Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Smart vs. Real Smart

As a society, we know a lot about a lot of things.  When I think about how much more I know about how the universe works than I did even five years ago, I'm amazed.  When I think about how much more I know about how the universe works than my grandfather did... I can't even really wrap my head around that.  There are things I remember reading about in his old Popular Science magazines, wacky predictions no one took seriously, that are real right now.  Some of the stuff my grandfather used to chuckle about I take for granted every day.

So what?
   Why the blasphemous question?  What do I mean, 'so what?'  Isn't the advancement of science its own reward?  Don't we all benefit?  Aren't social revolutions enabled by the ubiquity of our technology?

Well, sure.  Technology and science have enabled many things, not the least of which is populist uprisings in countries where that sort of thing was once thought impossible. Egypt, I'm looking your way.  But... I'm not so certain the gee-whiz advancements of science and technology have made their way into our social consciousness.

Time was, forty years ago, the United States had sent men to the Moon over and over again, and science and technology was riding high.  Social advancement was on the rise too, with equality for minorities and women becoming not just a wish, but a mandate.  Society and social consciousness were on the fast track to change.  And, man, as far as technology was concerned, things kicked into high gear.  Tech and science exploded, giving us all the many attention-grabbing and focus-eroding devices we have today.

Social science?  After about ten years of true progress it all ground to a halt.  Sure, we now have a growing equality movement for gay people that didn't exist forty years ago, but we still have an income gap for women, and an increasingly impoverished middle class, and an all-but-extinct working class.  The Supreme Court seems to think that corporations are people and that money doesn't corrupt the political process.  We're working backwards.  What we gained by miles decades ago we're losing by inches now.  And all the technology and science doesn't seem to make a difference.

It's time to leave aside being book smart, at least for a while.  We need to be real smart.  People smart.  Compassionate.  Human.  Money isn't everything, it's not even really important.  Neither is the next wireless standard, or how many thousands of miles away we can be and still kill someone, or which app lets a corporation dig deeper into our personal information.  What matters is what we do with that technology to make the world a better place.  To help others.  To improve the lives of everyone, not just a lucky few.  It's time to stop being selfish and start putting the interests of others before our own.  It's only then that we'll truly earn the advancements of science and technology.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

How Nice?

I stopped into a convenience store today, to buy snacks and a soda I absolutely had no business consuming, and I noticed an older lady behind the counter.
  Now, by 'older' I don't mean in her forties, or fifties, or even just older than me, I mean past retirement age.  She had liver spots on her hands and that kind of stooped, osteo-porotic posture you see older white women getting.  And she didn't move very fast.
  My first thought was 'Oh, how nice, she's decided she needs to get out of the house and be around people for a few hours a day.  Good for her.  When I get that old I'd like to do the same.'
  Then, as I waited in line, I had a second thought.
  What if she needs to work?
  What if, despite her best efforts, despite a lifetime of planning and saving and doing without, she's come to the twilight of her years without enough to live on?  What if she's only working the register because she has to make rent?  Or prescription money?  What if the system she counted on to take care of her, the system she supported from her earliest working life, no longer supports her?
   I didn't have the courage to ask, I couldn't even imagine how to broach the subject.  'Excuse me, ma'am, but has the social safety net betrayed your expectations?  Are you working here because you have no other option?'
   I've saved quite a bit over the years.  I'm gonna need to save more.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

RIP, Comic Books

I collected comics for a long time.  A very long time.  I was 10 when I started collecting instead of just picking up the odd issue from the spin rack at the grocery store, but I'd been reading comics since I could read.  Literally.  The first issue I remember specifically taking home and reading (and writing in) was Justice League #89, from 1971.  Since then I've collected many, many, many long boxes, I think 38 or 39, all packed full.  I have a history with the medium, is what I'm saying, I'm the guy the comic store clerks call 'sir.'

But I don't collect comics any more.  I'm back to picking up the odd issue here or there, as I used to do when I was six.  No more loyal following, no more regular Wednesday trips to the comic book store as I used to do for years.  I'm done.  The passing of an era.  Nothing is constant but change, and all that.

Why?  Because the medium is dying.  Slowly.  Agonizingly.  Pitifully.  Like watching a slug you've poured salt on.  The circulation for a hugely-successful title these days would have qualified as a cancellation twenty years back.  There are several reasons for this demise, all of them caused by short-sightedness and poor management decisions.  I'm only too happy to share them with you:

1.  There's no point for new readers to come on board.
   I can follow the story lines, but that's because I'm as old as the creators and I have the same history they do.  But new readers?  They're lost.  It's like hanging out with a different group of friends who talk in nothing but in-jokes.  Sure, you'll understand a little bit, but it'll mostly pass you by.  Take a newbie to a comic shop - assuming you can coax them in - and hand them any current Marvel or DC issue.  See if they can make heads or tails of it.  They can't, I guarantee you.

2.  There's nowhere for kids to 'come across' comics.
   Aside from being hostile to any new readers (above), which includes kids, there are no places for kids to find comics.  When I found comic books I was passing time at the magazine counter in the grocery store, waiting for my mother to finish shopping.  I saw this primary-colored splash, at my eye-level, and I was hooked on an addiction that lasted four decades.
   Try to find a spin rack now.  Go ahead, try, I'll wait here.  Didn't find one, did you?  Because there aren't any.  To 'come across' comics now, kids have to make a trip to the comic store.  The dark, smelly, unfriendly comic store, where fat scary beardos and maladjusted goobers make sure only their own kind feel welcome.

3.  The inmates run the asylum.
   When I first found comics the artists and writers were, by and large, first- and second-generation creators.  These were men (mostly) who invented the genre, and who had educations and life experiences outside of creating comic books.
   Now, we have people creating comics who have only read comics.  They may even have a degree in 'sequential art,' which is a higher-ed term for comics.  These people are fourth- and fifth-generation comics readers, who devour pop culture like the insubstantial dross it is, and regurgitate it into their creations.  They're not creating stories, they're creating comic book stories, and they're doing it through the narrowly-focused lens of their own shallow learning.
   This point explains the first two, above.

4.  Corporations.
   Make no mistake, corporations have always been a dirty part of the comics scene, just ask Siegel and Shuster's families which company cheated Superman's creators for decades.  But, until very recently, the parent corporations, while greedy and deceitful, have largely left comics to themselves on the creative front.  Now, however, Disney owns Marvel and Warner Bros. has discovered that it owns DC, and the corporate meat hooks have sunken in.
   Even five years ago, you could walk into a comic shop and find all sorts of amazing work in the majors, let alone the indies.  Now?  Marvel is all about the Avengers and DC is all about the Justice League.  And that's it.  Movie tie-ins and merchandising, nothing else.  All creativity and risk-taking has been squeezed out of the medium by soulless, gray bean-counters.  The worst thing is, the bean-counters think the public can't tell what they're doing.
   If I've learned nothing else during my tenure on this planet, I've learned two things:  health care should never be for-profit, and multinational conglomerates should never let marketing decisions drive creative processes.  Sadly, both these things are the reality we have to live with now.

These are the reasons the genre has passed me by, and they're also the same reasons comic books are dying.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that within five years - unless things change drastically - the print versions of comic books from the Big Two will be gone.  Marvel and DC, driven by moron MBAs who think they know business but only really know PowerPoint, will switch to digital-only distribution.  Which will exacerbate the four points I made above, and hasten the demise of their business.  This will lead to the death of comic book stores, but will also lead to a new flowering of the genre for independents.  Ten years from now, I hope, I'll see spin racks back in the grocery stores.
   Fingers crossed.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Guitar Year - Week 1- Jimmy Page, Jr.

I have it.  My new thing for this year.  Last year it was a book a week, which was fun and instructional and inspirational.  But reading isn't a new skill for me, I've been reading since I was four.  That's a lot of ink under these fingers.  I decided for this year I needed to learn something new.  Completely new, a skill I had not mastered before.

So I'm going to learn to play the guitar.

Yup.  The old six-string.  Acoustic.  I went to Guitar Center and bought one because they had them on sale.  It's definitely not the best one in the store - made in China - but for beginner like me it's perfectly fine.  It even comes with a bag.  Not a case.  A bag.
   Full disclosure, in third and fourth grade I played the cello.  Badly.  In college I learned how to play the clarinet, for a month of Jan Term.  So I'm not a stranger to playing an instrument.  But I haven't played anything in a couple of decades and I was no good when I last did.
   Second full disclosure, I got the idea for playing guitar from my friend Mike.  He's been saying for the past three years (at least) that by the end of this year (2011, 2012, 2013, etc.) he was for certain going to learn how to play the guitar.*  He tried to get me in on it and I refused.  Until now.  Ball's in your court, buddy.  Let's see who gets groupies first.

Here's my plan:
1.  Don't take lessons, at least not at first.  I want to noodle around with it, get on YouTube and learn from the ground up.  The best guitarists learned by doing, I need to emulate that.  Lessons maybe after the Summer Solstice.
2.  Do at least half an hour every day.  Should be easy enough.  It'll cut into my book reading/ writing time, but, honestly, I could easily eliminate half an hour of TV from my schedule and not miss it a bit.
3.  Learn music theory on the mean streets.  And by 'mean streets' I mean the Internet.  Music is math and math is music.  I'm pretty decent at math, maybe I can translate that to music.  Plus, I have a friend who's a PhD in Music, so if I get stuck I know who I can talk to.
4.  Figure out my style.  I'm really not certain what kind of player I want to be, or even the kind my fingers and brain are suited to be.  Joe Satriani?  Chet Atkins? Eddie Van Halen? Les Paul?  BB King? I have no idea where I'm headed with this, but I'll figure it out.
5.  Learn how not to suck.  I'm sure there will be suckage a-plenty for the first few months, but after a while I should improve.  I was a pretty awful actor at first, too, and then I got good.  It just takes practice.

I'll post here at least once a week with progress notes.  The pressure should also keep me from quitting.  See you next week.

BTW - If you don't know who Jimmy Page is, shame on you.  No, he's not the father of Ellen Page - I'm fairly certain - he's only one of the best guitarists ever and the force behind Led Zeppelin.  If you don't know Zep, then... man, you might be beyond help.  

* in case it's not clear, he has yet to touch a guitar, let alone learn to play one

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The German Century

Fair warning - History was one of my concentrations in college, and this is a History post, a long one at that.  Read on at your own risk.

It's common enough - at least in the US - to hear the Twentieth Century referred to as the 'American Century.'  I think there was even a PBS program with that title, maybe a book. Maybe both.  In any event, the sentiment is that because the USA seemed to dominate the world in the Twentieth Century, it belongs to us, somehow.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized the Twentieth Century is actually the German Century.  It is an undeniable truth that the USA dominated economics and foreign affairs, at least after the Great Depression.

But why?  Why did the United States come to dominate for decades, and what kept us at the top?  Germans.

Let's think this through.  Germans dominated the last twenty years of the Nineteenth Century, led by the efforts of Otto von Bismarck.  Bismarck was an expert at making alliances, but also at breaking them.  Bismarck was relieved of duty in the latter years of the Nineteenth Century, and the alliances that remained unbroken were what led to the web of treaties and agreements and pacts that started the First World War.

    Germans - World War I

Remember that the US did not enter the Great War until 1917, after it had ravaged Europe for three years.  The war concluded, with Germany saddled with reparations that crippled its economy for a generation.  These reparations set the stage for a unrest and resentment in Germany, and when the inevitable worldwide Great Depression happened, Germans saw it as a chance to regain the glory taken from them by the Weimar government.  And they gave the world Hitler.

    Germans - Weimar and economic collapse
    Germans - Hitler

Wartime expansion sparked the German spirit and its economy, and from the mid-Thirties until 1939, Germany grew its manufacturing and scientific might.  Then they invaded Poland and started the second Great War, World War II.

    Germans - World War II

Once again, Europe bore the brunt of German wartime aggression for years, until the US entered the War in 1941.  Germans lost again, and the US and Soviet Union emerged as the dominant powers.  Their main Cold War battleground?  Germany.

    Germans - partition after World War II
    Germans - Soviet blockade to establish their sphere of influence
    Germans - Berlin airlift to keep the allied sectors in control of Western powers
    Germans - Berlin Wall erected once the Soviets realize they can't take the whole city

From the immediate post-War time, 1945, to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 - fully forty-four years - the divided Germany served as the main sparring point between East and West.  Germany and the Berlin Wall were the symbols on both sides.  Symbols of discarding Western ideology in the Soviet Union, and a symbol of freedom and resistance to tyranny in the West.  Germany was always in the forefront of the news and the public consciousness.
    It was only two years after the Berlin Wall fell that the Soviet system finally collapsed under its own unsupportable weight and the entire Eastern Bloc discarded the failed ideology.

    Germans - reunited, and the Soviet system collapses, robbing the US of its major military and economic opponent

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany led Europe into the European Union and was in the first group of European countries to surrender its own currency to create the Euro, the centralized European currency, in 1999.  Since then the Euro has come to rival the US Dollar in importance in the world.  Another score for Germany.

    Germans - back to economic might
    Germans - the Euro, a symbol of a brand-new political entity, sovereign states voluntarily giving up some power to form a larger political entity

Had it not been for Germany, the US would probably not come out of its isolationism in the early Twentieth Century.  Indeed, after the War, the US stayed out of the League of Nations, returning to its 'leave us alone' status.  Which it kept until a stagnant economy led it to supply both sides in the early World War II.  The US would have fallen once again back into isolationism if not for a divided Germany and the importance of keeping the Soviets from consolidating that country under their control.  The entire Cold War was contested essentially over German soil, and when Germany was once again united, the major threat to the US, the Soviet Union, collapsed.  Germans, Germans, Germans, Germans, Germans.

I think I made my point.  US power and influence was and is just a reaction to Germany's situations.  Take Germany out of the equation, and the Twentieth Century would have been very, very different.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Book A Week - Week 52: I Think We All Learned Something

This week's book:
  A Look Back

  Grade:  A

I know it's a trite trope for the year-end, it's the lazy man's journalism, it's participating in the modern list-ification of things, but I think my exercise in A Book A Week needs a summary.  A recap.   A book-end, if you will.  So here are a few questions, and my answers:

 Which was your favorite book?
   It's hard to say, I read many excellent books.  My overall favorite fiction was A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.  But that was published before I was born.
  My favorite fiction which was published in the last three years or so... it would have to be a three-way tie, between The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker, The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, and City of Bohane by Kevin Barry.
   My favorite non-fiction was Detroit by Charlie LeDuff.  I really liked almost all of the non-fiction I read, though.  Almost all. 

Was it difficult reading a book a week?
   Not at all.  Except for a couple of very long books - and a few confusing or enraging ones - I generally finished each book in five or six days.  A couple of hours a day is all it takes.  Turn off the TV and the clock becomes your friend.

Did you discover anything about your tastes?
   Yes.  I surprised myself with how easy it was to move beyond what I thought my type of book was.  I also learned that a good book is a good book no matter where it's shelved.  Same goes for a bad book.

What would you have done differently?
   I think I would have planned the first months better.  I was just flying by the seat of my pants there, kind of reading anything that crossed my path.  After April I tried to look ahead at the lists and see if anything new or exciting was coming out.  I liked reading first novels.

Which was your least favorite book?
   That one's easy, the hands-down winner.  Why I Jump.  Pure garbage.
   My least favorite fiction was another tie, between Ready Player One and Inferno.  Sure, I could have said Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey, but why beat a dead horse?  Everyone knows those books are terrible.
   Aside from 'Why I Jump,' my non-fiction choices were all pretty good.  If I had to pick one least favorite, it's Good To Great.

What did you discover about the business of books?
   Popular does not necessarily mean good.  Or even passable.  And good does not necessarily mean commercially successful.  I think if you chase commercial success you might get it, but you almost certainly won't produce anything good or lasting.  You really do have to stay true to your vision and yourself, let the weasels and bean-counters worry about commercial.  The best books I read were the most honest, the worst were the most obviously commercial.

Would you recommend A Book A Week to others?
   Yes.  Do it.  I bought most of my books, but that's not necessary.  Libraries are fantastic places, and librarians are your quiet, subversive advocates.  They want you to check books out and read them.  They also want you to bring them back on time, deadbeat.

How can I get my kids to read?
   Set the example.  You need to read.  In front of them.  If your kids see you reading, they'll get the idea that reading is what people do.  If they only see sitting on your ass, watching Access Hollywood or Maury, they'll think that's what people should do.  And people really should not. 

Which book surprised you the most?
   As far as for-real twists and psychodrama in fiction, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  I can usually figure out plots pretty quickly, but not with this one.
   For non-fiction it's Undisputed Truth by Mike Tyson.  Surprisingly insightful.
   As far as surprising my expectations, it would have to be The Last Buccaneer by Lynn Erickson.  It's a Harlequin Romance, and nothing at all like I expected.

Would you do it again?
   Absolutely.  Next year I may just post a few more reviews.  Not one a week, though.  That's work.

Next week:
My Book A Week for a year exercise is over.  I think I'm not going to read anything next week.  Or maybe I will.  Just not on a schedule.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Book A Week - Week 51: George Washington's Secret Six

This week's book:
  George Washington's Secret Six   by Brian Kilmeade*  with Don Yeager

  Grade: B-

I'm no Revolutionary War scholar, but this book brings a new dimension to my understanding of the Founding Fathers and exactly how they won the war.

It's established fact in primary education that the Patriots were outmanned, outgunned, and out-supplied for almost every military engagement of the Revolutionary War.  The stories of the privations of Valley Forge, for instance, are common knowledge.  And the conventional wisdom - perhaps taught, perhaps not - is that the Patriots just had more pluck, luck, courage, and fortitude than the British.  That Americans won their independence through grit and determination more than anything else.

And that may be true.  Mostly.  But it did always seem to me a very simplistic explanation.  Very rarely does the complete underdog overcome the kind of odds the Patriots faced without some kind of secret advantage.  Turns out that advantage was spies.

General Washington was no stranger to a guerilla war, he did fight for the British in the French Indian War.  But this book shows how he pressed his advantage, which was the entrenched population of New York, to build a spy network that provided him a strategic and intelligence advantage the British could not overcome.  Not that they didn't try, they turned General Benedict Arnold to their side, after all.

This was an enlightening read, and well done.  I had to give it a B-, though, because it's classed as an 'historical novel,' whatever that is.
    Basically, the author(s) chose to make the narrative more of a story than an account of facts.  Which I can't really fault them for, I've read some very dry non-fiction this year.  I have to give them a thumbs-up for trying to mix it up to make the facts of the story more appealing to masses.

But the facts suffer for it.  There are accounts of conversations, for example, where there is no record of any such conversation existing.  Or accounts of the thoughts of real, historical figures without the corresponding backing documents.  The book aspires to scholarship, and it does shed light on a previously dark part of American history, but it muddies the academic waters with liberal dramatic license. 

 * yes, I know he's a Fox News shill.  I prefer to treat them better than they treat others, and assume that Mr. Kilmeade may have something to contribute despite his reprehensible day job and my opinion of how he does it.

Next week:
I have no idea what I'll read for the last week of Book a Week.  We'll see what Santa brings tomorrow.

Too Little, Much Too Late

As of today, Christmas Eve, 2013, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II granted a pardon to Alan Turing.

His crime?  Being gay in Britain in the 1950's.

Yes, in the 20th Century Mr. Turing was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to be chemically castrated.  The British government forced him to take estrogen in order to curb his baser animal urges.  You know, because he was rampaging around the English countryside gay-raping everyone he could get his hands on.*

While I appreciate the effort and the sentiment, pardoning Mr. Turing for a 'crime' that was as much an offense as me being brown-eyed or right-handed sends the wrong message.  The message is that the authorities weren't wrong in the first place when they convicted Mr. Turing of being gay.  They were nothing but wrong, and a pardon - even an extremely rare one from the Queen herself - is not justice.  The only justice would be to commute the sentence, or vacate it, or whatever they call it over in England when the judiciary realizes they've been party to a gross miscarriage of justice and they need to make it right.
    So, thanks, Your Majesty, for at least giving it a go.  But you needed to do better.

Who was Alan Turing?  A towering genius, a truly remarkable man whose achievements led to the very device you're using to read this blog right now.  Essentially, he invented the idea of electronic computers, along with the methods for programming them.  Without him the modern world would be a very, very, different place.  If you don't already know who he was, you need to find out right now.  It'll make you appreciate the difference one man can truly make, and what happens when small minds and petty bureaucracies interfere.
     Wikipedia is a good place to start.

* for the sarcasm-impaired, this is sarcasm