April 03, 2023

This is a test to see what MathML looks like on Blogger. x = - b ± b 2 - 4 a c 2 a

As you were.

January 04, 2023

2022 reading wrap-up

Every year end I like to do a roundup of my reading for the year. (Sometimes I even post them.) In 2021, I set a goal of reading 50 books, and accomplished exactly that. I was a little short of the same goal this year. I read 15. It's such an embarrassingly short list, I might as well just list the whole thing with a few comments.

August 31, 2022

Ruby Ridge, 30 years later

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the U.S. government siege of the Randy Weaver family cabin on Ruby Ridge, near the city of Bonners Ferry in the Idaho panhandle. Starting on August 21, 1992, a small army of government agents surrounded the mountain for 11 days. Two exchanges of gunfire resulted in the deaths of one U.S. Marshal, Weaver's wife and son, and a family dog.

Randy Weaver, who died this May at the age of 74, was a slight man from Iowa who had joined the Army during the Vietnam War, though he wasn't sent overseas, and dropped out of college to marry his sweetheart, Vicki Jordison. Vicki, a deeply religious woman, forged a family religion out of the syncretism of her childhood Mormonism, Hal Lindsey-style prophecy, and the racist Christian Identity movement. Convinced that the government was the Beast of Revelation and out to get the faithful, Weaver became convinced that the only way to keep his family safe from a corrupt world was to move into the wilderness and live in isolation. So in 1982, the Weaver family bought property on top of a mountain in northern Idaho, where Randy built a ramshackle cabin for them to live in.

August 25, 2022

Is there life on Mars?

A lightning review of The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories, edited by Tom Shippey (London: Oxford, 1992). 586 pp. Paperback.

This book was the textbook in a course in science fiction that I took in college in 2017, as one of my general elective requirements. I had taken a similar course in my second year of university, for much the same reason (while still in engineering, before switching to English). The university course was much more text-heavy, studying ten novels over the term. Of the thirty stories in this anthology, we only read about five, drawing from other sources for the rest of the lessons.

The stories in this book, published in 1992, are a survey of science-fiction short stories from the beginning of the genre ("The Land Ironclads," a 1903 story by H. G. Wells) to the then-present ("Piecework," a 1991 story by David Brin). While I was familiar with some work of the majority of the authors represented, the only story I had read previously was William Gibson's "Burning Chrome." So the anthology was as nearly as fresh for me as it could be.

My favourite story of the collection was "A Martian Odyssey," by Stanley G. Weinbaum. This 1934 story was the first time a science-fiction alien to behave as an alien, instead of a green-skinned human or a monster. The biggest surprise was "As Easy as ABC" by Rudyard Kipling; I hadn't realized that Kipling had dabbled in science fiction (and it's a pretty good story, too, from 1912). I was also surprised by the lack of contributions from the "Big Three," apart from one Clarke story, "Second Dawn." It seems to me that a survey of the best science ficiton short stories ought to include one of Isaac Asimov's robot stories and Robert A. Heinlein's Future History stories.

Give The Oxford Book of Science Fiction Stories a look if you want a good, historical sampling of the science fiction genre, and don't mind that it's too old for the last 30 years.

October 02, 2021

Wrapping up Banned Books Week

While preparing this series on this year's Banned Books Week, which ends today, I happened to be searching some old posts here for an unrelated reason, and coincidentally came upon this one from 2004, which I had forgotten about. In it, I quote Mark Shea from his now-defunct Blogger blog:

I assert that no book is banned if it's not illegal to print it or possess it. For every book on their "banned" list, I could order up a dozen copies and freely read them on the steps of the police station. . . .

This affected outrage at this straw-man threat to liberty leads people to believe that they are living with a boot on their collective neck. And since most—;if not all—;of the banned books are children's books "banned" at the behest of parents, the kids get the idea that parents are oppressive.

Seventeen years later, I still generally agree with this. In fact, it's worth elaborating on.

October 01, 2021

I'm a boy, I'm a boy, but my ma won't admit it

Once again, this Banned Books Week, let's see how the sponsors of Banned Books Week like to pay lip service to opposing censorship while actively attempting to limit access to books they disapprove of.

In 2020, Regnery published Irreversible Damage by journalist Abigail Shrier, subtitled The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. This book discusses the rapid proliferation in recent years of transgender identification amongst young women and girls. It defends the idea of "rapid onset gender dysphoria," a form of social contagion in which several members of a young peer group, who previously showed no signs of confusion about their gender identity, suddenly identify as transgender and show symptoms of gender dysphoria. (Or, as my medically unqualified self would tend to call it, peer pressure.)

Irreversible Damage has controversial: generally receiving positive reviews in newspapers and news magazines, but more critical reviews in science and (understandably) LGBT publications. But it has sold well. At the time of writing, it is the #1 book on Amazon on transgenderism, and #13 in political topics. The Sunday Times of London predicted it would be one of the best books of 2021. As a brisk-selling book, then, it was understandable that the American Booksellers Association (ABA) would promote it to its members.

And that's where the trouble started.

September 30, 2021

You must not read them here or there. You must not read them anywhere.

September 26 to October 2 is this year's "Banned Books Week," a yearly event sponsored by the American Library Association and other like-minded organizations. Banned Books Week celebrates "the freedom to read," an appropriate, liberal anti-censorship sentiment. This year's slogan, similarly, is "Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us."

But what happens when the nice liberals who support Banned Books Week are the ones giving in to the current Zeitgeist and doing the censorship themselves? Consider the following.

April 14, 2021

And now . . . this - Apr. 14/21

Maybe call it "Ketchonnaise" instead

A U.S. appeals court said a man who created a mayonnaise-ketchup blend he called “Metchup” cannot sue Kraft Heinz Co for selling a similar condiment called “Mayochup,” but ordered reconsideration of whether to cancel his trademark registration.….

Metchup blended Walmart-branded mayonnaise and ketchup, or mustard and ketchup, depending on the batch. Perry produced 60 bottles and sold at least 34.….

Perry’s lawyer Brad Harrigan said he was pleased with the partial reversal, but “understandably confused” about how “Mayochup” might not be confused with “Metchup.”

[Full Story]

Yeah, he's confused all right. One, they're spelled and pronounced distinctly differently. Two, one is a successful commercial product, and the other is a flea-market condiment sold in a motel lobby. And third, the recipe for fry sauce has been around for over a century and is hardly an original idea.

Oi, you got a licence for that skin?

The BBC was driving around in its Black Detector Van and found actor Idris Elba was in violation:

The BBC’s diversity chief Miranda Wayland says “Luther”—the broadcaster’s hit crime series starring Idris Elba—isn’t “authentic” when it comes to storytelling surrounding its Black lead.

Elba’s DCI John Luther “doesn’t have any Black friends, he doesn’t eat any Caribbean food, this doesn’t feel authentic,” she says.

[Full Story]

Welcome to 2021, where feelings trump facts, skin colour is functional rather than inherent, and according to the BBC's diversity chief, I (a lily-white Irish-Canadian) am more "authentically black" than Idris Elba.

On the bright side, maybe at last he's eligible to play James Bond.

April 01, 2021

Rama lama, rama lama ding dong

Review of Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke (New York: Del Rey, 1984). 276 pp. Paperback.

In 2077, an asteroid falls on Italy, killing millions and eradicating centuries of art and history. To prevent this from happening again, an early-warning system is set up to monitor deep-space objects. 54 years later, "Project Spaceguard" detects an object, dubbed "Rama," entering the solar system. It turns out to be no random comet, but a featureless cylinder 20 kilometers in diameter and 50 long. Clearly this is no natural phenomenon—it's a spaceship.

A survey ship, Endeavour, is sent out to investigate Rama. They land on the "northern" (front) end and discover the entrance, through a triple airlock. The interior is pitch-dark, but gravity is produced by Rama's rotation, and the air is breathable, if cold and sterile. The interior surface is a featureless cylindrical plain apart from a few city-like structures and a huge band of ice the crew of Endeavour name the "Cylindrical Sea." It isn't long before Rama, drifting closer to the sun, begins to show signs of thawing out and developing an ecosystem. Rama is starting to come to life.

I believe my paperback copy of Rendezvous with Rama may be the first novel I ever bought for myself, from the Classic Bookshop at Pearson International Airport, sometime in the mid- to late-1980s. Given my enjoyment of authors like Stephen King, Tom Clancy, and Lee Child, I'm sure it touched off a lifetime love of airport novels. While I don't remember the details of that trip (or if it was even me doing the flying), I do remember being completely thrilled by Rama—enough to re-read it once or twice during my later teen years.

Yet, now, re-reading it thirty-odd years later, I'm hard pressed to recognize what teenage me found so fascinating about it. I'm not saying it's a bad book. But, clearly, thirty more years of life (and arguably an undergraduate degree in English, although that hasn't really changed my reading preferences overall) have evolved my literary tastes somewhat.

The idea of Rama itself is the novel's main appeal: a gigantic, artificial planetoid, its origins, purpose, and inhabitants unknown. It's a classic Big Dumb Object (BDO), a common Clarke trope (along with the unseen aliens that manufactured it). It's fun traveling along with Endeavour's crew as they discover new features of Rama, and have to figure out what they are/if they're dangerous/how to get past them.

On the other hand, the characters are fairly flat1 and interchangeable. The interplanetary politics seem similarly poorly developed; they're there to create some conflict where otherwise there would be none. One government tries to blow up Rama with a nuclear missile. Rather than pose a serious threat, it's easily defeated by the crew of Endeavour. The first couple books of James S. A. Corey's Expanse series tell a very similar story to Rendezvous with Rama, but with more fully developed characters and more plausible conflict between the solar system's various colonies.

Rendezvous with Rama won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1974—Clarke's first for a novel, and second overall—as well as the Nebula Award for Best Novel the same year. Weaknesses notwithstanding, it's a classic of hard science fiction and well worth the read if you need to pass the time.


1 Well-rounded footnote: Though not every character is entirely flat: "Some women, Commander Norton had decided long ago, should not be allowed aboard ship; weightlessness did things to their breasts that were too damn distracting. It was bad enough when they were motionless; but when they started to move, and sympathetic vibrations set in, it was more than any warm-blooded male should be asked to take. He was quite sure that at least one serious space accident had been caused by acute crew distraction, after the transit of a well-upholstered lady officer through the control cabin." (Rendezvous with Rama, Chapter 11)

February 08, 2021

And now . . . this - Feb. 8/21

A Louisiana woman has sought medical treatment after mistakenly using Gorilla Glue spray adhesive in place of actual hair spray.

Tessica Brown's plight gained attention earlier in February after she revealed that her hair had been stuck in the same style for a month since she substituted her usual Got2b Glued spray with the industrial-strength glue when she ran out.

[Full Story]

I predict a lawsuit. Though the Gorilla Glue label says not to get it in your eyes, or on your skin or clothing, it doesn't say anything about using the permanent, waterproof, industrial-strength adhesive as a hair fixative.