Monday, July 7th, 2014

I’ve been reading a story called Wool, a hugely popular sci-fi novel set in a distopian future when the surface of the planet is so toxic that people have to live underground in hermetically sealed silos because one deep breath of the outside air makes people double over in stomach-cramping pain and die.

The story opens with a pretty good hook: “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death.” Holston has been the sheriff of the silo for years, but this morning, the third anniversary of his wife’s death, he has decided that he wants to go outside. Three years ago, his wife told him something about the outside world that he has wondered about ever since. He wants to go see if it’s true.

Any one of the silo’s citizens can ask to go outside at any time. Technicians will even provide a specially-developed suit that will protect them from the toxins for a short time, and in exchange they are expected to clean the cameras that give the rest of the silo’s citizens a view of the outside world. Coming back in is not part of the bargain, however. The outside world is much too toxic for that, so “being sent to clean” has become a euphemism for capital punishment. Only people who have committed the gravest crimes are sent to cleaning. Asking to go outside is the gravest crime of all.

That’s why Holston was facing his death in the opening hook of the story. He was climbing because the silo is a subterranean bunker that goes deep into the earth, one-hundred and forty-some separate floors that shelter thousands of people. And they have just one smallish spiral staircase running up the middle of it. Everybody’s always climbing or descending those stairs. Whole pages are devoted to describing how they trudge, trudge, trudge up and down those stairs.

Funny thing  about that: For a society of stair-climbers, born and bred, they’re woefully bad at it. It takes them days to climb from the bottom to the top. They shoulder backpacks stuffed with provisions and make arrangements to stay overnight after climbing thirty or forty floors. I’m in lousy shape, but I walk down the stairs of the ten-story office building where I work, then climb back up to the top, all in fifteen minutes. About fifty pages in I was expecting a Twilight Zone-like reveal: The people of the silo are all legless! They climb the stairs on their hands! But no. That’s not it. They’re just kinda pokey.

The Zoneish reveal about the silo is, unfortunately, the answer to the question: Why do people even bother to clean the cameras after being sent outside where they will die as certainly as every other person who was sent out and not allowed back in? The answer, when I got to it after two-hundred pages, was just about good enough to keep me interested in reading half of the next two-hundred: the half that told the story of the last person to be sent outside. The other half was the story of an armed uprising that I just couldn’t make myself believe. In the end, I couldn’t make myself believe the other half, either.

There are other reasons I didn’t like Wool very much: I thought the dialog was as dull and cliched as a lot of the description was. People who lived forty stories apart spoke different dialects; that seemed more than a little farfetched. And the Evil Villain of the story wasn’t scary. He was amoral and kind of a pig, but he didn’t once scare me. But I seem to be in the minority; Wool was on the New York Times bestseller list. There are internet wikis and fan pages devoted to it. Everyone’s eagerly awaiting the film version by Ridley Scott. I hope it’s better than Prometheus.

Wool | 9:39 pm CDT
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Saturday, May 24th, 2014

I couldn’t finish reading Boomerang, Michael Lewis’s book about how all the bankers in the world simultaneously became irresponsible jerks. Not that it wasn’t a good book; far from it, the book was easy to read and the author seems to know quite a lot about how the financial world works and why it went into a tailspin, but I can only read so many stories about bankers contriving ways to steal other people’s money before I’m too disgusted to read any more. I got to within fifty pages or so of the end and just couldn’t go on. But still, as I said, good book. If you can stomach it.

Boomerang | 4:51 pm CDT
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Sunday, February 9th, 2014

I’ve found I can’t help but read news stories and books about global climate change. They literally compel me to stop what I’m doing and read, I guess because the premise that we are poisoning the only planet we will ever have to live on is so obvious that I would always like to know why the subject isn’t compelling to everyone. In spite of all the news stories, books, and especially in spite of all the noise generated by social media, I still haven’t figured it out. But I keep reading.

The author of “Field Notes From a Catastrophe,” Elizabeth Kolbert, has been traveling the world talking to people who have made it their life’s work to find out if the global climate is going to change so drastically that we will have a hard time continuing to live here. The answer, it turns out, is yes, very probably. “A hard time living here,” by the way, doesn’t mean we’ll have to weatherproof our homes or wear more sunscreen, stuff like that. It means drought, famine, disease, extinction – Cormac McCarthy kinds of “hard times,” just to be clear.

But it also turns out that we can do something about it because the climate change that we’re observing is a result of all the crap we release into the air. Then the question becomes, What can we do, How can we do it, and When do we do it? See how one question became three there? And then, for example, “When do we do it?” becomes, “Who, me? Right now? Why don’t those guys have to do it? How can that be fair? Why should I have to pay when they don’t?” It’s a hydra-headed problem that Kolbert addresses very directly. I liked her no-nonsense way of avoiding a sensationalist tone that others so easily slide into when talking about a subject like this.

And I liked that she made her argument very concisely; I started reading it on a lazy Sunday last weekend and finished it off this morning. It didn’t take me a week; those were the only two days I spent reading it. I spent my evenings this week reading a space opera, “The Hydrogen Sonata,” by Iain M. Banks and finishing off another chapter of “The Education of Henry Adams.” I’m an easily distracted reader.

Field Notes From A Catastrophe | 9:44 am CDT
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Sunday, December 8th, 2013

It’s possible that the seven wives of the first American astronauts may have been boring people. I haven’t met any of them. It seems unlikely, though. What I’ve read about them (up until now) suggests that they were at least as interesting as most people. And being military wives, they’d traveled back and forth across the United States and the world. They were married to fighter pilots who became test pilots before they were selected to be the first American astronauts. And finally, they were thrust into the public eye all but against their will to have virtually every molecule of their beings scrutinized.

So I doubt they were boring. They must’ve had at least a few memories worth putting to paper. And Lily Koppel’s book about them, The Astronaut Wives Club, hints at some of those memories, but the way Koppel spins them out, they bump and clunk up over odd, seemingly random non sequiturs. Here’s how she introduces Marge Slayton:

Marge Slayton welcomed the press boys with her silent-film-star smile. She and Deke were stationed at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave, where the Joshua trees rose like gnarled arthritic hands out of the lakebed runway. She had been gung ho ever since the space race began on an October night in 1957 when Russia launched Sputnik over the United States on the same night Leave It To Beaver made its television debut. Sputnik means “fellow traveler” in Russian.

Koppel never explains what Leave It To Beaver has to do with Marge Slayton, or why we need to know the literal translation of “sputnik” to understand her relationship with Deke.

Aside from being peppered with a random sprinkling of barely-relevant facts, quite a few of the portraits of the wives as painted by Koppel are less than flattering. When Koppel introduces Trudy Cooper, she starts by dropping the bombshell that just before her husband Gordon was selected to become an astronaut, Trudy had run off to San Diego with their daughters to start life over after finding out Gordon had been cheating on her. But what started out as a story that might have painted her in a sympathetic light ends up making her look like a gold digger:

… she couldn’t bear to let such a choice assignment be forfeited … talks were already underway to give Life magazine exclusive coverage of the astronauts’ and their wives’ “personal stories” … The reward would be big: $500,000. If there was anything more amazing that Gordo could tell Trudy, she didn’t know what it was … the idea of half a million dollars, which was to be divvied up equally among the seven new space families … was like winning the lottery.

As tough as things might have been for a divorced woman in the 1960s, Trudy was a woman who was not without the wherewithal to make a new start on her own. A military wife, she would’ve had a network of people she could have turned to for support, and she was an accomplished pilot besides. Yet, the way Koppel tells the story, she chose to overlook Cooper’s infidelity for a one-time payout of a little more than $70K. There must have been just a little more to the story than that.

If there was, it must have been somewhere in the last half of the book that I didn’t read, and why would you do that? Nearly every story the wives could tell was broken up in a way that makes reading it almost painful:

Alan, Gordo and Gus were big racers, loved fast cars, and were planning to realize their hot-rod fantasies with their Life money. In the meantime, Gus and Deke continued to hunt in the wilds outside of Langley.

“Hey, where’d you get that cat?” asked Betty Grissom’s son Scotty about the black bear his father and his new astronaut friend Deke were dragging into the garage one Sunday. They’d brought home the kill, displaying the all-American frontiersman spirit that made the press call the boys “the greatest heroes since Christopher Columbus. The men who will take us to the stars!” The wives just looked at each other with frozen eyes.

“Thank goodness we got that money for our stories from Life,” said Betty.

I gave up after chapter three.

The Astronaut Wives Club | 10:20 am CDT
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Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Alas, Frederick Pohl

We have lost another giant.

Frederick Pohl | 4:59 pm CDT
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Monday, November 26th, 2012


When the English stormed the Emerald Isle in the 17th century, they took everything that was worth taking and burned everything else. Thereafter, the Irish had no land, no money, no future. That left them with words, and words became books, and books, ingeniously coupled with music and alcohol, enabled the Irish to transcend reality.

And this:

Books as physical objects matter to me, because they evoke the past. A Métro ticket falls out of a book I bought 40 years ago, and I am transported back to the Rue Saint-Jacques on Sept. 12, 1972, where I am waiting for someone named Annie LeCombe. A telephone message from a friend who died too young falls out of a book, and I find myself back in the Chateau Marmont on a balmy September day in 1995. A note I scribbled to myself in “Homage to Catalonia” in 1973 when I was in Granada reminds me to learn Spanish, which I have not yet done, and to go back to Granada.

None of this will work with a Kindle. People who need to possess the physical copy of a book, not merely an electronic version, believe that the objects themselves are sacred. Some people may find this attitude baffling, arguing that books are merely objects that take up space. This is true, but so are Prague and your kids and the Sistine Chapel. Think it through, bozos.

— Joe Queenan
My 6,128 Favorite Books

morning quote | 6:07 am CDT
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Sunday, November 18th, 2012

The only fit snack while reading is the olive in a martini.

— P.J. O’Rourke

book snack | 4:47 pm CDT
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Thursday, September 27th, 2012

image of Saturn

“…the Cassini spacecraft pulled into orbit around Saturn. There was nothing scientific about it, just pulling into orbit. Yet the Today Show figured that was news enough to put the story in their first hour – not in the second hour, along with the recipes, but in the first twenty minutes. So they called me in. When I get there, everybody says, ‘Congratulations! What does this mean?’ I tell them it’s great, that we’re going to study Saturn and its moons. Matt Lauer wants to be hard-hitting, though, so he says, ‘But Dr. Tyson, this is a $3.3 billion mission. Given all the problems we have in the world today, how can you justify that expenditure?’ So I say, ‘First of all, it’s $3.3 billion divided by twelve. It’s a twelve-year mission. Now we have the real number: less than $300 million per year. Hmmm. $300 million. Americans spend more than that per year on lip balm.’

“At that moment, the camera shook. You could hear the stage and lighting people giggle. Matt had no rebuttal; he just stuttered and said, ‘Over to you, Katie.’ When I exited the building, up came a round of applause from a group of bystanders who’d been watching the show. And they all held up their ChapSticks, saying, ‘We want to go to Saturn!'”


space chronicles | 8:30 pm CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, current events, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

image of book cover for John Scalzi's book RedshirtsI had John Scalzi’s book Redshirts on request for so long at the library that I forgot I’d even asked them for it until we stopped day before yesterday so My Darling B could pick up the dozen or so books she had on hold. When she came back to the checkout, Redshirts was on the top of her pile.

I started reading it immediately. Really, I read the first five pages while she was scanning her books. I read the first couple chapters as soon as we got home. I kept reading it as late into the night as I could, which isn’t very late on a work night. I read it on breaks. I read it at lunch. I finished reading it last night. I couldn’t stop reading it.

One of the reasons for that is, Scalzi’s books are mostly dialog. At least the ones I’ve read are. His characters hardly ever stop talking long enough for him to have to explain anything. They do it for him. And they’re never boring characters. If I could have just one wish, I’d like to meet actual people as witty and interesting as the characters in Scalzi’s books.

Being mostly dialog, Scalzi’s books are usually a quick read for me. The pages aren’t dauntingly packed with dense prose and, as I said, the banter is witty and entertaining. No matter how much I’ve read, I never feel I’ve read enough. I just keep gobbling it up until it’s almost midnight and I realize that, if I don’t go to bed soon, I’ll end up taking a nap for an hour before I have to head to the office and won’t I be cranky the rest of the day then?

If you know anything about Star Trek, you know that, when Captain Kirk, Spock and McCoy beamed down to a new planet each week, there was usually a crew member who beamed down with them, and the poor bastard’s one job on the away team was to get killed by aliens before the commercial break. Among science fiction nerds, expendable characters are called “redshirts” because security guards on the Enterprise, the guys who usually beamed down to protect Kirk and Spock, wore red shirts. The redshirt effect even carried over to Scotty, who got the crap kicked out of him on a regular basis.

In Star Trek, the fact that the security guards always die when they’re on an away team with Kirk seems to go unnoticed. In Redshirts, Scalzi’s characters are keenly aware of the fact and not only look for the reason, they try to figure out how to put an end to the madness. When I got to that part, I couldn’t have stopped reading for all the beer in town.

The book ends with four codas that I haven’t read yet. Probably have to take a long lunch today.

Redshirts | 6:07 am CDT
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Friday, September 21st, 2012

image of the Milky Way in the night sky“Unlike other animals, humans are quite comfortable sleeping on our backs. This simple fact affords us a view of the boundless night sky as we fall asleep, allowing us to dream about our place in the cosmos and to wonder what lies undiscovered in the worlds beyond.

The effect is to leave us restless for want of a plan to discover. We know in our minds, but especially in our hearts, the value to our culture of new voyages and the new vistas they provide. Because without them, our culture stalls and our species withers. And we might as well go to sleep facing down.”


face up | 5:34 am CDT
Category: Big Book of Quotations, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, play, space geekery
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Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Can you find Bonkers the Cat in this photo of my basement lair?

image of man cave

I bought a new camera a few weeks ago because I lost my old camera. Just lost it. I was taking photos while I was brewing beer or hammering on some wood or something, so between photos I put it somewhere very safe, and it is in such a completely safe place that I’m sure it will still be in good working order when I remember where that safe place is.

I went without a camera for a month or two because it took that long to get over how stupid I felt about losing my camera, but then one day while I was shopping for toilet paper or shoes or something completely unrelated to cameras, I wandered past the electronics section of our local Shopko store and I bought a camera. And it sucked. But the suckiness of the camera was Fuji’s fault, not Shopko’s. I took the crappy Fuji camera back and bought a Sony Cybershot, which was coincidentally the name of the camera that’s in a very safe place. And I like it a lot.

One of the things my Sony Cybershot can to is take panoramic photos. I can stand in the middle of my basement lair, for instance, and slowly turn in a circle after I click the shutter. The computer brain of the camera can remember everything it sees and somehow pieces it together into a nearly seamless photo of everything I pointed it at. You can see a few of the places where it had to sort of fudge things together. There’s a very obvious break in the florescent light on the left, for instance, but I’m really amazed at how good the rest of it looks.

lair | 6:12 am CDT
Category: Bonkers, books, daily drivel, entertainment, hobby, O'Folks, play, typewriters | Tags:
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Friday, June 8th, 2012

We have been given eyes to see what the light-year worlds cannot see of themselves, Bradbury wrote. We have been given hands to touch the miraculous. We’ve been given hearts to know the incredible. Can we shrink back to bed in our funeral clothes?

Andy Chaikin, who has made a life out of writing about space explorers, remembers Ray Bradbury

requiem | 5:50 am CDT
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