Jul 30

SF and the damaging effects of literary status envy

I’ve been aware for some time of a culture war simmering in the SF world. And trying to ignore it, as I believed it was largely irrelevant to any of my concerns and I have friends on both sides of the divide. Recently, for a number of reasons I may go into in a later post, I’ve been forced to take a closer look at it. And now I’m going to have to weigh in, because it seems to me that the side I might otherwise be most sympathetic to has made a rather basic error in its analysis. That error bears on something I do very much care about, which is the health of the SF genre as a whole.

Both sides in this war believe they’re fighting about politics. I consider this evaluation a serious mistake by at least one of the sides.

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Mar 13

Country-music hell and fake accents

A few months back I had to do a two-hour road trip with A&D regular Susan Sons, aka HedgeMage, who is an interesting and estimable person in almost all ways except that she actually … likes … country music.

I tried to be stoic when stupid syrupy goo began pouring out of the car radio, but I didn’t do a good enough job of hiding my discomfort to prevent her from noticing within three minutes flat. “If I leave this on,” she observed accurately to the 11-year-old in the back seat, “Eric is going to go insane.”

Since said 11-year more or less required music to prevent him from becoming hideously bored and restive, all three of us were caught between two fires. Susan, ever the pragmatist, went looking through her repertoire for pieces I would find relatively inoffensive.

After a while this turned into a sort of calibration exercise – she’d put something on, assay my reaction to see where in the range it fell between mere spasmodic twitching and piteous pleas to make it stop, and try to figure what the actual drive-Eric-insane factors in the piece were.

After a while a curious and interesting pattern emerged…

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Mar 23

Michael Meets Mozart

I love classical music. It was my first musical vocabulary; I didn’t start listening to popular music until I was 14. When I grew up enough to notice that I was listening to a collection of museum pieces and not a living genre, that realization made me very sad.

But go listen to this: Michael Meets Mozart.

Now, if you’re a typical classical purist, you may be thinking something like this: “Big deal. It’s just a couple of guys posing like rock stars, even if there’s some Mozart in the DNA. Electric cello and a backbeat is just tacky. Feh.”

I’m here to argue that this attitude is tragically wrong – not only is it bad for what’s left of the classical-music tradition today, but that it’s false to the way classical music was conceived by its composers and received by its audiences back when it was a living genre.

Mozart didn’t think he was writing museum pieces…

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Sep 10

Not Eliminating The Middleman

So, we’re at a some friends’ place for barbecue this afternoon, and friends say “We know you don’t watch much TV, but you need to see this…”

“This” turns out to be the pilot of The Middleman a peculiar and unusually intelligent TV series that ran for only 12 episodes in 2008 before being canceled. The protagonist is a tough-minded female art student who gets recruited into a sort of “Men In Black” organization that deals with exotic problems – mad scientists, invading aliens, supernatural threats, that sort of thing. Yeah, I know, yet another spin on Nick Pollotta’s Bureau 13 novels – but this version has a sharp, surrealistic edge and the kind of script where no word in it is filler or wasted.

The writing style of The Middleman kind of got into my head. Here’s how I know this: afterwards, we’re disrobing to go to the hot tub, and I looked at my piles of clothes and stuff and thought this:

“I carry a smartphone, a Swiss-Army knife, and a gun. What kind of problem do you want solved?”

Aug 17

A flash at the heart of the West

I have just seen something lovely and hope-inducing.

It’s a video of a performance of Ravel’s Bolero by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra – manifesting as a flash mob at a train station. Go see it now; I’ll wait.

What is truly wonderful about this is not the music itself. Oh, the Bolero is pleasant enough, and this performance is competent. What was marvelous was to see classical music crack its way out of the dessicated, ritual-bound environment of the concert hall and reclaim a place in ordinary life. Musicians in jeans and sweaters and running shoes (and one kettledrummer with a silly fishing hat), smiling at children while they played. No boundary from the audience – there were train sounds and crowd noise in the background and that was good, dammit!

And the audience – respectful, but not because the setting told them they were supposed to be. Delight spreading outwards in waves as the onlookers gradually comprehended the hack in progress. Parents pointing things out to their kids. Hassled businesspeople pausing, coffees in hand, to relax into something that wasn’t on the schedule. It was alive in a way that no performance from a lofty stage could ever be.

But there was an even more beautiful level of meaning than that.

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May 09

The Uses of Cliche

I’ve done a lot of writing for the game Battle For Wesnoth. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned, and now teach others, is this: genre cliches are your friend. Too much originality can badly disrupt the gameplay experience. This is so at variance with our expectations about ‘good’ art that I think it deserves some explanation and exploration.

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Jan 09

Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers: on language boundaries

Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers. It’s an interesting indication of how popular culture has evolved in the last quarter-century that the scope and boundaries of these terms are now of increasing interest to people who don’t think they belong in any of those categories — from language columnists for major newspapers to ordinary folks who have relatives they suspect might fall somewhere in the Venn diagram those terms define.

I’ve been watching these terms shift and move in and out of prominence since the early 1970s. Over time, distinctions among them that were once blurred have tended to sharpen. This is not happening at random; it accompanies the changes in “mainstream” culture that I noted in The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well. As groups who were one marginalized erupt into mainstream visibility, everybody’s functional need for language that puts a handle on their social identities becomes more pressing.

Here’s a report on the state of play in early 2011, with some history intended to illuminate it.

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Jul 15

Women in computing: first, get the problem right

Every few months I trip over another earnest attempt to rectify the gender imbalance in software and computing fields. Very few women opt to become programmers, system administrators, or hardware/software engineers. Indeed, the number of women who try seems to be falling rather than rising. This observation is invariably accompanied by a lot of hand-wringing and proposals for elaborate and (too often) coercive schemes to achieve “gender parity” – all doomed, because the actual problem is misdiagnosed.

I’m writing about this because I think the misdiagnosis arises largely from a refusal to speak uncomfortable truths. Discussion of the problem is nearly suffocated under a cloud of political correctness, cant, and willful blindness to the actual conditions of working in this field. Honesty won’t automatically fix the problems, but it’s a prerequisite to fixing the problems.

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Apr 15

Pandora’s Biases

Back in February I experimented with Pandora Radio and loved it…enough that I bought a subscription within a few days. It’s my background music now; I might never own an analog radio again.

For a while I ran around telling all my friends about how Pandora was the greatest thing! since sliced bread! you should try it! But I’ve stopped doing that, because I’ve learned that it doesn’t work as well for other people…starting with my wife. I think I know why, and it reveals an interesting failure mode of all such systems.

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Mar 23

Victimology bites

Dr. Richard Friedman’s Sabotaging Success, but to What End?, published 2010-03-22 in the New York Times, is about an instantly recognizable pattern — people who sabotage themselves so they can feel like martyred victims of an uncaring world.

The piece is insightful and even funny in a bleak sort of way, but as I read through it I felt an increasing sense that there was something missing from this story. I was nearly at the end before I realized what had been lurking unspoken in Dr. Friedman’s account. But the crucial clue had been there from the beginning, when he writes of one patient “In fact, her status as an injured party afforded her a psychological advantage: she felt morally superior to everyone she felt had mistreated her. This was a role she had no intention of giving up.” Where…now, where had I heard that song before?

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Feb 07

Opening Pandora’s Music box

I’ve been meaning to experiment with Pandora Radio for a while, and finally got to it today. It’s based on something called the “Music Genome Project” that categorizes music by how it expresses a large number of “genes” — traits that describe features like song structure, instrumentation, genre influences, and so forth. According to Wikipedia these are used to construct a vector, and similarity between tunes is measured by a simple distance function. You give Pandora a seed artist; it then apparently random-walks you through tunes and artists similar to that artist’s style.

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Jan 19

Jews and the tragedy of universalism

One of my commenters recently pointed me at the work of Kevin McDonald, and academic who has studied the adaptive strategies of diaspora Jewry in great historical depth, largely drawing from Jewish historians as his sources.

I have yet to read his actual books, but I’ve found a great deal of review and discussion and analysis of them on the Web, and he makes some interesting cases. Through reading about his work, I’ve found a possible answer to a historical question that has troubled me for a couple of decades. That answer implies a terrible, bloody irony near the heart of the last few centuries of Jewish history.

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Jan 18

Reading racism into pulp fiction

I have a scholarly interest in the historical roots of science fiction and related genres. For this reason, I sometimes seek out and read late 19th and early 20th-century fiction, both classic and “pulp”, that I have reason to believe was formative for these genres. Nowadays I read such books critically, trying to understand what they reveal about the assumptions and world-views of the authors as well as appreciating what the authors were intending as artists.

My recent readings in this category have have included some rediscovery of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs (which I read much less critically as a child). I’m presently reading for the first time the Cossack stories of Harold Lamb, rousing tales of battle and derring-do set in Russia and India and Northern Asia around the turn of the 17th century that are at least as well constructed as anything Robert Louis Stevenson or Alexandre Dumas ever wrote. As I’ve been reading, I’ve been comparing Burroughs and Lamb to Rudyard Kipling’s tales of India, and H. Rider Haggard’s lost-worlds tales of Africa, and to Talbot Mundy’s adventure stories also set in India.

One of the obligatory features of modern reactions to these books is to tut-tut at racist and colonialist stereotyping in them. This Wall Street Journal review of Lamb is typical, waxing a bit sententious about “brushes with anti-semitism” in the Cossack stories. But I’m learning to be critical about that sort of reaction, too — because, in rereading Burroughs, I began to understand that ascriptions of “racism” are an oversimplification of Burroughs every bit as crude as the stereotypes he’s often accused of trafficking in. And now, reading Lamb, I find that these “brushes with anti-Semitism” are raising more questions in my mind about the comfortable prejudices of my own time than they are about Harold Lamb’s.

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Dec 30

A no-shit Sherlock

Instapundit and John Nolte are quite right: the new Sherlock Holmes movie was better than we had a right to expect from the trailers. We were led to anticipate a fun, mindless action comedy – a sort of reprise of Iron Man in Victorian drag, with Robert Downey Jr. in full scenery-chewing mode.

I would have enjoyed watching that movie just fine, thank you. I’ve read the entire Holmes canon, but I don’t worship it any more than Arthur Conan Doyle did, and having Guy Ritchie reprocess it into a mere popcorn flick wouldn’t particularly have bothered me. But…to my pleased surprise, Ritchie aimed for — and achieved — something much better.

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Nov 16

Barbecue kings!

John Birmingham writes from Australia:

Even, and this is gonna hurt, the Americans have it all over us when it comes to cooking with fire, iron and tongs. In fact it’s arguable the American barbecue, or rather its plethora of regional variations on barbecue, set the gold standard worldwide for applying heat to meat while out of doors. While the popular image of American cooking, at least as practised by average Americans, involves squeezing a plastic sauce packet over something nasty in a chain restaurant, the truth is their barbecue specialists would put ours to shame. Undying, unutterable shame.

Alas, John, it is so. I have eaten barbecue all over the U.S. and the world, and the kings of the genre are in this country. Not in my part of it; I’m a Boston-born northerner and most barbecue where I live is as bland and bad as you describe. As a general rule in the U.S. the further south you go the better the barbeque gets, with the acme reached in south Texas. (Though the area around Memphis, further north, is a contender.)

Internationally, almost nobody even competes with the Southern U.S. for the barbecue crown. Brazilian churrasco is the one exception I can think of – that stuff can give good ol’ Texas ‘cue a run for its money. But you ex-British-Empire types aren’t even properly in the running. I’ve been to a backyard braai in South Africa and, while the spirit was there, the seasoning and cooking technique was sadly lacking, much like what you describe.

American cooking in general gets a bad rap internationally that it doesn’t deserve. It’s as though foreigners think it’s still 1965 here or something. I can remember a time in my childhood when the slams were richly deserved — heck, I remember returning here from Europe in 1971 and having to wait more than a decade before I saw a decent piece of bread! But Americans got a clue about food in the 1980s and haven’t lost it since. I learned this when I was traveling intensively around the turn of the century; most places I visited, even the “high-quality” food was inferior to what I ate at home.

UPDATE: I suppose it’s worth noting that Brazilian-style churrascarias have become the most recent high-end restaurant fad in the U.S., suggesting that other Americans generally agree with me that the style competes well with native ‘cue. Sadly, Korean barbecue failed to become naturalized here when that was tried in the 1990s.

Sep 30

Raymond & Polanski vs. “Mr. Society”

In my previous post, Why Artists Defend Roman Polanki, I analyzed the flap over the Roman Polanski arrest as a case of artists arguing for a privilege to behave like shitheels without being held to account for it. I advanced this as an explanation because I think it covers the facts better than some of the culture-war political narratives being bandied about, especially by conservatives, but I deliberately did not take a position on the rights and wrongs of the arrest or whether I think Polanski should be prosecuted at this late date.

Now I’ll do so. I expect it will startle almost all of my regulars and offend a good many of them, but I think Polanki should be let go.

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Sep 29

Why artists defend Roman Polanski

In 1977, Roman Polanski drugged, raped, and sodomized a 13-year-old girl. When he believed a sort-of-plea-bargain was about to come unstuck, he took it on the lam. He lived the high life in this self-imposed exile for thirty years, until busted in Switzerland recently. Now various of the usual suspects on the right wing’s enemies list are campaigning to block his extradition.

There’s a good deal of perplexity being expressed about this, and some predictable chuntering from right-wingers about lefties being moral degenerates. But this flap isn’t really about politics at all — it’s much simpler than that. It’s about people who think of themselves as “artistes” reserving themselves a get-out-of-jail card when they feel like behaving like repellent scum of the earth, too.

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Aug 29

From radical evil to farce in two generations

There just isn’t any better marker for the fundamental narcissism of today’s left-wing politics that this:

That’s Che Guevara’s granddaughter, Lydia, We are told that she posed semi-nude to promote vegetarianism and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

There are so many levels of wrongness and unintended irony here that it’s hard to know where to begin…

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