Friday, May 31, 2013

Contact by Carl Sagan

Title: Contact
Author: Carl Sagan
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (1985)

It's a fun surprise to me that I'm taking an Intro to Astronomy course during the same month that Michael and I have chosen Contact for our joint post series. It's not my first time trying out a course like this but maybe this time it will take and I'll actually become the kind of person who goes out star gazing. Even if it doesn't, I'm at least getting to know the highlights of the Southern sky, and it's put me in a real Contact kind of place. While staring at the "pointers" and the Southern Cross and "deep sky fuzzies," I'm imagining life on other worlds. So one can also say that Contact has put me in an alien kind of place. Aptly, this is also not my first time reading this book.
For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Contact

Dr. Ellie Arroway is a radio astronomer who believes in intelligent life beyond Earth. As Director of the Argus Project, she listens for extraterrestrial life. Vega features as the unlikely source of a Message from outer space and, when The Message is finally deciphered, it turns out the Vegans have sent detailed instructions for the building of a Machine.

The delightful and arresting aspect of this book is its enormously imaginative scenario grounded in accessible human experience. In that sense, it is what all great science fiction is: human nature grappling with the extraordinary. While large in scope the story is familiar in its characters. These are not caricatures or idealistic representations but real people caught in what would be one of the greatest moments of humankind. It makes it easy to be swept along in the story.

The events take place over ten years time and culminate with the Millennium which is, obviously, no longer a futuristic setting to those reading now but was when published. Interestingly, this is not what most obviously dates the book. It's the presence of the Soviet Union and, by extension, US-Soviet relations that really date this sci-fi gem. I wasn't bothered by it; in fact, I enjoyed seeing a vision of what world relations would be like with two superpowers still acting like paranoid morons. But that's really neither or nor there...

In my opinion, Sagan was a genius at making technical details accessible to lay folk. I thought there was a perfect blending of the technical with the fantastical and really enjoyed that aspect of the book. It certainly brought a realism to the book that might have been lost without Sagan at the helm. Plus, it was highly entertaining to have all this really advanced science alongside some pretty clunky "futuristic" technology.

Not working in the book's favor was its stiff dialogue and hoaky science vs. religion subplot. The dialogue felt more representative than realistic. Hmm, ok, all dialogue is representative as it would be torture to read dialogue that reflected the way we actually speak in conversation, but this dialogue went beyond that. And the science vs. religion subplot never worked for me. I found it tiresome rather than intriguing (excepting the "Numinous" chapter) and was surprised that Palmer Joss was actually around for the whole book. That's how little I enjoyed the subplot: I was prepared to write off a character who ends up being much more than minor.

On the other hand, our main character is easy to stick with for the entirety of the story. Her practical yet romantical personality are perfectly reflected in the narrative structure which deftly guides the reader down a particular path. I did find the "daddy issues" aspect of her character to be a complete cliche and the ending for that felt shoe-horned (not to mention the overt daddy/god aspect of it - blech) but it's minor compared to the greater arc of her career and her place within The Machine Committee.

My favorite chapter in the book was the "Numinous" chapter as I felt like it was a microcosm (see what I did there?) of the entire novel. In this chapter, Arroway is trying to better understand those that prefer to couch science within religious terms or reject it completely. She's very clear on what she thinks of as the difference between spirituality and bureaucratic religions. In trying to learn more about the sometimes-rejection of science within these constructs, she's been doing some reading. The chapter features a beautiful representation of belief and shows the reader once again just how Ellie's mind works (in a word: awesomely:).

In the presence of the misterium tremendum, people feel utterly insignificant but, if I read this right, no personally alienated. He thought of the numinous as a thing 'wholly other,' and the human response to it as 'absolute astonishment.' Now, if that's what religious people talk about when they use words like sacred or holy, I'm with them. I felt something like that just in listening for a signal, never mind in actually receiving it. I think all of science elicits that sense of awe.

Did this title keep my attention throughout the entire reading? No. I can't be the only one who isn't interested in what amounted to a TV channel surfing scene... Did this decrease my enjoyment of the book? Absolutely not! It might not be perfect from beginning to end but it's a classic that is going to be satisfying to almost all readers and definitely one not to miss.

So about the movie... well, let's leave that for Michael's post.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Dogs' Life

Chang O
Point of origin: Roadside, Savannah, GA, 2002

Two days after I adopted Chang O from the couple who rescued her, I moved her to Tallahasse, FL

Chang O at 6mo, born Feb 2002

2002 Move to Tallahassee, FL    300m
2003 Move across town    7m

Point of origin: City Shelter, Tallahasse, FL, 2004

Cubone was lucky. After Dr M and I adopted him in 2004, he got to live in one house for over a year.

Cubone at 4mo, born Nov 2003

Move across town    3m
Move to Iowa City, IA via
   Drive to San Antonio, TX    905m
   Drive to Boulder, CO    960m
   Drive to Iowa City, IA    800m

July - Drive to San Antonio, TX     1120m
Oct - Move to Utrecht, The Netherlands via
   Drive to Houston, Fly to Amsterdam, Train to Utrecht    5170m

Move to Davis, CA via
   Train to Amsterdam, Fly to Houston, Drive to San Antonio, TX    5170m
   Drive to Las Vegas, NV    1275m
   Drive to Davis    600m

Move to Dunedin, New Zealand via
   Drive to San Francisco, CA, Fly to Auckland, Fly to Christchurch, quarantine for 10 days
   Drive to Dunedin    7173m

Chang O total = 23,480 miles
Cubone total = 23,173 miles

Cubone (9yo) and Chang O (11yo)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Nice interview of one of my fave authors

Here's the link! And The Killing Moon is awesome. You should read it. And the next book, too!

Great Article by Kameron Hurley

Here's the link.

Populating a world with men, with male heroes, male people, and their “women cattle and slaves” is a political act. You are making a conscious choice to erase half the world.

As storytellers, there are more interesting choices we can make. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Reading Roundup

Yep, I do still read (even without Michael to prompt me:) but anyone would be hard pressed to know it these days. 2012 was a weird year for me, 2013 has encompassed the big move and I haven't felt overly expressive for quite a while but maybe I'm ready to get back to it. Or maybe not... we'll see how it goes and start it off with a little roundup...

Currently reading s l o w l y:

Title: The Count of Monte Cristo
Author: Alexandre Dumas
Publisher: Century eBooks (2012); this is a 0.99 Kindle book that includes three of Dumas' works. The Count of Monte Cristo was originally published serially in the 1800s. I haven't bothered to look at which translation this is.

I read this title over a decade ago and was inspired to pick it up again after reading The Black Count (which I highly recommend) and I'm enjoying the re-read. I skip over parts of it but most of it can still keep my attention. What I find myself doing quite a lot is trying to figure out which modern day book is the equivalent of this. Might it be Twilight? I haven't read Twilight but it's a hugely successful bestseller which is panned as often as it's praised. I've heard the dialogue is terrible, some of the writing excerpts I've seen would certainly get skipped by a reader like me and the characters are, I'm told, melodramatic and tend to not want to go on living without certain life partners... Many of these attributes are to be found in The Count of Monte Cristo....

Title: Cricket Explained
Author: Robert Eastaway
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin (1993)

The New Zealand cricket team keeps getting described to me as rubbish but I'm still prepared to become a fan of the sport and watch some local games (matches? tests? I'm still not clear on the lingo) when the season comes round again. This book is a great introduction to the sport and pretty funny to read besides. The author has a sense of humor that I quite enjoy.

Recently read:

Title: A Conspiracy of Kings
Author: Megan Whalen Turner
Publisher: Greenwillow (2010)

I've often said "any Kinsale is better than no Kinsale (and quite often better than almost all the other books:)" and I feel the same for Megan Whalen Turner. Turner has published fewer books so her A/B/C teams would be smaller but now she does have at least one on each team. This is my third read of ACoK and I haven't changed my opinion from the first read. That's an unusual thing with a MWT book as they are treasures for those who like to re-read (it's why I so often think of her and Kinsale together because they both write the kind of books that get better with more reading; that and my passionate obsession enthusiasm for their books). My opinion the first, second, and third time around on this one is, "Huh, it doesn't have the zing of the others. What a shame." It's still a solid read. It adds some interesting information to the canon but it's not one that made me want to immediately turn back to page one. So here's how I would outline the teams:

The A Team: The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia
The B Team: The Thief, Instead of Three Wishes (short stories)
The C Team: A Conspiracy of Kings

But, don't forget, any Turner is better than no Turner so you should read all of these!

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Title: The Archivist's Story
Author: Travis Holland
Publisher: The Dial Press (2007)

This story is set in 1939 Moscow and covers about a year in the life of a man who was forced out of his University position and now works as an "archivist" for Fourth Section at the Lubyanka (this is from memory so please forgive misspellings/misnomers if they exist). Being the Russophile that I am, I gobbled up the atmosphere and history but I kept being nagged by the fact that it was so perfectly what I, an American who does not excel at history, thought it would be like to live in Soviet Russia. Is it unfair of me to think negatively of the book because of that? I just felt so much of my own American sentiments in the book that it started to make me critical of the authenticity of the experiences of the characters. I'm sure it's unfair of me but I couldn't lose that nagging feeling while reading. My doubts aside, it's still worth a read for its portrayal of professional and family dynamics in a constrained atmosphere.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Title: Greywalker
Author: Kat Richardson
Publisher: Roc (2009)

Urban paranormal with a Seattle PI as its protag. Nothing to dislike in the characters, though nothing to particularly recommend either, but it's heavy heavy heavy on the world instruction which becomes tedious. I would say world building but it was just straight up tell tell tell and that's not much building to me. Bleh, give this one a pass.

rating: 2 of 5 stars

I think we all remember Dead Spy Running...

Title: Surfacing
Author: Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Anchor (1998)

Hard to know what to say on this one.... A woman with a complicated family past takes her boyfriend and a couple on a weekend trip to her home town. Her dad is missing (possibly deceased) and she wants to check things out. After reading about half of the book this is still all I know about the book. I was mildly curious as to what was going to happen with the protag but it was so easy to put down, and I eventually moved, so I had to give it back to the library. So, um, not recommended?

rating: dnf

Title: Kingdom of Strangers
Author: Zoe Ferraris
Publisher: Little, Brown and Co. (2012)

This is, I think, the third book in a crime series set in Saudi Arabia. It has a few of the series' traits that drive me nuts (repetitious relationship arcs, too much character review, etc) but I keep getting sucked in by the intriguing setting and characters. Katya works at the police station and is constantly required to navigate the strict gender roles imposed by the state and by custom to realize her ambitions and to solve cases. Nayir is a desert guide for, for lack of a better word, the gentry but also a sometimes investigator who is constantly challenged by Katya to re-analyze his notions of gender essentialism and faith. This book opens with the discovery of 19 corpses, all undocumented women, buried in the desert. Strip away the setting and these are all solid crime fiction books but they are written in such a way that the setting can't be stripped away and that is what keeps me coming back even though I have some complaints about the series.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Title: Don't Shoot: One Man, A Street Fellowship, and the End of Violence in Inner-City America
Author: David M. Kennedy
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2011)

This book went immediately to my must-read list and I can't recommend it highly enough. If you have any interest in the cycle of violence that plagues many city neighborhoods and, more importantly, how it can be stopped then this is a book you can't miss. Kennedy describes a decades long struggle to implement a proven system to decrease gun violence in neighborhoods. That's my emphasis on proven because self-auditing and stats back up the system and results are seen. It's a frustrating and encouraging look at a problem that can be solved as long as people are willing to put aside their differences and their preconceived notions and work in reality. Malcolm Gladwell and the Freakonomics authors probably love this book as it has no time to waste on conventional wisdom and is only interested in what works. The writing style takes a bit of getting used to (grammarians beware!) but it doesn't get in the way of the message.

rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Thought

Good friends are never lost to each other, only waiting for the next opportunity to share experiences.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Let's Be Careful, USA

It's bad enough that we in the US have decided we don't value education and science enough to pay for it but now, in addition to decreasing scientific research budgets, our policy makers want to decide what is good science rather than letting scientists decide what is good science? That is fucking scary!

"In the history of this committee, no chairman has ever put themselves forward as an expert in the science that underlies specific grant proposals funded by NSF," Johnson wrote in a letter obtained by ScienceInsider. "I have never seen a chairman decide to go after specific grants simply because the chairman does not believe them to be of high value."

In her letter, Johnson warns Smith that "the moment you compromise both the merit review process and the basic research mission of NSF is the moment you undo everything that has enabled NSF to contribute so profoundly to our national health, prosperity, and welfare." She asks him to "withdraw" his letter and offers to work with him "to identify a less destructive, but more effective, effort" to make sure NSF is meeting that mission.

That excerpt makes me want to shake Johnson's hand. 

The essence of scientific research and progress is peer review. It's the basis for the entire process. From the first science report you submit in grade school to the top tier grants you apply for as a full professor, it's all about peer review. Research doesn't happen in a vacuum (even privately funded, patent protected research findings go through regulation testing/departments before they can be used in an open market) and it shouldn't happen in a vacuum.* Rigorous peer review improves the quality and the impact of research that is funded and performed.

And it's called PEER review for a reason. I wouldn't send a scientific paper to a lawyer for feedback just as I wouldn't expect to be asked to edit a law brief. If we take trained scientists out of the equation of reviewing science and place it into the hands of politicians we would be taking expertise out of the equation and that's complete nonsense.

Let's be careful!

* obviously research studying the effects of vacuum environments (like this for example) should happen in a vacuum. :-)