Friday, November 30, 2007

viral or not viral

The New York Times has chosen their 10 Best Books of 2007. About a year ago, I started receiving e-mail messages about Michael Thomas's Man Gone Down and I could never tell whether I was being mass marketed or targeted as a former teacher within the same university system from which Professor Thomas emerged. Either way, I feel a sense of pride that his book appears at the top of the (albeit alphabetical) list. Good on ya.

preparing our children for the future

Underfunded Schools Forced to Cut Past Tense from Language Programs

WASHINGTON—Faced with ongoing budget crises, underfunded schools nationwide are increasingly left with no option but to cut the past tense—a grammatical construction traditionally used to relate all actions, and states that have transpired at an earlier point in time—from their standard English and language arts programs.

A part of American school curricula for more than 200 years, the past tense was deemed by school administrators to be too expensive to keep in primary and secondary education.

"This was by no means an easy decision, but teaching our students how to conjugate verbs in a way that would allow them to describe events that have already occurred is a luxury that we can no longer afford," Phoenix-area high-school principal Sam Pennock said. "With our current budget, the past tense must unfortunately become a thing of the past."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sunday, November 25, 2007

sunday short stack

"It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness." - Leo Tolstoy

Monday, November 19, 2007

the good place that doesn't exist

Margaret Atwood checks back in with Huxley to see how Brave New World holds up.

In a foreword to a new edition of Brave New World published in 1946, after the horrors of the second world war and Hitler's "final solution", Huxley criticises himself for having provided only two choices in his 1932 utopia/dystopia - an "insane life in Utopia" or "the life of a primitive in an Indian village, more human in some respects, but in others hardly less queer and abnormal". (He does, in fact, provide a third sort of life - that of the intellectual community of misfits in Iceland - but poor John the Savage isn't allowed to go there, and he wouldn't have liked it anyway, as there are no public flagellations available.) The Huxley of 1946 comes up with another sort of utopia, one in which "sanity" is possible. By this, he means a kind of "high utilitarianism" dedicated to a "conscious and rational" pursuit of man's "final end", which is a kind of union with the immanent "Tao or Logos, the transcendent Godhead or Brahmin". No wonder Huxley subsequently got heavily into the mescaline and wrote The Doors of Perception, thus inspiring a generation of 1960s dopeheads and pop musicians to seek God in altered brain chemistry. His interest in soma, it appears, didn't spring out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, those of us still pottering along on the earthly plane - and thus still able to read books - are left with Brave New World. How does it stand up, 75 years later? And how close have we come, in real life, to the society of vapid consumers, idle pleasure-seekers, inner-space trippers and programmed conformists that it presents?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

sunday short stack

"It is often merely for an excuse that we say things are impossible." - Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Friday, November 16, 2007

now you see it

Henry Farid looks at the history of photoshopping before and after the advent of Photoshop (via boing boing).

circa 1930: Stalin routinely air-brushed his enemies out of photographs. In this photograph a commissar was removed from the original photograph after falling out of favor with Stalin.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

sunday short stack

"Man forgives woman anything save the wit to outwit him." - Minna Thomas Antrim

Saturday, November 10, 2007

norman mailer (1923-2007)

Norman Mailer, the combative, controversial and often outspoken novelist who loomed over American letters longer and larger than any writer of his generation, died today in Manhattan. He was 84.

...At different points in his life Mr. Mailer was a prodigious drinker and drug taker, a womanizer, a devoted family man, a would-be politician who ran for mayor of New York, a hipster existentialist, an antiwar protester, an opponent of women’s liberation and an all-purpose feuder and short-fused brawler, who with the slightest provocation would happily engage in head-butting, arm-wrestling and random punch-throwing. Boxing obsessed him and inspired some of his best writing. Any time he met a critic or a reviewer, even a friendly one, he would put up his fists and drop into a crouch.

Gore Vidal, with whom he frequently wrangled, once wrote: “Mailer is forever shouting at us that he is about to tell us something we must know or has just told us something revelatory and we failed to hear him or that he will, God grant his poor abused brain and body just one more chance, get through to us so that we will know. Each time he speaks he must become more bold, more loud, put on brighter motley and shake more foolish bells. Yet of all my contemporaries I retain the greatest affection for Norman as a force and as an artist. He is a man whose faults, though many, add to rather than subtract from the sum of his natural achievements.”

I only saw Norman Mailer in person once - about four years ago - and he was still insisting women had no business writing. I suppose you have to admire that kind of consistency. Regardless of his level of prickness, the world is dimmer without his spark. Rest in peace, Mr. Mailer.

Friday, November 09, 2007

toothpaste for dinner

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

full of god

In the new issue of Bookslut, Paul Kincaid tells us why he has a problem with today's science fiction.

You see, I think of science fiction as an essentially rationalist literature. That is why I date it from Utopia, that key work of humanist thought. During the seventeenth century, in that ferment of new ideas which saw the Protestant revolution and the rise of modern science, we got the first aliens (in Ben Jonson’s Newes from the New World Discover’d in the Moone), the first mechanical conveyance to another world (in Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone) and the first novel set in the future (Samuel Gott’s Nova Solyma). During the Enlightenment, when rational thought and religion were finally and, so it seemed, irrevocably separated, we got everything from the competent man as hero (Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe) to the competent man usurping God (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). And from those intellectual foundations, rational and secular, you can trace the whole growth of science fiction through the works of Wells and Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury and on up to Gibson and Sterling and Baxter.

The universe was immense, cold, frightening, but knowable. It was a puzzle to be solved through thought not faith. Religion wasn’t absent from science fiction, of course, but where it did appear it was as a sociological rather than a theological phenomenon. And, in works such as Arthur C. Clarke’s "The Star," Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, or Harry Harrison’s "The Streets of Ashkelon," it was approached from a questioning if not overtly hostile position. Furthermore, while sf has always had more than its fair share of aliens with godlike powers, they remained images of technological advancement beyond our ken, not objects of worship. When, in Appleseed, John Clute recast as space opera the theme of killing god from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, god is an alien race in the form of the worm ouroburos.

Over the last few years, however, I’ve noticed more than a few stories in which the deus ex machina turns out to be a literal deus. Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman’s feeble sequel to The Forever War, is a case in point. The original was a superb piece of work in which the implacable physical effects of time dilation and the cold immensity of the universe stood for a searing analysis of the effects of the Vietnam War. In the sequel the disruption of the physical laws of the universe turns out to be just the effects of a god messing about with his creation. The universe is no longer a natural occurrence obeying strict laws, but an unnatural place where a supreme being can quietly decide to influence the lives of mere humans. This is science fiction as a child of Homer or Job, not of Shelley or Wells.

More here.

overheard in los angeles

Woman outside busy restaurant: "How long is the wait?"
Host: "About twenty minutes."
Woman: "Twenty? Like 2-0?"

Monday, November 05, 2007

adventures in the untranslatable

I knew it was koi no yokan (Japanese: a sense on first meeting someone that it is going to evolve into love) when I realized he was not layogenic (Tagalog, Philippines: a person who is only good-looking from a distance) and could not resist cafune (Brazilian Portuguese: the tender running of one's fingers through the hair of one's mate).

"It was meant to be," he said. "I have always loved la baffona (Italian: an attractive moustachioed woman) who is also a rombhoru (Bengali: a woman having thighs as shapely as banana trees). Such a woman makes me a vrane su mu popile mozak (Croatian: crazy, literally "cows have drunk his brain") schvitzer (Yiddish: someone who sweats a lot, especially a nervous seducer)."

"You're right," I replied. "I really do creerse la ultima Coca-Cola en el desierto (Central American Spanish: to have a very high opinion of oneself, literally to 'think one is the last Coca-Cola in the desert'). Let's just go back to your place because I'm not really in the mood for a baling (Manobo, Philippines: the action of a woman who, when she wants to marry a man, goes to his house and refuses to leave until marriage is agreed upon). I think it's the oka/shete (Ndonga, Nigeria: urination difficulties caused by eating frogs before the rain has duly fallen)."

Horrible use of many foreign languages courtesy of The Mirror

Sunday, November 04, 2007

sunday short stack

"In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on." - Robert Frost

Friday, November 02, 2007

pencils down means pencils down

The writers are set to strike:

A strike by the writers threatens to tear a hole in the economy of Southern California, even as it already copes with a collapse in home sales and widespread devastation from last month’s fires.

The entertainment industry contributes an estimated $30 billion annually, or about 7 percent, to the economy of Los Angeles County, according to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Show business also helps drive the local tourist economy. “If tourists see that the entertainment industry is shut down, we worry they will think the entire city is shut down,” said Mr. Kyser. He noted that restaurant business in the southeast San Fernando Valley — home to Universal Studios and the largest concentration of production — has already dropped 30 percent as anticipation of the strike grew in recent weeks.

Indeed, most of those affected by such a strike have no direct stake in its issues.

The New York-based book industry, for instance, may find studios reluctant to buy film rights to new works at a time when no writers are available to adapt them for the screen. “In the first part of a strike, buyers will be sitting and waiting to see if it gets resolved,” said Amy Schiffman, who specializes in literary sales for Hollywood’s Gersh Agency.

Similarly, thousands of businesses, whether mom-and-pop companies that train dogs for television shows or lumber yards that specialize in building materials for sets, face possibly dire consequences, some sooner than others.

Hmm...the NY Times writers don't seem very supportive of their compatriots. Is snobbery among writers more important than solidarity? Or are writers in general so beleaguered that they don't like to see anyone rock the boat?