvard Bookstore

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why I Oppose SOPA and PIPA

I oppose SOPA and PIPA. Here's a good summary why:

The argument I included in my notes to my Congressional reps was this:

Imagine that Walmart and Target got up in front of Congress and argued that since people shoplift, they should be able to stop cars and trucks randomly on the streets and highways looking for stolen goods, and to take away drivers licenses at will. They would (I hope!) be laughed out of Washington. But that's effectively what the RIAA and the MPAA are demanding with SOPA and PIPA -- except that it's not just roads, it's the Internet they're demanding police powers over (with no oversight or appeal).

The Internet is the greatest force for free speech since the printing press. It is the medium through which a huge fraction of our news, entertainment, political discussion, and, indeed, of our economy flows.

Intellectual property piracy may be a problem -- although all independent research says that the RIAA and MPAA are exaggerating the problem by several orders of magnitude. Giving the five Hollywood studios, four multinational record labels, and six global publishers the keys to the Internet is an awful idea.