Friday, December 21, 2007
But usually - in fiction and in our own minds - the true fantasy isn't a world without humans, it's a world with a few hardy survivors struggling on. Be it Cormac McCarthy's The Road or Stephen King's The Stand or anything in between, you can't have a story without people. Or can you?
Of course, most of Earth's history occurred very happily in the absence of Homo sapiens, and Alan Weisman's The World Without Us addresses not the fantasy but the reality...at least, the reality under a certain set of circumstances. The result is a fascinating read and an unromantic portrayal, and rather than being an exercise in escapism (a criticism I've seen levied in a few of the many reviews I've looked at), it illuminates our current situation and the ways we can control our future.
The premise for The World Without Us is simple: what would the world be like if all human beings disappeared off the face of the planet tomorrow? Weisman does not specify what causes the disappearance, but it would have to be something specific to humans and relatively nonviolent, such as a virus; more dramatic ends like a global thermonuclear war, for instance, would defeat the premise of the book. It's a simple question that any child might ask, but to my knowledge, it's never been seriously addressed before.
To answer the question, Weisman looks at both the past (through an investigation of recent geologic time) and the present (by looking at places least affected by humans today, or where humans no longer live, or that would have the greatest effects on the future world after we're gone) to illuminate this future.
First, the past. I give Weisman major props for bringing the past in appropriately, but not overdoing it. It would have been easy to write chapter upon chapter about the history of life, the evolution of humans, all the Intro 101 textbook stuff that journalists (and scientists) love to pad their books for popular audiences with. Weisman keeps it under control, talking about the spread of humans out of Africa and concomitant megafaunal extinctions (Weisman evidently spent quite a bit of time with Paul Martin while researching the book, and was taken in by Martin's ideas about Pleistocene overkill). I admit to not being up on the latest literature here, but I think the truth is that the jury is still out, especially for the Americas. (The evidence for Australia and the smaller islands is pretty strong.) A lucky accident of history is that the African megafauna, which evolved alongside humans, has survived largely intact, and would be expected to spread in the absence of humans.
The discussion of the past sets the context for the rapid changes caused by humans, but the really interesting part is Weisman's commentary on areas where humans aren't today, areas that have been preserved or reclaimed by nature. Ironically (or maybe "sadly" is a better qualifier) these places have usually been saved only by historical accidents or wars. Weisman visits parts of Cyprus, abandoned for decades. He visits the DMZ between the Koreas. He visits the Bialowieza Forest on the Polish-Russian border (the only remaining example of primeval European forest - it's a place I've known about for years and I'd love to see it one day).
Take-home message #1: Nature is resilient. It will come back, slowly but surely, wherever we let it (or don't actively stop it).
Weisman also visits the area around Chernobyl, and his discussion conveyed to me in a way I'd never perceived before the dangers of nuclear energy and the deadly poison associated with nuclear and other types of waste. Indeed, the future of earth without humans is not particularly rosy, especially in the short term, as all of our dangerous waste will remain, our nuclear plants will melt down, and our petrochemical plants will burn. Long after our effects on the climate (through raising greenhouse gas levels) have abated, our legacy will remain in hazardous wastes that take millions or even billions of years to decay. Some dangerous and less-dangerous (like plastics) human wastes will be part of the Earth system until they are tectonically recycled.
Each day, humans further modify the earth, and take-home message #2 is that while we cannot undo the past, we can affect our future legacy...and now is the time to think about it. Of course it is difficult if not impossible to justify taking any actions to make the world after we leave it a more pleasant place, but one of the neat things about Weisman's approach is that it shows us what sort of legacy we will leave regardless of the future. (Indeed, he discusses attempts that have already been made to warn future civilizations tens of thousands of years in the future to stay away from some of our hazardous waste sites.)
Weisman's outline of the future starts tomorrow and ends billions of years from now, at the death of the Earth (a timeframe far beyond his premise). What would happen to your house? What would happen to Manhattan? What would happen to the world's coral reefs? How long would the faces on Mt. Rushmore last? Weisman deftly addresses effects at a variety of spatiotemporal scales. One of my only criticisms of the book is that it doesn't integrate all of this stuff at any point, though there's some cool graphics on the website that gets in this direction.
Weisman's discussion of the distant future shares some common features with another book I read this year (but enjoyed less), Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millenia by Gregory Benford. One of the things I never thought about is how slowly (in human terms) the end of the solar system will come about. There may be a billion years where Earth is too hot for things like mammals and plants, but just fine for microbes. Other planets and moons (like Saturn's moon Titan) may have their chance at life during this period where the sun is bigger (and hotter?).
Part of why I liked this book so much is that it does a great job putting us in perspective. We are but a blip in space and time, and in all likelihood will be gone sometime relatively soon. Once we are, nature will come back and over time - for some things more, for others less - we will be erased. Yet, at the same time, the decisions we make about how to use the resources on this planet have very long-lasting effects.
In some ways, Weisman's scenario is most effective if you turn it on its head and ask: What if humans don't disappear anytime soon? What if we're around for the long haul? Of course we will all die, but what about our kids and their kids times a thousand?
We've leaving them a mess, and it's a mess that will take a very long time to clean up.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
I'll say this for the book: it was witty. And it was a quick read (I put it away in less than 24 hours, though I was aided by having time at work to read, which is an extreme rarity). But otherwise it did not live up to my expectations.
Its greatest failure was that although it was obviously trying, and trying hard, it wasn't particularly funny. I guffawed perhaps four times in the 229 pages, and that's it. Lipsyte is obviously a gifted writer, and the book was thick with vivid hyperbole. It was entertaining, but got tedious after a while...and, like I said, rarely did it break the "entertaining" bubble to reach actual "funny" (much less "hilarious").
For a loser who spends his days surfing the web for porn and hanging out with his druggie friends, Teabag certainly has quite a voice, and is a veritable font of wisdom and introspection. And that's symptomatic of a larger problem with this book, which is that it strains credulity too frequently, too much, in too many ways to hold together. I'm willing to go along with absurdity to a certain degree, but beyond certain bounds a reader starts to wonder if the narrator is even telling the truth about what happened. In this regard it reminded me of American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, main difference being that Ellis was doing this on the purpose - using it to make the reader question the nature of his protagonist's insanity (though not the insanity itself) - and I don't think that was Lipsyte's intention at all.
On another level, Teabag is unsatifying as the spokesman for all former high school losers with washed up lives (I say that as someone who qualifies for the former, though probably not the latter, at this point). First because he is "in the network" - he knows, is obsessed really, with all the goings-on of his former classmates. Anyone who was really a loser in high school was outside the network and doesn't have the latest dish on what people are up to (beyond what he can glean from the newsletter and the internet).
Second, we don't know why Teabag is a loser but his own self-destructiveness and laziness seems to be a big part of it. Every time he has a chance to break out of the mold - and he does have chances, many chances - he rapidly sabotages himself. And we never learn why. He has difficulty sustaining relationships but doesn't seem to have difficulty attracting female attention, as evidenced by his ex-girlfriend who is the sister of a movie star and winds up with her own sitcom (unless we are supposed to believe that he's a loser simply because not every single female character in the book wants to fuck him - we learn of his sexual escapades with at least three different women, which ain't bad for a 30-something fatass who can't even pay the phone bill). There is absolutely zero keeping him cycling through the same friends, having the same embarrassing meetings with former classmates who have gone on to greatness (or not), but he doesn't seem to care and indeed seems to revel in the fact that he is still utterly focused on events of ten plus years prior. This is infuriating because a loser who is so complicit in his own loserhood isn't a sympathetic figure and can't really tell it like it is to those higher up in the high school hierarchy because ultimately he has no truth to reveal.
Teabag is granted a long monologue during the "Togethering" (basically a reunion) held at his dad's restaurant, and he uses it to spout a series of twisted-up graduation speech-type banalities that don't really mean anything to anyone, including himself (I skipped through it the first time, honestly). I expected a scene like this to be the climax of the novel, but it didn't change much of anything. Not only does Lewis have no wisdom to convey, but even when he conveys this nonsense to a supportively-drunk audience he derives no satisfaction from it. Others have said that Lewis's true desire is simply to belong. But he's in as big of a rut as anyone - if he's not comfortable with what he's got by this point then he never will be. And it is hard to believe that someone who can pack pages and pages with such penetrating insights is so unable to take any action about his own life.
One of Lewis's big points seems to be that "everyone settles" in life. True enough, but so what? And while we're on the subject, it's also true that some of us settle sooner, and for less. Teabag threw in the towel before the first round even started. I started off hoping to empathize with Teabag and ended the book thinking that if someone like him wrote updates to my own (nonexistent, as far I am aware) high school newsletter, and they somehow miraculously got published, I would enjoy watching (or reading, rather) his slow self-immolation, favorably comparing myself to Teabag - perhaps feeling like I was indulging in a guilty pleasure, but unable to summon any real pity since he has no one to blame to but himself for his problems.
Teabag's story might better have been left untold, because - quite simply - despite all the verbiage, he's got nothing to say.
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
"This month's Journal of Pediatrics published Australian research that found that paternal parenting styles are highly associated with preschoolers' obesity levels. Specifically, children of fathers who described their parenting styles as permissive had a 59 percent higher risk of obesity. The children of fathers who admitted to being "disengaged" had a 35 percent higher risk of becoming obese. In contrast, the fathers with authoritative or authoritarian parenting styles actually lowered the odds of their children having weight problems. And here's the kicker: Maternal parenting styles had no effect on children's weight at all."
The blogger seems unable to hide her glee that dads are finally getting blamed for something (calling a new era of "blame-the-patriarch" research a "tempting prospect"), yet simultaneously confused as to how dads could actually influence something like childrens' weight seeing as how it's really all about moms, anyway.
Respectfully, this person is making light of serious matters, and is clearly utterly clueless about what it is like to grow up with a truly authoritarian father who closely scrutinizes what his kids eat. My brothers and I were all beanpoles until we left the house. Mom might have cooked the food (though Dad exerted some control over what was cooked - I wonder if the study looked at Mom-Dad relations), but the dinner table was utterly ruled by Dad the Tyrant (who, btw, was obese throughout my childhood, topping out at 300 pounds, due largely to chowing down on baked goods and other junk food at work even as he strictly controlled things at home).
This was almost never a control over quantity of consumption (if I wanted four servings of white rice at dinner I could have it...meat was something of a different story, depending on what we had and how expensive it was and how much other stuff I was eating), but over precisely what was eaten, when it was eaten, how it was eaten. I could tell you horror stories.
But the point is: no, Broadsheet blogger, it's not at all "weird" that fathers exert some influence on childhood obesity and that children of authoritarian fathers are less likely to get fat. It's not a contest to see who should get blamed more - Mom or Dad - for things that happen to kids. Neither Mom nor Dad operate in a vacuum, and I don't see how to factor out the separate effects of their behaviors without addressing the interaction between the two. Parents should be a team.
Preventing your kids from becoming obese is good, but terrorizing them in the process is not. The mechanism by which authoritarian dads exert a (beneficial) influence on their kids' body mass is not spelled out, but I'd venture a guess it's more like what I talk about above and less about going out and running around with the kids or leading by example in terms of moderation. Clearly there must be a healthy middle ground, and maybe that's what we should be looking for here, instead of rejoicing at assigning blame. Shouldn't it be less about the parents and more about the kids themselves, anyway?
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
It's Day 8 (though only business day 6) of a crisis at work that may end up totally fizzling out to nothing, or may result in my current staff area being completely disbanded (and me being sent to some unspecified other location for the duration of my time here), or anything in between. I can't say anything else about it, except that the problem goes about as high up in the organization as you can get, and chances are it will not be resolved quickly. On the plus side, I should have more time to blog (or read, or have lunch with friends, or hunt for jobs, or whatever) until it is resolved.
It's also T-minus 3.5 days until Christmas break, where I will have 11 days off in a row. I was on the phone with my parents the other night, and kept harping on it. Eleven days. Can you believe I have eleven days off? In a row. Eleven whole days. That's like nearly two weeks. In a row. I don't have to go into the office once. When was the last time I had that much time off? Not even when I went on vacation in August. Certainly not last Christmas when I worked straight through. It must be years since I've had eleven days off in a row. What will I do?
Then it dawned on me that they've been retired for about five years now (and even when they worked they usually were only part time or off completely during the summer), and I shut up.
But "what will I do?" is a good question. I think what I will do is a nice mix of visiting my brothers in NY and staying home. (That's where the real detox challenge will take place, and harder than avoiding alcohol completely - which isn't hard at all - is not drinking to excess.) Going to the gym and relaxing. Bringing some stuff over to the new apartment from my girlfriend's place (but not killing ourselves). And writing. Especially that. It'd be great to actually start writing. January is already shaping up to be a pretty busy month (ultimate outcome of the work crisis notwithstanding), so it would be wise to take advantage of the unprecedented time available soon.
Yesterday morning, I was on the train on the way to work, and when I switched to the Orange Line there was a guy leaning against one the poles who didn't look so good. He seemed to be having trouble staying awake, but even though though there were plenty of seats he was standing. He looked homeless and had a thin scarf over his face, though he also had on a decent pair of jeans and a relatively new looking bag slung over his shoulder. But the most distinct thing about him was that the only thing he had on his feet was a pair of rough sandals. I couldn't take my eyes off his basically bare feet. They looked like the kind of footware you'd see in Africa. And it was cold yesterday.
I thought that maybe he was just riding the Metro to kill time and keep warm, but then why wouldn't he actually try to sleep or at least sit down? If I had an extra pair of shoes with me I would have just given them to him, but of course I didn't have an extra pair of shoes. But then I thought that I did have an extra pair of shoes in my cubicle, along with extra socks. They were my old shoes, and not particularly waterproof, but it wasn't wet yesterday and they'd be a million times than what he had.
Then I considered the mechanics of actually getting him the shoes. First talking to him. Actually getting his attention. Persuading him to follow me off the Metro. Through the gates. Up the escalator. Down the street. To my office. Where they would ask for photo ID and make him go through a metal detector. And then - assuming somehow this was successful - I'd be responsible for him. Or, more reasonably, he would just have to stand outside - in the cold - and wait as I went to get the shoes. Hoping I'd actually come back.
Quite frankly, the guy looked like he was off in his own hazy world. My guess is that in his far-off land, a lack of shoes might be not even be worthy of consideration.
Anyway, I got off at my stop and he kept riding, still leaning precariously on the pole, eyes fluttering open and closed, nothing but the barest of sandals on his feet.
I wouldn't have cared at all if it wasn't for the shoe thing. But had it been at all practicable, I would have given him a pair, just for my own piece of mind.
Sunday, December 16, 2007
This being said, I've been amazed (well, not really, but I think you know what I mean) at the lowest-common-denominator nature of the 2008 Presidential race so far. It seems like everyone is criticizing the sound-bite mentality or the fixation with trivia and arcana (did Obama do drugs 20 years ago? do people really like Hillary?) at the expense of detail and substantive issues, yet no one is working to fix the problem. Everyone seems to want Al Gore, who is the closest thing this country has to a technocrat (and I mean this in a positive sense), to enter the race...but he probably won't. And if he did, you can bet a few months down the road there'd be a lot more talk about his body language (or body mass) than about his policies.
The role of religion in this election has also been amazing to me (and here, I really do mean amazing). Obama has been praised for successfully making a case for faith without being a robotic idiot. Mitt Romney, whose Mormonism has caused all kinds of problems for his candidacy, has said that there can be "no freedom without religion" (yikes: this probably deserves a post of its own). Most recently we've seen Mike Huckabee, who among other things is an ordained Southern Baptist minister and an avowed creationist, surge ahead in the polls.
Back to Obama for a second, his story is that he came to religion as an adult, but did so (in a way so unlike our current President) in a mature way, full of doubt. The doubts remain, even though he describes himself as a person of faith.
I don't doubt his sincerity on this matter, but describing yourself as a person of faith isn't a choice for someone who actually wants to be President. Had Obama not found faith, and were he honest about it, he'd be toast. Maybe I am describing apples and oranges here, but in 2008 we have a Mormon, a black, and a woman - all with fairly serious chances at being President - but an atheist (or even agnostic, or even someone not openly and publicly demonstrative of their faith) wouldn't stand a chance.
Of course we really don't know what any of these people actually believe. They could just be going through the motions. Personally, I have a hard time picturing Hillary Clinton having a personal relationship with God. It reminds me of ancient Rome, where the rulers were so often totally secular privately, but had to make constant shows of piety to the Roman pantheon publicly. Except in our case today, I'm not so sure most of these folks are secretly secular, and that's probably more worrisome than religious hypocrisy (look at our current President for a great example: I know I'd be relieved to find out the whole religious thing was a scam - the really scary part is that it's probably not).
But all this has led to more and more references to Pascal's Wager popping up recently. An editorial in the New York Times bemoaning the fact that this country won't accept atheists as leaders makes reference to it, as does this cartoon.
Pascal's Wager is an argument for believing in God developed in the 17th century by the French philosopher (and mathematician, which is how most people these days know him) Blaise Pascal. What is most fascinating about it, to me, is that it is based on decision theory...basically, it's a cold hard cost-benefit analysis. With no way to conclude if God exists based on evidence alone, Pascal says, let's just consider our options. If you believe in God, then if he exists, you get eternal salvation. If he doesn't exist, nothing lost. If you don't believe in God and he doesn't exist, again nothing lost. But if he does, you've just earned eternal damnation. So you have nothing to lose and plenty to gain by believing, and nothing to gain (and plenty to lose) for not.
This idea is very well-known and I know I'm in no place to contribute any original thinking here (but the post does not end here because it's my blog, dammit). There are plenty of criticisms of the wager (the cartoon linked above, for example, addresses problems with the proposition that you have nothing to lose by believing in God). Pascal, who was a Christian, did not explicitly consider the variety of religious options available and the fact that choosing wrong might mean simple "belief" is not enough for salvation. (The ideas of salvation vs. damnation are Christian, so it's hard to see how deciding to be a Buddhist is going to help you much here, but even within Christianity there are a variety of different options that have actively advanced the position that choosing some other type of Christianity will result in damnation.)
There are lots of other potential criticisms and points for discussion here, but the kicker for me is the belief part. Believing in God is not something one can wake up in the morning and simply will oneself to do, is it? I can honestly say that even as a small child I didn't quite get the God thing, or how he was different in any way from ghosts or imaginary friends. I am fascinated by faith, I try to be respectful of faith, I often wish I could believe in an eternal afterlife, but I can't. I find that taking Christian propositions about the afterlife to their logical conclusions leads to some illogical behaviors. (For instance, what could be a happier occasion for parents than having their newly-Baptized infant die...thus assuring eternal salvation for that baby's soul? The ultimate sacrifice for one's child, then, might be infanticide performed at the right time.) Reading Karen Armstrong's book Through the Narrow Gate, I was actually impressed by the fact that when a nun dies, the other nuns celebrate her passage to the afterlife (even if they are personally sad and will miss the person). At least that's consistent.
So if some people just naturally believe and others do not (cannot), it seems that a God who punishes the latter class of people (having created all of us, after all) is being pretty unfair. Looking at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, we see that Pascal has considered this. "I am so made that I cannot believe. What, then, would you have me do?" Pascal answers the following:
'I would have you understand your incapacity to believe. Labor to convince yourself, not by more "proofs" of God's existence, but by disciplining your passions and wayward emotions. You would arrive at faith, but know not the way. You would heal yourself of unbelief, yet know not the remedies. I answer: Learn of those who have been bound as you are. These are they who know the way you would follow, who have been cured of a disease you would be cured of. Follow the way by which they began, by making believe what they believed. Thus you will come to believe.
Now, what will happen to you if you take this side in the religious wager? You will be trustworthy, honorable, humble, grateful, generous, friendly, sincere, and true. You will no longer have those poisoned pleasures, glory and luxury; but you will have other pleasures. I tell you that you will gain this life; at each step you will see so much certainty of gain, so much nothingness in what you stake, that you will know at last that you have wagered on a certainty, an infinity, for which you have risked nothing.'In essence, he's saying: go through the motions. Pretend to believe. And one day you will. He points out the positive side-benefits that come with simply going through the motions (though it's easy to argue that plenty of religious people who not only go through the motions but who actually do believe do not possess these characteristics, while plenty of non-religious people exhibit these characteristics without even pretending to believe).
His words also beg the questions: what if it doesn't work? how do you know it's going to work? and if it doesn't work, then haven't I actually risked quite a bit?
Would God decide that trying to believe is enough? How could we know? Wouldn't we then have to make a second wager that he would accept this and that it's worth the try? It's also easy to envision an absurd conversation standing before the throne of God as he judges someone like me:
God: "So I already know the answer because I'm omniscient, but I'm going to ask you anyway: did you believe in me while you were alive?"
Me: "I'm sorry to say, I didn't. I tried, though. I really did. I'm actually pretty startled to be here. I figured death was it. I guess I'm sort of glad I was wrong."
God: "Don't be so glad until you hear my judgement, buddy."
God: "Look, I know you didn't believe, but I noticed what you did. You went to church every week, read the Bible, gave to charity, tried to help folks out. That's pretty good stuff. So what was up with the belief hurdle?"
Me: "It's just that there was no evidence for you. I couldn't get over it. Couldn't you have given me some kind of signal? And the profusion of books and creeds and people claiming to speak on your behalf. It was pretty confusing. But it just didn't seem necessary, you know? Occam's razor and all."
God: "Yeah, I get it. But here's what I don't get: why then did you try to believe in me?"
Me: "Well, Pascal's Wager. He said if I went through the motions I'd get there ultimately. But I didn't."
God: "Pascal's Wager?"
Me: "Yeah, you know. Trying to think about this rationally. Given the cost-benefit, I figured believing in you was in my best interests."
God: "Your best interests?"
Me: "Well, wanting to avoid Hell and all."
God: "Your best interests?!?"
Like God, Creator of the universe, is going to fall for a simple coin-toss trick. Like he's not going to see through people's motivations?
Which brings us back to our friends the 2008 Presidential contenders. They face their own version of Pascal's Wager, but without the risk of an omnipotent judge (well, at least at the polls). If I thought you could fool God like you can fool the American electorate, Pascal's Wager would be a much more appealing prospect. But as it stands now, I find it unconvincing.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Something about "the holiday season" leads me to always drink too much this time of year, and I know when I visit my brothers in NY over Christmas it will be a challenge to drink responsibly. For me that means avoiding hangovers, since it's not the actual effects of drinking on my behavior that ever worries me, just the shitty way I feel the next day if I have too much or have it too fast. I don't know if it's tied up in the weather or all the parties or what. It's not tied up in the usual stresses many people feel about visiting family and exchanging gifts, because those for me are minimal. But I can remember both as a grad student and a postdoc facing the same pitfall at this time of the year.
I do like New Year's, though. Not so much New Year's Eve, which my girlfriend and I have a long tradition of ignoring (or doing something modest and fun - last year we bought and prepared some fresh seafood and just hung out). I like New Year's Day and the opportunity for a fresh start and for resolutions. Growing up, it was the school year that really dictated my life, and I thought New Year's was silly, coming as it did in the middle of everything. The Jewish New Year, which corresponded roughly to the beginning of the school year, made much more sense to me. Even as an adult, my positions in both the science and the government world still have been pretty closely tied to the academic year. August/September is always the time of big moves, new positions, adjustments, and all the bureaucratic stuff (like insurance policies, car registrations, even magazine subscriptions) that underlie one's day to day life.
Since time flows continuously, we have to divide it up arbitrarily. And if you think about it, days and years are of about equal arbitrariness (at least with regard to when the begin and end).
January 1st is totally arbitrary, and any day can be New Year's. But that's OK, because it's still an opportunity for improvement, and it comes at the end of this "holiday season" that leads many of us into temptation and overindulgence. I cringe at how busy the gym's going to be those first few weeks of January, for example. Full of people who have made resolutions for self-improvement in the coming year (and dropped some money to seal the deal). Most of them not well-versed in gym etiquette either. But this too shall pass - both my girlfriend and I are old pros and we know most of them will stop coming pretty quickly (money notwithstanding), leaving the place to us gym-rats who made the commitment years before and will stick with it...well, forever. Or at least until it's no longer possible.
But even the annoying new gym-goers illustrate what I like about New Year's. And most people are well-intentioned when it comes to resolutions. But a good New Year's resolution isn't something you come up with on the spur of the moment, or something unrealistic, or something you do because you "have" to. To work, it has to be something you want to do and you have to be ready to follow through. "I'll go to the gym every day" is a terrible New Year's resolution, because the first day you don't you've already broken it, and you haven't set any sort of a realistic goal. "I'll lose 10 pounds by March" is a great one (and hey, if you need to, set your next goal then...you don't have to wait until the next New Year's, it's just a good natural place to begin those things you've been meaning to begin).
I always thought the imagery of New Year's was funny, with the old year portrayed as an ancient bearded man about to expire, and the new year as a baby, full of promise. But oddly, we never think of the year as an adolescent in late winter, or a middle-aged man in the summer (what kind of man has he grown into and why? what were his formative experiences? what are his goals now relative to when he was younger and more idealistic?), or a retiree in the fall. If you're going to accomplish something in your life, it's probably not going to happen either when you're a tiny baby or on your deathbed. Similarly, the beginning of the year may be as full of promise as a baby, but it's the day by day trying and slogging (plus all the external events we can't control...and how they affect us, which we usually can) that determines whether the old man dies satisfied or unfulfilled with the life he's lived. If each year is a lifetime, how many of us would consider the past "lifetime" a success? Or a failure? Or just a typical life? Those questions are surely rhetorical, as much of us don't evaluate our whole lives that way, much less a single year.
So I'm going to try to pass on the alcohol for the next week. Work out (I did OK last week, actually). Cook some good but relatively healthy food. Go to bed at a reasonable hour. And get myself ready give that baby we're calling 2008 as much promise as I can.
Because with everything that's going on, I think he's going to need it.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
My dad, in one of those 180-degree reversals in attitude since my childhood that I find extremely confusing, advocated for my taking such "Personal Health Days" (he called them "mental health days") occasionally when I was a postdoc and felt so exploited and powerless that I would sometime fantasize (not seriously, of course, but satisfyingly) about things like walking into Friday afternoon departmental lectures with a bomb strapped to my chest. (Of course I didn't share my frustration with him to nearly that level of specificity.) He said that was a perfectly valid use of "sick time", especially for a guy like me who simply doesn't get sick and so stands to lose the time otherwise.
I've always had trouble extracting myself from work situations, even when those situations make me miserable. The current situation is not one of those, and I am weathering the storm just fine.
This is the time of year for Christmas music. Well, according to retailers, it's been that time of year for a while. (According to moi, it's *never* that time of year.) I thought about ranking the worst Christmas songs ever on here, but ran into a few problems along the way. Such rankings have already been done to death, and by folks who evidently have sought out many different Christmas songs and know what they are and who sings them. For instance, my searching has revealed that "Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime" by Paul McCartney is widely loathed and reviled. I know the song, and share the loathing and revulsion, but actually didn't know who sung it and never would have thought of it on my own. Everyone else also hates "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band-Aid. But I've got to give this one a pass - in my opinion (and relative to many other Christmas song) this one is less cringe-worthy...and after all, it was only recorded to raise money for starving Africans.
So forget contemporary Christmas songs: what about the "classics"? Well, I for one loathe and revile most of those too. Here are some of the more annoying:
- Here Comes Santa Claus: I just can't get past the line "...right down Santa Claus Lane". What the hell is Santa Claus Lane? Where is it? Inexcusable laziness.
- Winter Wonderland: I don't think there are actually any allusions to Christmas in this song - it's a song about two people who want to get married and are walking around in the snow (this could happen anytime between mid-October and early May in upstate NY, for example). But I find myself hating the couple in this song: they build a snowman, pretend it's the parson, and then refer to getting married as "doing the job". But speaking of "doing the job", what is it that made them so tired later on that they had to lay around by the fire? Yeah, I thought so too. Get a room, dammit!
- Let It Snow: This song also fails to mention Christmas - it's probably more applicable in February than December, but does it ever get airplay in February? (Not that I'm complaining about that, at least.) My big problem is that it's totally outdated. Who these days can say they have "no place to go"?
- The Twelve Days of Christmas: Maybe I'd like this song if I were an ornithologist (all those birds!) or a pro-slavery advocate (ladies dancing, maids a-milking...though I don't see how lords=gifts, even in that scenario). Also, last I checked, Christmas was a single day, not twelve. And finally, I especially despise any version of this song where the singers scream "FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!!!!!!!" each time. God that's annoying. The only good thing you can say about this song is that it probably has some value for teaching kids math.
- White Christmas: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
- Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: This song makes me think of some wretchedly poor, filthy, scrawny guy all alone in a cave shivering while eating his cold dinner out of a can. If someone was going to write a Christmas song for Gollum, this would probably be it. Seriously, could the language here convey excessive thrift and low expectations any more strongly?
- Feliz Navidad: Too repetitive. Wishing someone a Merry Christmas "from the bottom of your heart" sounds overblown sung even once, and is inexcusable 10,000 times.
- Jingle Bell Rock: Maybe the worst ever. The title is an oxymoron, to start. And "Jingle Bell Square" is probably located just off "Santa Claus Lane". Whoever wrote this song truly made the world a worse place than he found it.
- Adam Sandler's Christmas Song: The Hanukkah songs are overhyped and too celebrocentric (and each gets worse than the last), but the Christmas song is cute, and whoever the kid in the song is has some serious problems.
- Dominick the Italian Christmas Donkey: Cute, ethnic, old school. What else to say?
- Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies: From the "Nutcracker Suite". Better known to Gen X'ers like me as the Tetris music from Nintendo.
- Chiron Beta Prime: Only peripherally about Christmas, this Jonathan Coulton song features a family celebrating the holiday on the asteroid to which they've been exiled to work for their robot overlords...did I say overlords? I meant protectors.
- The Little Drummer Boy: Whoa, what is this doing here? Well, the only version I like is the one sung by Tonto, Tarzan, and Frankenstein on Saturday Night Live. :P
- Almost anything from Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics: I'm not a fan of toilet humor, and a talking piece of poo doesn't much do it for me. But most of the songs on here are gems, from "Christmastime in Hell" to Mr. Garrison's multicultural extravaganza "Merry Fucking Christmas" to the Jesus/Santa Claus lounge act at the end.
- Ave Maria: I like the Chris Cornell version (of course CC is one of my "man-crushes", according to my girlfriend, and I freely admit he's my favorite vocalist), but am open to other versions as well.
See, I like Christmas music. But either make it funny, or make it dignified. Not all this bland commercial drech in between.
Lucky for me, the (very) little Christmas shopping I have to do can be done online, where I can play songs from the list I like, instead of having to the ones I hate pumped into my head over and over and over again as I dutifully drive my car to the mall and struggle through hordes of other shoppers to buy the stuff corporations have successfully manipulated our culture to force me to buy at this time of year.
Did I say overlords? I meant protectors. Indeed.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Luckily, even though there seems to be a bit of a lull right now, there's plenty coming up to keep me engaged. I'm working on two books: The Great Society Subway: a History of the Washington Metro by Zachary Schrag and The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Each of those should lead to posts.
There are eight more work days until Christmas, and I think my girlfriend and I are going to split the long break (which I am totally looking forward to) between quiet time here (even if "quiet" involves moving some furniture) and a trip up to New York for a few days to see my brothers, perhaps some other friends, and otherwise just be tourists and eat good food and drink but hopefully not too much. Come January I need to begin looking for a job, and certainly if I am able to avoid going into specifics, that can be chronicled to some degree right here.
Also, I had set myself three tasks to accomplish before I was ready to begin actually writing my novel, and I have done two of them, including the most difficult one. Plotting is at the point where I know the beginning, I know most of the middle, and I know what I think the end will be (I don't want to lock my characters in, but without a clear idea of where this was ultimately going I didn't want to start writing - I know that works for some people, but not for me...and definitely not in something of the magnitude of a novel. Also, sometimes it's about more than just setting up a situation and letting characters run wild.) Things are starting to congeal into scenes. So I expect to be actually writing in the New Year, and once I start, maintaining momentum is going to be very important. Writing about larger issues (without going into specifics of plot and character) is certainly one purpose for this blog, and a way for me to maintain momentum in terms of writing even when I encounter an impasse in terms of producing the actual text.
I have to include a brief rant here. Obviously, readers know I am trained as a scientist, and they know I am part of a professional cohort of similar people here in the D.C. area. I've mentioned before that we are a large and diverse cohort. We have a listserv, and generally it's used responsibly. But today, one of the other members of the cohort brought to our attention the trailer for a movie called "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed". This is a movie about intelligent design, starring Ben Stein (who I never cared much for, anyway). I watched the trailer and it is clear that the movie is a shameless propaganda piece, portraying ID advocates as diligently searching for truth against all obstacles, including the wishes of the scientific community, who will penalize anyone who asks these "dangerous questions". The problem is, the person who sent this message thought the trailer raised some good points, wondered if the scientific community wasn't afraid of a good debate, and mused as to what the costs of stifling "revolutionary thought" are.
Let me tell you all something: I left academic science for a reason. I know all about the hierarchical way much science works these days, and the huge power discrepancies and lack of accountability in the way people are treated that exist (this is a complex way of saying that as a grad student and especially a postdoc I was treated like crap at times, and even more junior tenure-track faculty are not immune). I know people have vested interests in the outcome of their research sometimes, and yeah the system occasionally is so skewed as to provide disincentives to honesty. Scientists have to have personal integrity; otherwise science doesn't work. (And from the personal perspective of a scientist, if I'd ever decided to go the unethical route, it might have been good for my career sometimes - in the short term, maybe, though the risks would have been immense - but it would basically have defeated the whole purpose of my choosing that career, which was to create new knowledge.)
That being said, the idea this movie espouses - that many scientists are secretly questioning Darwinian evolution (in favor of intelligent design, no less) but are afraid of the consequences if they speak up - is the biggest load of horseshit since Hercules cleaned the Augean stables. I respect others' faith, even if those others are scientists. But any scientist who can't distinguish between their own faith and the bunk that is ID is unworthy of my respect. I almost never participate on that listserv, and in general studiously involve getting into online battles (be it blog comments, listservs, whatever), but I sent back the e-mail equivalent of a bitchslap.
My reply addressed the issue only, of course, but thinking about this I'm mostly just disappointed that my cohort contains at least one person of this caliber. By which, let me be very clear, I do not mean a person of faith (I do not know whether this person is a person of faith, and as I said before, I'm not in a place to criticize anyone's faith), but a person who is incapable of clear thinking on this very important issue, such that they can watch a crass piece of propaganda like that and actually think it has some merit. And this is a person whose job is somewhere on the science-policy interface. If I believed in a god I'd invoke him now.
Last comment on this, since this is starting to sound like a personal diatribe: I've never actually met the person who sent this, so there's no personal vendetta here. I just have certain expectations of my colleagues. I feel like the actions of any one of us can reflect on all of us. And that such a muddled thinker is wandering around this town calling themselves one of us is not exactly a confidence-builder.
Enough ranting. It's time to go home.
Saturday, December 1, 2007
On The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien, Reviews in General, and the Right Thing at the Right Time
Thinking about this made me think back to the seeming multitudes of “book reports” I had to produce in school. If anyone wants a good reason why so few adults in this country like to read, I would urge them to start there. First, because simply summarizing what happens in a book is boring and seems to be geared only to proving that you did indeed read the book. Second, because of the artistic accoutrements always expected alongside book reports. I can recall some awful experiences trying to assemble shoebox diaramas and drawing covers on pieces of construction paper. How this is supposed to develop anyone’s love for literature (or even prove they read the frigging book) is beyond me.
My sixth grade teachers all loved construction paper. The more construction paper, the better. It was all about aesthetics that year. My cutting, pasting, and drawing skills were pretty bad. I was notoriously sloppy. What I lacked in style I tried to make up for with substance, but the teachers really weren’t feeling substance that particular year. My sixth grade teacher, who to this day I believe was actively engaged in trying to destroy my already-battered psyche, left as her only comment on a paper I labored mightily on with paste and colored markers and construction paper: “Would have been great if you’d typed it.” This, I may remind you, was in 1986, when typing actually meant typing. On a typewriter. And I was 11.
That same year my reading teacher had us do something on the order of 10,000 book reports – each a few pages of looseleaf with a plot summary sandwiched inside a piece of construction paper with the title written in some fancy letters and a picture of some sort. My dad was extremely fond of micromanaging every aspect of these assignments, which didn’t mean he did them for me or was even helpful – but these assignments had to be done to his satisfaction before I could hand them on. And they couldn’t be done “at the last minute”, which generally meant the last few days before they were due (yes, I know, and I’ve worked in both the government and academic science now – real life skills made subservient to blind obedience is a recurring theme from my childhood). What the fear of waiting until “the last minute” was I still don’t know, but even if I was perfectly able to get the work done on time, I might still be in trouble for waiting until “the last minute” (and yes, contrary to all rationality, this did happen).
My sixth grade reading teacher, who was a fairly easy-going guy and certainly not out to destroy my already-battered psyche, would routinely give me an A or maybe an A- and would always write “Nice cover!” on my covers. However, on one of these book reports, the grade must have been somewhat lower (though it could not have been below a B because those things just didn’t happen). My dad was incensed. He was especially incensed because the teacher had not written “Nice cover!”. He mentioned this about 100 times that night. I had to go back in the next day and talk to the teacher so that I could “fix this problem” (because it’s clearly one step from getting a single B on one of 10,000 sixth grade book reports to a life of ruin, despair, and crime) and I had to ask why he had not written “Nice cover!” on my cover. (Throughout my childhood, I was always being forced to have ridiculous conversations like this, which is part of why – despite being a good student – many of my teachers loathed me.) So I did – as with virtually everything else at that point, I didn’t really have a choice.
I don’t remember why he said he gave me the B or B+ or whatever it was. But I do remember what this guy, who seemed puzzled by the line of inquiry (I wonder if he had the first clue what I had to go home to), said in answer to my question about the cover: “I only write ‘Nice cover!’ if I think it’s a nice cover.” I think there was a lesson there, but for my dad rather than for me.
This digression actually functions as a fairly good segue into my discussion of The Children of Hurin, because you’ll understand why, as a kid and a teenager, I was a huge fan of escapism of all sorts. Fantasy books were some of the best. And Tolkien is the undisputed great granddaddy of contemporary fantasy.
My girlfriend and I sometimes argue about Tolkien because she was never able to read more than a few pages of The Lord of the Rings and insists that it is boring. She didn’t even like the movies (I, to my surprise because I thought there’s no way a movie could do justice to those books, loved them). I accept our differences, and I further admit that characterization (most especially female characterization) was never Tolkien’s strength. But I’ve got a soft spot for Tolkien, and let me tell you another story, this one more recent, to illustrate why.
When I started my current job about 15 months ago, one of the summer interns was packing up her cubicle at the end of her internship and offered me a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which I accepted. A little later my supervisor (who is a smart and insightful guy) came over, saw it on my desk, and asked me if I’d read it. I told him not yet. He appraised me for a moment and then said, “It’s probably about ten years too late for you.”
Unlike Kerouac, Tolkien came around just the right time for me. And who is going to argue that Tolkien is not the ultimate in escapism?
But that’s not all. I grew up in the inner suburbs of Long Island, folks, and I hated it. Is there any place you can conceive of – fictional or otherwise – that is more different from Long Island than Middle Earth? To my just barely-teenaged reckoning, Long Island had no mystery, and Middle Earth was full of it. Long Island had no nature, and nature ruled Middle Earth. Long Island had no solitude and isolation, both of which were available in abundance in Middle Earth. Long Island had no topography, and Middle Earth was full of hills and mountains. Worst of all, Long Island seemed to have no history (or whatever history it had was thoroughly buried under subdivisions and strip malls and was never taught to us in school, where we were far too busy with our hot glue guns and our construction paper). Middle Earth has a deep and detailed history, and that perhaps more than anything else is what drew me in. The fiction I started writing about this time was incredibly strongly influenced by Tolkien and Middle Earth, and usually involved characters very much like myself and my peers transported to a Middle Earth-like place, freed from parental and other authorities, left to our own devices. I was sure most of my peers (most of whom I also hated) would wither and die under such circumstances, while I would thrive, and my writing was focused on this theme. Escapism indeed.
All of Tolkien’s work that I’ve read (including The Children of Hurin) is suffused with what I’ve come to think of as “Tolkien-time”. Sort of intermediate between human time and geologic time – I’d say it’s time as perceived by elves and other greater beings with very long lifespans, except so many of those are immortal and would eventually dwarf even geologic time. Maybe it is more the way a tree or a forest would perceive time than the way humans do. (Though, as I understand Tolkien’s chronology, Middle Earth’s entire history is something less than 10,000 years – approximately comparable to the length of the Holocene – making it closer to Biblical chronology than to even the whole of the history of Homo sapiens, which is nearly 200,000 years. Middle Earth is unquestionably a creationist paradise, where mortal beings interact with the gods who created the world. As a brief aside, one of the great revelations for me in college, which helped greatly reduce my love for escapism of this sort, was that the real Earth had a history much longer and richer than even the one Tolkien imagined for Middle Earth.)
It always made me wonder, as we learn of Morgoth or Sauron building up their power over decades to hundreds of years, what this actually meant on a day-to-day basis. Even with The Lord of the Rings, one wonders just what Gandalf was doing for those thousands of years he wandered Middle Earth: how could Sauron’s gaining power have been a surprise? How could he not have immediately realized what Ring Bilbo had found sixty years (!!!) before the main action in Lord of the Rings? (By contrast to the “Grey Pilgrim”, Saruman’s approach of making a home and developing intelligence networks actually seems more reasonable, until you consider that it caused him to flip). But I suspend my disbelief and just enjoy “Tolkien-time” and the odd perspectives it provides.
Salon reviewed The Children of Hurin and said it was aimed at “mid-level Tolkien fans”. That category would include me: I enjoy Tolkien, but I’m no Tolkien-scholar. I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings several times, and enjoyed the movies. I struggled with The Silmarillion and could not deal at all with Unfinished Tales, which was about as much fun as reading a Bible filled with unfamiliar names and places (I tried reading The Book of Mormon once, and encountered the same thing). I remember being quite disappointed (partly with myself) at my lack of success, but I just moved on to Stephen R. Donaldson or whatever the heck else I was reading at that time.
The Children of Hurin is intermediate. It is a narrative, but not really a novel (more like a myth, insomuch as I even really know what I’m talking about there, which I pretty much don’t, but it contains lots of mythical elements). It is easy to follow the dialogue and the action most of the time, though there are still too many places where it lapses into Tolkien-speak, utterly confusing any reader not totally steeped in Middle Earth names and places. All of a sudden you will read something like (I’m making this up, but it’s representative):
“And thus the bane of Numenor rose from the depths of Drawderhold, wielding the flame of Ainur as did the Mayar of Old, rising from the ruins of Hungerdin in the Land of Jusgwenif back when Manyert the Mighty ruled from the great citadel of Pokinfelt before the coming of the Hordes of Gothmorgog and the purging of the Ratskelmab.”
If anyone can explain this to me, I’d love to hear it. But I’m not going to take an hour to figure out sentences like this, which (thankfully) are usually peripheral to the main thrust of the action. (The Children of Hurin includes maps and a glossary, but even reference to them is not always sufficient for full understanding and context.)
The Children of Hurin is about a curse, and there is a feeling of dread right from the beginning. All of the dialogue is suffused with ominous premonition. Unlike The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, there is no happy ending. Also unlike those other works, the main character is a mighty warrior and son of a lord among men, not a child-like underdog. One gets to know who the characters are, but we really do not get to know them – a certain distance is always kept. We understand their motivations, but not always why they choose particular courses of action. They are cursed, and are playing out the curse, and that involves making bad decisions.
Does he have free will, or does Turin’s will differ from what it would be without a curse? Is he doomed no matter what he chooses because circumstances will help fulfill the curse? Or is it his own choices that doom him? We don’t know how Morgoth’s curse works, but it does work (though at some cost to him – just about anyone else would be sorry to lose one of their top lieutenants: a big fierce vicious dragon who has terrorized men and elves for generations).
With all the time and distance separating us from this story, it still manages to be quite evocative in places, as when Turin’s sister Nienor comes face-to-face with the dragon Glaurung. The whole story seems to take place in deep fall woods, and it’s easy to envision the ancient trees, the black rocks poking up from the ground, gray skies, the damp moss, the muted orange leaf cover.
The Children of Hurin was compiled by Tolkien’s son Christopher (himself 83 years old now) from his father’s manuscripts and notes. It’s easy to envision his large but cozy study, crammed with handdrawn maps, notebooks, manuscripts, and genealogies written in the different languages Tolkien devised. I don’t know if the reality is anywhere near so romantic, and assembling this narrative was evidently a long and laborious process. Tolkien was primarily interested in establishing a mythology for Middle Earth, not writing narratives. But each of the stories in The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales could theoretically be fleshed into a narrative at least as readable as The Children of Hurin, and I’m amazed – given the glacial rate of progress and the uncertainty even that progress will be made – that rabid Tolkien fans out there haven’t already done this themselves. The Children of Hurin is but one of these narratives…it is not clear to me whether there is enough source material to do this with any of the others or whether it really would be up to fans to do this. (I’m not advocating it be done, though if it were done well, it would be a lot of fun – think of those movies, which by all rights should have been atrocious but were actually fantastic because they were done by people who cared.)
Reading The Children of Hurin again spurred my interest in Middle Earth, made me pick up my old copy The Silmarillion and leaf through. Maybe I will give it another go.
But maybe not. The years have passed, and I have changed. I haven’t read fantasy novels in a decade or more. I’ve come to appreciate the history and mystery of our Earth. I don’t know that I need Tolkien the way I did when I was younger, and if the story is inaccessible, it may not be worth the effort.
But if another Tolkien narrative comes together some time down the road, as long as I can still pick up a book I will read it, and no doubt lose myself in memories of a place that – no matter how different from my day-to-day life – nourished me when I was younger, and still seems oddly like home.