Thursday, May 27, 2010
Turn Coat by Jim Butcher
"Hell's Bells" count: 25
One of the problems involved in writing an ongoing series (or so I imagine) is the problem of escalation. The new stories have to be better than the old ones, or your readers will get bored and wander off to see what else is going on. Even with the hard core fans, the writer has to consistently challenge the character in order to make each story more interesting than the last. So if your hero is fighting some fairly minor-league bad guys in one book, his foes in the next book have to be greater than or equal to the previous ones.
Harry Dresden's story started off with a pretty heavy-hitting minor leaguer: a black magician who was using thunderstorms to power magical murders. From there, we saw Harry go up against werewolves, necromancers, the Faerie, and fallen angels. He's come out on top every time, though sometimes just barely, managing to triumph over foes that are very much out of his league. So where to go from here?
In order to avoid - or at least slow down - the escalation problem, Butcher appears to be refocusing the series story arc. Whereas before we had individual catastrophes that threatened people, cities, or worlds, we're now looking at something more complex. Something that cannot easily be killed by a silver bullet or a well-placed ray of sunshine, or even a zombie Tyrannosaurus Rex. We're looking at a Conspiracy now, which changes the overall shape of the story dramatically.
Of course, this is a Harry Dresden novel, not the mad ravings of some Moon Landing deniers or 9/11 Truthers or those guys who believe that the leaders of the world are actually alien reptiles. As intellectually challenging as a good conspiracy can be, it just wouldn't be right if there wasn't blood and fear and terror - it wouldn't really be a Dresden Files book if the very first page didn't make you say, "Woah!"
Which this one does, when Morgan - a Warden of the White Council and the man who probably hates Harry Dresden more than anyone else in the world - shows up on Harry's doorstep, wounded and hounded and asking for sanctuary. From the other Wardens, no less.
A murder has been committed, deep in the heart of the White Council's sanctum in Edinburgh, Scotland, and one of the most powerful members of the Senior Council is now dead. To all appearances, Morgan was the murderer, and the evidence is damning - bank records, for one, connecting him to the Red Court of the Vampires. What really made him look bad, though, was being found standing over the still-warm body, sword in hand. That'll usually set off the Guilty alarm every time.
So, pursued by the entire White Council, Morgan turns to the one man he knows would be willing to help him. The fact that it's the man he's dedicated his life to destroying must have made it that much more of a bitter pill to swallow. All he can do is hope that Harry will be able to protect him not only from the Wardens, but from the bounty hunters and reward-seekers who are looking to profit off his return to the magical authorities - alive or dead, of course.
There's a secondary plot as well, and as with Blood Rites, it's one that will no doubt pay off heavily in future books. Part of what has made Harry become more connected to the world over the last eleven books was the discovery that he had a half-brother - Thomas, of the White Court of Vampires. They share a late mother, the ever-enigmatic Margaret LeFay. Having never met his mother, and having lost his father at a young age, Harry has latched onto this one family member he has. Indeed, he and Thomas get closer in every book. They look after each other and keep each other honest, as brothers are supposed to do. Thomas is one of the things that keeps Harry grounded.
When Thomas gets caught up in the hunt for Morgan and abducted by a creature of horrifying power - the Naagloshii - as a bargaining chip, Harry stands to lose the only family he has. The terms are simple: give Morgan to the Monster, or see Thomas destroyed. Harry Dresden being who he is, refuses to accept either one of these outcomes, and does his best to keep both men safe. But even this may just be a holding action, a delay against the inevitable, and what ultimately becomes of Thomas will no doubt fuel a great number of storylines to come.
Of course, the Conspiracy is at the heart of this, run by a shadowy organization that Harry has dubbed The Black Council. It is they who have been sowing discord over the last few years - giving powerful magical items to mortals, aiding minor-league sorcerers to become heavy-hitting murderers. They have infiltrated the White Council completely, and the extent of their influence is unknown. It's up to Harry and his allies to not only prove Morgan's innocence but to prove the existence of this dark cabal.
The principles of escalation are still in play here, but Butcher has chosen to go with an increase in scale, rather than power. Sure, the naagloshii is pretty damn powerful, a creature that Harry would have no chance of defeating on his own, but it is simply a pawn of the Black Council's machinations. From here on out, Harry won't just be fighting monsters - he'll be fighting institutions. He'll be battling secrecy, tradition, prejudice and denial, simple human traits that can be more destructive than any disgusting shape-shifting abomination.
I don't think I really have to say, "Read this book" anymore. If you've gotten this far in the series, you're going to read it whether I tell you to or not. If you haven't been convinced to read the series by now, I don't think I am able to convince you. All I can say is that a lot happens in this book, even aside from the action and interesting plot twists. There's a mystery that pays homage to both the American tradition of hard-boiled realism and English intellectual investigation. There's loss, both great and small, and a fundamental re-alignment of an entire magical community. The more I think about it, the denser the book becomes, which is a fantastic thing.
If Butcher can keep this up, I'll gladly follow where he leads.
"Sometimes irony is a lot like a big old kick in the balls."
- Harry Dresden, Turn Coat
The Dresden Files on Wikipedia
Turn Coat on Wikipedia
Turn Coat on Amazon.com
Jim Butcher on Wikipedia
Harry Dresden on Wikipedia
Jim Butcher's homepage
Thursday, May 20, 2010
The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson
What was the biggest story of 2006? The arrest of the shampoo bombers in England? Small fries. The first World Baseball Classic? YAWN! The death of Don Knotts? Nothin'.
No, as interesting as they were, none of these generated nearly as much public interest and argument as the much ballyhooed "demotion" of Pluto by the International Astronomical Union in August of 2006. Poor little Pluto, hanging out there on the edge of the solar system, got bumped down to "Dwarf Planet," rousing much ire from people all across the United States. And, in a way, Neil deGrasse Tyson bears some responsibility for it.
To be fair, stripping Pluto of its designation as a planet was never on his agenda. No matter what angry elementary school students may have thought, Tyson had no beef against Pluto. It was just that Pluto had the bad fortune to be an oddball planet, and Tyson was working on the redesign of the Rose Center for Earth and Space in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Whether he wanted to or not - and I'm pretty sure he didn't - he became the public face of this issue, one which gripped the country.
That in itself is weird. Americans are not the most scientifically literate of people. Sure, we like to use the fruits of science, but most people don't really pay attention to things like astronomy unless it's a shuttle launch or a pretty Hubble picture. What's more, the public in general has never really gotten involved in matters of taxonomy. If you went up to someone and said, "Hey, the scientific community is thinking about revising the nomenclature regarding the classification of anaerobic bacteria," they'd probably just walk away swiftly, looking back a few times to make sure the crazy person isn't following them. But tell them that the IAU is planning to demote Pluto, and what you have is a firestorm.
This book is not so much about Pluto itself, but our relationship with that weird little ball of ice and rock. Tyson takes us through our history with Pluto, from its discovery back in 1930 to its demotion in 2006, and tries to figure out just what it is that has endeared it so to the American public.
One possibility, of course, is the fact that Pluto was an American discovery. Percival Lowell was the one to start the hunt, and Clyde Tombaugh finally found it. While the name was suggested by a teenage British girl, everything else about the discovery of Pluto was American, and that was a point of pride. There were only three non-Classical planets in the heavens, and we had claim to one of them. So even if the average American doesn't know the history of Pluto's discovery, we still have a certain love for it.
Despite its diminutive size, Pluto has loomed large in the American imagination. Perhaps there's something of the underdog love in there, too. Americans love to see the little guy win, and if you look at a lot of the pro-Pluto artwork from 2006, the theme of big planets ganging up on a little one was very popular. As odd as this perception might seem from a scientific standpoint, I think a lot of Americans were supporting Pluto because it was being pushed down by The Man, as it were.
And so the country went a little nuts. Newspapers, blogs, websites - even sports reporting got in their digs on the Pluto controversy. There was something for everyone in this story, and everyone who could manage a Pluto reference did so with gusto. It was a mixed blessing, to be sure - the American public was finally excited about astronomy, but it was the excitement of a bar fight, rather than the highbrow intellectualism that many astronomers might have preferred.
What was also interesting about this book was the look at the professional arguments that went on as well. Dispelling the dispassionate image of the astronomer, professionals got really worked up about this, on both sides of the issue. Grown men and women, many of whom were well-versed in many aspects of astronomy, spoke passionately about Pluto. Some called on our sense of tradition and cultural memory, acknowledging that while Pluto may be an oddball, he's our oddball. Others were more than happy to throw Pluto into the Kuiper Belt with the other icy mudballs.
So often, Science is assumed to be some monolithic entity that describes the world with a unanimity of voice. It is supposed to be dispassionate and rational, and we don't really think about the reality of scientific progress. To use the analogy often given to marriage, science is like a duck - stately and sure on the surface, but with a whole lot of work going on down below. The history of science is full of more passion, debate and anger than you might suspect. In order to decide the issue, symposia were convened, meetings were held, and finally the International Astronomical Union was forced to do something that had never occurred to anyone before: precisely define what is and is not a planet.
In case you're wondering, the definition is quite simple: It has to orbit the sun, be big enough to have attained a spherical shape, and it has to have cleared out its orbit. Pluto fulfills the first two requirements, but badly fails the third. Therefore, it is not a planet. They created a new designation: dwarf planet, including Ceres in the asteroid belt and Haumea, Makemake and Eris out past Pluto. The public may not like it, but that's how it is.
Tyson points out that this is not the first time we have done such a reclassification. With the discovery in the mid-19th century of objects orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, a new class had to be invented in order to keep the number of planets from rocketing into the thousands - and so asteroids were born. The Pluto case is quite similar. Long after Pluto was discovered, more objects, similar in nature, were discovered nearby - some even bigger than Pluto was. The region of rock and ice was named the Kupier Belt, and if Pluto were discovered today, it would most certainly be named as part of it. As much as it pains me to say it, the decision to reclassify Pluto was the right one. At least Tyson and I have revised the Planet Mnemonic the same way: My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nachos.
The rise and fall of Pluto is an interesting story, and a lesson for science educators. No matter how bad it may seem for science in the United States, people can still be surprisingly passionate about scientific topics. It's also a warning against resistance to change. With all that we are learning about the Solar System, to just rattle off a list of planets and be done with it is insufficient. There are so many other ways to look at it now, so many ways to group the hundreds of bodies out there, that perhaps Pluto is more comfortable out with the other Trans-Neptunian objects. With its own kind, as it were, instead of being shoehorned in with eight other guys that it doesn't really have anything in common with.
Ultimately, of course, Pluto doesn't care what we call it. That point was often made on both sides of the argument, and they're right. We could call it Lord Snuggypants the Fourth and it would keep doing what it does out there in the cold and the dark. But it's important for us, and not just because science needs things to be organized so we know what we're talking about. Being able to reclassify Pluto is an indication of the breadth of our knowledge - had we not made such progress, Pluto's classification would never have been in doubt.
The "demotion" of Pluto is a sign of our amazing achievements over the last eighty years. We have not lost a planet - we have gained understanding. So in the end, the Great Pluto Debate is one that we should look back upon fondly.
"It's always a little scary when the person who hired you calls you up and asks, "What have you done?!"
- Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Pluto Files
Neil deGrasse Tyson at Wikipedia
The Pluto Files at Wikipedia
Pluto on Wikipedia
The Pluto Files on Amazon.com
Neil deGrasse Tyson's homepage
Laurel's Pluto Blog
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait
What do you think you know about astronomy? For example, what causes us to have seasons? If you said that it's our distance from the sun - sorry, you're wrong. Or how about why the sky is blue? If you think it's that the sky reflects the sea, nope. Wrong again. Or perhaps you think that the moon's tidal effect makes people crazy, or that an egg can only stand on end if it's the Vernal Equinox or that an alignment of the planets will cause a terrible buildup of gravity that will kill us all!
All wrong. But you would not be alone. For a society as technologically advance as ours (and if you're reading this, then chances are good that you live in a technologically advanced society), the general public has a big problem with science. People see it as being too hard to understand, or too removed from their daily lives. Politicians bemoan the fact that American schoolchildren are falling behind in science, but science funding is almost always on the list of cuts that can be made to save money. We love technology, but hate science, and that is a path to certain doom.
Of all the sciences, though, astronomy is perhaps the worst understood. A lot of people still confuse it with astrology, which is probably a huge part of the problem right there. For millennia, we have thought about the planets and stars as celestial things, unknown and unknowable by such base creatures as ourselves. It's only in the last hundred years or so that we've been able to rapidly improve our understanding of the universe, and popular knowledge hasn't caught up with that yet.
And so bad misconceptions of astronomy persist in the public imagination.
Fortunately, we have people like Phil Plait to set the record straight, and that is indeed what he does in this book.
While there are many educators out there who believe that a wrong idea, once implanted, is impossible to eradicate, Plait sees it as a teachable opportunity. Take, for example, the commonly held belief that on the Vernal Equinox - and only on the Vernal Equinox - you can balance an egg on its end. Many people believe this, and it's an experiment that's carried out in classrooms around the country every March. Teachers tell their students, and the local news media tell their viewers, but no one stops to ask Why. Why would this day, of all the days in the year, be so special? More importantly, how can we test that assertion?
Fortunately, that's within the powers of any thinking individual, and it should be the first thing teachers do once they've finished having fun balancing eggs: try and do it again the next day. If you can balance an egg on April 3rd, or May 22nd or August 30th, or September 4th or any other day of the year, then you have successfully proven the Equinox Egg Hypothesis wrong. Congratulations! You're doing science!!
Or perhaps you've heard the story that you can see stars from the bottom of a well, or a tall smokestack. This is because, the idea goes, the restricted amount of light will not wash out the stars so much, giving you a chance to do some daytime astronomy. Well, there's an easy way to test this one too, if you have an old factory or something of that nature nearby. What you'll discover is that no matter how much you try to restrict your view of the sky, it'll still be washed out and you won't see any stars at all.
One more good one that a lot of people believe - the moon is larger in the sky when it's near the horizon than when it's at its zenith. Again, this is something that's very easy to test. Go out as the full moon is rising, looming large in the sky, and hold up an object at arm's length - a pencil is usually recommended. Make a note of the moon's apparent size as compared to the eraser. Then go out again when the moon is high in the sky and repeat your observation. The moon appears to be the same size, no matter how it may look to you.
Of course, there's a lot of science into why these things are the way they are. The chicken egg thing is because there's no singular force that is only acting on chicken eggs and only doing so on one day of the year (which is not even universally regarded as the first day of spring). As for the inability to see stars in the daytime, that's because our pesky atmosphere scatters a lot of the light coming from the sun, so light appears to come from everywhere in the sky. The only thing you're likely to see in a blue sky is the moon, and MAYBE Venus, if you're really sharp-eyed and lucky.
The Moon Illusion is not well-understood, actually. It's probably not the brain comparing the moon with objects on the horizon - the effect works at sea, too. It's probably a combination of competing psychological effects that deal with distance, none of which can accurately deal with how far away the moon is.
Regardless, all of these things are easily testable by anyone. The problem is that so few people take that extra time to actually test them, or even think that they should.
There are some myths and misconceptions that take a little more expertise to explain, such as why tides and eclipses happen, how seasons occur and why the moon goes through phases. But these explanations aren't very difficult and are well within the understanding of any intelligent adult. Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths that are stubborn, entrenched into the heads of people everywhere and very hard to get out. Not the least of these are the beliefs that UFOs are alien spacecraft and that we never went to the Moon.
Interestingly enough, both of these rest on the same basic problem: we can't rely on our own brains to accurately interpret the data that we see. Plait recounts a story where he was mesmerized by some strange lights in the night sky while watching a 3 AM shuttle launch. They seemed to hover in place, making strange noises, and it wasn't until they got much closer that he was able to see them for what they were: a group of ducks that were reflecting spotlights off their feathers.
Our brains believe things, and interpret the observations to fit those beliefs. So when the dust on the moon doesn't behave the way we expect dust to behave, some people believe that to be evidence of fraud, rather than the natural behavior of dust on the moon. We are creatures of story, which is why we like conspiracy theories and astrology. We want the world to make a kind of narrative sense, so often the first explanation we come up with is a story that sounds good. Unfortunately, just because the story sounds good, that doesn't make it true.
He also takes a swipe at bad movie science, but in a good-natured manner. Even he admits that movies are more likely to favor story over science, but there are some common errors that make it into so many science fiction films - sound in space, people dodging lasers, deadly asteroid fields - these things may be dramatically interesting, but they're all bad science. And while it would be annoying and pedantic to pick out every example of how the rules are bent for sci-fi ("Please. Why would the aliens come all the way to Earth to steal water when it exists in abundance out in the Kuiper Belt? I scoff at your attempt!"), they do offer an excellent opportunity to teach people about how science works.
One of the things I've always liked about Plait is his obvious enthusiasm for not just astronomy but for science in general. Here we have this excellent system to cut through the lies our brains tell us and get closer to knowing what's actually going on. Science forces us to question our assumptions, look at things from many points of view, and arrive at a conclusion that best describes the phenomenon we're observing. When Plait talks about science, he is not condescending or dry or super-intellectual, the way so many people imagine scientists to be. He's excited that he gets to use this amazing tool for understanding the universe, and he wants other people to use it.
If you're an astronomy buff, like myself, you probably won't learn much new information from this book. But hopefully you'll be re-invigorated to go out there and look at the world through a scientific, skeptical eye, and you'll be willing to confront these misconceptions when next you come across them. Even better, you might start thinking about what else you think you know, and how you can go about testing it.
"If a little kid ever asks you just why the sky is blue, you look him or her right in the eye and say, 'It's because of quantum effects involving Rayleigh scattering combined with a lack of violet photon receptors in our retinae.'"
- Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy
Phil Plait on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Wikipedia
Bad Astronomy on Amazon.com
The Bad Astronomy Blog
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Skipping Towards Gomorrah by Dan Savage
America. Here and now, in the first decade of the 21st century, there are those who say that America is on the decline. It's a nation awash in sin and degradation, vice and immorality. Pot smokers, gamblers, homosexuals, feminists, Liberals - oh, those damned Liberals - they're all conspiring to destroy everything that is good and moral about the United States of America, and you - yes, you are letting them do it! Soon this nation that we all love and cherish will be nothing but an opium orgy den for a bunch of homosexual atheist abortion doctors.
This is what they believe, those whom Dan Savage refers to as the Scolds, the Virtuecrats and the Naysayers. We know who they are - usually Republican conservatives, often of the evangelical Christian variety. They are men (and occasionally women) such as Robert Bork, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter, Pat Buchanan, and of all the things they have in common, the most glaring is that they believe that The United States is in a state of utter moral decay. Americans who choose sex for any function other than making babies, who choose to put drugs into their bodies, who allow themselves to be fat and indolent - SHAME on you! It is your sinning that is destroying America! Jerry Falwell himself said as much after the attacks on 9/11:
I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People For the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say "you helped this happen."And, it would seem - given the naysayers' ubiquity and volume - they are right.
Or maybe not.
Dan Savage is an acclaimed advice columnist, specializing in relationship and sex advice. He started with a newspaper column nearly twenty years ago, and he's gained international attention, mainly by being very good at his job. He doesn't sugar-coat his advice, often telling people instead to DTMFA (Dump the mother-f*cker already!) if it's clear they're in a bad relationship. He helped coin a new meaning for the word santorum as well as pegging (Google them - I'm trying to keep this clean). He's abrasive, contrarian, direct - and an outspoken advocate of the pursuit of happiness. Most of his advice can be boiled down to a simple question: Are you happy?
What Savage is exploring in this book is all the ways people try to make themselves happy, and why those are all the things that the Virtuecrats believe are sinful, immoral and conducive to America's decline in the world. In order to understand the sins, he has to meet the sinners and, as much as possible, indulge.
The book is set up around the classic Seven Deadly Sins - greed, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, pride and anger. In each chapter, Savage tries to understand what it is about these sins that make them so irresistible, and if they're actually deadly at all. For Greed, he indulges in gambling, learning how to play blackjack and win - except when he loses. For Gluttony he visits a convention for the NAAFA (National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance) to find out how fat people feel about being fat. He learns to channel his Anger in a shooting range in Texas, studies Lust in swingers' clubs in Las Vegas, and realizes that maybe we all need a little more Sloth in our lives. He takes great pains to Envy the rich and to determine whether gays really need to bother with Pride anymore. And then he tops it all off with a great attempt to commit all seven deadly sins within a forty-eight hour period in New York City.
As provocative as it all sounds, the book isn't really about sinning. It's about human nature and freedom, and how those two things clash and merge. It's about how some humans want to enjoy themselves, while other humans would rather they didn't. They tell us about the horrors of drugs, the terrors of infidelity and the inherent corrosive nature of the very existence of gay people, much less married ones. They tell us that by pursuing our happiness, we are destroying the country.
Dan Savage says otherwise, mainly by pointing out what the conservative naysayers don't want to hear: human beings are complex, irreducible characters who are not very good at not doing what they're not supposed to do. We all want to enjoy ourselves. We want to feel pleasure, one way or the other, and we will do everything in our power to make this happen. Whether it's sex or reading, drugs or travel, food or art, going to the gym or gambling, we want to feel good. And for some reason, there are people who have a problem with this.
Savage believes that the first principle we should follow is that of freedom: if one isn't harming others, then one should be free to do whatever one wants. In this book, he makes an excellent case for the legalization of marijuana, talks to productive, religious, moral swingers, and meets with sex workers in New York City. He examines the hypocrisy of the moralist movement and the general weakness of their arguments.
For example, with gambling long having been one of the most deadly of sins in the Christian catalog, why don't modern conservatives rail against it? Is it because it's an economic boon to so many places? Is it because it makes money for the country? On gambling the conservatives are quiet, though surely cards and dice have broken far more families than gays and lesbians?
And if the concept of "personal responsibility" is so sacred that any mention of gun control is considered an immediate attack on our freedoms, why can't that same love of responsibility extend to marijuana use - an activity far, far less deadly than gunplay.
Savage's understanding of human nature tells him that while we all want happiness, the happiness of one person is the immorality of another. In America, however, there is room to disagree, room to argue and to grow. American culture evolves and changes whether you like it or not, and it is better to learn to live in that culture than to try and bend it to your will. While you may disagree with how your fellow American leads his or her life, it is not your job to try and change it, just as they have no business trying to change yours.
So take heart, sinners! Dan Savage is on your side.
Take me to the driest county in the most conservative state, and in two hours this determined hedonist will find you all the drugs, whores, and booze you'll need to pass an eventful weekend.
- Dan Savage, Skipping Towards Gomorrah
Dan Savage on Wikipedia
Skipping Towards Gomorrah on Wikipedia
Skipping Towards Gomorrah on Amazon.com
Savage Love column
Savage Love podcast