July 30, 2014

Call Me Young Gun

Each night I go to bed
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
No, I ain't lookin' for forgiveness
But before I'm six foot deep
Lord, I got to ask a favor
And I'll hope you'll understand
'Cause I've lived life to the fullest
Let this boy die like a man
Starin' down a bullet
Let me make my final stand

"Blaze of Glory," music/lyrics by Jon Bon Jovi

I actually wasn't going to comment on this numbnut taking his AR-15 into Sky Harbor International Airport while purchasing his coffee (the better to protect himself from the gremlins waiting to steal it, I suppose), until this was published in the Arizona Republic today. But once I read about this gun rights advocate idjit Alan Korwin, I couldn't resist.

Seriously, where did the reporter find this guy? I have seldom seem a better example of a bug-eyed, paranoid gun freak.

Gun rights advocate Alan Korwin said Peter Nathan Steinmetz was perfectly within his rights to bring the rifle into the public section of the airport: only the area behind the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint is a "gun free zone.''

Phoenix Police Sgt. Steve Martos doesn't disagree, but he said visitors to the airport have to apply common sense when deciding whether to bring such a weapon along.

Police said a woman and her 17-year-old daughter reported fearing for their safety when Steinmetz removed his AR-15 from his shoulder with the muzzle facing towards them in a waiting area.

Just because you have the right to do something doesn't mean it's a smart thing to do. You know why that is? It's because we, the public, have no idea if the person carrying that AR-15 is a good guy or a bad guy, and we certainly don't know if this supposed "good guy" might suddenly decide he's going to take everybody out. I don't know about you, but my telepathy simply doesn't work most days.

Damn straight I would've felt threatened by this bozo and his AR-15 in a public terminal, and damn straight I would've called the police. I mean, fer fuck's sake. If you seriously think you need a gun slung over your shoulder to buy a cup of bad airport coffee....you've got issues.

(None of the stories I've read about this have indicated whether or not the gun was loaded. Although I would have bet money it was, because to people like this, there's no point in having a gun if you're not prepared to use it. No doubt Mr. Steinmetz would have shot a hole in his coffee cup had it failed to please him.)

Of course, this imbecile is raised and matched by his "defender" in the story.

But Korwin said it is obvious that Steinmetz was making a valuable political statement, and a dramatic one at that.

"He didn't do anything illegal. I thought he did it to make a point,'' Korwin said.

What point, pray tell? That it's a wonderful thing to intimidate and frighten people for no reason? Did Mr. Steinmetz know, through his spot-on precognition, that some other "good guy with a gun" was going to be at the airport that day, and said "good guy" just had to see another wannabe Rambo with a bigger dick "Second Amendment Remedy" to make him think twice about whipping out his own?

In Alan Corwin's paranoid little brain, of course that impossible, unprovable scenario could have happened. This is why these asshats must keep their guns with them at all tines.

Great Flying Spaghetti Monster, what a terrible way to live.

Then the story ends with Alan Corwin kicking his mania into overdrive.

He said anyone who would criticize Steinmetz, or others who choose to arm themselves, should think about what would happen if terrorists struck at at Sky Harbor, or if criminals decided to commit a crime there.

"If the Jihad were to start at this airport, you would be very happy he was there," Korwin said.

The HELL. I. WOULD., you ignorant fuckwit. For one thing, I think the capitol of this state is Phoenix, not Riyadh or Islamabad. In that blessed state Mr. Corwin clearly never visits known as "reality," there are extremely long odds against a "Jihad" actually happening here. I guess there might be a slightly better chance of a "crime," whatever that's supposed to mean--let's say robbing Starbucks' cash register, since what the hell else is there to steal inside an airport terminal? The TSA body scanners? In which case you as the cashier simply give them the money and send them on their way, out to where airport security waits (since of course you have a secret alarm button you pressed as soon as the robbery started going down). You certainly don't invite an untrained, AR-15-wielding yahoo to stick his two bits (or two shots) worth in, since this would be a great way to start a massacre. Those flying patriotic bullets really don't care who they hit.

Finally, Mr. Corwin and Mr. Steinmetz, I do not expect, want or need your so-called "protection." I can run and hide as good as anybody, and I will do exactly that, in the extremely unlikely event of anything happening. As far as I'm concerned, I would much rather take my chances with the imaginary Jihadists than some insecure jackass who thinks his "blaze of glory" is just around the corner.

July 20, 2014

Review: Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils

Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils
Dinosaurs Without Bones: Dinosaur Lives Revealed by Their Trace Fossils by Anthony J. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two excellent science books in a row. This is a wonderful thing.

I picked this book up at the library mainly because of the magical word in the title: D*I*N*O*S*A*U*R*S. I've always loved them; one of the first toys I ever had was a battery-operated, six-inch-tall, motorized Tyrannosaurus Rex. Press one button on the controller, and the little green guy would walk forward, with enough noise to raise the dead; press the other button, and he would roar. As I remember (this was in the Late Cretaceous era, you know) you couldn't press both buttons at the same time.

It didn't matter. I had absolutely no use for dolls, preferring my various plastic dinosaurs and my noisy, cranky T-Rex.

So this book, needless to say, was right up my alley. I didn't even know what a "trace fossil" was when I started it. Trace fossils, as I was to learn, are everything dinosaurs left behind other than their bones: their fossilized footprints, claw marks, trails, body and/or feather impressions, eggs, nests, burrows, toothmarks, gastroliths (stones swallowed by some dinosaurs to aid in digestion), as well as fossilized feces, urine, and vomit. I didn't know such a specialized field as ichnology, or the study of these trace fossils, existed.

Needless to say, such a deeply technical book can get high, dry, boring, and incomprehensible very quickly, if the author permits it. That is the genius of Anthony J. Martin: he never lets his material get out of hand. His love for what he does shines through from the first page to the last, and because he wants to share that love with his readers, he communicates complex scientific concepts in an clear, understandable style. More than that, he writes this book with a sense of humor, so much so that I giggled and cackled throughout.

I mean, when's the last time a science book made you laugh out loud?

As a matter of fact, reading this book made me realize what was wrong with my previous review, Ellen Willis' Out of the Vinyl Deeps. I started Dinosaurs Without Bones while I was still struggling to finish Willis' way-too-serious tome, and the contrast was immediate and obvious. There are some subjects, be they dinosaurs or Bob Dylan, that need to be approached with humor, or you'll just bog your readers down.

Willis falls into this trap. Martin doesn't.

I haven't included quotes in my reviews before, but I'm going to for this one, just so you get the flavor of the writing. This comes from my favorite chapter, chapter 8: "The Remains of the Day: Dinosaur Vomit, Stomach Contents, Feces, and Other Gut Feelings."

Assume that every dinosaur pooped. If so, not all of these end products of dinosaur digestion were preserved in the fossil record. But you will have a load taken off your mind when you know that those found thus far have not gone to waste, nor remained the butt of jokes.

The author is punnier in some places than in others, but the whole book is like this. Who knew piss, puke and shit, along with all the other trace fossils, could be so entertaining?

Anyone who loves dinosaurs will love this book.

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July 9, 2014

Review: Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music
Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music by Ellen Willis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I had a helluva time getting through this book. If it had been fiction, it would have been bashed against the wall before page 80. But because it's an essay collection, subdivided into sections entitled "The World-Class Critic," "The Adoring Fan," "The Sixties Child," "The Feminist," "The Navigator," and "The Sociologist," with the essays grouped around those themes, I thought, well, I'll just go on. Surely it'll get better.

Sadly, it really didn't.

Ellen Willis was a pioneering female rock journalist, with the bulk of her musical work taking place in the sixties and early seventies. Her favorite subjects were Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and Janis Joplin. Speaking strictly from a technical point of view, she was a good writer--her essays are intelligent, thoughtful, and on point. Unfortunately, the very first essay in the book, "Before the Flood," (1967) about Bob Dylan, magnifies her biggest flaw: her complete lack of humor regarding her subjects. (To be fair, I think it should be MANDATORY that anyone who writes about Dylan approach him with a healthy sense of snark--otherwise, the writer inevitably starts to sound as ponderous and pretentious as his/her subject.) Her droning voice was well nigh impossible to wade through, and what little affection I have for Bob Dylan had all but vanished by the end of the piece.

This way-too-serious tone marred the rest of the book. To be sure, a music writer doesn't need to have the frantic, attention-deficit-disorder style of, say, a Lester Bangs, but a few cracks about the absurdity of stardom and/or the music business in general would have been appreciated. In fact, the best section of the book, by far, is when she brought feminism into the mix. (But there still had to be a downer essay about Bob Dylan in this section to nearly ruin it, dagnabbit.) She talks about bands/artists such as the Joy of Cooking and Ms. Clawdy that I've never heard of, and describes them so eloquently it makes me want to search for their music. Her voice is more focused and eloquent in "The Feminist," and a couple of observations even approach the wispy edges of humor!

I believe there are a few more collections of Ellen Willis's essays out there, and one focused on feminism might be worth picking up. I'm sure classic rock aficionados will appreciate this one. Unfortunately, for me it didn't cut it.

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June 30, 2014

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Uganda and Pepe Julian Onziema Pt. 1...

This is an excellent, excellent rant from John Oliver. He hasn't been on the air very long, and he's already better than Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. He'd be worth getting HBO for, all by himself. (Well, and that little show called Game of Thrones.)

June 22, 2014

Review: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the coolest science books I have ever read.

It's partly because the author readily admits she's an End of the World geek, like me. (She even mentions that great, cheesy Roddy Piper movie, Hell Comes to Frogtown! I didn't know anyone else knew it existed.) I love that stuff--it's one reason I've been getting more into YA lately, as there seems to be an almost unlimited supply of post-apocalyptic/dystopian young adult books. (That's not to say all of them are good, mind you, and in my reviews I've dinged quite a few that aren't.) In this book, Ms. Newitz gets to write at length about the five (and possibly six--current theory is that the sixth mass extinction is human-caused and ongoing) greatest End of the World stories ever told--the actual mass extinctions that have impacted our planet Earth.

These are fascinating tales indeed. In the first section, she devotes one entire chapter to the Great Dying, the worst of the five mass extinctions; about 250 million years ago, 95 percent of species were wiped out. Possible causes for the extinctions range from megavolcanism to gamma ray bursts to invasive species to meteor strikes (such as the K-T extinction, 65 million years ago, that wiped out the dinosaurs). Part II discusses how humans were able to survive, despite a pernicious African genetic bottleneck, plagues such as the Black Death, and famines. In the third section, the "Stories of Survival" chapter discusses science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (!) at some length. The fourth section, "Death-Proof City," is a virtual treasure trove of ideas, including underground cities, disaster engineering, eco-architecture, and cities as genetically engineered biological entities. The final section, "The Million-Year View," includes, among other things, how to geo-engineer to combat climate change, and a greatly detailed and fascinating discussion of how to build a space elevator rising 35,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface. (A simple black-and-white drawing of this concept is enough to make an acrophobic run screaming.) Newitz ends the book with a simple statement of faith: "Things are going to get weird. There may be horrific disasters, and many lives will be lost. But don't worry. As long as we keep exploring, humanity is going to survive."

Even though she tackles complex subjects, the writing is quite accessible to a layperson, and the first section about mass extinctions reads like a novel. Newitz has clearly done her research; her notes are extensive and detailed, and the scientists she interviewed for the various chapters are well-drawn and fascinating people.

It's too bad I have to return this book to the library. I think I could read it many times over and gain fresh insights with each reading. I'm definitely buying it.

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"Better a red face than a black heart"

"I am a red man. If the Great Spirit had desired me to be a white man he would have made me so in the first place."  ~Sitting Bull

Now that the Washington football team's trademark has been stripped from them, it's time, and past time, for owner Dan Snyder to see the light and change his team's name. He's already into the point of diminishing returns, as the Native Americans (not all, but many) who think the team's name is derogatory are not going to go away. His "traditional" defense is also a cop-out; to put it bluntly, it used to be "traditional" for white people to call Asian-Americans "slants," "japs" and "gooks," Latinos "spics" and "wetbacks," and African-Americans "n-----s."

Those days are gone, and good riddance.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions for new names. I came up with these off-the-cuff/with a few Duck Duck Go searches in a manner of minutes; don't tell me Mr. Snyder couldn't do the same.

Washington Potato Skins (I originally said "Potato Heads," until I realized that might be interfering with the Mr. Potato Head trademark. Although I imagine they would be open to the possibility of licensing both the name and the likeness to go on the team's helmet, for a hefty enough fee.)

Washington Dragonets (From Thomas Hardy's book "Red Dragon.")

Washington Redwings

Washington Hawks (as in "Red Tailed," to keep with the color scheme)

Washington Crimson Devils

Washington Carmines; Washington Rubicunds (synonyms for "red" from the color wheel)

Washington Clarets, Merlots, Zinfandels and/or Cabernets (as in red wine; this would give the team a somewhat more sophisticated image)

Washington Flamethrowers

Washington Red Hots (This might require licensing from the candy company.)

Washington Tangerines (This is actually a little more orange-ish, according to the color wheel, but "tangerines" is such a lovely word.)

Washington Red Delicious (This might be too complicated, as this seems to have been trademarked by various entities. I'm not a copyright lawyer, however.)

Washington Communists (If you really want to go "traditional.")

Washington Ladybugs (The black-dotted red of the ladybug would also make excellent team colors.)

Washington Redbacks (A poisonous spider native to Australia.)

Washington Poison Darts (A poisonous red frog.)

Washington Ibis (A beautiful red bird.)

Finally, these last two names would obviously run afoul of network television censors, but they would require virtually no creativity, as Snyder would be naming the team after himself.

Washington Dickheads
Washington Dipshits

June 13, 2014

Review: Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice
Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is apparently very popular at my library. I had to get on a hold list to check it out, and there are people waiting to read it after me.

The reason for this could be the little award it just won (among several others, and I will bet money it will pick up a Hugo as well) called the Nebula Award for Best Novel.

Seriously, it's fantastic.

And I say this as a reader who had a bit of a hard time getting into it. In the beginning, the writing style comes off as almost flat...it's very detached, pragmatic, and unemotional throughout. (Except for when Breq saves Seivarden's ass. S/he [I use this deliberately; if you've read the book, you know why] doesn't know why s/he did this, and I really don't either. It seems like s/he would be much better off without his whining presence. Hopefully this will be addressed in the sequel.) It's only later on that you realize this narrative voice is perfect for the story...because the protagonist is not human at all, but an artificial intelligence downloaded into an organic body, the last surviving segment of the troop carrier Justice of Toren.

This is definitely not a quick beach read. It's a book that demands your full attention, to be read slowly and savored. There are nuances here that I think it would take more than one reading to puzzle out. (Which is why I'm late returning it...I'll have to pay a fine, but oh well) The roots of this story run deep, literally three thousand years, in the case of the antagonist, the dictator Anaander Mianaai. (Leckie definitely likes her doubled a's.) But the antagonist, like the protagonist, is not necessarily a bad person (and both are/were not really people at all, but intelligences split between multiple bodies), but a complex character with motivations who is the hero of his/her own story, whether or not the reader agrees with the methods and outcomes.

There's so much here I literally can't list it. There's two storylines running at ones, present day and twenty years ago, with overtones centuries old. There's a unique concept of artificial intelligence (and a really creepy scene where a human kept in stasis in Justice of Toren's hold is defrosted to be pressed into service as an "ancillary," to be taken over--in reality, killed, not bodily but the personality completely erased--by the starship's AI. This person is never identified as anything but "it," which it would be, to a galaxy-spanning starship). There are scenes written from the simultaneous viewpoints of the starship and several ancillaries, with an omniscient POV like nothing I've ever read before, as the narrative bounces from head to head...and it totally works, because this is the main character, and this is how the story has to be written. This is why I say you have to read it slowly, because otherwise you won't understand anything of what's going on. There's the empire of the Radch and the purity its Emperor, Anaander Mianaai, is trying to maintain, by any means necessary, at least until his/her three-thousand-year-old identity suffers a disassociative split. (I believe that's the term now, Disassociative Identity Disorder, for what used to be called split personality.) And last but not least, there's the fact that in the Radchaai language, the pronouns are genderflipped and everyone is referred to as "she," whether or not the person is biologically male.

At the end of the book, I realized I didn't know if Breq's ancillary body was male or female, and it didn't matter in the least.

This book deserves all the accolades it's been getting. I've never read anything quite like it. The only thing I don't care for is the cover; it's dull as dishwater, and doesn't reflect anything of what's inside. Ignore this and buy this book anyway.

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June 8, 2014

Review: Godzilla

Yes, I know I'm behind the curve on this one, but I prefer to go to movies after the initial rush has died down. In this case, a 10 AM Sunday showing was perfect: not only did I save two dollars off the regular ticket price, there were very few people in the theater.

Unfortunately, I came out of the movie feeling deeply unsatisfied. Sure, it was a big, badass, blow-em-up, crash-and-bang, gorgeous-CGI monster movie, but it didn't feel finished somehow. I thought about it for a while, and finally realized what the problem was: the screenwriter had made the mistake of focusing his film on the most uninteresting character in the cast.

(And yeah, I know the movie's title is "Godzilla," and I realize he comes on the scene, destroys San Francisco, kills two giant preying-mantises-cum-bats before they spawn several hundred more of their kind, thus saving humanity's collective ass, and leaves. [Accompanied by a terribly schmaltzy tagline on CNN: "King of the Monsters--Savior of Our City"--or rather, what's left of it, which surely translates into a Pyrric victory. Barf.] But he's not really a character, just a terribly convenient Force of Nature and Serve-the-Plot-Device. [With one fleeting exception, which I'll get to later.] There was no discussion of his possible intelligence, other than Ken Watanabe mouthing a few platitudes about "the balance of nature," and there should have been. Either (a) he's not intelligent, in which case he would have gone on hibernating merrily away at the bottom of the ocean, since the Bat-Mantises weren't directly threatening him; or (b) he was intelligent, in which case I suspect he would have been righteously pissed off at human beings for all the attempts to kill him with so-called "A-bomb tests" in the Fifties, and he would've stayed out of the fight altogether. Either way, we wouldn't have had a movie, so let's just jump over that gigantic plot hole and go on.)

Bryan Cranston's Joe Brody starts off the show, as administrator of a nuclear plant in Janjira, Japan, who is concerned about a recent series of seismic events close to the plant; events he believes is becoming a pattern. He is threatening to shut the plant down, and sends his wife and her team into the reactor to check out what's happening. Of course, all hell breaks loose, the reactor is breached and superheated radioactive steam comes billowing up the hallways, killing Brody's wife and her team. This is a rather well-done death scene (although I hated for nearly the only woman in the cast to be refrigerated so soon), and looking back on it now, that was the writer's first mistake. Because that scene clearly should have set the tone for the rest of the movie, and Bryan Cranston's character should have been the protagonist.

Instead, he dies about a third of the way through, fifteen years later when he sneaks back into the Janjira Containment Zone, accompanied by his now-grown son, to find out just what the hell happened. What happened was Papa Bat-Mantis, newly hatched in the Philippines after a cave collapse, was drawn to Brody's plant by its radiation, which the Mutos (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) feed upon. The creature destroyed the plant and burrowed in for a fifteen-year hibernation, absorbing all the radiation that otherwise would have lethally contaminated the area, and emerges sexually mature and looking for his mate (who is still in a dormant state until he starts calling her, having been taken to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Depository in Nevada--which is actually another gigantic plot hole you shouldn't think about too long; WHY THE HELL WOULD THEY HAVE DONE THAT??), setting the film in motion.

From then on, unfortunately, the focus is on Brody's grown son Ford, and a duller "hero" I have rarely encountered. I can't even remember the actor's name; he made no impression on me whatsoever, and he simply isn't capable of carrying the film. As I said, Bryan Cranston should have been the protagonist, and Ken Watanabe, as a scientist for Monarch, who has been hunting  for/studying the Mutos since World War II, should have been the antagonist. Because as far as I can see, it was his mistakes (and his unscientific awe and near-worship of the creatures--when he looks at Godzilla swimming, he appears to be staring into the face of his god) that led to both of the Bat-Mantises breaking out. I mean, why the devil didn't he destroy the male while it was in hibernation and in a relatively defenseless state? There was an attempt at an explanation given, but in light of later events, it proved to be catastrophically inadequate.

So: We should have had Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe, two wonderful actors, going toe-to-toe, instead of  mostly (especially so in Cranston's case) wasting them. At this point (and this is a good thing) Godzilla takes over the film, and the last half of the movie is a lay-waste-to-cities (Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco respectively) fight. Godzilla finally manages to destroy both Mutos (and I don't know why he didn't whip out his deadly "atomic breath" earlier, but again, we wouldn't have had the entire third act if he had) and little Ford-the-Dullard does manage to do one thing: he destroys the female Muto's eggs. (But then, instead of disarming the warhead which was supposed to destroy both Mutos--and Godzilla as well--with its blast, he fails at the only reason for his character to be there, and passes out. Kee-ripes. The bomb is taken out to sea and detonates there, so all is good, but I swear, this script needed at least one more rewrite: PLEASE get rid of this guy, and keep Bryan Cranston. Which would also have necessitated eliminating Ford's wife and son, but they were only there for cynical audience manipulation anyway.)

There's one exception to my creeping dissatisfaction with the film. It's a brief scene when Godzilla is staggering after killing Papa Bat-Mantis, and he comes eyeball to eyeball with Ford-the-Dullard. Godzilla obviously doesn't speak in his movie, but they did some really good CGI in this scene: he looks unutterably weary, and you can tell what he's thinking: "Why am I getting beat up protecting these little human shits?" This goes back to my original question, which should have been explored. (Another wasted opportunity for a great scene between Cranston and Watanabe.) It makes about as much sense as me getting in a knock-down drag-out fight over an anthill.

Well, anyway. I'm glad I saw it. Kinda sorta. But it could have, and should have, been so much more.