Connie Willis

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Two posts in one day…I know, I might be coming out of this fugue.   Maybe it’s the prospect of finally finishing my undergrad degree (two more weeks, baby!) .  At this rate, I’ll be back to writing about the semi-eponymous fellow soon enough- I have not lost the love, TPaw.  Put your heart at ease.

So Connie Willis.  Is Awesome.  She’s a science fiction writer, apparently one of the most successful in decades.  Wikipedia tells me she’s been wracking up Hugo awards like they’re those 6 inch plastic trophies I got playing Rec ball in 6th grade-  Thank You for Participating, Connie Willis.  Job well done.  Unlike me, however, she deserves them.    Somehow, I’d never heard of her until two days ago when I happened to pick up, To Say Nothing of the Dog.  It’s about…well, you can click to see what it’s about.  Oh, alright: chaos theory, Waterloo, time travel, Luftwaffe air raids, the quiesence of the moon as it yawns down on a dreaming meadow.  All with the funny of Jasper Fforde if he happened to exchange literary references for science and history ones.

Today, I sped through the first 150 pages of Bellwether.  The chaos theory is more explicit, the air raids are gone, Waterloo stays in the 19th century, fads are in, and the moon pops up, albeit a Plutonian one, as an odd bump on a scientific-readerwhatsit thingy.  Even though this particular novel didn’t win any Hugo’s, I actually like it a bit better.  Or equal.  They’re both great.

Something I like, besides the topics: the pace.  They’re incredibly quick reads, but the actual story pacing is deliberate.  Normally, I’m too impatient for slowly unraveling plots, but somehow Willis makes it fit.  In Bellwether, two scientists are trying to solve separate but related problems.  I’ll never be a scientist, but for a brief time, that pacing allowed me to feel like one; the trial and error, the systematism which is often supplanted by inspiration, and the frustration.  It’s all there along with writing which is really awfully good for someone whose books are stashed over by the Romance section- hey I love Sci-Fi and fantasy, but mostly, Dickens they are not.

Oh and they’re not political; not even remotely political.  And yet…she pokes fun at the anti-smoking craze and sides with individual initiative, largely, over blind forces.  There’s something cultural in there that works for me, though I can’t imagine it turning off any liberals.  Anyway, I recommend them if you have a few spare hours this holiday season- or sooner, definitely sooner.

Categories: Books and a Dream Tags:

The Long-Dark Tea Time of the Soul

December 8, 2009 Leave a comment

A couple days ago, my mom found a brand new tea-ball hidden away in an old box.  Since I’d wanted one for awhile, I was pretty excited.  So I dug out my copy Douglas Adam’s Salmon of a Doubt and read the essay he wrote on how to make a good cup of tea (I needed the authentic Britishness).  Well, I read the essay and made the tea- excellent by the way, noticably better than how I’ve made it- but I also stumbled on essay he wrote on P.G. Wodehouse, the British comedic writer.  It’s a great essay, apparently prefacing an edition of Wodehouse’s final novel, which makes the case that Wodehouse’s particular brand of genius puts him in the company of Shakespeare and Milton.  A few nuggets:

What Wodehouse writes is pure word music…he is the greatest musician of the English language.


Like Milton Wodehouse reaches outside his paradise for metaphors that will make it real for his readers…Of course, Wodehouse never burdened himself with justifying the ways of God to Man, but only of making man, for a few hours at a time, inextinguishably happy.

Wodehouse better than Milton?  Well, of course it’s an absurd comparison, but I know which one I’d keep in the balloon, and not just for his company, but for his art.


He’s up in the stratosphere of what the human mind can do, above tragedy and strenuous thought, where you will find Bach, Mozart, Einstein, Feynman, and Louis Armstrong, in the realms of pure, creative playfulness.

Heavy praise, indeed.  Now I haven’t read any Wodehouse, though I want to and I’ll probably make time now, so I can’t really comment on his genius.  He’s one of those niche authors whose books all come in $19 hardback editions because, within that niche, price isn’t an object.  Unfortunately, it is an object for me and I don’t much like reading humor books in the store (people give you funny looks if you start rolling on the floor).  But, the essay reminded me of how I’ve thought of G.K. Chesterton- a glorious writer who is woefully underappreciated because he wrote the wrong sort of things.

He’s not a perfect writer.  Adams pooh poohs the criticism that Wodehouse was repetitive, but that’s certainly something that was true of Chesterton.  He had mastered the particular- individual sentences, paragraphs, etc- but as you move outward to page and plot, the writing wears on you a bit.  Rare is the Chesterton book which holds up as a unified whole.  And don’t try to read too much Chesterton in a short period of time- he needs to be doled out like tart cheese.

His fiction has unique difficulties- the people are all just ideas masquerading as characters.  The same ideas, usually.  Still, in that short space- what I’ve called, in honor of him, the “two minute” passage (it takes approximately 2 minutes to read aloud)- when his ideas are at their sharpest, he is a man nearly unmatched in English letters. Is there anything better than this?

But this madness has remained sane. The madness has remained sane when everything else went mad. The madhouse has been a house to which, age after age, men are continually coming back as to a home. That is the riddle that remains; that anything so abrupt and abnormal should still be found a habitable and hospitable thing. I care not if the sceptic says it is a tall story; I cannot see how so toppling a tower could stand so long without foundation. Still less can I see how it could become, as it has become, the home of man. Had it merely appeared and disappeared, it might possibly have been remembered or explained as the last leap of the rage of illusion the ultimate myth of the ultimate mood, in which the mind struck the sky and broke. But the mind did not break. It is the one mind that remains unbroken in the break-up of the world. If it were an error, it seems as if the error could it hardly have lasted a day. If it were a mere ecstasy, it would seem that such an ecstasy could not endure for an hour. It has endured for nearly two thousand years; and the world within it has been more lucid, more level-headed, more reasonable in its hopes, more healthy in it instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, than all the world outside. For, it was the soul of Christendom that came forth from the incredible Christ, and the soul of it was common sense, Though we dared not look on His face we could look on His fruits; and by His fruits we should know Him. The fruits are solid and the fruitfulness is much more than a metaphor, and nowhere in this sad world are boys happier in apple trees or men in more equal chorus singing as they tread the vine, than under the fixed flash of this instant and intolerant enlightenment, the lightning made eternal as the light.

I don’t know that I’d put Chesterton with Milton or Shakespeare, because I don’t know how much of that seeming limitation was self-imposed, a result of his laser focus to do but one thing: defend the Christian religion to mankind.  Regardless, I think our “literary” pantheon should have a bigger place for writers like Wodehouse and Chesterton, who had geniuses of their own though they didn’t hue to convention.

Top 5 TV Shows That Went Before Their Time

December 5, 2009 5 comments

I’m not in so much of a political mood these days.  Sorry.  But, anyway, here’s something maybe interesting; my favorite TV shows that bit the bullet WAY too early.  Sadly, I seem to have a taste for these shows, so they stick out.

5.  Star Trek-  Ok, maybe this should be higher up, but here’s the thing.  I tend to think that 3 years is a pretty good run for a show.  Not always perfect, but pretty good.  It’s a rare show that can maintain quality past, say, the 4th season.  Buffy managed it.  A few sitcomy things managed it, since you don’t need a huge thru plotline; Seinfeld for instance.  But most shows decrease in quality even before the 4th season.  So, while I think that Star Trek probably had another good year or two in it, it would have probably reached the end of the awesomeness road sooner than the other shows on this list.

4.  Wonderfalls-  Ivy League girl who comes to work in…a Niagra Falls gift shop.  She’s nicely sarcastic and quirky.  Oh, and bonus: plastic animals talk to her.  It got less than a season (like 13 episodes), but was a really unique and intriguing show.  I was tempted to put a more recent Brian Fuller creation here: Pushing Daisies.  The guy’s a genius and Pushing Daisies, at it’s best, was better than Wonderfalls.  But, I’d actually stopped watching Pushing Daisies a few episodes before it went off air.  No particular reason.  It wasn’t conscious.  The whole conceit  just kind of wore itself out.  So maybe…good cancel?  I’m pretty sure Wonderfalls had some  steam left in it.

3.  Firefly-  Joss Whedon at his second best.  Much better than Dollhouse.  Better than Angel by virtue of not having David Borealis.  And tragically doomed.  At first, I resisted Firefly.  I didn’t like the inside joke culture it had among the folks who watched it.  I was too good for that.  I was stupid.  I don’t think it’s the greatest show ever or anything like that, and I’ll still never be a part of that set, but it was high quality stuff that vanished way too soon.

2.  Popular-  Follows two girls from different worlds who are suddenly thrust together when their parents get involved.  I loved this show; the characters were snarky, smart, over the top, but still recognizable and real.   Does liking a show called “Popular”, make me a girl?  Don’t care.  Yes, it was uneven.  Ok, it had real potential to go off the rails- these types of shows almost always do, since their natural audience (young teenage girls) don’t necessarily have the patience for all quirk all the time.  Still, I think, of all the shows on this list (including the next one) this is the one I enjoyed the most…when it worked.  Two seasons wasn’t enough.

1.  Joan of Arcadia-  Thought I was going to say Arrested Development…right?  Well, I’m not a hipster.  Usually.  Mostly.  Joan of Arcadia was a terrific show with family-oriented, religious themes, which was hitting a kind of high when it was canceled.  The story follows a girl named Joan who can talk to God.  She lives in Arcadia.  Aka, Joan of Arcadia.  I honestly believe this could have been one of the lucky few to churn out more than 4 quality seasons.  Sadly, it only had two.

Honorable Mention:  Tru Calling-   Ok, cheating I know, but I thought up a 6th show just after I finished the original list, so you’ll have to bear it.  In this show, foxy Eliza Dushku gets to relive each day…after she comes in contact with a murdered corpse.  She can then try to save them.  This was actually a surprisingly good show which I stumbled upon the morning after my one and only hangover.  There was some kind of marathon going on and I watched like 6 episodes in a row while I convalesced.  Sadly, it had been cancelled for like 5 years at that point.  After less than two seasons.

What Should We Buy?

December 3, 2009 1 comment

Mrs. Peel has a neat post on an economics article that deals with the dead-weight loss involved in gift-giving. She writes:

Basically, when you give someone a gift, you are increasing their wealth by the cost of that gift.  However, the recipient’s value of the gift – in economic terms, its utility – is not necessarily equal to the cost.  In other words, the recipient could possibly have achieved greater utility by spending the same amount of money (the cost) elsewhere; alternatively, the giver could have spent less money to provide the same utility to the recipient.

It is possible for a giver to provide greater utility than the cost if the recipient is uninformed.  For one example, say I asked for the Kindle 2, and after you asked me what I wanted from an ereader, you discovered that the Nook would be a better choice for me.  I had never heard of the Nook, so I was uninformed.  Therefore, your gift actually had a larger utility than I would have obtained by spending the same amount of money myself.

In general, however, recipients are informed, so the best a giver can do is equal the utility the recipient would have achieved.  This is commonly accomplished through cash or gift certificates.  Though the author did not address this possibility, it can also, as we have discussed in the comments here, be accomplished through wish lists.

That is an interesting article.  A couple things that occur to me: first, I think the idea of an “uninformed” consumer is much broader than laid out here.  I’m uninformed, maybe, about the best e-book reader, but I’m also uninformed about all sorts of things.  Contra Peel, I’m almost certainly generally not informed, relative to the collective knowledge of my associates.  For instance, I’ve seen a limited number of movies.  There are, literally, thousands of American movies I’ve never even heard of.  And I’m a movie buff.  If you buy me a relatively obscure movie, and you know me well enough to understand my tastes and interests, there’s a decent chance that you’ll be getting me something I’d love, but would have no reasonable expectation of encountering in the ordinary course of things.

Since I am movie buff, this is how I sometimes approach gifts; I’m pretty confident that I can get someone a movie they’d thoroughly enjoy, which is effectively beyond their reach.  And this is part of limited usefulness of utility; because getting someone something they’ll enjoy, but don’t possess the interest or expertise to come into contact with themselves, has a utility all its own.

It opens up new networks for one thing.  A few months ago I’d seen only three Alfred Hitchcock movies, when a friend pointed to an AMC marathon of Cary Grant movies.  I saw To Catch a Thief and adored it.  Now I’ve watched over a dozen Hitchcock movies and that has led me in all sorts of other directions.  To Catch A Thief probably wouldn’t crack my top 10 favorite movies (maybe top 20), but it had a value greater than the monetary amount I would have shelled out had I known it existed.

And I’d say this is particularly true when you’ve started to, sort of, exhaust a subject.  I’ve read so many books, I find that half the time, when I go in a bookstore, I can’t find anything new that even vaguely interests me.  And I can’t see any reasonably easy way to get information on whether or how much I’d enjoy these other books.  You know, if the book jacket isn’t doing it for me, where do I go?

I don’t begin to have the time to read a dozen pages of every novel.  Yeah, maybe things like Symantec Web will make this sort of search much easier, but that’s still early stages.  For now, I need people who know me, who maybe have a greater expertise but similar interests, to point me in the right direction and open up new pathways.

So I’d mostly suggest this: give what you know, not what they know.  If you don’t know clothes, and you don’t have any concrete thoughts on their opinion on clothes, don’t get clothes.  You can’t possibly buy them better clothes than they’d buy themselves- you’d have to become a whole new person to do so.  If you do know music, even if your thoughts on their opinion is vague, you might want to consider getting them music.  This might sound strange and counter-intuitive; some of the worst presents are sometimes variations on “this is my favorite thing and I demand you like it”.  And it seems somewhat egotistical.  But, I really think it’s the best way.  My little sis never read- ever- but I just kept on buying her books for birthdays and Christmas, and now she reads a lot.  Maybe I played a part.  I definitely seemed to do worse when I tried to cater to interests I knew nothing about.

Who Will T-Paw Pull From?

November 16, 2009 6 comments

Well, not too long ago, over on race42008, there was a pretty heated discussion about Pawlenty’s potential to damage 2008 Republican candidates: namely, does a serious Pawlenty hurt Huckabee or Romney more?  Let’s take a look.  First of all, I think it’s useful to look to states where Mitt and Huck were both competitive, in 2008, as a proxy for their appeal.  Let’s take a look at the the 2008 Georgia primary; Huck won 33% there while Romney won 30%.  McCain scooped up 32%.  Since it’s not clear to me that McCain’s supporters, especially in a state like Georgia, would split more towards one candidate or the other, this seems like a decent look at the respective candidates relative strengths.  Uselectionmaps has the numbers on county by county breakdowns.  Romney ran at least 9 points ahead of Huck in Cobb County, Fulton County, Dekalb County, and Glynn County.  What do we know about these counties?  Let’s look at per capita incomes.  Cobb County: 33k, Dekalb County: 24k, Fulton County: 30k, Glynn County: 22k.  How about population density?  Cobb County: 770 per square mile, Dekalb County: 974 per square mile, Fulton county: 1544  per square mile, Glynn County:  77 per square mile.  What are the state averages for both of these measures?  The statewide per capita income, in Georgia, was 33.5k.  The statewide population density was 141 people square mile.  Ok…interesting.  Now what?

Well, we see that all of these counties are below the average state per capita income.  We also see that, with the odd exception of Glynn County, all of these counties are far more urban than Georgia as a whole.  So Romney does well with urban voters and…poorer voters?  Not quite.  I don’t want to run through all of the numbers, but suffice it to say that those urban Georgia counties are heavily black.  Cobb County has a 29% black population, while the other two have nearly plurality black populations.

Unsurprisingly, the per capita income of blacks is lower than the per capita income of whites.  I haven’t been able to find numbers for Georgia, specifically, but we can make guesstimates based on the data we do have.  In 2000, in NJ, New York, Hawaii, and California, whites made between 66% and 90% more than blacks.  Also, unsurprisingly, the Republican primary in Georgia, in 2008, didn’t have too many black voters: CNN’s exit polls peg it at 2% of the electorate.   Adjusting for race, then, we find that the Republican primary electorate in 3 of these 4 counties was urban AND relatively wealthy.

It’s no use looking at the heavily pro-Huckabee counties in that kind of depth; there are too many of them and they’re all incredibly small.  But, take my word for it: I have looked at a few of them, cursorily, and I can that they’re almost uniformly rural and down-scale economically.  The Huckster pulls in blue-collar rural voters; Romney pulls in white-collar urban voters.  The exit polls confirm this impression.  Romney does well in Atlanta and the Atlanta suburbs, while Huck does well in Northern Georgia.  Romney wins voters making over 100k; Huck cleans up with voters making under 50k.  Now, where has Pawlenty drawn his supporters from, in the past?

It has been surprisingly hard for me to find any county by county information on the 2002 Republican Gubernatorial primary in Minnesota, so a straight comparison probably isn’t possible.  Still, I think we can achieve approximately the same effect by looking to where Pawlenty outperformed in the general election.  I.e, where did Pawlenty do unusually well for a Republican?  Luckily, I have that data handy from analysis I did last year.  I created a couple of nifty maps at the time, which put it plainly.  Here’s one of them, from the 2002 general election.

The area enclosed by red represents the Twin cities, while the green around that red encompasses the Greater Twin Cities.  As I noted, in 2002, Pawlenty ran 20 points ahead of Bush in these areas.   In 2006, with a weaker independent candidate, Pawlenty ran 9 points ahead of Bush here .  Elsewhere in the state, Pawlenty either ran behind Bush both years- mostly in the rural areas of upper North-western Minnesota- or he ran even with Bush, when you account for the overall victory margin.  In other words, the Twin Cities IS Pawlenty country.

It’s easy to get bogged down in details, so let’s just glance at a few counties where T-Paw did particularly well.  He did very well, relative to Bush, in the traditional Republican suburban counties.  He performed admirably in Washington, Dakota, and Anoka.  These counties are less urban than some of the state’s, but they’re far from rural, and they range from the state’s per capita income to just above the per capita income.  But, he also performed well- very well, in a particularly Democratic area- Ramsey County.  In 2002 he ran 21 points ahead of Bush here (as compared to 20 over the entire Twin Cities) and in 2006 he ran 12 points ahead of Bush here (as opposed to 9 points over the entire Twin Cities).  In fact, Ramsey is probably Pawlenty’s best county, relative to Bush (again, I’m guesstimating, rather than crunching each number).

And what does Ramsey look like?  Well, it’s by far the most densely populated county in the state with 3281 people per square mile.  It’s also almost EXACTLY at the state’s  per capita income of 23.5k per year.  And there no real significant number of minorities in Minnesota; Ramsey has a few, but they’re more Asian (who skew income stats up, if anything) than black.  So Pawlenty’s basically outperforming in an extremely urban, perfectly middle-class Democratic area of the state.  Within this Twin Cities bubble, in contrast, Pawlenty underperforms relative to Bush in  less urban (under 275 people per square mile) counties like Wright County.  In other words, the Pawlenty profile doesn’t look much like either the Romney or the Huckabee profile.  He’ll probably steal more from Romney, simply because Huckabee’s epicenter almost vanishes as the cities encroach, but he’ll mostly pull from someone else entirely; he may be pulling from a new pool of voters.

Categories: Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty

Strange Questions

November 2, 2009 19 comments

What’s a weird thing you like to do? Me:  Take inventory.  I work, for the moment, as a kind of roving blue-collar worker on a military base.  And I LOVE to take inventory.  I love everything involved with the process, including the stacking and organizing of the shelves, which is especially odd, because I’m not at all organized or systematic in my private life.  But, there’s just something about lining up those creamy ranch dressing bottles that satisfies a hidden OCD impulse.  But, most of all, I love the counting; I could count all day.  I secretly wonder if it wouldn’t be so bad to Edmund Dantes, when he’s in the Chateau D’lf counting the stones of his cell over and over and over again.

What’s your favorite childhood book? Me:  Probably Where the Red Fern Grows.  I almost hesitate to write that, since I haven’t read it in ages, but I can’t think of any single book that had a bigger impact at the time.  Plus, I’m excluding children’s books I read much later (Things Not Seen, for instance) or books I read during childhood, which I really don’t think fit in the childhood book category.  David Copperfield is my favorite novel of all-time, but I didn’t know many 12 year olds who read it, and it’s chock full of mature themes.

What’s your favorite childhood series? Me:  Cynthia Voigt’s The Tillerman Cycle, no contest.  Homecoming, Dicey’s Song, and most especially, A Solitary Blue, are the best in the series, and the ones I remember most clearly.  The first two follow Dicey Tillerman, a scrappy tom-boy, trying to make a life for her near orphaned siblings.  A Solitary Blue follows Jeff Greene, a boy whose life intersects with Dicey’s.  Terrific stuff.

Tea or Coffee? Me:  Tea.  Either Earl Grey or Darjeeling.  No milk, no lemon, no sugar.

Would you rather be stuck on a deserted Island with three people you hate, or no one at all? Me:  No one at all.  Unless that meaningfully decreased my survival odds.

Best movie that had a decent remake? Me:   The Shop Around the Corner, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan.  There are actually a couple of remakes of this (I think it’s technically a remake itself), but the most notable is You’ve Got Mail.  Shop was a wonderful flick, and You’ve Got Mail retained a bit of the original’s charm.

Who’s the fairest of them all? Me:  Camilla Belle.


So think of this as a kind of…icebreakers thread?

Categories: Uncategorized

Word of the Week..6?

November 1, 2009 Leave a comment

gamin, \ˈga-mən\= urchin

They’ve been having a 50% off all Barnes and Nobles Essential Library books for the last few weeks, and out of curiosity I picked The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie.  Anyway, so “gamin” came from that book.  Here’s the sentence.

There was a certain gamin element in the girl, at all events she invariably got on well with small boys.

It’s a really good book actually, though the plot is pretty thin.  Somehow, I’d never read anything by Agatha Christie before, which is strange since I do like mystery.  But, here’s the weirdest thing: according to Wikipedia, Agatha Christie is the single most popular author of all time.  I was flabbergasted when I read that.  At 4 billion volumes sold, she’s topped Shakespeare.  Her works only trail the Bible in sales.  Is there some conspiracy to hide this news from…well, everyone?  I mean, I don’t think I’ve heard Agatha’s Christie’s name mentioned once in my 17 years of schooling and I’m pretty sure I haven’t heard it mentioned, period, in the last few years.  But, here she is quietly selling 125k books a day for the past 80 years.  Is there some secret contingent of Borneans who worship a Malayian translation of The Secret Adversary?