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I came across this article (on a Washington Post blog) about how most Americans who benefit from government programs don't think they receive anything from the government.

The article talks about how this is because many government programs for median and higher income people are disguised as tax breaks or things that "just happen," so you can receive your social security or Medicare or home mortgage tax credit without ever thinking about where it comes from, in contrast to the programs for the poor, where you have to jump through hoops and fill out forms and grovel to get a grudging handout. Hence the 60 percent of home mortgage holders who don't think they're getting a government handout, as well as the 40-45 percent of retirees who seem to think that Medicare and Social Security are not government programs.

But that explanation doesn't exactly explain how 25 percent of those living in public housing or receiving food stamps could claim to not be getting anything from the federal government.

What the article leaves out, I think, is that the US government never does any PR for itself.

In Canada, if something is paid for by the government, then you can be damn sure that somewhere on the billboard or subway poster or letter in the mail telling you about it, there will be a little "government of Canada" logo that lets you know that this thing, whatever it is, was made possible, at least in part, by the Canadian federal government.

Things that in the US are labeled as being from/provided by/paid for by HUD or FDA or some other government agency are, more often than not, up here labeled as being from "The Government of Canada." And when things are labeled as being from a specific government department up here (for instance, public health ads from Health Canada), the logo used by the agency on the letter or ad will have a similar iconography and font as the Government of Canada logo, emphasising that all these various things (Health Canada, Revenue Canada, etc) are part of the Government of Canada. Contrast this to the plethora of departmental logos and seals used by various US government agencies on their announcements, which don't have very much in common with each other.

So in short, when a level of government up here spends money, it lets its citizens know about it, and it does so most often as a monolithic entity -- "Paid for by the Government of Canada" rather than as one of many sub parts -- "Paid for by HUD" or "Paid for by the CDC."

Explaining all the reasons why the US government is reluctant to let its citizens know when something is happening due to government money could take up a book, but it boils down, probably, to the long history of anti-government sentiment down there, and to two impulses arising from that long history -- fear on the part of liberals that if the government lets people know it's doing something, they will get mad and demand that the government stop that immediately, and desire on the part of conservatives to make the government as hated and feared as possible so they can continue to strangle it for the short term benefit of the rich and corporations without anyone objecting.

[ETA] TL,DR version: In Canada, the federal government is a brand, and the government spends time and advertising dollars making sure that people are aware of that brand and what it does. In the US, the exact opposite is the case.
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If you watch only one Bollywood movie this year, you probably want to watch this one. By the same director as Lagaan, it's a historical epic about the political marriage between Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (Akbar the Great) and Hira Kunwari aka Harkha Bai (often known in modern times as Jodha Bai).

Akbar was the 16th century Mughal emperor who united, through a combination of conquest and diplomacy, all of Northern and Central India. The Mughals were Muslim, but Akbar maintained a policy of religious toleration and married a number of Hindu princesses in order to consolidate his rule. Jodha (she had 3 or 4 different names during her life and came to be called Jodha long after her death when a historian confused her with another of Akbar's wives, but let's keep things simple), was one of the first of these princesses and mother of his heir.

On the one hand, the film tells a dramatized version of the life of Akbar. On the other hand, it turns to legends of Jodha's life (because nothing about her life before her marriage appears to be known and very little afterward) and tells that. Nobody knows what they thought of each other in history, but in the film, they marry as a matter of politics, but then gradually fall in love. This is a Bollywood film, so it's 3 and a half hours long, and includes elaborate song and dance numbers. There's the mandatory misunderstanding leading to a temporary estrangement, the mandatory stepbrother of Akbar who seeks to userp him, and the mandatory brother of Jodha who allies with the stepbrother because he mistakenly believes Jodha is not happy in her marriage.

But this is very high-end, very Westernized Bollywood - the production quality is superb, the plot makes logical sense, the actors are very talented, the script is excellent, and the songs are integrated very logically into the whole instead of bolted on afterward.

Reasons you want to see this, in no particular order:
-Hrithik Roshan (Akbar) has a lot of presence, and an amazingly intense gaze. If you like men, he's very swoon-worthy.
-Aishwarya Rai (Jodha) is a talented actor, and she fully deserves her reputation as one of the most beautiful women in the world.
-Hollywood would have made this film by including a ton of CGI, and it would have looked like crap. Since this is Bollywood, though, they actually hired a cast of thousands, including several dozen elephants, and did it the old fashioned way, and as a result it looks amazing.
-the sets and costumes. A lot of it was shot on location in the actual palace (Agra Fort) used by Akbar, which has got to be one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen, and the set decoration lives up to the demands of the location. And the costumes on the actors make them look like they *belong* in those gorgeous sets.

NB: if you rent this, be sure to check out the deleted scenes on the bonus materials disk -- unlike some deleted scenes, where you can see why they were left out, these were cut not for pacing or dramatic reasons, but in order to keep the running time down, and they add greatly to one's appreciation of the film.

I can't help but compare Jodhaa Akbar to period dramas about Queen Elizabeth, whose reign overlaps with Akbar's. And what it shows, I think, is that for all the wealth and power of 16th century England, it was still a very poor and grubby place. It helps to remember from time to time that Europe only became the centre of wealth and power in the world in the past 250 years (or even more recently, depending on how you're keeping track), and before that, well, you really wanted to be in Asia.
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Followed a link today to a series of posts on publishing myths by Dean Wesley Smith, and quickly discovered that if I read any more of this person's blog I will do something I will regret. After reiterating that every writer is different, he quickly forgets that motto and arrogantly assumes that his own unique experiences are or ought to be the norm.

Anyway, in the the second post in his series, on how writers should not revise their work, he trots out this old chestnut by Heinlein:
1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

And you know, I'm really, really tired of seeing this. Heinlein was a writer who was able to produce salable fiction in one draft. He was also extremely unusual in that he was able to produce salable first drafts more often than not from the very start of his career.

I know this is a shocking idea for all of the Heinlein-worshipers out there who have never read a slush pile or who have never taught freshman composition (I have done both, briefly), but not everyone can do that. In fact, 99.9% of amateur writers cannot do that, ever, no matter how hard they try to learn.

The tiny fraction of amateur writers who become professional writers have learned, one way or another, to produce salable material. For some, learning that takes a few years; for others, it takes decades. Some learn to write salable material by writing a lot of worthless first drafts that never see the light of day; others learn by rewriting over and over again until they get it right.

A few writers eventually learn how to produce salable material in the first draft, but most need to rewrite and revise, to some degree, for their entire career. And for a writer who is skilled enough to be able to sell his first drafts to continue to trot out that Heinlein quote in giving advice to amateur writers does a huge disservice to the vast majority of aspiring writers who are not like him, and will never be like him.

If Heinlein hadn't been privileged and lucky enough to be able to turn out salable fiction from day one, then his rules might have looked like this (revisions in italics):

1. You must write work of salable quality.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting a finished work except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold or until it is rejected by all markets that might buy it.
6. If your work is rejected by all markets that might buy it, it was not of salable quality. Learn what lessons you can and try again with a new piece.
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Inspired by Marissa's rant about the removal of women warriors from documentaries about World War II over on her "This is Hysteria" blog, I recently re-read "A Girl Called Judith Strick" by Judith Strick Dribben (originally published in 1970 and now out of print, although Amazon currently has used inexpensive used copies available).

This is an unusual Holocaust memoir, in that only a fraction of it is concerned with the author's ordeal in the Nazi extermination machine. The book has 4 parts of roughly equal length. Part 1 ("Hardening Steel") follows Judith's career in the Polish/Ukrainian partisan resistance following the German invasion of Eastern Poland. Part 2 ("The Big Joke") covers her arrest and time as a prisoner of the Gestapo; in part 3 ("In the Shadow of the Chimneys"), she is sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then eventually to a munitions factory as a slave. Part 4 ("The Homecoming") deals with her post-war career, first in the Soviet army, and then in Palestine, first as a member of the Negev (guerrilla fighters against the British colonial regime), then as a soldier in the Israeli army, and finally as a member of a kibbutz. And she did all of that in a space of only about 12 years. she had an eventful life, to say the least )

Once Israel became a state, she joined the Israeli army. At this point, the last 60 pages of the book, I found myself reading with a deeply divided mind, because I know that the war against the Arabs that she talks about was a war of conquest and an exercise in ethnic cleansing. Her racism, her inability to see how she was applying a double standard, and so forth were quite frustrating.

On the other hand, it was very interesting to read about her career in the Israeli army, how she constantly had to push back against attempts to assign her to gender-appropriate non-combat roles. Because her brother had been in the artillery, she demanded admission to artillery training, becoming the first woman to do so. Then, when she passed the course successfully and joined an artillery unit, they assigned her to administrative duties, and so she enrolled in intelligence training, because that would ensure that she would be assigned to combat duties.

The final chapters deals with her life after the army, on the kibbutz, where she met her future husband. All in all, it's a fascinating read, and very much recommended if you are interested in biographies of woman warriors or of Holocaust survivors.
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Being a potpourri of reviewlets.

1. "Voyage of the Dawn Treader" is a perfectly acceptable, fun movie. Nothing special, but a lot better than the previous two installments in the series. a rocking Reepicheep single-mousedly pulls it out of the humdrum, but cannot make it great )

2. In contrast, consider the Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, a lovely, wonderful, fun film from France. Think of one of those children's books where the author seems to have thought up all of the most amazing and wonderful things they could have happen and then packed them all into a single story. This movie is one of those books, on film. And it's proof that not all comic book inspired movies have to be testosterone poisoned teenage boy power fantasies )

Trust me, you want to watch this one.

3. Endhiran (the Robot). I watched the "best action scene ever" excerpt from this after it showed up on Boing Boing, and was inspired to seek out the entire film. It was quite the educational experience. Jackie Chan is the #1 actor in Asia, and he is widely known in North America. Rajinikanth is #2, and few people in North America have heard of him, which is on the one hand understandable, and on the other hand a pity. musing on genre conventions and trying to comprehend the scope of Rajinikanth's popularity )

Anyway, Endhiran is a SF movie set in India's near future. Rajinikanth plays both the genius robotics engineer (Dr Vaseejaran), and his android creation, Chitti. lots of spoilers )

So, that was weird, but in a very interesting and educational way. I'll be watching one or two more Rajinikanth movies in the future, but I doubt I'll become a fan.

4. "The King's Speech" is not every bit as good as its reviews say, it is better. I was especially impressed by the way Firth portrayed a gradual slow improvement in George's stammer over the course of the movie. It's a shoo in for several Oscars, but I think it probably has greater resonance for citizens of the commonwealth than for Americans, since the newsreels and recordings and historical photos that the film goes to many pains to faithfully recreate are not part of the American cultural DNA.
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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 amazon.co.uk, 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 thebox.bz.

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... )
glaurung_quena: (comics batgirl)
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 [livejournal.com 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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[livejournal.com 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 [livejournal.com 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. [livejournal.com 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):

IMAG0101

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, [livejournal.com 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: [livejournal.com 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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