Current Distractions, January 2012 Edition

This month I've been on a sort of self-improvement binge. I feel like I've pretty much recuperated from the pneumonia I had in November/December, and now I'm trying to organize and be healthy and so on. I know how lame this sounds, trust me, but it is a thing that I'm doing right now and actually have been relatively successful with, so whatever.

I'm not all lame, though.

At the beginning of this month, I picked a convention to go to this year, and the rest of the month has been consumed with planning costumes. I've decided that I love costumes, and nothing you can say will make me ashamed of this fact. I won't reveal which con this is until after the fact, so that any crazy stalker-people out there can't track me down and murder me. So keep your eyes open for a post about it sometime in the next eleven months, or something like that. Whatever, dudes.

Back in April (although I guess I didn't mention it) I bought a PS3 for the express purpose of playing Portal 2. I'm not much of a gamer, but when I discovered that Portal is a puzzle game, I decided to play it and it pretty much changed my life, which is only a very slight exaggeration. So I was compelled to play Portal 2, with extreme trepidation, and fortunately it is also awesome. Anyway the whole point of this is that when I bought my PS3 I would've settled for just buying Portal 2 and no other games, ever (it's also a bluray player, after all), but the system came with Uncharted 2 and Metal Gear Solid 4. These games didn't catch my attention at first, and then somehow I found out that Uncharted 2 was made by Naughty Dog (the original developer of the highly excellent Crash Bandicoot games for the PS1) and has won pretty much every single award, so I figured I'd give it a shot. I started playing the weekend before last. And let me tell you, it doesn't disappoint so far. I still have no interest in Metal Gear Solid 4, but tell me if you've played it and think it's any good.

Possibly most importantly of all, though, I got a breadmaker for Christmas and I've been making bread every weekend this month, and it's super great.

Anyway, here are some tumblrs that I enjoy a lot:

R23. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Year Published: 1992
Pages: 578
First Sentence: Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.

Every time I read science fiction, I wonder why I bother reading anything else. I mean, it's obvious: I like other books, too. I like Gothic romances, "low" fantasy, history, and all the rest. But there's nothing that can get my motor running quite as efficiently or as reliably as technobabble and spaceships. And so I present Connie Willis' Doomsday Book.

In a not-too-distant future (2054), time travel is a fait accompli. Oxford University undergraduate Kivrin Engle travels to the year 1320 to observe the contemporary Christmas celebrations, while her tutor, Mr. Dunworthy, worries himself sick. Literally! Seriously though, what should be a straightforward "drop" into the past gets complicated when the tech running things falls very ill with a mysterious virus, just before he can tell Mr. Dunworthy and the rest of the team that something has gone wrong. Meanwhile, Kivrin arrives at her destination and she ends up sick as well, unable to communicate with the people around her who have rescued her and nursed her. Etc.

I'd read what I guess you could call spoilers for this book online prior to reading it, and that caused me some frustration with some of the pacing. Along the lines of "seriously holy shit how long is it going to take for the damn tech to wake up and say what went wrong?" (Those spoilers are also why my summary is so brief—in case you want to go looking for the book, too.) Other than that I really enjoyed the story. There are an odd quantity of comic relief characters (i.e. a lot of them) but considering some of the book's dark subject matter, I suppose that's justified in terms of the overall tone that the author must've been going for. Connie Willis is a competent writer, but the combination of comic relief with mega-depressing stuff does make the tone of the novel kind of inconsistent.

The biggest problem with this book is that it's pretty dated. I think 2054 is still believably far enough away for time travel to become an established fact within the time between now and then, but there are a lot of things missing from this future that are impossibly important in our actual present. For example, no one in this book has a cellphone, although they all have video phones, a technology that I'm still not convinced is ever really going to catch on. To be fair, the entire genre is plagued by this problem, and really the book isn't crippled by it. It was just another frustration.

Also, I'm getting more and more wary of historical fiction, which this partly is. The more I learn, the more clear it seems to me that it's impossible to imagine the people in the past, if only because their attitudes were shaped so differently from ours (I'm thinking of things like neuroplasticity here, but also just general concepts like "it's ok to own another human being" or "bathing in hot water is bad for you"). I'll continue reading this genre because I love history and attempting to imagine it, but I'm really not going to trust it anymore. Possibly I should've come to this conclusion a long time ago. Or then again, maybe I'm completely wrong about this.

"The Big Bang Theory: Are We the Joke?" - Overdue Impressions on a Dragon*Con Panel

I think I'll have to begin this particular post by giving a bit of context to it. Back in September, as you may recall, I attended Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America. It was my first time in that country (outside of airports) since I was about two years old, which was a little bit surreal to realize. (And speaking of surreal, the United States is such a strange place. I feel like it should be the same as Canada but it's so oddly different. And no, I'm not one of these obnoxious Canadians with an inferiority complex who really wants to make the differences clear. I just think it's bizarre how in Canada when you get a little individually packaged butter, it's actual butter. In the United States, it's a "buttery taste spread" apparently made mostly from corn syrup.) It was also pretty much one of the most amazing experiences that I've ever had. I attended celebrity and fan panels, and was immersed in geekitude far deeper than I've ever been before in my entire life. Also: Atlanta was really nice and the people there were all awesome (con attendees and normals alike).

However, one of the panels that I attended really didn't satisfy. The title of this panel was in the title of this post, i.e. "The Big Bang Theory: Are We the Joke?" It set out to discuss whether this particular tv show (and seriously if you don't know what The Big Bang Theory is, I'm not going to explain it, because I doubt that this post will have anything of interest for you in it, anyway) is laughing at or with the people it portrays. It's very easy for me to state why the panel didn't satisfy me: it didn't address the question that it was supposed to. Instead, it consisted mainly of people gushing about the show and speculating about it, and saying how they saw themselves in it, and basically just not critically examining it and its audience in the way that I'd hoped for, and had come to expect based on other panels I'd been to. Someone even compared the character of Raj from The Big Bang Theory to the character of Abed from Community, which is pretty much the worst comparison that I've ever heard, because the only thing that they have in common is that they're both brown. Yikes.

So being that there was a lack of insight displayed at the actual panel, I wanted to address the question here.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with books, language, gender, engineering, or any of my other fair game topics? Not very much; it's a tv show. But bear with me just this once, please and thanks.

I need to qualify this post just a little bit further before I get into the meat of it, though. I'm actually not a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory (which I'll refer to as TBBT from now on, just for simplicity's sake). I think the first episode of the show that I watched was Wil Wheaton's first episode (I'm a huge Wil Wheaton fan, and maybe one day I'll write about how awesome Wil Wheaton is*), although I'd heard about the show a very little bit before then. I was living sans cable by the time the second season started in September 2008, and so it wasn't really on my radar. I enjoyed the first episode I saw, though, and when my sister started watching the show, I watched a bit with her, and I was always entertained. I watched Wil Wheaton's second episode, too. But I'd only seen a few episodes between that and his third episode, which aired very recently, and also featured Brent Spiner, who loves to stir shit up on Twitter.

So I'm not coming at this from the perspective of a person who has seen every single episode. I don't know if I'm going to be making any arguments that are really affected by that, though. Ok yes I am.

So, who are "we," and are "we" the joke?

"We" obviously, are the people like Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and Howard. We are geeks/nerds, smart people into gaming, science fiction, technology, and being obsessed with make believe/things that the vast mass of society thinks of as being really lame. This line is a difficult one to draw at the moment, with a lot of sf-type stuff appearing pretty much everywhere recently (depending, of course, what you consider to be sf, but for the purposes of this post, I'm including things like Transformers, and Avatar, and, um, I'm not sure what else). It may be worth noting that I draw my geek line ("This far and no further!") at furries, Japanese articulated dolls, and LARPing, the first two of which have a bizarre sexual undertone from what I can tell, and latter of which is just... so silly. Of course, YMMV. What I mean, though, is that pretty much no one is ashamed to go to see Transformers 3**, whereas I felt I had to keep the purpose of my trip to Atlanta a secret from my coworkers. So while some activities are still too geeky for the mainstream, others are less so. But I think it's pretty clear that we're the kids who were teased for our odd interests. We were the ones in the a/v club getting excited to watch a copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know?

Next question: are we the joke?

The premise of TBBT, once I'd started watching it, made me nervous. It was a comedy about geeks, and when I watched it, I felt like I was laughing along with some of the things that they were saying. But I was concerned, because I was also laughing at them. And let's keep things realistic. In comedy, you're often supposed to be laughing at the characters. I was laughing at all of the Bluths when I watched Arrested Development (if I was laughing with anyone in that case, I guess it would've had to've been Ron Howard). And I was laughing at the people on The Office. And at The Simpsons. These aren't really sit coms, though, so my other example is M*A*S*H. (And no I'm not trying to say that TBBT compares to any of these shows, just that the concept of laughing at characters holds through pretty much all of comedy, as it should.) So why would it be a problem to laugh at the geeks on TBBT?

I'm not sure what the answer to this is, but I think that it has something to do with the way these concepts are presented, and the way the audience views the characters. Beginning with Arrested Development: this show is just one insane, long-running joke about a crazy family. The characters are clearly all completely crazy, and caricatures of real people. Or perhaps I should take this opportunity to apologize to the closeted gay, never-nude, Blue Man, unemployed psychologist community. The Office: let's go with the UK version, and say that our laughter is mostly the nervous and crushing laughter that we can't let out at work every day, and so this is our outlet. The Simpsons: agh, let's just move on to M*A*S*H.

In M*A*S*H, our heroes are the funniest guys, and a lot of the humour comes from various quips and zingers. We're really rooting for the vast majority of the main characters, and even the "antagonists" have a sort of dignity. Our laughter is at the situations that they get into, and the ways that they deal with and comment on those situations. I haven't seen every episode of this show, but in the ones I have seen, it took its characters seriously.

It's very probably misguided of me to try to compare a classic sit com set during the Korean War with a current show created by Chuck Lorre about a bunch of geeks, but I'm going to do it anyway. While TBBT does derive some of its comedy from the hijinks of the geeks, even this is largely driven by poking fun at them for being obsessive, infantile, socially inept, whatever. If this were really a show by geeks, for geeks, it would focus more on the work of the various characters (seriously you could have so much hilarity in a fictional physics lab, and also holy shit they're all brilliant why don't we respect them more?!). And the dialogue would be 90% just straight-up quoting from eight million obscure sources, and 10% regurgitation of scientific trivia. And the geeks in the audience would swoon, and the mainstream audience would be scornful.

And the show wouldn't be terribly successful, but it would be honest.

Because the geeks are the joke on this show, a lot of the time. They don't really get any respect for being brilliant, they're just these awkward people. And I do believe that there are real geeks somewhere behind this show, who care about it and who prevent the characters from descending too far into the stereotype of the fat, unwashed man playing an MMORPG in his parents' basement (for example). But I think that most of the audience doesn't care, and that they're laughing at us. And the reason I think that the audience is laughing at us is that I've been laughed at. And maybe some people are like that horrible kid in Freaks and Geeks, who just wants to play D & D with the geeks, really, except that he's afraid of being laughed at, too. But just as many people are too busy cheering for professional sports teams to understand why someone else would obsessively catalog the entire Dune series on a wiki or play a six hour table top game with a group of people who have well-known online personas thanks to their really insightful comments on some unheard of message board about antique watches.

I don't know what normal people do with their time, besides talking about and watching pro sports. And hey, geeks (including me) laugh at those normal people, too. But that's kind of the point: in a show where the geeks really are the heroes, they would be the ones laughing. They wouldn't be just a bunch of geeks on display for a mainstream audience to laugh at.

But I can't deny that I've enjoyed episodes of TBBT. I just wish it was a better version of itself. And really, there are enough old Star Trek episodes out there that I never need to watching anything else, anyway.

What do you think, readers?

*Please note that my love of Wil Wheaton doesn't extend to wanting to tell him that I want to marry him, as much as I may joke about this. But that's a whole 'nother topic on celebrity culture or some such whatnot, and I don't have time to go into it right now. And let's also note that my love of him has at various points in the past extended to getting his tweets on my phone.

**People should be ashamed, though. And probably if you're cool enough to be reading my blog, you at least thought twice about it. I hope so, anyway! This is also another topic entirely.

In Which Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

I'm reading Finnegans Wake and if I start writing about it I won't be able to stop, so.

Because it's going to take a long time to finish, I'm going to be posting a lot of junk over the next while. I think I'm finally going to do the profiles of the Modern Library board members who made The List, which I think I've mentioned before at least once. And of course, there'll be a "random novel" review coming up, as well.

Just a heads up, I guess?

Also I just got a Goodreads account, but I'll figure out how it works later.

78. Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Uncomfortable Plot Summary: Rudyard Kipling's wish fulfillment fantasy.

Year Published: 1901
Pages: 217
First Sentence: He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

Because I couldn't find Kim in its own volume at the library, I ended up getting it in a book of "The Best Fiction of Rudyard Kipling," which meant that after I was done Kim I finally got to read The Jungle Book, which I'd argue is Kipling's much more famous work. However, reading the two books in such quick succession also meant that I got to see how far superior Kim is, in its story structure especially.

Kim O'Hara is a young Irish boy who has basically gone native in India. His mother died when he was a baby, and his alcoholic father, "a young colour-sergeant of the Mavericks, an Irish regiment," became a railway man, and brought baby Kim with him everywhere. Eventually Kim's father becomes an opium addict, and dies, leaving Kim with some identifying papers and nothing else, so that Kim basically just ends up running wild in the streets of Lahore.

That's where the book opens, with Kim and some other children playing where they shouldn't be, outside of a museum. A strange-looking man appears and Kim is immediately curious about him. It turns out that the man is a Tibetan lama, who left his monastery to search for a legendary "River of the Arrow." Kim latches onto the Lama as his new chela, or disciple, to beg for the lama and help him around the countryside on his search.

The two of them spend some time on the road, until by a strange coincidence, they end up encountering the Mavericks en route to Sanawar. The identifying papers that Kim's father left him are kept in an amulet that Kim wears around his neck, and when these are discovered, the regiment pretty much instantly takes Kim in hand, to finally send him to school and so on. Kim is very unwillingly separated from the lama.

I'll stop there for spoilers' sake, but say that the story really seems to be about the relationship between Kim and the lama and how that relationship illustrates Kim's struggle between the world of the "sahibs" (British colonist types, in this case) and that of the natives. It's this relationship that makes the book extremely readable. Obviously, the lama is a Buddhist, and thus prohibited from developing attachments (or at least I think that's how it works), but he undeniably loves Kim by the end of the book, and Kim has a tremendous amount of love and respect for the lama.

The book also seems to be a love letter to India from Kipling. All of the descriptions are very vivid, and the book is full of really remarkable characters. India isn't quite as much of a blind spot as the entirety of Africa is for me (I've seen Ghandi, after all, hahaha), but every time I encounter it in fiction it seems to be the most complex and bizarre country in the world. Also, it's very clear that the country Kipling is describing here is just the wilder, more old-fashioned version of the India portrayed by Salman Rushdie in Midnight's Children.

I like Kipling's writing. He's very good at describing very unfamiliar settings (for a so-called Western reader, anyway), and his sense of humour is never far away. (I've loved the Just So Stories for a very long time.) Also, he avoids the horribly annoying thing that a lot of writers do when they're giving dialogue to people who speak accented or a vernacular English, where all of the apostrophes and misspellings make that person's dialogue almost unreadable, and insulting too in some cases. Kipling just makes judicious use of some extra letters here and there to get the point across. I know I'm harping about this, but I really hate it when writers do it.

Overall the book is good. It's not one of the best of the 3/3s, because the story is pretty simple, but it's definitely worth a read.

(I didn't find anything particularly quotable in the book, so instead here's a stanza from "The Sons of Martha", one of Kipling's good bad poems that I have a bit of a soft spot for. -M.R.)

They finger death at their gloves' end where they piece and repiece the living wires. 
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires. 
Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall, 
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

Current Distractions, Slightly Belated December 2011 Edition

Hello everybody and Happy New Year! I spent last night watching Star Trek: TOS with my bff, and it was awesome. We're almost finished the first season, finally. (There are no fewer than twenty-nine episodes, which is ridiculous.)

Ok, so my distractions for December should be pretty obvious: the stuff I mentioned last monthish, plus holiday preparation and participation. When I wasn't buying stuff to wear to my office Christmas party, I was buying Christmas presents, wrapping Christmas presents, baking, and finally hanging out with family and friends. My holidays were pretty successful overall, so now I just have to go back to work tomorrow and get my boss to approve the holiday request I made a month ago, instead of firing me. (I don't think he'll actually fire me.)

A few other things to mention:

  1. I wrote a couple of reviews yesterday that will be going up over the next few weeks, as I finish reading other books and get around to doing the editing of said reviews written yesterday.
  2. Might as well sum up everything I read this last year, because it's probably too late to dedicate a post to that all by itself.  Here's a table of all the books I read in 2011 (there are 30 of them, averaging 378 pages each):

I'm too lazy to correct this on the table, but The Evolution of God is technically non-fiction depending on your opinion of evolutionary psychology.  I think you can click to embiggen.
I know this is an ugly table, but the very last thing I am is a visual artist, so you'll have to just deal with it.  Mainly I just wanted to make a spreadsheet to count up pages I read this last year, and the total comes to 10,964!  This averages to about 30 pages read per day, which isn't too bad considering some of the hours that I've been working this I worked last year.  (This number also isn't completely accurate, not just because of not being able to adjust for things like words per page, but simply because I don't know how many pages there were in Kick-Ass.)

  • Longest book: The Soldiers of Halla by D. J. MacHale (The surprising conclusion to a pretty sweet YA series.)
  • Shortest book: Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson (A picturesque and thoughtful middle-gradeish novel dealing with race, religion, family, etc.)
  • Best book: The Magicians by Lev Grossman (So-called "Harry Potter for adults" that also owes a lot to C. S. Lewis and was just so, so good.  The sequel came out this year, but I'm waiting to buy it in paperback because that's what I have the first book in, and I'm crazy like that.)
  • Worst book: The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (This is probably some kind of blasphemy to some people, but this book was just so boring.)
I think that covers everything and my laundry is done now, so I have to move on to buying groceries and so on.  I hope you all had good holidays, and keep reading my lame but beloved (i.e. by me) blog in 2012! :)