Doctor Science Knows

Sunday, April 27, 2008

YA book recs wanted: Rashomon

At dinner we were discussing how to write a story with a cast of thousands, and also how to write a book that covers a brief time period. One of the techniques we talked about was the "Rashomon" method, where the story is re-told from different viewpoints, and each time you get a completely different idea about what happened and what the people are like.

The Distant Future of Fandom (age 12) thought this was a great idea, and asked for recommendations for suitable books written this way. We couldn't think of any, so I ask you for recs. Her reading level is near-adult, but she doesn't want anything with sex or violence (including most horror), and nothing where the story revolves around romance ("bo-ring").

In talking about cast-of-thousands stories we talked about The Odyssey, which the DFoF is currently reading as her "outside the curriculum" book for English class. And we also talked about books with very compressed time-frames, and how that's easiest if it's the end of the world (or other sweaping traumatic event). But, she said, you *could* have a book about only one ordinary day if it were done in enough detail. Especially if it's a thought-diary, where you put in everything the person thinks.

Yes, that's right. Our 12-year-old deduced the existence of Joyce's "Ulysses". I don't know whether to be more smug or more staggered.

While I'm at it, I'll record my comment from the Dreamcafe post:

The reason they’re telling you not to do cast-of-thousands stories is that *most* of them suck like a hoover — see most disaster novels, the kind that have a cast list and that flip from one set of characters to the next in a set rotation.

Any time you need a cast list, you’re probably doin’ it wrong, because that means there are too many characters for the reader to keep track of who’s who. The reader can only keep track of actual characters at some rate — characters introduced per 5000 words is probably the metric to use — which is not infinite. It also depends on the rate at which the reader (viewer) will consume what you’re writing. Tolstoy & Dickens had a lot of “readers” who were actually getting the works as read-alouds, which is much slower and gives the readers a lot more time to absorb each character before going on to the next.

Steven (and Terry Pratchett) have built up enormous casts by the more modern method of writing series, where each book is a mix of older characters and new ones. I think adding new characters in spurts like that is particularly effective, because they come as “sets” which are easier to remember.

It’s like, imagine you’re at a con (or conference) where you have to meet 50 people in two days, then go home and write up your impressions of each one. You can talk to each person for an hour, never sleep, and if you’re me when you get home it will be all a blur. And you’ll have Con Crud.

Or you can meet them as panels of 5, two hours per panel, still have time for sleep and personal hygiene, and when you come home each person will have a context and a prayer that you’ll remember them.

You’ll still probably have Con Crud, though.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, April 25, 2008

Breaking up with Pandagon

This is a brief statement, copied from a comment I left at Holly's post at feministe, "I Guess It's a Jungle in Here Too, Huh?.

I've been wondering about where Pam Spalding is, too.

I'm a regular commenter at Pandagon who doesn't have a feminist blog worthy of the name -- pretty much all I post on my blog are copies of comments I make on other people's blogs, to keep track of the conversations I'm in.

Last week I didn't have time to read all the 200+ comment threads where this was being discussed, so I decided to wimp out and follow Pam's lead, because I think of her as my link into the POC blogosphere. I thought, "as long as Pam's happy, I'll assume there's nothing I need to investigate in greater depth." But I've felt uncomfortable enough to make a point of commenting on other Pandagonian's posts more than Amanda's.

I know, I know, OK?

Anyway, Holly's post here has sealed the deal for me. Unless & until Pam -- for whom I still have enormous respect until proven otherwise -- gives me a persuasive reason to come back, I won't be commenting at Pandagon any more.

And for me this is a wrench that it isn't for most of you. You read the posts; I'm part of the community of commenters. This decision cuts me off from that community, and though some of the regulars are people I run into around the blogosphere, there are a number I can't count on encountering again. And *that's* why I'm crying.

Members of the Pandagon community, let me know where you're hanging, OK? I know I'll see Jes, Alara & Ginmar around, but for a lot of you I don't know where else you post or comment.

Every time I start trying to add to this post I start crying again, and I have to put in a day's work regardless, so I'm stopping here for now.

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Heads They Win; Farming

I left a comment at echidne of the snakes:

from What’s $34 Billion on Wall Street? [NYT, Jan 27 '08]

In any other industry, Mr. Kim and Mr. Maheras would be pariahs. But in the looking-glass world of Wall Street, they — and others like them — are hot properties. The two executives are well on their way to reviving their careers, even as global markets shudder at the prospect that Merrill and Citigroup may report further subprime losses in the coming months.

... The quick comebacks of these executives stand in stark contrast to the plight of the hundreds of investment bankers who have received pink slips in the last two weeks. They also illuminate a peculiar aspect of Wall Street’s own version of a class divide.

... To some extent, it is personal: Mr. Kim and Mr. Maheras have a web of relationships with Wall Street’s top executives.

I don't see anything "peculiar" about this class divide at all. This is what a ruling class looks like: if you're on the inside, your friends help each other loot & pillage when times are good -- and cut back to just looting when times are bad.

also posted at Making Light, Heads they win, tails we lose. With much other discussion:

It looks like one of the oldest games of all: It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know. The complete decoupling of risk and reward is not a bug in this game, it's a *feature*. For the winners, at least.

I'm not sure what kind of -cracy this is. Plutocracy? Aristocracy? BigGuycracy? In any event, it's not "a peculiar version of a class divide", it's the same old class divide made especially stark.

albatross @ 215:
I think you'd find it hard to make an argument for subsidizing small farmers (being pushed out of the market by economic forces) that didn't also apply to all kinds of other businesses

The traditional argument is that food is special because everyone needs food to *live*, so (a) monopolies are especially dangerous, and (b) letting the supply be controlled by other countries is especially dangerous.

In the case of France, at least, one can see an additional consequence of small-farm supports: French food. Most food ingredients just aren't as tasty when they've been mass-produced and travelled hundreds or thousands of miles. To get French food, you need local ingredients, and that's part of what French agricultural policy has gotten them.

Of course, this is doubly untrue in the US, where (a) people historically don't care how the food tastes, and (b) ag policy supports the food that travels best (grains, sugar, butter). But the local harvest idea really does mean something.

PJ Evans @219:

One of the great benefits of Community Supported Agriculture is that the farmer gets the money in the spring, when ze needs it, and then the risk that a particular crop will fail gets spread across all the members, not just dumped on the farmer. I've been a CSA member for about 15 years, and you really get an old-fashioned attitude toward the weather -- it's *personal* when an early frost means no more basil, or too much rain at the wrong time means no carrots this year.

I strongly recommend this directory to find a CSA near you -- though shares are mostly gone for the 2008 season as the popularity of "eating locally" increases.

Greg @ 234:

It really, really depends on what they're farming and where. I'm not far from Princeton, NJ, and I know a number of people who have successfully gone into "boutique" farming from a non-farm background. The CSA has interns and apprentices every year. A bunch of my middle-schoolers friends are in 4H, just like the farm kids were when I was growing up -- but these aren't farm kids, they're not born into farming -- they're learning it just as the kids on the robotics team are learning engineering, or the kids in woodworking classes are learning that trade.

It's definitely the organic farmers who are the real cutting edge, here: they're developing a model of farming as a *career*, not a birth right (or curse).

As PJ says, it works for unprocessed fruits & veg, and for high-value items like organic dairy products and wine. And it also works here because the land is so valuable that farming *has* to concentrate on high-value items -- though there's some talk about people experimenting with field corn this year.

Koske @ 261:

My thinking is that many of these O/N/L businesses and products come closer to reflecting the actual costs of the food

That is certainly my observation. The organic vegetables I get from my CSA actually cost no more in $$ than buying the same thing in "non-organic" form at the grocery store, and are *much* cheaper than buying the organic equivalent at the natural food store.

Basically, I do not spend more money by getting food from the CSA, but the quality is enormously higher. They're not just tomatoes, they're a religious experience.

albatross @260:
As I said above, farming is not-just-a-business because we need food to *live*, in way that we don't need hardware stores.

I live literally next door to the CSA where I get my food. It is enormously easier for me to put up with the local externalities -- tractor noise at odd hours, some pretty organic smells from time to time -- because I know that I'm not living next to a mere business of which I happen to be a customer, but a source of my physical existence. Even so, I wouldn't be nearly as tolerant of a non-organic farm, because the externality of breathing pesticides & herbicides would be too high.

Greg @236:

One thing about "boutique" farms is that, to be viable, they need to grow an enormously greater range of crops than the farms you grew up with probably did. The CSA farm (less than 100 acres) where I get my veg grows 40 different crops, each in multiple varieties (there must be 30+ different kinds each of tomatoes and peppers). The orchard (200 acres) where I get most of my fruit grows 30 varieties each of apples and peaches, along with 20 other crops.

This is clearly enormously inefficient by agribusiness standards -- but it buffers the farmers against the random factors that always make agriculture precarious. That buffering is what agricultural subsidies are supposed to be *for*, so in many ways I'm paying the subsidies for my food upfront -- by getting only what they are able to grow despite their inefficiency.

The way I get my food has an "anti-capitalist" feel, because it involves actual human relationships, not just the exchange of money. But this discussion has made me see that a lot of what we see as part of capitalism is passing the buck on externalities. What I'm experiencing is not really romanticism, it's "not escaping the externalities".

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Blogcomment record: Racism; Equal marriage

Two comments left at Orcinus:

1. To the post on The threat of difference, which is mostly about Jonah Goldberg's statement that the "Darwin fish" is offensive:

Dave: I have to disagree with you here:
when in fact no gay marriage on the planet harms a single straight marriage
Same-sex marriage harms traditional marriages two ways:

1) It threatens the closeted.

To the Ted Haggards and Jim McGreeveys, same-sex marriage is a taunt: you didn't have to settle for the closet. Orson Scott Card's diatribes against same-sex marriage have this flavor: he says het marriage is intrinsically more difficult than gay marriage, so hets need to be rewarded or they won't do it. If you feel like you're in prison, seeing other people free really is a threat.

2) Things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.

Traditional marriage involves one dominant person with full legal rights and a submissive person with lesser rights. Same-sex marriage is clearly between two people with the *same* legal rights, and there is no cue to say which partner is dominant or submissive. Same-sex marriage is *equal* marriage, and thus really does threaten traditional unequal marriage by being a counter-example.

In other words: cats and dogs, sleeping together, mass hysteria.

2. In That dialogue on race: the hard part, about the difficulty of talking about racial issues in America, "Jaqueline Quinn" linked to a coffeeandink post on talking about race in fandom. I wrote:

From another part of the same internet conversation Jackie is referencing:

Baby-stepping away from racism: A guide for white people. Most important in this particular case are baby-steps #2 and #4: "Shut up" -- it's not about *you*; and "Act in a *supporting* role".

One of the many take-home I've learned from the racism conversation among sf/media fans is that references to someone's "tone" (on the internet, at least) are almost always the red flag of Fail. "I would have agreed with her about racism in X if it weren't for her *tone*" -- that usually translates to: "My privilege, let me show you it! My feelings should come first!"

Labels: , , , ,

Down to the sea in ships

I just realized that I have had an experience that is probably quite rare for people under 60, and almost unknown to anyone born after 1970.

I have crossed the Atlantic in a ship. Three times, in fact.

In the fall of 1964, when I was 8, my family travelled to France to live for a year in Aix-en-Provence (Fulbright scholarship). We travelled on the SS United States. I remember it as being quite excitingly rocky -- there was at least one meal where my father and I were just about the only passengers in the madly-tilting dining room, which had all kinds of fascinating fittings to keep the food & place settings from flying off the table.

In the late spring of 1965, we returned to the US on the maiden voyage of the liner Michelangelo.
I don't remember all that much about the trip, though the ship was extremely stylish, especially compared to the metallic United States. Not that style is everything -- my mother remembers the crew sweaping the carpets in the hallways with brooms instead of vacuum cleaners, which was rather ineffective.

In the late summer of 1968, when I was 12, we returned to France for a year in Dijon as part of a faculty-exchange program. We travelled over on SS France. This was a much more leisurely trip than the one on the United States, but frankly all I remember is running along the stairs and gangways with the children we made friends with on the trip.

As I think about it, there's a distinctive smell of these ocean liners: cold, salty, oily, and metallic. It's not a smell we get on the ferry boats I've ridden many times since, it's both brinier and more engine-like, with none of the fish or seaweed smells you get on the ocean nearer shore.

When we returned to the US in June 1969 my father, whose leg was in a cast, travelled on the France and my mother took my brother & me home by air, via Finland (where we shopped for furniture) and Iceland (because Icelandic was the cheapest way to fly across the Atlantic at the time, and our plane was delayed in Reykjavik for an extra day).

And that was pretty much the end of the transatlantic liner era: the United States is anchored immovably in Philadelphia, the Michelangelo was scrapped in 1991, and the France is being scrapped as I write. Plenty of ships cross the Atlantic still, of course, but there are almost no passengers: long sea voyages are for work or for play, but not for *travel*.

I'm curious, for those of you who've been on cruises and other forms of ocean transport: is the movement of those ships enough that when you get to land, the land seems to go up-and-down until you get used to it again? It was very noticeable and amusing for me as a child after the transatlantic crossings -- the United States took about 4 days, the others I guess about 6 days each.

Labels: ,