Friday, April 30, 2010

In Praise of Mass Market Paperbacks

Like I said in my last post, I recently read Anathem. I enjoyed it, but one of the things I liked most about it was that even though it was a nearly a thousand pages, it was fairly easy to carry around. The edition that I had was a mass market paperback with rather small type. It fit easily into my bag, was lightweight, and generally not troublesome to read whilst in a coffee shop or bar. I appreciated it not only as a fun book about alien science-monks, but also as a convenient object.

Which brings me to Infinite Jest.

So far, I'm very much enjoying David Foster Wallace's magnum opus. I've read several of his essays, and (like Neal Stephenson) have a gigantic man-crush on the dude. (I hope that his being dead does not make that creepy.) Anyway, the book so far is absolutely a joy to read, but I continually wish that it was smaller.

Not shorter. Smaller.

The edition of Infinite Jest that I have is an enormous bricklike doorstop of literature, a weighty tome in every sense of the word. I can feel my satchel eating into my shoulder because of its weight, and when I'm reading it in a coffee shop it takes up a prodigious amount of table space. As a book, it's wonderful, but as an information-delivery device, it is somewhat lacking.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Infinite Jest is about the same length as Anathem, and could just as easily have been published as a mass market paperback. However, the publisher has deemed it fit that DFW's book be an inconvenience to the reader, a ponderous and massive object. This is unfortunate, really. I would enjoy the book far more if it were not so physically troublesome, if I could actually put it in my satchel and have room for other things as well.

So, why isn't it a mass market paperback?

Trade paperbacks are an attractive intermediary between mass markets and hardcovers. They are cheaper than hardcovers, but maintain a bit of the same gravitas that traditional unpaperback books tend to have. Mass market paperbacks are usually associated with disposable bits of entertainment- genre fiction. When one thinks of mass market paperbacks, one usually imagines lurid mystery novels with the author's name stamped in gaudy raised type, or romance novels that are only a few steps removed from outright pornography. One thinks of SF novels based on licensed IPs such as Star Wars and Star Trek, and masturbatory jingoistic military fiction by the likes of Tom Clancy and his ilk. Horror novels and westerns are brought to mind, all genres that are (unfortunately) regarded as unliterary, unthoughtful, unworthy.

To publish a trade paperback is to announce that a book is not pulp. It is not a disposable entertainment or an unliterary bit of genre flotsam. To publish a trade paperback is to announce a book as somehow worthy. It is obvious that DFW's publishers wished him to stand apart from novels that feature vampires and spies, and that his august work was quite literally heftier than that of the average author.

Which is a shame, really, since his book is such a pain in the ass to lug around. Mass market paperbacks are wonderful at what they do, and do not deserve their stigma. As a format, I pity them, and wish they were more highly regarded.

Of course, this whole point will become moot in a few years, when everything's on e-readers anyway...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

In Which I Read Anathem

Neal Stephenson has become something of a nerd saint, penning Snow Crash, probably one of the most widely-read SF books of the last twenty years. He's also a fiercely intelligent cataloger of minutiae, filling books such as Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle with the kind of stuff that will make you ridiculously good at Trivial Pursuit.

Anathem, his latest book, is not his best, but I still enjoyed it immensely. It's not as weirdly creative as Snow Crash or The Diamond Age, but even then it's immensely engaging- provided you have a specific personality type. If you are wondering about whether or not you should read it, ask yourself the following questions:

1: Do you like books where most of the action is taken up by characters having long discussions about philosophy, science, history, and math?

2: Do you enjoy books that take place on other planets wherein the social and governmental system is somewhat different than our own?

3: Do you like made-up words, most of which are tweaked versions of Greek and Latin terms?

4: Do you like books with explanations of geometry in the appendix?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above, go ahead and read Anathem. In a nutshell, the book is about a bunch of cloistered monks devoted to science on an alien world. Then (and I don't want to give anything away) stuff happens. Big stuff. Totally gonzo, wowzers sci-fi stuff. However, the book spends the first three hundred pages grounded in a hermetic, academic atmosphere, so even when the hugely epic world-shaking plot starts up, it still feels pretty grounded. With all of the philosophical exposition, the book acts as a sort of SF, grown-up version of Sophie's World, and I mean that in a good way.

What makes Stephenson so special, though, is that you get a real sense of joy from his work. Stephenson isn't just smart- he seems to jump for joy at all of the wonderful stuff there is in the world, and Anathem gives you a very real sense of that. After reading Anathem, Platonism seems interesting to me all over again.

Yes, it's one thousand pages of alien science-monks and made-up words, but it's also a very obvious labor of love. Stephenson doesn't just know quite a bit about the history of philosophy, he also knows precisely why it's so interesting, so wonderful, and so worth studying. That's why Anathem's 900-plus pages go by so fast- the author is jumping up and down about how wondrous the world is.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Something That Freaks Me Out About People Who Shout Loudly

Looking at the tea partiers (or, as I like to call them, "teabaggers") one cannot help but think that they're having a pretty good time.

Yes, their signs show all the marks of (irrational) outrage, but one of the reasons I think it is so hard to kill their mythology (for instance, about how Obama is a socialist/Marxist/Nazi Kenyan) is that they seem to enjoy it. I really think they do. I really think that the people out there, waving their signs, listening to Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, are having a lot of fun.

Be honest with yourself for a moment- It's kind of neat to feel aggrieved. It's fun to feel like you're in a wronged minority, like you're part of some grand struggle and speaking truth to power. It's ennobling and invigorating and gives you something meaningful (seemingly) to be a part of. The teabaggers are not the only ones who behave like this, who take pleasure in supposed feelings of persecution. Liberals do it as well. Spend any time with radical leftists and get them talking about an implacable and oppressive government/business/military/industrial complex and you'll see that they, too, take a certain pleasure in imagining themselves as David against Goliath.

This is truly frightening.

Obviously, feeling aggrieved is fun because it gives you something to do, gives you something to rage against and yell about. The "aggrieved" are provided with straw man to whom they can assign all their woes, justly or not. For instance, I believe that one of the reasons that the U.S. has a bad reputation with the Muslim world is that Muslim elites use America as a scapegoat for domestic woes. This is not only expedient for, say, the Saudi royal family, but also fun and easy for parties involved. (I truly believe that if the Islamic world have a better, more diverse economy, we'd have less scapegoating, less terrorism, and, probably, less Islam.)

This feeling of perceived oppression, whether it be present in teabaggers, Islamic terrorists, or Portlanders who call themselves "anarchist" (while only vaguely knowing what that means) also removes responsibility from the believer. It is much easier, for example, to complain about public works than it is to build them.

If all you want is to destroy, if all you are doing is condemning and shouting, as the teabaggers are, then you are relieved of the responsibility of articulating a coherent social vision. True, idealists such as those I've mentioned above might have a utopian or long-range ideal, but they don't, for example, really have anything about what we should be doing about financial reform right now. They have divested themselves of the responsibility to be creative and constructive, especially in the immediate future.

Teabaggers, shouting and carrying their signs, not only get to experience a rush of seductive emotional energies, but also, I think, a sense of relief. They relieve themselves of obligations, of pressures to provide solvency. They relieve themselves of having to have a plan, of having to articulate a coherent solution that (might) work. They play, instead, in an emotionally rewarding mythology.

Shaking your fist saves you from having to write a plan. Seeing the teabaggers (or any radicals) on television, waving signs, reveling in anger, I cannot help but think that it is not just about politics, but also release. There is an escape from responsibility, a pleasurable cessation of obligation, and in the shouting and I truly believe that the main draw is the enjoyment of a passing, false ease.

This is all much more fun, and easier, than being a reasonable participant in an educated democratic society, and that, I think, is kind of creepy.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

One More Thing About E.F.N.Y...

The best part of the movie. It happens in the future! The gritty, dark, crime-infested future where America has become a brutal police state!

In other words, 1997. I cant' wait until 2019 rolls around, and we finally get off world colonies, replicants, and umbrellas with LED handles.

An Interesting Idea From A Totally Badass Movie

A while ago I was watching Escape From New York, which I'd never seen. Short review: It was pretty good. But, that's not what I want to rant about, really. At the beginning of the movie, Snake (Kurt Russel's character) is being escorted through a prison office building, and a recording is playing over the loudspeakers. The recording says that before the prisoners are locked away, they have the option to be euthanized and cremated. In the context of the movie, it's meant to seem creepy and sinister. However, I thought to myself, "How humane- that's a pretty good idea."

Really. I think that offering prisoners to off themselves would be a pretty good idea. What's more, I think it's the type of thing that both liberals and conservatives could get behind.

Liberals have a number of reasons to support voluntary criminal suicide. Physician assisted suicide is already in place (here in Oregon) and the option allows a greater degree of autonomy for people who are suffering. Those who are doomed to suffer ought to be able to take their own lives, be it because of a life-crushing disease, or a life inside the criminal justice system.

Conservatives ought to support voluntary criminal suicide as well. If someone supports capital punishment (as most conservatives do, and I, for the record, don't) then they already have demonstrated that they are alright with criminals being killed via state-applied violence. They should also, then, be alright with criminals being killed via self-applied violence. While I can't prove it, there's also the possibility that prisoners killing themselves would save the criminal justice system a fair amount of money.

With this in mind, it's ridiculous that criminals sentenced to death be put on suicide watch, or not allowed objects such as belts or pens. If anything, they should be able to say the guards "I would like to go now," and then be allowed to press the lethal injection button themselves.

Not that I want to turn this into a rallying cry or anything, but in a sane society, I see no reason why criminals shouldn't be given the very option that Snake and his fellow prisoners were. Turning Manhattan into a giant prison may have been kind of insane, but this detail was something they got right.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Thirty-Eight, Cesar Chavez, Forty

I like numbered streets. They are a force of good in the world. If, for example, you are looking for 32nd Ave, you would do well to look between 31st and 33rd. Easy, intuitive, and logical. Numbered streets are wonderful. Only slightly less awesome are streets that are in alphabetical order.

Portland, though, has decided that the beautiful efficiency of numbers is apparently a bad idea, and has started chipping away at this by renaming 39th Ave Cesar Chavez Blvd. Now, I have nothing against Chavez- but I mourn heavily the loss of number 39, an innocent number that really should be nestled in their with its little sister, 38, and its big brother, 40. Instead, the number 39 is now a restless orphan, wandering the streets alone and trying to sell matches, all the while slowly dying of consumption.

I want to reiterate this again- I have no problem with Cesar Chavez Blvd. as a name. However, I would be opposed to replacing any number with anything. If 15th were going to be replaced with Cuddly Bunny St., I would oppose that. If 82nd was going to be renamed Delicious Pie Ave., I would oppose that. If 33rd was going to be rechristened Screaming Orgasm Drive, I would oppose that, too.

Maybe I'd be okay with having 42nd renamed Douglas Adams Ave. Maybe.

If we wanted to commemorate Cesar Chavez, then we should have used a street with a boring, prosaic, name. I think Grand would have been an ideal candidate. It's a main arterial, not a numbered street, and has an entirely generic name that could suffer a bit of erasing. Instead, we got rid of a perfectly lovely number. As awesome a guy as Cesar Chavez was, he can never replace 39. No one can.

Portland, We Need to Talk About "Chinatown"...

Dearest Portland,

Over the past year plus that I've lived here, I have found new reasons to love you. New areas of weirdness and wonder, new quirks and oddities to marvel at. You, Portland, are a tremendous place, and I routinely feel a swell of irrational pride at you being my native city. However, there is something that we need to talk about. Something that you could be doing better. No, it's not the lack of bike lanes on Sandy Blvd., though that is annoying. Nor is it the eyesore that is SE Powell. I have every confidence you'll clean those up eventually. No, what we need to talk about, Portland, is the couple of blocks downtown that you have decided to dub "Chinatown."

Chinatown sucks, Portland. It's more than a little embarrassing. I was recently in San Francisco, and took a stroll through that city's Chinatown. I'd been there before, but it's a fun neighborhood and I was with people who'd never been. I snapped a few photos. Here's an example:

That's not any particular landmark or a significant intersection or anything. That's just a bit on the street. Nothing too unusual. Here's another one:

Again, that's not a famous landmark or anything. I was just walking down the street, snapping away like an obnoxious tourist, and took a picture of that building. Pretty commonplace.

For contrast, here's the House of Louie, one of Portland Chinatown's most "Chinese" buildings. It's kind of decrepit and sort of a sad sight:

And here's Royal Family Ginseng, right next door, abandoned. Someone papered up the windows, but now those brown sheets are peeling away, the markings of abandonment themselves disintegrating:

And that's it, really. There are a few other "Chinese" type buildings, but that's pretty much it in terms of what Portland has. Why the disjunction? Why does San Francisco have a Chinatown where storefronts and apartments are culturally distinctive and Portland has pretty much just a pair of crumbling buildings?

The answer is pretty simple- San Francisco's Chinatown actually has Chinese people in it. The distinctive cultural flair of the area, the storefronts, tea shops, and restaurants, are all a product of the actual residents. Sure, they play it up for the tourists, but it's completely possible to go into a dim sum shop and be the only English speaker in the place. San Francisco's Chinatown actually reflects an immigrant population where they can get together, speak their own language, eat their own food, etc. As someone who's been a stranger in a foreign country, I can totally see why such a place is necessary.

Portland, on the other hand, has a big gate, a bunch of red street lamps, and some rather dubious buildings. That's about it. What's missing from Portland's Chinatown is, well, Chinese people. The are near Old Town is the official Chinatown, but there are a lot more Chinese people and businesses out on 82nd Ave. In the official Chinatown you can find hipsters, drunks, and homeless, but you won't hear anyone speaking Mandarin.

So, Portland, here's what I'm proposing: stop pretending. Stop pretending that we have a Chinatown, because we really don't. We have a neighborhood with some red lamp posts, and that's about it. It is a neighborhood that I really like, but it's not reflective of an immigrant population, it's not an enclave that Chinese people have made for themselves. I'm not saying we should tear down the big gate or anything, but we should all acknowledge that Portland's Chinatown is, at the end of the day, complete bullshit.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Preacher Man, or, What I Was Doing in San Francisco

"Joe, will you marry us?"

I thought the question rather odd, to say the least. I mean, I'm totally okay with open relationships, polyamory, swinging, etc., but these were my friends and it would be kind of weird to... Suddenly I got it.

"You mean perform the ceremony?"


I thought for several seconds. More than five but less than ten. After that time, I said


That was last August. Two weeks ago I found myself in San Francisco, and suddenly, very suddenly, it was all much more Real. Prior to that, the idea of officiating the wedding of my friends seemed like a fun/quirky enough idea, something that I could do that would add to my overall Resume of Weird Stuff I've Done. The fact that can now (in a technical and legal sense) append "Rev." to my name seemed just sort of charming and odd. That all changed two days prior to the wedding.

Oh shit, I thought to myself, there are going to be grandmas here. Grandmas. Grandmas and uncles and parents and smiling family members who want to see something sincerely beautiful. And it is, really. This was not to be something frivolous and interesting. This had to be something filled with genuine feelings beauty, love, etc.

Starting the ceremony by saying "Mawage! Mawage is what bwings us to-gether today!" would probably be unwise.

My friends, Robin and Greg, had jokingly told me that one of the reasons they'd chosen me to perform the ceremony was because I "don't believe in marriage." That's not quite true, but I am generally not a solemn person, and don't stand on ceremony very much. I'm completely atheistic, I try not to feel constrained by tradition, am ambivalent about monogamy, and am generally uncomfortable around nice old people who enjoy things like weddings.

While I don't disbelieve in marriage, or weddings, etc., I did need to shove aside a certain amount of my personal philosophy aside to pull the whole thing off, which was an interesting mental exercise, to say the least. My biggest hang up was the wording that the bride wanted to use for the ring exchange- the words "holy" and "soul" were included, and in a phone conversation beforehand she asked me if I would be okay with intoning such things. I said yes, I would. In fact, I did so happily.

To eject a bunch of unnecessary detail, I ended up freaking out two days before the ceremony, wondering how everything would go, and then eventually everything went great. Robin and Greg got hitched without a hitch.

During the whole thing, I became very cognizant of the importance of ceremony, ritual, and public demonstrations. Not because ceremony does anything supernatural or whatnot, but because it is a public and undeniable demonstration of fact, in this case, how much my two friends loved each other. Doing the whole thing, I realized that I had no philosophical problem with it. At all. None. I was sort of astonished to find that my worldview is consistent with things like wedding ceremonies. In fact, I'm quite in favor of them. What's more, presiding over it actually is meaningful. Being the guy up in front who presides over it isn't all that trivial. While I don't share their philosophy, I think I have a better understanding of how preachers and priests must feel, and I kind of get while judges still wear those robes. Outward expressions of ceremonial authority are (somehow) meaningful.

Anyway, I had a great time. I still wish that I had a teleporter that could zot me between Portland and the Bay Area. That would be awful nice. As for being a sort of new-model preacher man... I could do it again, given the right circumstances. It was a fantastic privilege, and I really did learn that ceremonies, because they are invested with emotional value, can be much more than the sum of their parts.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

In Which I Channel C. Doctrow and Shake My Tiny Fist At George Lucas

In 1942 Isaac Asimov, in his short story Runaround, coined the term "robotics." The word has since entered the lexicon, and people who know about such things are generally aware that Asimov was the first to use the term. He's credited in the Oxford English Dictionary with being the first person to ever use it, and he is rightly respected and admired for inventing a shiny new word.

Asimov didn't invent the term "robot," though. The term that we use for our shiny metal friends was coined by the Czech playwright Carl Capec in his play R.U.R., a drama that featured (what else?) robots rising up and overthrowing their fleshy human masters. Like Asimov, Capec is recognized as coining the term. He gave us all a wonderful new thing to say, and for that we thank him.

Which brings me to George Lucas and the term "droid."

I was extremely surprised to see, in an ad for the Droid smartphone, legalese to the effect that "droid" is copyright Lucasfilm and is used with permission. I don't want to start sounding too much like Cory Doctrow here, but, quite frankly, Lucasfilm enforcing a copyright on "droid" is ridiculous. Utterly indefensible. Stupid. Idiotic to the point where it is pitiable.

Imagine, if you will, every commercial use of the term "robotics" appended with a note that the word was the copyright of the Asimov estate, and used with permission, or if each commercial use of the term "robot" cited Capec. It would be entirely stupid. Lucasfilm, though, seems to think that they are somehow more entitled than these two authors, and is apparently insisting on being credited with the term "droid," a word that's been part of the English language and science fiction since 1977 when Star Wars came out.

We don't cite Asimov or Capec, though, because we expect authors to coin terms. There seems to be a part of the zeitgeist wherein terms that are coined by wordsmiths are completely okay to use and adapt. Quite frankly, this is wonderful. If I were ever so lucky to coin a term like "robotics" in my life, I would burst with joy and pride, and get a warm fuzzy feeling every time someone said a word I invented.

Other media, such as films, should not be an exception. Just as people freely borrow terms from books, anyone who wishes to should be allowed to borrow linguistic adaptations from film and television. It enriches the language, mixes up the lexicon, and generally makes the wordy landscape more colorful. I remember feeling a twinge of joy when characters in Battlestar Galactica referred to the human-looking Cylons as "skinjobs," a term I recognized from Blade Runner. Use of the term was both homage to the original, and a reflection of the accumulation and adaptation of science fiction terminology.

Lucasfilm, in appending their name to the term "droid" is standing squarely in the way of this wonderful process. Lucas made a new word for "robot," and he should be justly proud. Star Wars should indeed be cited as the source of the term "droid." But to claim utter ownership, to demand permission for use of what has become a normal English word is utterly silly. I did not think I could lose further respect for the Lucasfilm empire, but I have.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Addendum to That Last Post...

Just to make it clear that I'm not spending all of my time drinking and looking at lolcats, I would like to add that breaking up tends to be a great impetus for self improvement. At least, that's been my experience.

It is good to get jolted out of complacency, break routines and cycles, and live in such a way as to to cognizant of even trivial things. Being present and living in an examined fashion is necessary for any success or happiness to proceed. At least for me- I am not happy with stagnation. As unfun as, say, ending a relationship is, I really do believe that if nothing bad ever happened to us we would not be very effective humans. Adaptation and learning need necessity.

As such, I've been animated with this feeling of ambition and confidence in the last twenty four hours that seems silly on the face of it. I've been feeling more social, more able to work, and even better able to sit down and pay attention to things. I have had extended conversations with strangers, and felt perfectly alright about it. This is curious. One would think that being spurned by a lover would have the opposite effect.

In any case, I'm happy to respond to undesirable instances with something like a plan, or attitude of ambition. This is not to say that I'm happy about recent events- I'm not- but it is very possible to derive positive outcomes from things like this.

In other words, life is not completely in the Sad Panda realm. The Sad Panda is making himself very, very busy.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Ritual

There is a ritual to it.

Last night at I was over at some friends' house, drinking a rather delicious vodka cocktail that was going to my head. We talked about, refreshingly, trivial things. Books mostly. I had some leftover pizza, and went home where I couldn't sleep. I opened a bottle of wine and began clicking away at intellectually undemanding websites, watching humorous videos and looking at amusingly captioned pictures of cats and other animals. For some reason, I started listening to Prince, an artist whom I've always admired more than i enjoyed. It seemed like a good idea at the time, though.

Eventually, after consuming the entirety of a bottle of wine, after I couldn't stay awake any longer, I went to sleep. I'd made my bed and cleaned my room because she was coming over, and seeing that tidiness just before sleep was somewhat painful. I went to sleep, woke up, and slept again. I woke up and read for some time, despite being tired.

In a certain way, I've been very lucky. I've had some wonderful relationships, and none of them have ended particularly badly. I have only, once, yelled at a girlfriend. I have never had a relationship end with a fight or any any kind of acrimony. My relationships have ended as well as anyone can hope for, with a minimum of drama, and a certain degree of amicability. For that, I think I'm truly fortunate.

Nevertheless, there is a certain amount of ritual wallowing that goes on. Even as I'm sitting here, somewhat unkempt and watching episodes of Lost on Hulu, I'm conscious of the fact that I'm indulging in a pattern. Sad music, alcohol, consoling words from friends. I know it's a ritual, a thing that plays out again and again. What I think is fascinating is that it remains meaningful.

The exasperation of the post-breakup, the behavior and the indulgences, the conversations are all iterated again and again. There is always comfort and mucking about in negativity, always a little bit of a wallow. Nevertheless, despite the predictable nature of it, it remains necessary. How fascinating, I think, that I need to do what I know is predictable. I need to seek comfort from predictable places.

Ritual is not necessarily empty, and not necessarily codified. My hood is over my head, and I'm bent over my computer, and not planning on going anywhere anytime soon. Any fiction writer could have written my actions, and anyone astute in the ways of behavior could have predicted them. Nonetheless, in my subjective perspective, this time of post-breakup wallowing, this ritual retains its importance.