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Robert Heinlein is one of those authors who is sadly not being allowed to die - his estate keeps digging up old manuscripts out of the extensive archives he donated to UC Santa Cruz and publishing them. Some of the results have been interesting (pieces that had never been reprinted since their original magazine publication, like "A Tenderfoot in Space"), and some have been, well, unfortunate.

The most recent revivified Heinlein is Spider Robinson's 2006 novel, Variable Star, which was based on a story outline by Heinlein.

Be warned: despite the claims on the cover, which gives Heinlein top billing, Variable Star is a Spider Robinson novel through and through. Robinson, for those who haven't read him before, is a very distinct writer with a limited range -- all of his work is more or less similar in style and tone, so if you like what he does in one book, you will enjoy his other books; if you don't, you won't. And if you're like me, you'll start out enjoying his stories and then, after a while, start to find his writerly tics (which don't really vary) grating and irritating.

Rather than review Variable Star, I want to talk about the original story outline (working title "The Star Clock") by Heinlein which Robinson used. The outline is available in PDF from the Heinlein Archives for $2. It is bundled with a bunch of other stuff in the collection called "Story Ideas, part 1", file number WRTG201a-01.*

While Heinlein never turned the outline into a novel himself, he did did not abandon it as the marketing for Variable Star would imply. Rather, he took one core idea (near-light speed travel as a form of time travel into the future) and used it as the basis for Time For the Stars. Then he took the other core idea (poor boy suddenly finds himself dealing with a family more wealthy and powerful than most governments) and incorporated it into Citizen of the Galaxy. Finally he took the last idea from the outline (boy and girl seemingly separated by one-way time travel into the future discover that their ages are not incompatible after all because they've both traveled forward), and used it in The Door Into Summer.

Robinson talks in the afterword to Variable Star that the outline he had to work with was only seven pages long, with page 8 missing. The version in the archive is complete, so the last page must have gone astray somewhere between UCSC and Robinson's desk.

Extensive Googling has not turned up anyone else talking about this outline in specific terms, so here goes. Cut for length and boringness to those who don't care about Heinlein )

For those curious, Robinson's novel is extremely faithful to the first five pages of the outline (up to the point where Joel leaves on the starship). He used few of the brainstorming ideas Heinlein put in page 6 (the trip), and ignored page 7 (Joel's return to Earth) completely (and he didn't have page 8, as explained in his afterword).

Sadly, by staying so faithful to the initial outline, then diverging so widely from it, Robinson ended up with a book that egregiously violates the Chekov's Gun rule - the ending of Variable Star comes from nowhere, with no buildup or foreshadowing, while the beginning of it puts a good many plot threads in motion that are discarded abruptly without resolution to make way for the ending.

* If you buy this collection, you get the following in addition to the Star Clock outline: Numerous newspaper and magazine clippings that Heinlein evidently found evocative; two articles by Jerry Pournelle (one MS, one journal reprint); some handwritten pages that I did not try to decipher; 19 pages of worldbuilding notes for "A Martian named Smith" aka Stranger in a Strange Land from 1949; two typed letters, one to "Sarge" (dec 1963), and one (missing the first page, probably mid 60's also) to "Buz," both talking about race relations.
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I remember being intensely disappointed by "The L-Word" - it was too fluffy, not very well written, it was set in the alien universe of LA-LA land, and its roots were in comedy and soap opera and I much prefer drama. I remember thinking that I really wished someone would make a lesbian version of "Queer as Folk," with good writing, good acting, and drama rather than soap. A cast who actually looked more or less like lesbians, instead of members of the Hollywood species Models Who Have Never Eaten a Meal in Their Lives, would be a nice bonus.

Well, someone at the BBC was listening to my wishes, and they made Lip Service. We watched the first episode the other evening, and it rocked.

Lip service is set in Glasgow, and follows the lives of a group of lesbian and bisexual friends. While very much a relationship based show, so far it doesn't have any of the stigmata of soap opera (contrived situations, and the feeling that the characters must be unnaturally stupid to be acting the way they are). So, drama, check.

To date, the cast consists of Frankie (back in Glasgow after two years in New York because the aunt who raised her has died, still has a thing for Cat but has issues with committing to long term relationships), Cat (had her heart broken by Frankie two years ago and is only now re-entering the dating scene), and Tess (aspiring actress, friend to both Cat and Frankie, on the rebound after a bad breakup). All of them are out lesbians. Cat's brother Ed and her work colleague and university chum Jay are the token men on the show. So, lack of annoying "Jenny" characters who make you want to travel out to the production location specifically so you can drown them, check.

Things I particularly liked:
1. They're totally using the "gays are everywhere" paradigm pioneered by Queer as Folk.
2. Frankie is in many ways a female version of Stuart/Brian in Queer As Folk. She meets women who are attracted to women everywhere she goes, but it's always just sex without commitment for her. I always regarded Stuart's antihero stance that "commitment is for suckers" stance as one of the least likable things about him, and Frankie's behaviour isn't much more likable. However, with Frankie, we get the feeling that she acts this way because of dark things in her past, which means she might someday grow beyond it.
3. While none of the people so far (with one exception) are notably butch, the show doesn't seem quite as scared of butches as the L-word was. I was actually able to tell who landed more on the butch side and who more on the femme side (distinctly different vibes for Frankie and Cat, as well as for Tess and her ex), which is a huge step forward from the L Word, where everyone wore lipstick and nail gloss.
4. These are ordinary people with ordinary jobs and ordinary income levels, not inhabitants of the Hollywood Fiscal Reality Distortion Bubble.

Airing on BBC 3 in the UK, it's been picked up by Showcase in Canada. Sadly, I have no idea when or if it is airing in the US. However, the first 6 episode season is already available on DVD from, and a second season has been scheduled. And for those who wish to "check it out from the library," all six episodes can be downloaded from torrent sites like the pirate bay or

edited to clarify my point comparing Frankie and Stuart; also to remove a point about nudity that doesn't apply past the first episode.
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Being a review of William Patterson's "Robert A. Heinlein In dialogue with his century: Vol 1, Learning curve."

I didn't have high expectations for this book -- after reading Jo Walton's critique of its poor fact-checking (and saw the author arguing with the reviewer in the comments of that post, which did not leave me a good impression of him), I knew it wasn't going to be great. Sadly, it failed to even be good. TL:DR version: incredibly poor scholarship is incredibly poor )

These failings aren't academic esoterica, but very basic issues of scholarship that anyone trying to write a serious biography really needs to have mastered. And they wouldn't stand out so much if the biography was an interesting and insightful account of Heinlein's life... but it isn't. TL:DR version: it's somehow simultaneously boringly overlong and breezily superficial )

Right from the first page of the introduction, we learn that this book is going to be hagiographical to a fault, when Patterson, with a straight face, claims that the day Heinlein died was comparable to such events as the Challenger disaster, the Kennedy assassination, or September 11, 2001.

As best I can tell, the only reason it was not rejected by the publisher is that Heinlein has a massive following of rabid fans who do see him as a saint, if not a god, and that it is an "authorized" biography that benefited from extensive interviews with Mrs Heinlein before her death.

As a massive compilation of notes and source materials for a biography, this book is great. As a biography, it's piss poor. If you are a Heinlein fan and want to know the story of his life, do your wallet a favour and check it out from the library -- and then be prepared to do a lot of skimming.
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I have seen the Sherlock Holmes movie and it is excellent. I'll get to the movie in a minute, but first, a bit of a rant about the herd mentality in movie making and the recent fad for making "reimaginings" of classic books or films. on reimaginings )

So we have two kinds of "reimagining": on the one hand, the studio pitch buzz word seems to be the new way of saying "buy the rights, then don't actually use any of the source material in the new film." On the other hand, for the tiny handful of producers and directors who actually know what they are doing, it seems to mean "stop paying homage to the prior versions of what we're doing. Avoid the well worn path and make something people haven't seen before."

The first kind of reimagining is easy to do, and pretty much guaranteed to result in unwatchable crap. The second type is hard, especially for film makers, who seem to have a kneejerk reflexive instinct to borrow from their predecessors. The result might or might not be good, but it is guaranteed to be new and different.

The new Sherlock Holmes is the latter type of reimagining. Despite having been written by a committee of five writers (normally a sure sign a film is going to be awful), it's extremely good. I sat down to watch this movie expecting your standard bit of mindless action movie fluff, full of wildly inaccurate history, gapingly obvious plot holes you could pump the Thames through with room left over, and stupid storytelling. What I got was a very good, very smart film that got the history right, told a tight story with no visible plot holes, and which perfectly captured the character of Holmes, portraying him exactly as he appears in the original stories, and not as he has been portrayed endlessly since the 30's in movie after movie after TV show after movie. The Holmes we've all seen before, from William Gillette to Basil Rathbone )

The current movie, on the other hand, manages to convey both the energy and activity of Holmes, and his intellectual gifts. This is a Holmes who actually seems to be miles smarter than anyone else in the room, and who likes to relax by going to the slums and fighting in the boxing ring. Yes, because this is a major motion picture, Holmes's martial prowess and physical activity are highlighted, but not at all at the expense of his intellect.

The committee of writers who scripted the new Sherlock Holmes movie includes at least one person who knows the original stories intimately, and it shows in dozens of little touches. We see Holmes shooting a "VR" in his bedroom wall with a revolver. We see him plucking tunelessly at the strings of his violin as he sits in his messy, dirty apartment, thinking hard about the case. We see him intently observing and noticing minute trivial details, and drawing conclusions from them that leave Lestrade and Watson baffled. We hear several classic lines of dialogue taken from the various original stories and re-purposed to the current tale.

The production team took equal care to recreate Victorian London, not the picture postcard, upper class view of lovely buildings and horse drawn carriages and cobblestone streets we've seen in dozens of films, but London as it really was at the time - polluted and dirty with coal dust and horse manure, filled with masses of working class people scraping by on starvation wages with no dental care and infrequent access to soap and water.

The film does play fast and loose with the canon of Sherlock Holmes stories, but I don't mind this much since Doyle himself never paid much attention to the chronology or the established history of his stories. The film takes place in around 1891, after Holmes and Watson have been living together for a decade and have gotten to the "long time married" point of finishing each others sentences. And Holmes meets Mary Morstan for the first time after Watson and Morstan have gotten engaged, whereas in "The Sign of Four" Watson meets her when she comes to Holmes for help, and the marriage happens in the early 1880's.

To which I say, so what? Keeping to canon would have required the scriptwriters to spend several minutes providing backstory that is useless to the current tale, and the key point of the movie, at the character level, is the "been together forever" relationship between Holmes and Watson, and how Watson's engagement threatens to change that relationship.

And yes, there is some (OK, a lot of) very deliberate subtext going on here. Holmes is not happy that Watson's imminent marriage will take Watson away from him. Watson finds that despite his protests, he himself is not able to disengage -- he cannot stop being Holmes' partner. They finish each others' sentences, borrow each other's clothing, correct each other on trivial mistakes in speaking, and generally act like a married couple, except for the sex and kissing.

Because this is a major motion picture, Holmes and Watson are each given beards - Watson has his new fiancee Mary Morstan (who gets short shrift in the characterization department and remains a cipher), and Holmes has Irene Adler, a woman who is fully his intellectual equal but who makes her living through less legitimate and often illegal means. Annoyingly the actors pronounce her name with a silent final e, but otherwise, both [personal profile] morgan_dhu and I very much liked the portrayal of Adler in this film. The writers took her brief appearance in one Sherlock Holmes story, stayed faithful to it, and yet fleshed out her character to be much more than Doyle allowed her to be. She made a fine, competent, smart heroine, who refreshingly played a key role in saving the day at the end of the film, and who did not get captured by the villain or need to be rescued by the hero at any point.

In the stories, Watson is very boring, very dull-witted, and despite years of hanging out with Holmes he never seems to learn to think like Holmes and is always just as bemused and bewildered by his friend's insights as he was when they first met. Thankfully, the writers ditched this characterization and instead portray Watson as quite competent and smart enough to not only follow much of Holmes' reasoning but even to sometimes see things Holmes misses. They also gave him a gambling problem (kept under control by letting Holmes keep possession of his chequebook) and a dog, both invented out of whole cloth.

As for historical accuracy, besides the afore-mentioned portrayal of London as dirty and polluted, the plot turns on the (accurate in theme if not in the specific secret society portrayed) upper class Victorian fascination with the occult, as we have a secret society of dabblers in magick and Satanism, whose leader has them all convinced he actually does have magical powers, and whose evil scheme forms the core of the plot. Tower Bridge was actually under construction at the time the film is set, and the half-built bridge is the stage for one of the climactic scenes in the film. I got the impression that we were seeing a mixture of gas and electric lighting, again accurate to the period. The film makes a nod to the current fascination with steampunk in the form of a radio-controlled bomb, but by 1891, radio was well understood in theory and early experimentation with radio waves were underway, so it's not too far fetched.

Overall, it was an excellent film, and I felt that by abandoning the hoary old tropes of a century of Sherlock Holmes stage and film productions, it managed to perfectly capture the characters of Holmes, Watson and Irene Adler. Highly recommended.
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So the Governor of California wants to save money by switching from paper textbooks for public school kids to e-book textbooks.

This is profoundly stupid on two levels. First, it won't save any money whatsoever, and second, e-books as they currently exist cannot possibly replace textbooks for learning.

The money-losing issue is obvious. On a $25 hardcover novel, the publisher gets about $10 (40%), and distributors and bookstores get the rest. That $10 has to cover royalties, editorial/proofing, marketing and profit, as well as paper, ink, printing, binding, and shipping. Your typical textbook has more and larger pages than a novel, but that really only affects paper and ink costs, a tiny fraction of the total. The real reason why textbooks cost so much more than novels (from half again to twice as much as a novel, at least for college texts in my experience) is because the editorial and authorial costs are so much higher. Novel writers are used to working on spec, and get paid quite modestly only after the book is completely written and accepted for publication; one novel usually has one author, one editor, and (with luck) one proofreader. Textbooks tend to be written by committees, edited by multiple editors, and proofread (always - a textbook with mistakes in it won't be bought by schoolboards) by teams of proofreaders. They also need fact checkers, graphic artists to design charts and tables and lay out the illustrations, people to select pictures from image archives for the illustrations, and somebody to pay for the copyrights for any words or pictures to be used that aren't in the public domain. All of which is expensive, and none of which will go away if textbooks cease to be printed on paper.

So the governor's plan would save a token amount of paper and printing costs, in exchange for a huge increase in IT costs (at least 50% of students' families won't be able to afford an ebook reader for their child... and grade school age children are not gentle with their belongings, making frequent replacement a must).

Meanwhile education would suffer hugely. Because Ebooks, as they currently exist, are completely unsuited to presenting textbook materials. Not for any of the reasons I saw mentioned by various commenters on the Guardian site, but because ebook readers, as they currently exist, are WHOLLY UNSUITED to the reading of any textbook other than a collection of literature.

Most e-readers (and every e-reader that's even remotely affordable) have 9x12 cm screens. Every chemistry textbook, to pick an example at random, has to have a periodic table. How are you going to lebibly reproduce a periodic table in that small a page? Oh, sure, you could pan and scan, scrolling the e-reader's tiny window across a much larger periodic table... but if you can't see the whole thing laid out before you at once, at legible resolution, it isn't going to make any sense, you aren't going to see the patterns and flow of properties down rows and across columns. Ditto for the full-page maps and the chronological charts that fill any good history book. Ditto for any two-page spread graphically presenting a complex interrelated subject, whether it's the causes of the fall of Rome or the factors in the ecology of a pond.

True, it would be a wonderful thing if one could click on the periodic table in a chemistry text and get it to show you not just valences and atomic weights, but melting and boiling points, hardnesses, reactivity indexes, and so on and so forth. It would also be wonderful if a history book's reproduction of the Mona Lisa could be zoomed in on, so one could examine the tiny background details. But it is far more important, for learning, for teaching, to be able, when necessary or desirable, to present a massive amount of information in a visual way, and be able to see all of it at once. And right now, the technology for doing that, in an affordable way, is still the old-fashioned paper book. E-book readers will one day replace paper textbooks... when they can have jam spilled on them, and be thrown against the wall, without breaking; when the screen sizes grow to 44x28cm (a double screen that folds in half)... then we'll have a teaching tool worth investing billions of public school dollars into. Until then, despite the dreams of technophile nerds who are offended that we are still using this primitive paper stuff, we'll have to muddle through with plain old books.
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I enjoyed the first two-thirds of The Omnivore's Dilemma. The last third had some good bits in it, and some bits that I just skipped completely. Which was pretty much the case with the previous Pollan book I read, The Botany of Desire.

In The Botany of Desire, Pollan talked about four economic plants not in terms of what humans got out of them, but in terms of how the plants have evolved in order to cause humans to spread their seeds throughout the world. I enjoyed the book until I got to the part devoted to cannabis, in which Pollan ignored the 8,000+ year history of cannabis cultivation (for rope and fabric and food) and focused exclusively on the plant's use as a drug in the late 20th century, and how the plant was transforming in the US and Europe from a field weed into an indoor hydroponics plant adapted to be grown under artificial lights. All because of Pollan's conceit that he was not discussing four plants, but rather four human desires that the plants were exploiting (Cannabis being "intoxication" or some such).

At that point, I found myself wondering how Pollan might have truncated or distorted the history of the other plants he talked about to shoehorn them into his artificial schema of desires, and I put the book aside unfinished.

In Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan is once again creating an elaborate and rather artificial schema to compare U.S. factory farming to U.S. organic farming, and to contrast the mainstream way of food in the U.S. to the "slow food" movement. In each section, he traces a specific type of food from its origins as a crop to its final incarnation as a meal that he and his family/friends eat.

The section on factory farming ends with a meal at McDonald's; the section on organic farming has two meals, one made up of faux-organic food grown factory-style by the organic arms of big agribusiness companies and purchased at a chain health food store, the other made up of locally grown, pasture-raised meat and eggs and farmer's market veggies; and the final section of the book details Pollan's own hunting of pigs, gathering of mushrooms and gardening of veggies for a sort of "extreme slow-food" meal. I found the narcissism of the last part quite boring and skipped a lot, but there were some interesting bits in there about mushrooms and about the ethics of eating meat.

Along the way, I learned a great deal about modern factory farming and big agribusiness in the US today - the book filled in a lot of context, background, and missing pieces that other books I've read on the same subject (Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Cook's Diet for a Dead Planet, Nestle's Food Politics) left out due to their narrower focus.

Overall, I think Pollan is really just too full of himself for me to actually enjoy his books wholeheartedly. But this time, he picked topics that I was already seriously interested in (factory farming and processed foods, and how they are destroying the world and us), and provided a lot of interesting information, especially a global overview, that I had not encountered previously. So I'm glad I read the book, even if I didn't fully enjoy it. And while I may regret this later, I have added Pollan's In Defence of Food to my want list.Read more... )
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Medieval monks spent time mortifying their flesh because they subscribed to the idiotic view that the only thing that mattered was one's soul, and the body was merely a corrupt and temporary container for the soul. While hair shirts and whips designed for hitting yourself on the back have mostly gone out of style, the idea that being cruel to ourselves is somehow virtuous still lingers on.

Case in point: organic rye flakes. Not as popular as oat flakes, so the number of stores that carry it, and the number of distributors that provide those stores with stock, is limited. Most of the places that sell rye flakes around here sell a variety that contains a significant quantity of chaff mixed in with the rye. There's also a brand of rye kernels with a similar problem - significant quantities of weed seeds (which are much larger, so it's not that you can't separate them out by sifting) mixed in with the grain. Why? Not because we don't have the technology to separate out the wheat from the chaff or the weeds from the grain - after all, we've been doing that for 8,000 years now and have gotten kind of good at it. No, its because some benighted moron out there who is one of the few suppliers of organic rye thinks that organic foods should involve suffering. After all, if you're not picking bits of dirt out from between your teeth, how would you know it was organic?

Well, actually, the real reason is because it saves the distributor a few pennies to sell poorly winnowed grain. But the reason they can get away with doing that is because their customers think that it's OK if it's lower quality, because, hey, it's organic, and virtue should be painful. The same kind of mentality operates in the produce aisle: I cannot buy Ontario potatoes or carrots or actually Ontario grown anything at my neighbourhood health food store. Even during the summer and fall, when local produce would be in season, everything in their produce section is imported from California, except for the stuff that is imported from Mexico or central/south America. Because it's easier for the store to buy from a big distributor than to buy from a local farmer.

Now oddly enough, all of this California-grown faux-organic produce is rather markedly smaller than standard produce -- not because you need pesticides and artificial fertilizers to make food grow big, but because all of that imported organic produce is factory farmed. Those heads of lettuce are smaller than their non-organic brethren because the factory farms in California have to harvest those huge monoculture fields fast, before the bugs move in and chow down on the crop (or before the weeds grow up and contaminate the harvest). Likewise, "Organic" chickens that boast of being "grain fed" instead of "pasture raised" are smaller than regular chickens (and much smaller than pasture-raised birds) because they're factory farmed, crowded in thousands to the barn, raised as fast as possible and slaughtered before they're fully grown; if they were allowed to reach their full adult weight, the birds would start getting sick and dying from being raised in such cramped conditions, since they can't be fed antibiotics.

And people buy this organic-in-name-only produce and meat, paying far more for it than for regular food, without demurral over the obscene prices or the substandard sizes, because organic food is "good for you," and if it's good for you, then it has to be somehow inferior to regular food. Because, as a culture, we are still trapped by the hair-shirt, self-whipping medieval mentality that virtue must involve suffering. Meanwhile, the agribusiness companies that raise all that "organic" produce out in California make out like bandits.

Me, I'm going to start buying my produce at the organic farmer's market this summer. And I'm going to try to find a place that gets its rye flakes from a different supplier. One that understands this 8,000 year old technology known as "winnowing"

eta: added some comments about capitalism that I forgot to put in at first.
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Susan Faludi's "The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America" is a brilliant book with an annoying flaw.

Faludi opens by noting that even as late as 2007 when she finished the book, "Virtually no film, television drama, play, or novel on 9/11 had begun to plumb what the trauma meant for our national psyche. Slavishly literal reenactments of the physical attack... or unrepresentative tales of triumphal rescue at ground zero seemed all the national imagination could handle." She talks a great deal about "we" in following pages of her preface: "Nothing like this had ever happened before, so we didn't know how to assimilate the experience. And yet, in the weeks and months to follow, we kept rummaging through the past to make sense of the disaster, as if the trauma of 9/11 had stirred some distant memory, reminded us of something disturbingly familiar." And further: "allusions to Pearl Harbour provided no traction, and we soon turned our attention to another chapter in U.S. history," the Cold War, where, in the fall of 2001, with pundits invoking John Wayne and TV airing re-runs of all of Wayne's western films, "we reacted to our trauma, in other words, not by interrogating it but by cocooning it in the celluloid chrysalis of the baby boom's childhood."

Obviously, of course, Faludi suffers from the typical American problem of forgetting that Americans are not the only "we" in the world. But that's not really the problem here. The problem, and the flaw, is that despite her preface, Faludi isn't really writing about "we Americans" but rather, and only, about "we journalists, pundits, politicians, and other members of the Establishment." Which is the typical, self-centred and arrogant stance of most journalists, of course, but is an astonishing lapse from a feminist left-wing writer who has shown in the past that she knows better (more about why I think Faludi falls into making this mistake later). The result is a fascinating and revealing book about the mythical fantasy that the U.S. media and the U.S. establishment tried to impose on the nation's social fabric in the aftermath of 9/11, but it isn't a book about what Americans thought of 9/11 or how they reacted to it. Nor, aside from a few early and brief mentions of statistics that refute the so-called trends being claimed by various journalists, is it even a book that tries to compare the establishment's response to the attacks to the responses of ordinary people.

Many's the time since September 2001 when I have read something in the news about the U.S. and said to [ profile] morgan_dhu, "they've all gone barking mad down there." And I know many of my e-friends in the U.S., and many of the U.S.-based bloggers that I read, were having very similar responses to the parade of craziness that the establishment media and political leaders were putting on. Faludi would have written a much better book, I think, if she had gone beyond the mainstream and establishment media and looked at opinion surveys, at left-wing blogs, at all the various non-establishment voices out there, and what they had to say about 9/11 and about the establishment's campaign of myth-making.

Despite this flaw, I still found the book utterly fascinating. It's a damn good book, if you accept the limits of what it tries to do. Read more... )
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[ profile] morgan_dhu's GP ordered some blood tests, so we had a visit from a phlebotomist this morning. As usual, the GP made a mistake and the test order did not include the cholesterol test we had asked for, nor did it include any fasting tests despite [ profile] morgan_dhu's being told to fast before the test. We are not happy with our GP, and this is just the latest in a series of reasons why we really wish we could find someone else... but there's a shortage of physicians in Toronto, and it's rare to find someone who is accepting new patients. And every election season, the provincial government includes promises in its platform to Do Something to increase the supply of physicians in the province, ditto the same promises at the federal level every time there's a federal election, but somehow despite all the promises, Something is not Being Done, because there are still never enough doctors to go around.

We were very impressed by the phlebotomist, (Annia) though, as she took the initiative, calling her boss, waiting on hold for five minutes, and then getting approval to put the missing tests back on the order form. [ profile] morgan_dhu also said that Annia was very good with her needle, as it didn't hurt nearly as much as it usually does.

Which turns out to be no mystery, as Annia was a GP for 15 years back in Cuba before coming here. Cuba, of course, has been exporting doctors around the world for decades, and Cuban doctors are among the top tier worldwide in terms of their training and education... but Annia cannot be a doctor here in Toronto, where there is a serious shortage of physicians, because the (white) medical establishment here seen to it that doctors trained in foreign countries are not allowed to transfer their credentials when they immigrate here.

Of course, there are exceptions for American and British and Western European trained doctors, who can get recertified in Canada without a great deal of trouble, but Annia is basically supporting herself with phlebotomy in order to go back to school to take courses in things she already knows so she can re-earn a professional certificate she already has, but this time without the taint of it being issued by a university in the third world.

Isn't racism wonderful?
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11 AM on election day in the US, and already the news is full of stories of people waiting in line for hours on end to vote. And various people from other countries, like "mirrormirror" from England (in the comments), confusedly asking Americans why it is that they have to wait in line so long, to which the Americans patiently explain that they have much longer ballots than do people in other countries, so it takes longer.

Much has been said about how Americans vote for everyone from President and representative to mayor and dog catcher, and how this creates baroque ballots that take a long time to count by hand, which in turn requires the use of complex and expensive voting machines created by companies owned by Republican supporters, that may or may not have "bugs" that cause them to preferentially lose votes for Democratic candidates.

Very, very few people are talking about the fact that Florida (to take one, possibly atypical example out of 50), with 18 million people, has 900 polling stations if I read this article correctly. Assuming 70% of the Florida populace are eligible to vote (probably higher considering the ratio of retirees to children there), that's still 14,000 voters per polling station, or, with 60% turnout (higher than in any of the last three or four elections in the US), 8,400 voters per precinct, minimum. If polls there are open for 12 hours on election day, that's 700 voters per hour.

In contrast, most Canadian provinces set the maximum number of eligible voters per polling station (table E1) to between 275 and 450. So in an entire day of voting, even with 100% turnout, a typical Canadian polling station would have to handle less than half the voters that a typical Florida polling station would have to handle in one hour with 60% turnout.

And this is the invisible elephant in the room whenever there is discussion of how to fix the broken US election system. I'm sure there are states which have adequate numbers of polling stations, but there are also many states which absolutely do not. And for those states, all this talk of how voting machines are vitally necessary, of how "chaos," long lines, polling stations running out of ballots and people getting discouraged and going home because they didn't want to wait 8 hours in line to vote is just normal, business as usual, nothing to see here, all that is just TOTAL BULLSHIT.

If Florida had 25,000 polling stations, then there wouldn't be any lineups, and there wouldn't be much of a need to spend money on expensive voting systems that don't work and aren't accurate or unbiased, because, with half a dozen poll workers (and a dozen party representatives to look over their shoulders) you could count each ballot by hand, even with votes for 30 different elected officials to count, and still get done in just a few hours.

Well, yes, 25,000 polling stations would cost a bit more than 900. But guess what? Democracy isn't free. And if you're trying to do democracy on the cheap, then you're doing it wrong.

[Edited to account for variability from state to state, and to refine estimate of eligible voters in Florida]

[eta:] Rhode Island, with a population of ~1 million (by the national average, that gives 700,000 voting age citizens) has 177 polling places this year, or 3,950 eligible voters per polling place.
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For two people, to die for:

Squash, Stuffing, Roast Bird (chicken in our case), and spicy oven-roasted tuber bits.

Stuffing: cook 1 cup of wild rice in 3 cups of water. Dice about 5 slices of bread. Chop fine: 1 onion, 1 apple, A big whack of mushrooms. Put those in a big pot and sautee them with one big handful of sliced almonds (crush them before adding so they're in smaller bits) and another big handful of currants. Spice with basil, parsley, sage, pepper, and savory. When the chopped vegetables are soft and tender, add the wild rice and bread bits. Continue to sauté for a few minutes. Put in a baking dish (uncovered) and stick in the oven at the Magic Temperature (175 degrees C, 350 F) until there's a bit of a crust on the top (about half an hour or a bit more).

Squash: Skin and pith a butternut squash. Cut into modest chunks in a pyrex baking dish. Add frozen cranberries, maple syrup, allspice, and a bit of water. Bake at the Magic Temperature until soft (about half an hour).

While those two are cooking, prepare your bird and tubers (we don't stuff the bird around here because I am allergic to stuffing :{ ). Take your thawed bird and put it in a big covered roasting pan. Take your tubers (potatoes, yams, and/or carrots), quarter them, and slice them about 1-2 cm thick. Pour some cooking oil in a deep bowl and stir in lots and lots of pepper, basil and parsley. Dump a handful of tubers into the bowl, stir them around so they get lightly coated in oil and spice, pile them around the edges of the bird. Repeat until you run out of tubers or the roasting pan is full. Put any remaining spiced oil on the bird itself. Cover, make room in the oven by taking out whatever is done, and bake at the Magic Temperature (about 1 hour for an average chicken). With larger birds, I suppose you'd better bake the bird alone for a while first, then add the tubers.

Optional: just before serving, take the juices from the bird and make gravy.

Things we forgot to make this year: cranberry sauce (fortunately we had some PC orange cranberry sauce, so that worked out OK).

The oiled potatoes make for a very greasy cleanup job, but OMG is it worthwhile.

Things to be thankful for this year: Our new house. Having been smart enough to cash out my mutual fund last year in order to buy our house. My wonderful sister, who visited us over the weekend and brought her older daughter along (we finally got to meet Casey! Yay!). The fact that Canadians know how to hold an election in only five weeks, instead of taking two !@#$% years about it like the Americans.
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Ten weeks after renovations started, we finally have a house. Some things remain un done, but that is due on the one hand, to scew-ups with our plumbing order (order an elongated, raised-height toilet, get one that is neither, then the manufacturer insists that they did send exactly what we ordered; order a sink and have it delivered without the necessary mounting hardware), on the other hand to the weather, which was like this for all of February and the first half of March (that door is 2 feet above ground level):


and on the gripping hand, to a few modest miscommunications about our special requirements, such as the need to have the back stairs land on a concrete pad that in turn becomes perfectly flush with the existing driveway, because after she's away from the handrails, [ profile] morgan_dhu cannot handle even a tiny step up or down.

Shall we take a brief tour, then? )
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Back in November and December, when we were interviewing contractors and then trying to decide which one to hire, my parents had lots of advice for us. Speaking from their position of having done home renovations in rural New York and also in rural Michigan, they felt qualified to tell us not only how much a renovation in metropolitan Ontario would cost ("$50,000 will be plenty!"), but also how, no matter who we hired, no matter how high their reputation or how glowing their recommendations, any contractor we hired would not finish on time ("you need to put a late penalty fee in the contract"), would not work steadily at the project ("He's not going to be there every day"), and would leave a mess behind when he was done ("You'll want to hire a maid service afterward"). They were adamant that I would have to approach our relationship with the contractor in an adversarial frame of mind, making sure, for example, not just to request that workers not smoke in our house, but to put such a requirement in the contract.

In this, as in so many other things, my parents don't know nearly as much as they think they do. Counting everything, the renovation is costing us around $80,000, and the scramble to shake loose the necessary funds (thanks to the parental fecklessness in which they promised things and then clawed them back later) continues. I'd say that on the revised finish date, Shawn was about 99% done, and most of the things not yet finished were beyond his control (eg, we were delivered the wrong toilet, and the sink did not come with all the required parts; the weather had been continuously below zero for weeks, forcing work on the deck to be put off to the very last minute; minor miscommunications about our requirements for the concrete pad leading to the deck also created a couple of extra days of work for him). Aside from the bureaucratic interregnum, Shawn or his crew or his subcontractors were there every working day. Most of Shawn's crew don't smoke, and those that do are chippers who smoke one cigarette a day, after lunch, and (by Shawn's policy) only outside. And not only have they consistently cleaned up after themselves throughout the renovation, when Shawn and his brother finally cleared out all their tools and supplies on Friday the 28th of march (only 4 days late, BTW), they left the house all-but spotless.

Before I talk about the other ways in which Shawn was one of the right people to hire (as opposed to whoever my parents hired who gave them such a negative attitude toward the whole class of contractors),

A Disclaimer

If you found this page via Google and are thinking of hiring Shawn Morren to work on your house, please note: [ profile] morgan_dhu needed a chemically safe, handicapped accessible place to live. We bought the house, and then discovered that the inspector had been wrong, and we had knob and tube everywhere. To make matters worse, my parents then reneged on part of their promises to help us pay for the necessary accessibility renovations. Shawn, like all contractors, has two kinds of clients -- those who can afford what they want, and those, like us, who can just barely scrape together enough for what they need. Shawn went out of his way to cut us some special breaks and did some work for us pro bono, but he made it clear that he was doing so because of our dire situation, and that he doesn't do that for everyone. [end disclaimer]

More reasons why Shawn rocks behind the jump )

One final note: there's good contractors, and then there's all around good people. On that note, the other day, I learned that Shawn's monster 4-seat pickup is not just his business car, but his only car; he keeps carseats for his two young children in the back. And he makes a point of always fueling the truck with biodiesel.
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After the incredibly annoying bureaucratic delays discussed previously, Shawn and his team began making rapid progress.

ETA: Sorry, I forgot to insert a jump here )
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I am not doing very well with keeping these progress reports up-to-date. Here it is March 21st and our story has been stalled back in January for close to two months. It has to be told, however, so that our RL friends, who have been asking, can be given some kind of idea of How Things Have Gone.

So, we very quickly went from demolition to framing, followed by a period of getting all new wiring, ducting, and plumbing. Things proceeded swimmingly for about three weeks. Then Shawn started trying to get the inspector to come over to look at the structure and the plumbing rough-in. There was some urgency to this, as he had a long-scheduled vacation coming up, and he wanted to have a pass in hand so his lieutenant could start putting up the drywall in his absence. And now let me present you with a little timeline: there is too much, I will sum up )
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In our last episode, we learned that Shawn and his crew are very efficient at tearing things down. Considering how much practice Shawn got at destroying things on the Holmes on Homes show, this is not surprising. On January 15, after only three or four days of work, the garage, basement ceiling, bathroom, and various walls were gone.

It turns out destruction isn't the only thing they are fast at )
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So we hired Shawn based on his detailed estimate, with the understanding he would be able to start on January 14th. We asked our draftsperson to finish the drawings so we could get permits. Then the solstice and year end holidays happened. Finally, the drawings were ready, and Shawn found the time to turn his estimate into a formal quote. Last week, I obtained permits, Shawn obtained an electrician's quote and got a plumber to scope the drains.

then the fun began )
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So, as [ profile] morgan_dhu has chronicled, after 4 months of searching, looking at hundreds of listings and touring at least 50 houses in person, we finally found a decent-sized bungalow in a transit-accessible neighbourhood that we could afford that was in acceptable condition. If that seems a long time to look, recall that 90% of bungalows are small tiny things, because if the original buyer of such a place had the money for a roomy house, then they would have bought a standard 2 storey house instead.

We were lucky that the owner (a 98 year old woman who had finally decided to move into assisted living) was in a terrible hurry to sell and did not leave the house on the market for long, which enabled us to be the only people making an offer by their deadline for considering offers. So we got the house for, I am told, 30k less than what other houses in similar condition in the neighbourhood are going for.

Realtor's photo
many more photos below the jump )
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Many feminists wiser than I have commented at length about Heroes, and how the series suffers from the same sexism and lack of non-cookie-cutter female characters that permeates modern superhero comics. I am sure many of those bloggers have already noted that, in last week's premiere, the first new female character for this season -- Lethal Guatemalan Girl -- is essentially a darker skinned version of Multiple Personality Girl from last season -- both have awesome powers not fully within their control, which manifest only when they allow their darker nature to take over (said darker nature then calmly and amorally solves the problem at hand by killing lots of people).

That said, yesterday I caught up on reading Steven Grant's column, and then wandered into the living room where [ profile] morgan_dhu was watching the series premiere of Moonlight, a cheap knock-off of "Forever Knight" which seemed to have no faith in the interestingness of its basic premise -- it wasn't enough that he's a vampire private eye and she's a journalist and together they solve supernatural crimes. No, he also had to be the detective who was hired to track her down years ago when evil vampires kidnapped her when she was a young girl. I had seen and complained to [ profile] morgan_dhu about this recent trend of new TV shows loading down each character with enough angst, secrets, mysterious pasts and unlikely coincidences to fully flesh out three or four characters before.

The new Bionic Woman is another prime example: Jamie Summers has a mysterious past (sealed juvenile court records), a lost pregnancy, a delinquent hacker sister, a creepy stalker boyfriend she is too stupid to dump, and a nemesis who wants to kill her for mysterious reasons. It used to be that TV shows would either stick to a very simple backstory (A crew of men and women explore deep space in the future; a ranch family deals with the trials and tribulations of life in the old west), or else they built up a complex mythos slowly over time (X-files, Buffy, Forever Knight, Highlander) -- for instance, I think Moonlight managed to rip off a full season's worth of worldbuilding on Forever Knight into a single 42 minute show.

This time, however, the annoying stupid TV writers collided in my feeble brain with something Steven Grant said recently:

A problem is that the pressures of the market have encouraged a lot of publishers and editors to confuse gimmicks (a badge that exists mainly to set a project apart from other projects) with hooks (elements specifically calculated to arrest a reader's attention and make him want to buy/read the book). It's not surprising the talent pool has become confused about it as well. The desire is strong for material that at least on the surface seems to have something that allows it to bob above the vast ocean of identikit comics out there now, but desire and desperation are easy to confuse, and desperation tends to allow people to talk themselves into believing something that's not true is true, and a lot of missteps get made that way.

I think this has become unfortunately true of TV writing as well. And I think I know why (or at least one why - see endnote for a second why), but it's a complicated multipart why.

1, The huge proliferation of TV stations and TV shows, has made the demand for writers much greater, which in turn has meant that there aren't enough high quality writers to go around. (NB:the problem in comics is quite different, and has more to do with comics creators being increasingly drawn from the tiny shrinking pool of comics fans, instead of from the world of professional writers as a whole).

2, Those writers being hired to do TV today grew up in a society where the typical "avid reader" goes through only five to nine books a year. Which means most of that evergrowing group of writers getting work in TV are not readers; they draw their inspiration, their concepts of storytelling, and their intuitive knowledge of how narrative works, not primarily from full length books (novels, plays, epic poems, sagas, etc), but from movies, TV, comics, and video games.

3, Novels (read that as shorthand for novels, plays, epic poems, sagas, and other long-form narratives) are long. They can display the full range of storytelling possibilities. Movies, TV, comics, and video games are all short: like short stories, they have to use short cuts to tell their stories, and cannot display the full range of storytelling -- stuff inevitably gets truncated, abridged, or left out.

4, If you mistake the abbreviated, abridged form for the complete thing, you get a distorted idea of how it worked. Archaeologists looked at the artifacts from early American hunting camps and concluded that the late ice-age Clovis culture had killed off all of North America's large indigenous wildlife in an orgy of hunting. They forgot that what they were seeing were hunting camps, not full-blown settlements; so naturally there weren't all that many seeds and plant harvesting tools alongside the bones and spearpoints. And then ideas of Pre-columbian origins went down the completely wrong path for 30 or 40 years.

5, The same goes for writing: today's crop of TV writers has formed their ideas of how to tell stories based on comic books and other TV shows, instead of novels. So, instead of understanding, at an intuitive level, why TV shows have certain traits, they just assume that those traits constitute the essence of TV writing... and the result is an endless succession of shows that are bad, poorly constructed and poorly conceived, with characters who come across more as a collection of pitch points (gimmicks in Steven Grant's terms) than as real, believable characters.

Endnote: The above is an intrinsic explanation for a lot of the bad writing that I've seen proliferating on TV of late. A second, extrinsic explanation has to do with pitches. As studios have tried more and more to take the risk out of their business (because they don't understand that all creative industries are inherently and unavoidably crap shoots -- 90% of your products will not sell, and there's no way to predict what 10% will prove popular ahead of time), they have started micromanaging the creative process more and more. At the same time, they are working longer and longer hours, in the grand American delusion that quantity of work is the same as quality. So they no longer have time to even read a proper executive summary of the series ideas they are micromanaging. Instead, they base their decisions on pitch points -- so writers are forced to convey not just the overall concept of the show, but everything about the show in the form of pitches -- 30 seconds worth of talking, or 3 sentences of writing.

Add the two together and I think you've got a pretty good explanation for why TV shows these days seem to want to burden their characters with huge, complex, overwrought backstories, instead of keeping things simple.


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