Thursday, June 26, 2008

Radio On, Sarah Vowell

Radio On
Sarah Vowell

I've liked other work by Sarah Vowell, and I enjoy her pieces on NPR, but this book hits all kinds of hot buttons for me.

Let's start with the premise. The author spends a year listening to the radio - a lot - and keeping a journal about the experience. Those journal entries are the contents of the book, listed by date, station frequency and call letters. There are a few other things scattered in there too, but mostly it's journal entries. As such, it's not all that coherent. There isn't a story line, plot, history, or even a guiding theme to hold them together.

Actually, I suppose it could be argued there is a theme of sorts: Vowell's hatred of just about everything she mentions. But if vitriol is all that's supposed to hold this collection of paragraphs together, it didn't work for me.

Vowell's not shy about letting her opinions out. She has nothing but scorn for Rush Limbaugh. (That, at least, I can agree with.) Her taste in music is critical to her existence, and those who disagree with her are entirely in the wrong. With the exception of a few bits of ancient history (Elvis, for example) she mentions almost exclusively bands and artists that I've never heard of or never listen to. (For the record, I don't listen to Elvis either, but at least I've heard of him.) Kurt Cobain figures heavily into her rock god pantheon, as does Courtney Love. You're clearly a waste of skin if you can't name every song these people have been involved with.

Sadly I can see myself in her rant to a degree. My own musical preferences were completely different, but there was a time when I thought the "right" music was all important. Thankfully I got over that phase shortly after leaving college. Vowell is (or was) still stuck there over ten years after she graduated. Looking back, I was an ass about things like this on far too many occasions, but at this point I can admit it and move on. It's not clear that Vowell can do so.

Yet more things are wrong with this diatribe. Vowell has absolutely nothing good to say about any radio station except KGLT, the college station she worked for. She does like Ira Glass - famous for his NPR program This American Life - but everything on WBEZ except his show is terrible. The DJs on the myriad of other stations she mentions are all held up as examples of stupidity, or - at the very least - cluelessness. You can get a sense of the depth of her disgust from this quote, taken from the back cover, where you'd normally expect to find some blurb recommending the book in question:
"Vowell's touch is about as delicate as Teddy Kennedy's after a pitcher of martinis."
-- Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times
In reality, though, I could set all of those issues aside. At some level I can even relate to it, as I have my own inner grouch who wants to complain about everything and everyone. Admittedly I don't usually let him out long enough to write a 230 page trade paperback, but I can identify with at least some of what she's whining, grousing, and bitching about. But what bothered me most is that Vowell holds everyone up to a higher standard than herself, fails to admit the purpose of things, or both.

By way of example, she excoriates NPR (National Public Radio) in many, many places. As far as I can tell, only Ira Glass's work there has any value. She calls out the various programs by name, trashing them repeatedly, and does the same for the various people who work there. It matters not what your race, gender, or vocal characteristics are, if you work on All Things Considered or Morning Edition it is quite obvious that Vowell finds you repulsive. Not quite as repulsive as Rush Limbaugh, but damn close.

With that as a background, it comes as no surprise that she complains bitterly - and mentions it again later - that one of the NPR announcers working on Morning Edition or All Things Considered (sorry, I didn't mark the pages where I saw this, and I can't bring myself to read it all again just to find the exact quotes) worries about screwing things up. She complains that this is an attitude she never saw back in the good old days working at KGLT. They were happy to screw up. They clowned around all the time.

Excuse me? You're trying to compare some Podunk college radio station staff with those of a major national news program, and because they differ in how much they worry about screwing things up you're bothered? To the point of rage?

But it doesn't end there. Elsewhere in these pages Vowell admits to being a teacher at an art school. Guess what? She found herself nervous early on because people were listening to her and writing down what she said.

Surely I'm not the only one to see the irony there? She rants that the people at NPR are afraid of screwing up, but can't see that she, herself, has the same issue in front of her class? To be afraid of making an error in public is only natural. Surely she knows that. And yet she can't acknowledge the difference between Bob Edwards messing up on Morning Edition and Tom the two-bit DJ doing so on the local college station. Given her other writings, I honestly thought she was smarter than that.

And then, as mentioned above, there's her unwillingness to acknowledge the purpose of things. The NPR programs she hates with so much passion for their their "boring" presentation and "snooty" announcers are actually doing the right thing. They're serious news programs. They tell people about the important events of the day; they do not air artsy, experimental radio pieces that no one will understand. They address a much larger audience - millions, not hundreds - and while a few whoopee cushions and some rambling, selected news headlines for college kids might be amusing, it doesn't (and cannot) do the same job as All Things Considered. Vowell can't see this, and aims a huge barrage of insults at quite a few excellent programs and people as a result. They do not deserve such treatment.

I can be an opinionated SOB, and I'd guess that some things I've written have or will offend some. But I hope I'm a bit less hysterical in my presentation than Vowell, and more willing to see others in the light of reason.

Radio On was published in 1996, and Vowell suffered through some nasty political times given her particular views on the world - Newt Gingrich, for example. Perhaps that added to her misery and lead her to be more harsh than she should have been. And obviously she was younger then, about 28, I believe. Maybe she has (or will) mellow with age. But none of those things excuses the gross mistreatment of others I found in this book. I'd skip it.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, Lynn Varley

This is only the third graphic novel I've reviewed here, but I really like it. It's isn't great literature in the classic sense, but it tells a good story, and it kept me interested and entertained.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns is a set of four stories, originally published separately, I believe. Collectively they tell of an older Batman, one who had retired but has to come back to defend Gotham City, a Batman driven by his inner demon.

This follows the real point of Batman in my mind: he's dark, tormented, and borders on doing evil while fighting evil. His history is revisited here again: the street corner where Bruce Wayne's parents were killed is present, and a couple of the classic villains make their appearance too. But here Batman also faces a new kind of evil, one with less restraint and more random in nature than he's faced before. He thinks of them as the decedents of the one that murdered his parents. "These are his children. A purer breed... and this world is theirs."

Originally published in 1986 - before the fall of the Soviet Union - these stories tell of a superhero coming out of retirement with a different twist than the much latter movie The Incredibles. Why Batman retired - vanished actually - isn't made clear. Perhaps I'd know that if I followed comic books, but I don't, and it adds a layer of mystery I actually like.

Also present is a long standing conflict between Batman and at least one of the other famous superheros. I won't say who - no need to spoil it for you if you don't already know - but that conflict is built right into the psyche of the two characters in question. If Batman represents the dark side of doing good, you can probably guess who's on the opposite side of things, so good he's hard to stomach for someone like Bruce Wayne.

The art here is well done, stylized but not so much as to be silly. And the story is more interesting than someone who doesn't read comic books might expect. Batman is always conflicted over what he does - what he has to do - and the philosophical issues there are deep. Not that this is a textbook from a college class on ethics, but you will ponder the limits of power, the role of vengeance vs. justice, and even simple aging. As I grow older these things all get to be more interesting to me, and they are well presented here.

This is highly recommended. I got my copy through, but I won't be passing it on. This one I'll keep and reread every so often. This Batman deserves no less.

Thanks to Patguy for recommending this one. It's definitely worth it.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Mark Twain

I moved around a lot when I was a kid. In fact we moved so often I am still regularly asked if my father was in the military whenever my childhood comes up in conversation.

Moving a lot has any number of repercussions, one of which is that the regular changes in school district mean you see no one system's complete education plan from start to finish, and often wind up suffering overlap or missing things in the process. I'll never forget my move from Kansas to Illinois, where - halfway through my sophomore year of high school - I was stuck into a freshman biology class and bored out of my mind.

In my Kansas school, biology had been a difficult class, taught very well. But in the Illinois school it was taught to younger students and didn't cover nearly as much material. I sat in the back of that new classroom and waited for the teacher to call on me. "Does anyone know the answer to the question? I'll bet Jeff does. Jeff?" And sure enough I did. Every stinking time. In half a year in Kansas we'd covered everything that class was ever going to cover, and in spite of the fact that the teacher tried, I really hated being there.

I had similar experiences with English classes. The first day of the 9th grade English we were given a test just to see what we did and didn't know. I was working along answering questions and came to the statement: "Diagram this sentence." Some (now forgotten) sentence followed that, and then a large, blank space on the page. I had no idea what was being asked of me. I'd never seen nor even heard of diagramming sentences at the time. I wandered up to the teacher's desk and asked what this meant. She told me not to worry about it and go on.

And the oddities don't stop there. Literature is another place where my education got out of whack. I know I read Julius Caesar at least three times in various schools. Correspondingly there are all kinds of things I never managed to read, and that list includes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Well, now I have read it, and I'm wondering what all the fuss is (or was) about.

Perhaps if I'd read it when I was twelve it would have made more of an impact, but at the age of 42, it seems rather pointless. What happens is fairly predictable, and yet it's not really all that believable. Tom winds up in too many situations that just don't ring true to me, and they certainly happen far too quickly. Amusingly, the most famous scene - in which Tom tricks the neighborhood kids into painting a fence for him - is near the beginning of the book, raising the question of just how many people actually read the entire thing.

I'll give it a pass for it's treatment of native Americans and blacks. It is a product of it's time, as was Samuel Clemens. I'll also forgive the use if dialect, which I generally find only obscures the author's intent. And I'll ignore the author's word choice. It was probably just fine for the time it was written, but a number of those words have dropped out of the dictionary since 1876.

More problematic, in my mind, is the apparent anti-intellectualism I see here. Sawyer and his friends are the most superstitious lot imaginable, and few in the town are any better. It's easy to see the American nation turning its collective back on the enlightenment if you read this in the right way.

In addition, while I've read that Twain wasn't a friend to Christianity in his later years, he mentions religion quite regularly here. Perhaps he was only chronicling how people really lived and believed at the time. Perhaps he's poking fun at it in some places, but in others he seems sincere, and I found it a bit distracting.

I know this book is a classic, but I've had my battles over classics before. I remember coming home one day from school and telling my mother we were reading Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I hated every single word of that book, and I told her so. Knowing me, I was probably quite loud in my presentation of that opinion. She responded in kind - I come from a loud family - and told me that I had to like it because "it's a classic!"

I've been a bit leery of classics ever since, but as the irregularly spaced interruptions of my education continued, I didn't have to read many of them. By reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer I've now moved one of those missed classics on the list of things I've actually read.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gaudeamus, John Barnes

John Barnes

Gaudeamus was reviewed back in 2006 by Malabar, another of Doug's book review forum participants. Her review was short & sweet. I liked the sound of it, so I eventually got a copy.

I'm glad I did. This was a fun read. Not all that serious - almost a farce - but it was a good time.

The narrator is John Barnes himself, SF author of some note. In here he encounters a story about industrial espionage, unusual machines taking advantage of weird properties of physics, aliens, a strange new drug, intergalactic law, flying saucers, a really bad band, and a few other oddities. The author doesn't actually tell the story, though. Instead it is mostly told to him by another character, Travis Bismark, private investigator and college buddy of the author.

That odd story structure worked for me. I found the story fun and light hearted in ways that held it together. Some reviews on haven't been as positive, saying it has essentially no plot, or that the entire thing is just too silly. I disagree, but I can see their point to some level. This is science fiction humor. If you take it that way, it's fine. If you're looking for something deeper, it's probably not going to interest you.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Knockout Mouse, James Calder

Knockout Mouse
James Calder

I know I've confessed to not being a mystery reader several times now. And yet, here I go again, reviewing another murder mystery. Why do I do this to myself?

In this case there are extenuating circumstances. Knockout Mouse takes place in the Bay Area, my home turf. For that reason I thought it might be more interesting than some random mystery novel.

And to some degree I was right. This was more interesting than most mysteries I've read. Partly that was setting. Partly it was that the characters were interacting with high tech in some ways, and I've lived in that stuff here in Silicon Valley. And partly it was just a reasonably well written story.

But there are still problems with these things that I don't like, the single biggest of which is that the person who winds up doing all the investigating inevitably has to have some convoluted reason for being unable to go to the cops. In the real world, at the first hint of something strange going on, I'm going straight to the police and dumping it in their hands. And if something else happens after that, I'll go straight back to them and dump that in their hands too. And so on until they lock me into a cell to keep me out of trouble. No way will Joe Streetperson ever get access to all the information needed to solve a murder before the cops do, and if he gets some juicy tidbit he'd bloody well better take it all to the cops straight off.

And beyond that, I just don't buy the whole "lay investigator out does professionals" thing as a premise. I'm not smart enough to out-do a professional in that field, and while I don't mean to toot my own horn, I'm not exactly stupid.

Anyway, if you can swallow a couple of things like that - and most mystery readers seem to do so quite willingly - then this may be a book you'll enjoy. It's fairly realistic in it's presentation of post dot-bomb Silicon Valley. It's portrayal of the biotech field is a bit harder for me to assess, but it's probably not too bad. I don't buy that every person running a company out here is a piece of slime, but some are, and maybe I've got my rose colored glasses on by accident.

So, if you read mysteries, you might enjoy it. I probably won't race out and get another book by Calder simply because I have better things to do than read yet another mystery by another author I've never met.

Intelligent Thought, John Brockman

Intelligent Thought
John Brockman

This is the second book edited by Brockman that I've read, and they both follow the same general pattern: ask a group of "great minds" to write essays about some topic and put them all together. In this case the topic is "science versus the intelligent design movement".

As with the previous book - What We Believe But Cannot Prove - the result isn't as interesting as I'd have hoped. There are a lot of great names here, but some of the resulting essays are less than well thought out, and others are simply boring or obvious. One I greatly disagreed with and only a couple hit anything like new ground for me. (It appears there may be some very interesting things happening in deep physics, but it will be years before it gets digested to the level where I'll easily understand it, if it even pans out at all.)

Intelligent Design is a crock of you-know-what. I knew that going in, but I'd hoped to get some new arguments against it. That didn't happen.

Oh well. Someone else on wants a copy of this, so I'll send it off and get a credit for it.

Unless you don't know much about the so-called Intelligent Design debate and/or your understanding of evolution isn't as good as it could be, I'd probably skip this. If you're well read it won't teach you much.

Love And Other Near-Death Experiences, Mil Millington

Love And Other Near-Death Experiences
Mil Millington

I love reading Mill Millington. If you haven't already done so, go check out his website: Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About. While there be sure to move your cursor over the picture of Margret in the upper left corner and read the caption.

Love And Other Near-Death Experiences is Millington's third book, and it's a great read. Quite funny, and yet there's a hint of seriousness to it that may cause you to pause and consider the meaning of life.

Without giving anything important away, the main character - Rob - is a radio presenter who was nearly killed in an explosion at a pub. Actually, he wasn't injured at all, as he'd been late for a meeting at the pub thanks to having to return some towels he'd purchased. For Rob, that was a turning point, and now he's got a problem deciding on how to proceed - or what choice to make - when a question appears trivial. Should one get out of the shower with the left or right foot first, for example. Call it a mental block, but he can't get past it, and it's wrecking both his life and his impending marriage.

Eventually he goes on a quest to figure out what his problem is and get it resolved. In the process he meets others who are like him in various ways, and they accompany him to...

Just go read the book. Mil will get a buck or two from your purchase, and you'll enjoy it. I'm keeping my copy to read again in the future, if that gives you any sense of how much I liked it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What's The Matter With Kansas?, Thomas Frank

What's The Matter With Kansas?
Thomas Frank

This was an interesting book to read in an election year. But before I review the book, let's start with the confessions of bias on my side. Note that these thoughts are those of an engineer, not a politician, so they may not be all that well thought out. Read on at your own risk.

I'm mostly a small 'l' libertarian, though I have some leftist leanings. Generally I favor less government intrusion into people's private lives and a reasonable social safety net. I think that governments provide useful services: schools, courts, roads, international relations, and so on. I'm not averse to paying my share of taxes to see those things happen. Social issues bring out my "leftmost" leanings. Gay marriage? I'm in favor, and why would anyone want to stop them from marrying? Where's the threat? I support abortion rights, but I'd really rather we had a world where it wasn't necessary. Church and state should be two separate and distinct entities in all case. And so on.

On the other hand, I don't really trust labor unions. There may be times and places when they are needed, but they look to me like any other group of people in power. As a result they need checks and balances on their actions. In addition it is my belief that no one should ever be forced to join a union if he or she doesn't want to do so.

I also don't think that government debt is something we can ignore. Deficit spending might be reasonable under rare conditions, war for example, or possibly some sort of stimulus to get out of recession. But adding to our nation's national debt on an annual basis looks patently stupid to me, though I recognize the great difficulty of reducing spending in any specific place or program.

With that set of beliefs - and others I didn't bother to list - I don't feel I am well represented by any political party. By my own definition I'm a moderate, but everyone probably feels they are a moderate in comparison to others.

Regardless of what I am, the current political environment has left me feeling a lot more threatened by the Republicans than the Democrats. Their combination of rampant religious zealotry, intrusive (in the extreme) social policies, and their complete disregard for fiscal sanity have lead me to the conclusion that they must be removed from power before they destroy the nation. That's not to say that everything they stand for is bad, but I really dislike most of it as it has been implemented, at least since Reagan took office.

So what's all that got to do with this book? Well, the subtitle of the book is "How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." It's a diatribe about why the "red states" - like Kansas - vote Republican despite the fact that Republican policies have been a disaster for them. The book was published in 2004. George Bush was at the height of his powers and, well, I hope you remember it.

Frank describes some of the history of Kansas along the way. At various points in the past it was home to all kinds of left leaning leaders and movements. He documents some of the reasons behind the shift to conservative politics - as he sees them - and he carries on about the inanities of the situation.

One of his points is that the most conservative Republicans use wedge issues - like abortion, teaching evolution in the schools, or gay rights - to wind up their core base, but they never actually do anything about those issues. Instead, once in power, they work for conservative economic principles and avoid the social causes. He claims those who are motivated by social (wedge) issues will work for free and drag all kinds of like minded folks in with them to overwhelm the ballot boxes, while those who are less affected (or less concerned) don't turn out in nearly the same numbers at election time.

My problems with the book are mild but real. Despite it's well researched nature - there are 40 pages of detailed end notes, for example - it's still a political rant. At times the author sides with groups like labor unions without even pondering if they are always in the right. At other times it can be hard to tell truth from the author's opinion. That's pretty normal in a political text of this type, but it still annoys me to some degree.

My other issue is a bit more serious, at least in my opinion. I think I disagree with Frank about the actions of conservative Republicans in power. He thinks they don't work towards change on the social issues and instead work on conservative economic issues. Perhaps I have been successfully brainwashed by one side or the other, but I worry that the Republicans do make changes in places that matter, and they have an affect on those social issues.

The appointment of supreme court justices, for example, is one place where a conservative nut-case like George Bush can make a long lasting impact on issues, both social and economic. The infamous "faith based initiative" is another place where things can go wrong quickly, and where government and religion can get entwined with long lasting results.

In a general way, conservatives in power have changed the tone of the discussion about those wedge issues, and are definitely trying to move things in their direction. It probably wasn't possible, for example, to outlaw abortion when Bush took office. But the day when it can be outlawed is definitely closer now than it was before. I think Frank makes light of this very real issue, and thus underestimates the depth and nature of the Republican threat.

As we go into the 2008 election, things are somewhat different than they were when the book was written. It's interesting to compare and contrast.

The Iraq war is extremely unpopular - even among Republicans - and Bush is grossly out of step with the country on that. Afghanistan is slowly slipping back into chaos, which is definitely not good, but it hasn't made the news all that much yet.

On the election side, John McCain is the Republican nominee, but he has the problem of not being pious enough for the Republican base. They may vote for him anyway, but I suspect they will be holding their noses while they do so. Thus far it doesn't look like he's a strong uniter of those who are involved mostly because of those wedge issues, but I could be wrong. He's also a strong supporter of the Iraq war, which could be a big negative for him as well.

The Democrats have finally settled on Obama, a man with some serious leadership potential. But he comes loaded with his own set of questions. The big one in my mind is just how racist is this nation? How many whites will vote for him?

The social scene in America is still murky. The whole "red state/blue state" divide is a crock, of course, and always has been. At the state level, we were basically evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats back in 2000, and I don't think it's changed all that much since. But what is happening in the trenches is less clear.

Are enough religious voters sick of the claptrap put out by the religious right? Are they willing to stand up and vote to put some sanity back into the system? Will the Democrats unite behind Obama after a bruising primary, or will they fall back to squabbling over petty details and lose sight of the big picture?

I am not sanguine about the future of America. I think the changes that the Bush administration has put in place will last far too many years, and that's even if the electorate throws them all out in 2008 and puts the Democrats in charge of both the White House and Congress. In addition, though, I don't trust the Democrats all that much either. What we're dealing with here is human nature, and the reality is that people in power tend to want to stay in power, and they want to do things that help themselves and their friends.

Politics in America is a game for the very rich these days. The rest of us get the dregs and we make our decisions about who we want to "represent" us based on the contents of 30 second television commercials.

Frank's book isn't exactly upbeat about the future, but it was written four years ago. I suspect he'll be happy if the Democrats take the White House in 2008, and he might be optimistic about the future as a result. I see it a bit differently.

Some Bush policies will be overturned or rolled back quickly, I admit. But others won't (or can't) be changed that rapidly, and the nation's overall stance on social issues has moved to the right for so long now that moving it back towards the center will take many years, much longer than Obama could be in office.

But even worse is the fact that corruption will set in. On that issue it doesn't matter who wins the White House or Congress. Obama or McCain, it doesn't matter. We'll be hearing about back room deals and corruption soon after someone takes over, and a few years later the tell-all books will be coming out.

Read What's The Matter With Kansas? if politics interests you. Note the history of change in the way the Midwest has voted and why, but also keep a jaundiced eye out and note those places where you think truth and opinion aren't clearly delineated. Nothing discussed in politics is simple, of course - if it was we'd have done it or fixed it and moved on to other things - but if Frank is guilty of anything here it may be that he's oversimplifying some very complex issues.