Thursday, July 29, 2010

Locker room banter

It's not what you think. Oh, sure, we get plenty of the usual back-seat sports analysis at Berkeley's YMCA ... but yesterday evening was something else again.

As I was combing the last tangles out of my freshly chlorinated hair, a gentleman with whom I have a nodding friendship finished dressing and ambled by my locker on his way out. He recited a paraphrase a bit mournfully, summarizing the evening's workout, something like this:

I did strut and fret my hour in the gym...

Without missing a beat, another familiar denizen of our gym, standing behind us both, gave the canonical reading:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

... whereupon the first Shakespearean broke in over the second:
And then is heard no more:

Then in a sort of concert-competition, like dueling banjos in iambic pentameter, the two men strove with one another to declaim Macbeth's lines:
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Much chuckling, turning 'round to see, and half-concealed smiles...

I'm not so great myself at memorizing long stretches of Shakespeare, not since Miss Ballou assigned recitation of soliloquies in ninth grade -- a requirement I've mentioned before.

Not long after I finished college I was visiting a friend's home in Carlisle, England, and made the mistake of tossing off a line from, I don't remember, maybe 2 Henry IV, I was mad about Falstaff then, and Hal's abandon, and then the tragedy of the new-crowned king's rejection of his old friend:
I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers.

My host, my friend's father, was an attorney, which leads me to wonder whether it's coincidence that the gentleman who began reciting Macbeth in my gym last night is a lawyer himself. In any case, my English solicitor host put me to shame: I stammered out a line, maybe two, in the hour before dinner, and he immediately popped out with the whole speech, from memory. Boy, did I feel like a rube.

High drama in the locker room. Even if I can't keep up on lines committed to memory, I love that I live and work out among book people.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Tilting at windmills

Three of the things that happened last week began with a member of my virtual writers' group starting a virtual conversation on the question why each of us writes the genre we write. He began the discussion:
This is a little different than 'why do you write' per se.
Naturally, this got me thinking about why writers write, per se. As readers have seen in my prior posts, questions of genre or category puzzle me.

The tumultuous state of the publishing industry in these distracted and e-bookish times is generating much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, in the blogosphere and elsewhere. Even forecasters of a future that's not apocalyptic are expecting a roller coaster ride between here and wherever there turns out to be. Many of the blogs I read in this space feature industry insiders (a.k.a. agents and  employees of publishing houses) trying to slap some sense into industry wannabe-insiders (a.k.a. authors looking to get published). In case you haven't copped on yet, I'm in the latter camp.

A second thing that happened last week was that Eric of Pimp My Novel, held forth on the topic You Ain't In It For the Money. He shot straight from the hip:
it's important for you to realize that you're not likely to make a ton of money with your writing. It is, in fact, unlikely that you'll even be able to quit your day job.
Okay. I get that (Eric clarified this morning that he meant "writing fiction" but I assumed...).
The point, meine Autoren, is this: do this because you won't be happy doing anything else, not because you want to be the next James Patterson or J.K. Rowling (as nice as that'd be).
[Eric likes to address the writers who read his blog in affectionate German or French"]
Thing number three comes courtesy of Nathan Bransford, who on the very same day as Eric had a slightly different angle, in his post titled In Praise of Reading Slush. Nathan described the slush pile -- the many, many manuscripts through which he and his colleagues hunt for the rare publishable work -- as:
full of half-baked ideas, the truly out-there, the very occasional undiscovered gems, but mostly good-solid efforts by perfectly respectable writers, who are up against simple math that simply isn't in their favor: maybe one in a thousand, if that, make it from slush pile to publication with a major publisher, and the odds are getting steeper by the day.

One in a thousand? Maybe? If that? With odds getting steeper by the day?


This year I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference. I blogged a bit about it. In fact, it's more or less because I attended the conference that I started to blog in the first place (cf. the historical record in the right-side nav bar).

Anyhoo, there were about 700 writers at the SF Writers Conference this past February, or so we were told. Looked to me like a big, big bunch of people up there on Nob Hill. So what Nathan is saying is that seven tenths of one of us who attended SFWC will get published with a major publisher. "And the odds," he said, "are getting steeper by the day." Statistically speaking.

Okay, that's a little disingenuous.

One of the other things we were told at the SFWC is that the fact we showed up didn't exactly qualify us, but made it more likely that agents and editors would find we inhabit the "mostly good-solid efforts" fraction of the slush pile. Inhabitants of the bottom of the pile, we were told, tend to think there's no reason to bother understanding how the publishing industry works. The result? Their submissions tend to be things that aren't going to get picked up by a publishing industry editor. Statistically speaking.

We conference attendees, on the other hand -- the compliant elite -- having forked over hundreds of bucks, were told how to write books that people will want to read. More or less. There were no magic potions on offer, alas. But, practically speaking, we did get to meet, converse with, and pitch to agents and editors who then either invited us to send a query or didn't. If one was asked, one's query was not part of the slush pile, ipso facto. So, what are the improved odds? One in five hundred? Two in three hundred?

The point is, at those odds, and for the pennies paid out by major publishers to unproven authors, especially authors of fiction, if an income were one's goal one would be better off pulling espresso. Speaking in terms of, say, hourly wages. Consider that next time you order a cappuccino. In fact, next time you order a cappuccino, ask your barrista how her manuscript is shaping up. Could be an interesting conversation.

I suspect Eric is right. Most authors and would-be authors with a grip on reality write because they wouldn't be happy doing anything else.

As evidence, I offer a bit of recent experience with which I am familiar. Mine.

This weekend, Saturday morning to be more precise, I got up around eight o'clock. It was the weekend, okay? I slept in a bit. (Translation: I was having a hard time dragging my arse out of bed.) As is often the case on a Saturday morning, I was feeling a bit listless. Wrung out. It had been another busy week at work, each weekday bookended by some hours of editing, reading, writing, and dealing with those silly little details that most people call "life." Eating, cleaning house, worrying about an aging parent, paying bills, being nice to loved ones, collecting the car from the shop, writing that e-mail one didn't have time for at the office. Wheeee!

So, feeling listless, I diddled. I e-mailed, I fussed, and I fiddled. By ten-thirty I was just about finished stalling. I double-clicked on my word-processing program, about which I have written in a hostile tone this very month, and opened the chapter I'd been editing the day before. Time for another read through, which, feeling listless, I rather dreaded.

But ... guess what? Not half-a-paragraph in? That listless, punky feeling started to drain away. Just like in the Roto-Rooter commercial! Simplify a clause here, cut a sentence there, sharpen a verb in that exchange, delete an unnecessary attribution a few lines down. By a quarter past eleven I was feeling great!! I printed out my chapter and headed off to a favorite cafe, to read in hard copy with some expertly pulled espresso flowing through the old bloodstream.

(In college I had a roommate who is a Native American -- Hopi -- and when he came into our room to find me hunched over my desk he loved to shake his head incredulously, giving me that you-white-guys treatment about the "black marks on white paper" that so obsessed me. He was only teasing, of course. We're still pals, and he still likes to read. In fact, his daughters are named after characters in a novel that reinterprets Arthurian myth.)

But ... have I trained myself to find satisfaction only in the arrangement and rearrangement (and rearrangement and rearrangement) of words on pages? Have I tricked myself into this odd obsession? Are my tendencies biological? Are they natural? Is my love of language neurotic? Is it silly to hunger for excellently told stories?

Well, I don't know. The truth is that answers to questions of motive, habit, and pathology don't matter much to me, in a day to day sense. I'm going to say that people who just plain like to wallow around in language represent a major fraction of Nathan's slush pile, the "good-solid efforts by perfectly respectable writers" fraction.

Glass half full? We write because it makes us happy. Glass half empty? We write, as Eric put it, because we wouldn't be happy doing anything else.

And the likelihood that those of us who hope to be published are tilting at windmills?

That's not going to stop us.

Thanks to Dream in the Dark of Day for the coffee...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sarah Palin, you're no William Shakespeare

If you were paying attention, you didn't hear it here first: Sarah Palin, malapropist extraordinaire, garbled yet another attempt to communicate in the English language ... then tried to excuse herself by claiming The Bard's high ground.

Here's how it was reported by San Francisco's
Recently, the former Alaska governor Tweeted her opposition to a Mosque and Islamic community center being built near the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. [...] The project has received endorsement by the local city council and by New York Mayor Micheal Bloomberg, but opponents have raised unsubstantiated claims that the center will be a bed of extremism and that the head Iman is a radical. [...] Palin has sided with the opposition. And recently Tweeted to that [e]ffect: “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate."
Pls refudiate?

Poor, poor Sarah Palin. "Refudiate" is not a word. Well, somebody told her quick enough, so she deleted the post quoted above, and tried again:
Peaceful New Yorkers, pls refute the Ground Zero mosque plan.
Here she used a real word, "refute," but incorrectly. Then she took the replacement tweet down and tried a third time. Phew! No syntactical errors, no made up words. Whether the tweet she settled on is misguided, bigoted, or both? That's a matter of opinion. I'm not going to give her posturing further play, click on the Examiner link if you want to decide for yourself. And note the error in the quoted passage of that news site's own prose (hint: I corrected it). Sigh.

But here's the kicker, as far as the failed VP candidate's use of language goes. After her series of scrambled tweets in broken English, Palin posted this:
'Refudiate,' 'misunderestimate,' 'wee-wee'd up.' English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!

Does the fact that a man counted among the greatest-ever poets and dramatists "liked to coin new words" have anything to do with a throw-in-the-towel governor who is incapable of expressing her ideas?

What would Ben Jonson have thought?

I heard this bit of Palinology first in the locker room at the YMCA as the "story" gained traction (check out, for example, the U.K. Telegraph's learned commentary; or the Fox article with the desperately defensive lead). A gentleman I enjoy talking with when our paths cross there passed along the news.

The first thing I thought of was Lloyd Bentsen's immortal remark in his 1988 vice-presidential debate with one of Palin's prior incarnations, former veep Dan Quayle. I don't think it's off-base to characterize Mr. Quayle as intellectually weak. I also remember that, at the time, his selection as George H. W. Bush's running mate was disappointing to many in his own party. Quayle, a senator from Indiana, likened himself to the late senator and president John F. ("Jack") Kennedy a bit more than two-thirds of the way through the debate. His opponent, Senator Bentsen of Texas, just about bursting with on-camera incredulity, retorted with a zinger:
Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.
Watch the video if you've never seen this before. Or if you have, and want to relive a jaw dropping case of self-aggrandizement followed by a deeply satisfying smackdown:

A transcript of the exchange is part of a full blown Wikipedia article. For committed masochists, the full debate is transcribed on Quayle and Bush 41 won the election handily. C'est la guerre.

Sarah Palin, you are no William Shakespeare.

Monday, July 19, 2010

More on place in fiction

What does a writer owe a reader when it comes to rendering place? What is a reader's expectation of a writer's fidelity to "reality"? Is there a single "reality" of place, or is place deeply colored by things like time, point-of-view, and emotional associations?

I don't suppose there are canonical answers to these questions, so in this follow-up to last month's Place in fiction post, let's take a literary tour.

One of my favorite authors of place -- okay, he's one of my favorite authors period -- is the late W.G. Sebald. In Rings of Saturn, the narrator (who may fairly be surmised to be Sebald, thinly disguised) travels around the county of Suffolk in England, making deeply informed and vivid observations about the land and landmarks, touching on times present and past. The German-born author taught for many years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, located in the county of Norfolk -- just north of Suffolk, as you might guess. Like his narrator, Sebald took long walking tours in which he absorbed the place and culture in which his life occurred. Rings of Saturn can be read as a kind of travelogue, albeit one that veers across continents and centuries at the least provocation -- sometimes to places and times that the author, born in 1944, can only know as a product of research, such as the court of the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi in late nineteenth and early twentieth century China. Sebald renders place that is now and real, but portrays it as a surface over historical deeps and linked distances that give his places life.

Last month I wrote about place in my own novel-in-progress, Consequence, most of which takes place in San Francisco. In Michael Ondaatje's Divisidero, named for a street that bumps right up against the neighborhood in which my story takes place, the street and city play a minor role: Divisadero takes place elsewhere. In his novel Prague, Arthur Phillips writes about five expatriates in Budapest who would rather be in the city by the Vltava. In these two novels, then, authors take liberties with place. Place is 'not here,' a strategic bit of misdirection.

Tying together Sebald, Prague, and my own experience of place in fiction, here's a curious story about Austerlitz, the last novel Sebald published before his tragic death in 2001. In that novel, the protagonist unearths his early history as one of thousands of children taken in by the U.K. from Nazi-occupied countries on the eve of World War II. As an adult, Austerlitz returns to Prague in search of his past and finds not only the building in which he lived as a child, but his family's neighbor and his nurserymaid still living there.

From the novel: was as if I had already been this way before and memories were revealing themselves to me not by means of any mental effort but through my senses, so long numbed and now coming back to life. It was true that I could recognize nothing for certain, yet I had to keep stopping now and then because my glance was caught by a finely wrought window grating, the iron handle of a bell pull, or the branches of an almond tree growing over a garden wall. [...] Then there was the cool air as I entered the front hall of Number 12 Šporkova, the metal box for the electrics built into the wall beside the entrance with its lightning symbol, the octofoil mosaic flower in shades of dove gray and snow white set in the flecked artificial-stone floor hall, the smell of damp limewash, the gently rising flight of stairs, with hazelnut shaped iron knobs placed at intervals in the handrail of the banisters -- all of them signs and characters from the type case of forgotten things, I thought, and was overcome by such a state of blissful yet anxious confusion that more than once I had to sit down on the steps in the quiet stairwell and lean my head against the wall."

I visited Prague in May of 2002, and stayed at a small hotel across a small square from the Lobkowitz Palace, now the location of Prague's German embassy. The hotel, Dům u velké boty (which translates to "House at the Big Boot") is located about equidistant from Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge, in a quiet quarter, the Malá Strana, that is nonetheless near the heart of the city. I recommend it highly if you're looking for a place to stay in Prague. My partner and I arrived in the evening from the airport, jet lagged of course, because it was early morning back home. The kind hotelier, Jan Rippl, showed us to our room, facing the square and the Lobkowitz Palace, and we soon sacked out. As dawn rose not so many hours later, a richly-voiced bird began to sing -- it might have been a nightingale. As best we could tell, the sound was coming from around the corner; there were no trees in the square directly outside our window. Between the jet lag and the birdsong, I didn't get much more sleep that night.

After breakfast we walked around the corner to see whether we could find the spot from which we were serenaded through the wee hours of morning. Matthew and I had both read Austerlitz recently, and for each of us the novel was part of our foreknowledge of the city we were visiting for the first time. We'd made no plans to seek out the places portrayed by Sebald, though I had every intention of visiting the Old New Synagogue where the Golem is said to be concealed in the attic; Matthew was anticipating a visit to the pub U Kalicha, where the eponomous protagonist of The Good Soldier Švejk had begun his adventures. Imagine our shock, then, when the name of the street alongside our hotel looked familiar: Šporkova. And there, at the foot of the courtyard, opposite to a tall tree in which our nightingale might have perched, stood Number 12.

View Larger Map

Was it actually Sebald's model for the childhood home of his character, Austerlitz? It was as if we'd flown into the twilight zone...

One of the most troubling and fascinating places I've come to know through fiction doesn't exist. In The City and The City, China Miéville renders two cities that are geographically co-located, yet rigidly segregated from one another. On pain of permanent exile, residents of Beszel may not acknowledge residents of Ul Qoma with whom they share streets and sidewalks, but never shops or restaurants -- let alone conversation. The reverse is true as well: citizens of Ul Qoma may not acknowledge the people of Beszel. The strangest thing about these cities is their eerie resonance with commonplace insularities in cities we know: how one can live for years in an urban street and know few or no neighbors; the ways community business, conflict, and loyalties in Chinatown (I'm thinking San Francisco's) play out in vigorous bustle and shouted Cantonese as if the tourists mobbing its sidewalks were transparent; the way office workers in any city routinely ignore the impoverished homeless; and so on. Miéville renders a place no one has seen, yet everyone recognizes.

In my own work I'm not consistent in requiring that I know a place well before I write it. Consequence occurs in places I know (San Francisco) and places I don't (Nebraska). One of the first short stories I wrote in a creative writing class in college was about an old man remembering the highlights of his life. My professor in that class, Tom Farber, approved of a name I invented for a restaurant in Paris ... though at the time I'd never been. The first short story I published, in Christopher Street Magazine, unfolded at Big Sur, describing a drive down the California coast that I've made many times, cabins along the Big Sur river that I've visited often, beaches I've been to in every season. Another short story, of more recent vintage, takes place in San Francisco and Broward County, Florida. At the time I wrote it I'd never visited Florida. I've been there since, but only to the Panhandle.

When you read place in fiction, do you want or expect an experience that reflects reality? Have you ever visited a city first known through fiction, and sought out places where the fiction occurred?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


A couple weeks back I wrote about a talk that author Neal Stephenson gave at Greshem College in London, titled Science Fiction as a Literary Genre. Genre wasn’t all Stephenson talked about.

He called one of his most interesting sub-topics “Vegging Out and Geeking Out” and if you like you can skip right to it in the video; it’s a mere 4-1/2 minutes long. In this part of his talk, Stephenson characterized the world we live in today as being too complicated to be grasped by a single person. The nature of knowledge and intelligence changed, he asserts, over the last fifty years. He says:
"The Heinleinian hero, who knows everything and can do everything, is gone. The world is complicated. No one can be good at everything. [...] [E]verything [...] in our lives has too many features, too many details for our minds to hold. The best we can do is to be good at something."

That got my attention. I think it's pretty close to an argument I made in Digging deeper holes. "Complexity breeds collapse," I wrote in that post, because of the uncontainable variety of possible 'complications' to simplifications that engineers assume (of necessity) in order to calculate risk and mitigate it. I argued that this variety of complications makes it impossible to engineer immunity from disasters like nuclear meltdown or blown out oil wells. When the infrastructure of our society is too complicated to grasp, it necessarily trundles along out of our 'control.' When it breaks, we have a hard time fixing it. When it breaks catastrophically, we must endure catastrophe. This is not news. Matter of fact, it’s awfully close to biological theories of evolution: what doesn’t work dies.

In burying Heinlein, Stephenson could have used a Heinleinism: there's too much in the world to grok.

After an interlude in which he makes excuses for those, like himself, who "veg out" in front of the TV after an exhausting day of too-much-complexity, he says this:
Choose any person in the world at random no matter now non-geeky they might seem and talk to them long enough and in most cases you will eventually hit on some topic about which they are exorbitantly knowledgeable, and if you express interest, on which they will talk for hours. You have found their inner geek. [...] This is how knowledge works today and how it's going to work in the future. No more Heinleinian polymaths, instead a web of geeks each of whom knows a lot about something. [...] We're all geeks now."

I’m not so sure that "how knowledge works today and how its going to work in the future" represents a significant break with how it worked in the past. Has there really been so great a shift in the past half-century? Do people really relate differently, as individuals, to a world that has long teemed with more than any one person can know or control? Heinleinian polymaths may have seemed a teeny little bit less unlikely fifty years ago, but most would agree they were always something of a long shot. My once-plentiful sci fi library is gone to the great used bookstore in the sky, so I'm reduced to relying on wikiquote for this expression of what Heinlein represented as appropriate ambition for the common (hu)man, from his novel Time Enough for Love:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."


My grandma was a terrific knitter. Not just scarves and blankets, either. She could go to high-end clothes shops, drink in a knit dress on display in a window, then go home and make it. She also changed her share of diapers over the years, and cooked many a tasty meal. She was not much for planning invasions, building walls, or conning ships.

I’ve worked with dozens, probably hundreds, of computer programmers over the years, many of whom could cook tasty meals and most of whom could solve equations. Butchering hogs and writing sonnets have been far less common skills among my digitally adept colleagues.

I have a soft spot for the implication that humans have an inherent, insatiable curiosity, but Heinlein is probably overstating the average human appetite as much as Stephenson might be selling it short.

I’m also naturally suspicious of an acquiescence I read into Stephenson’s suggestion that "We're all geeks now." If the world is, indeed, complex, then those who would remain citizens of a democracy are responsible for getting a handle on its complexity. That’s the only way we can equip ourselves to participate meaningfully in self-governance. Ceding understanding of the big picture to people with big big brains who can figure out the world for us is not a palatable form of surrender. Satisfying ourselves with narrow expertise leaves management of society to an elite vanguard of smart and powerful generalists. I won’t vote for that.

Perhaps a view that specialization in knowledge is the inevitable path forward echoes similar movement toward specialization in centuries past, as production of goods developed from cottage crafts to craft guilds to industrialized economies. Or as human participation in industrial economies was mechanized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the likes of Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor. These broad and powerful economic and social developments generated displacement, chaos, pain, and unprecedented wealth.

They didn’t change the basic truth that nobody ever grokked the world.

Nor did they keep the curious from trying.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Truth and mystery

The De Young Museum in San Francisco is hosting the first of two exhibitions on the road this year because the Musée d'Orsay in Paris is undergoing renovation. The current exhibit, The Birth of Impressionism, runs through 6 September. I had the pleasure of visiting the De Young yesterday afternoon.

The show opened with several academic paintings of a type that were in great favor in Paris when the artists who would eventually be known as the Impressionists came on the scene. Truth, by Jules Joseph Lefebvre, is an example of the idealized images then in vogue among the gatekeepers of the Paris Salon, the biannual art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

There were more lovely paintings even than I expected, among them Gustave Caillebotte's The Floor Scrapers, a favorite remembered from my most recent visit to Musée d'Orsay; and Claude Monet's The Magpie.

My personal favorite reveals a taste, perhaps, for mystery in favor of truth: Moonlight Over the Port of Boulogne, by Edouard Manet.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Elegy for a manual transmission

Yesterday morning I drove to the dentist.

Not an auspicious start, is it? Who wants to read about visits to the dentist? Half my face was still numb when I drafted this post, I’m not really in the mood myself for a recap. So, instead, I’ll tell a shaggy dog story about technology. (If you want you can skip my whiney self-justification for buying a used car instead of a shiny new hybrid.)

The thing is, I drove to the dentist in a trusty old car that isn’t long for this world. I’ve been driving my Volvo 240 DL for almost ten years, and it’s served me well. Volvo sedans serve a lot of people well in Berkeley. To look around, it’d be easy to believe Berkeley has more Volvo 240 sedans on the road, per capita, than anyplace outside Sweden (others have observed this before me).

A whiney self-justification for buying a used car

My little 1985 number has nearly 190K miles on it, but little of that is my fault ... my partner and I drive two or three thousand miles a year between us. We share the sedan as our only car, ride bikes to work, and take a fair bit of public transit. I did drive up to Portland a year and a half ago, proving that the old girl still has it in her to do a real road trip. Took my time. This is not a race car.

(That year we put more miles than usual on the Volvo, coming in a hair under 4,000. The year before, a fender bender seriously bent our front fender, which has been hanging rakishly low to the ground ever since. The left front turn signal is duct-taped to the rest of the car. You can fix anything with duct tape.)

The Bay Area Air Quality Management district will give us $1,000 to take our Volvo off the road. We’re going to take them up on it. We just transferred title on our new car this week. When I say “new,” I only mean new-to-us. Our new used car is a Subaru, and it’s six years younger than the car we’re about to retire.

If that sounds a little lunatic, to buy a 19 year old vehicle, I offer the following mitigating circumstances: the Subaru was meticulously maintained by its single owner, garaged, and has been driven fewer than 60,000 miles. At the rate we advance the odometer, there’s a decent chance it’ll last until we’re ready for a nursing home.

If it sounds environmentally irresponsible to buy a used car when a cleaner-burning hybrid or other newer alternative is possible, well, here’s the whiney self-justification, recognizing that it’d be hard to fit the whole grand calculus into a blog post. And, to be honest, we didn’t perform the full-on grand calculus. Not rigorously. As the Dust to Dust report testifies, the question of least-environmental-impact is complicated.

Our back-of-the-napkin calculations are that it’s got to cause more environmental damage to produce a new car that we’re going to drive a few thousand miles per year than it would to drive an already-built, well-maintained vehicle whose smog tests clock in at 1% to 10% of maximum permitted emissions. That’s our excuse anyway. The comments box is at the bottom of this post.

Manual transmissions

What our Volvo has that our Suburu lacks: a manual transmission.

I never foresaw the day when I’d give up driving a clutch. I learned to drive on a manual tranmsission, a Volvo wagon, ‘70, I think -- it was the car my family drove across the country when we moved to California. I’ve since owned a Volkswagon van, a couple of Hondas, and now the 240 DL; all of them equipped with manual transmissions. None of them were hot rods, that’s never been my thing.

I changed out the clutch on the VW and the first Honda myself, when the need arose. Those were the days, right? When you didn’t need a Cray supercomputer and a garage full of specialized tools to diagnose and repair your own vehicle? I rebuilt the VW from the pistons out before driving it across the country one summer with a couple of good friends. The Idiot Guide by John Muir taught me everything I needed to know about how my wheels worked. I liked knowing. Self-sufficiency felt good. When the gas cable snapped on a freeway in Montana, I wasn’t ruffled. I had a spare packed away with the socket wrenches and the camping stove. I pulled over and threaded the spare from the front of the bus to the rear-mounted engine. It hadn’t been too many years since I first read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not to mention a shelf full of Heinlein novels. Self-sufficiency was pretty high on my list at the time.

(One great thing about blogs: you can be a discursive as you want to be.)

So, anyway, driving to the dentist in my old sedan, I realized that this was likely to be one of the last times I would drive a manual transmission, at least one that I own. And from there it wasn’t a far leap to the fact that it was likely to be one of the last times I drove a car that I could repair myself (if I wanted to, I’m saying -- I got over DIY car repair a few years before the Volvo came into my vehicular life). And from there, I picked up where I left off earlier this week, in a post on new and not-so-improved software.

I’m sure I’ll get used to driving an automatic transmission soon enough. It’s not like I spend that much time in a car anyway. But what about the larger questions?

Technology changes what you can do -- and what you can’t

The latest advances in Microsoft’s productivity software technology make it easier to co-author documents and spreadsheets, embed video in business presentations, and control access to your digital artifacts. But those arguably incremental “improvements” (along with user-centered design based on a population of Martians?) complicate an already bloated user interface, dialing up the friction on producing simple documents with multi-faceted software. It’s necessary for me to know more than I’d rather about navigating that interface given that all I want to do is produce the same old sort of simple, structured text documents (like novel chapters, say).

Advances in information technology permit anyone to archive their digital ephemera on servers maintained by companies that allow one to share or privately access documents, photos, and videos from anywhere that’s connected to the intertubes. The downside? People get anxious when they’re not connected to the intertubes. Then we become increasingly checked out from wherever we actually are when our heads are in a digital cloud, where our stuff is.

Advances in publishing technology give authors much more control over paths outside the routes gated by traditional publishing houses, whether through print-on-demand services or self-publishing channels for electronic books, as many in the blogosphere have written and wailed about already, including yours truly. That seems good, right? But on the other hand, it’s getting harder every week to find a bookstore worth browsing in, never mind getting that terrific novel you wrote noticed by a sizable readership.

Clever, government-mandated technology is now built into every new vehicle sold in the U.S. in an effort to reduce pollution, which is a good thing by most people’s measure. Whiz-bang gadgetry now enables vehicles to self-correct for dangerous road conditions, protect passengers in the event of a crash, or guide a driver to her destination -- improvements that are hard to argue with. But all that new and improved technology makes it pretty much impossible for a backyard mechanic to perform substantial repair on vehicles manufactured after nineteen eighty-something, which reads like a loss to this onetime backyard mechanic.

As I’ve proposed before, complex stuff is more likely to break. The price we pay for greater reach -- for ability to publish our own books; or access our photos from anywhere; or to leave home without one of those antique paper maps that people used to buy at gas stations, yet still find our way -- is a greater reliance on experts to keep our stuff working.

Is it worth it? Sometimes it seems so. Other times not.

Monday, July 5, 2010

It’s new, but is it improved?

I’m having one of the busiest holiday weekends ever. Why? I suppose it’s because FedEx delivered a chunky Dell desktop computer on Tuesday, for my home office pleasure, and I’ve been loading it up with software I “need” ever since. So it’s no surprise that I’m thinking this week about new technology.

First there’s the question of cell phones. Faithful readers may remember that I identified myself as a “cell phone refusenik” in a prior blog post. I don’t own one, and I’m not keen on the prospect of always-on reachability (I know, I know, the things have off-switches ... but carrying a leash is carrying a leash, even if it’s loosely fastened).

In any case, I had breakfast with friends about a week ago, one of whom is a serious gadget geek (S-- programs mobile apps for a living), and conversation turned to the question of what sort of pocket device I might migrate to when when my trusty old Palm T|X gives up the ghost. It’ll probably be a phone -- PDAs are pretty much over, after all -- and S-- was showing off his Android device. He’s not interested in owning an iPhone, which we also talked about; and that led me to e-mail a friend & colleague later in the week to ask why she recently made the iPhone-to-Android switch. That exchange led to Quinn Dombrowski’s thoughtful blog post, Why I’ve walked away from Apple. When I shared Quinn’s post with S--, he forwarded a link to the most hilariously snarky video about iPhone obsession, iPhone4 vs HTC Evo, from tinywatchproductions (complete with pottymouth dialog, in a South Park vein). LYAO funny. Thanks to S-- and Quinn and tinywatchproductions, I guess I won’t be getting an iPhone anytime ..... ever.

Then there’s the new Photoshop CS5. I don’t know anybody who uses it, but Matthew Sun blogged about it last week. That’s what brought a feature tour video to my attention. The video demonstrates just how easy it is to falsify digital images with the latest tools from Adobe. Scary stuff. It makes Winston Smith’s “memory hole” seem so ... 1984.

So meet the new Google Docs interface. I’m with the complainers in this thread, hoping against all odds that Google brings back the old one. Yes, yes, the new interface & features make it far easier to collaborate on documents and spreadsheets, even in real time, as explained by’s Jolie O’Dell, or in the embedded Google video. But in its bid for compatibility with Microsoft's Office suite, Google Docs has mucked up one's ability to simply copy-paste into Blogger's editor. Formatting cruft everywhere.

This content-producer isn’t sold.

Which brings me to installing new software on my just-born Windows 7 desktop. So, okay, the latest Microsoft OS isn’t so bad. It’ll take some getting used to, given that I like to know where to go, fast, to tweak this or that feature ... there’s inevitably a learning curve, but c’est la vie. Technology changes. I know that.

However. With my brand spanking new computer I bought a brand spanking new copy of Microsoft Office. Office 2010.

OMG. In a word: “bloated.” In two words: “hella bloated.” This is truly an interface from Ghenna.

Now, granted, I’m a stick-in-the-mud when it comes to productivity software. I’m most at home with a 13 year old version of this suite (I’ve also used Office 2, 95, 2000, 2003, and 2008). Microsoft would have done the world a favor, or done me a favor anyway, if they’d only gone as far as ‘97. See for yourself, on the Beast from Redmond’s Word 2010 features and benefits page.

Too many bells, many too many whistles. Maybe they should have called it Cubicle 2010, because it makes the user feel boxed in and at sea, both at the same time. By the way, there are six more, equally dense “ribbons” found at the top of the other tabbed menu views.

Yet all I want to do with the document-producing part of a productivity suite is write. Produce pages of text. Get an assist every once in a while with my aweful sppeling. You’ve got to wonder whether it makes sense to buy a menu-rollback add-in. I’m thinking about it. (I’m also thinking about finally making the switch to OpenOffice, which I’ve tried in quite a few of its evolving versions over the years. Version 3.2 is looking pretty good, especially in comparison with Cubicle 2010.)

The “improvements” new software technology brings to our digital lives ... not any particular improvement, but the whole kit and kaboodle. On average, are they truly improvements?

The whingeing Luddite in me is doubtful. What do you think?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Neal Stephenson on literary genre

Neal Stephenson gave a lecture in May 2008 at Gresham College in London. The topic? Science Fiction as a Literary Genre. A friend only recently pointed me to the event, as preserved on the intertubes, figuring I'd be interested because I've posted repeatedly on the question of fiction categories. She was right.

(Stephenson is an author who lives in Seattle. I know him best as the author of Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon ... but -- true confession -- after having both those novels highly recommended to me by more than one discerning reader, I tried to work up a head of steam getting into each as I paged through the opening chapters in my local bookstore. I tried more than once. But I couldn't get interested. I did read Zodiac, as research for my current novel project.)

The Gresham College lecture is archived on video at so if you like you can watch the whole 40 minutes. Stephenson isn't the most dynamic speaker ever, but he has a lot of interesting things to say. If you're in the mood for something a little quicker than the real-time experience, read on for some of the ideas Stephenson proposed about genre.

His overarching thesis is that "It no longer makes sense to speak of mainstream and some number of genres." That model, which Stephenson calls "the standard model of our culture," implies "that there is a mainstream, and, peripheral to it -- inferior in intellectual content, moral values, production values, and economic importance -- some number of genres." No longer so, says Stephenson -- if it ever was.

Moreover, he asserts that two of the principal fiction genres that can still be found in segregated sections of most bookstores, Romance and Crime/Mystery, have been subsumed by new (well, the 'old new') media. "Romance," Stephenson claims, "fused with the movie industry, and crime fused with television." With some notable exceptions, he points out, "movies that have no romantic relationship don't sell as many tickets" and so "romance and the romantic sensibility has stopped being confined to a particular genre and has become an intrinsic part of the modern industrial movie making business."

Why is this? Stephenson explains. "Romance and violence are two things that easily cross borders and jump language barriers." Given that the culture industry has gone global, this matters. And because there are "only so many young men in the world [...] romance appeals to more people." He does not go so far as to claim that violence is toned down in the film business because those "only so many young men" don't matter to people who sell movies. That would be silly; cf. almost every movie Hollywood releases during the summer months.

Taking on TV and movies to tackle the question of literary genre in these times is a sweet analytical strategy. It's appropriately oppositional, given Stephenson's heterodox fiction and the current turmoil in the publishing industry, for Stephenson to welcome the 'barbarians at the gate' of literary culture, to cast film as markers of literary genre.

What Stephenson was really at Gresham to talk about, though, was SF -- by which he doesn't mean "science fiction" but, more broadly, "speculative fiction."

His main thesis on the question of speculative fiction has to do with the attractiveness of intelligence. Here again he uses film to make his points. He describes a number of compelling actors and actresses and the work they're best known for, arguing that an actor or actress who can project "complexity behind the eyes" -- a portrayal of intelligence by characters for whom that trait is a core reason audiences identify with them -- is a distinguishing trait of SF film. His examples include Leonard Nimoy, Sigourney Weaver, Patrick Stewart, and Hugo Weaving. Speculative fiction, says Stephenson, "thrives because it is idea porn."

It's an interesting theory, but it makes me ancy to acknowledge only SF-category actors and actresses when giving a nod to those whose star power is bound up in their ability to convey intelligence. I suspect I could stay up for days listing and linking literary or 'highbrow' dramatists who meet and exceed the mark (I'm equally sure that Neal Stephenson could do the same, very possibly for longer). A half-dozen off the top of my head: Maggie Smith, Judy Dench, John Malkovich, Helen Mirin, Kristin Scott Thomas, Meryl Streep.

Of course, these notables have little to do with genre film or literarure. But there are crossover actors who trade on conveying that "complexity behind the eyes" quality and who sometimes -- but not always -- do so in genre films that tie intelligence to power or madness or malice, or some shivery combination of these. Jack Nicholson is a prime example, in The Shining, or as The Joker in Batman.

And then there's the stage-film crossover thing, at which many of the forementioned are prime examples. Another pair in this vein, to give the guys more equal representation: I saw James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer play Othello and Iago, respectively, in a production of Shakespeare's Othello in New York, I think it was in the early 1980s. Riveting. Then, over the next decade, Jones played Admiral Greer in a couple films based on Tom Clancy novels, The Hunt for Red October, and Patriot Games; at around the same time Christopher Plummer played the Klingon General Chang in Star Trek VI.

Stephenson's theory is a wee bit self-serving, and he more or less confesses to that at one point in his talk. First he sweeps the mainstream / genre distinction off the table; and then he puts the category he writes -- speculative fiction -- on the 'smart and complex' pedestal, which is more-or-less the location he identified as one that 'mainstream' fiction used to inhabit (to re-quote: "there is a mainstream, and, peripheral to it -- inferior in intellectual content, moral values, production values, and economic importance -- some number of genres"). Well, why not? It was his lecture, after all.

More food for categorical thought.....

(Thanks to dieithinger for the Stephenson photo and Quinn for the reference to his talk on "SF as a Literary Genre.")