Sunday, September 23, 2018

The War of the Worlds

I'm a sucker for alien invasion stories, but I had not until now read this one, the mother of them all. It's a fine novel: well written and plotted, providing plenty of food for thought without beating you over the head with it.

It is indeed a book about a war, and there are vivid battle scenes, especially in the first half, but it is really more an exodus story, describing in gripping detail the chaos and cruelty as people are driven forward by the oncoming Martian death machines. And as the story moves into its final third, it becomes a journey through a post-apocalyptic hell, with our unnamed protagonist and narrator wondering whether he might not be the last man on Earth.

The scientific elements of the book are remarkably good, given that it was published in 1897. Wells was a committed Darwinian; his Martians have managed to develop capacities well beyond those of humans thanks to a longer period of evolution and the selective pressures of the more challenging conditions on their native planet. Yet smart as they are, the Martians fail to anticipate the problem posed by terrestrial pathogens, which proves to be their undoing. Our narrator speculates that back on Mars, they had long ago solved the problem of disease. But surely they cannot have eliminated all microorganisms! It was fortuitous for humans that they did not bring with them their own killing germs along with their guns and steel.

The Martians are also post-sexual and reproduce by budding, allowing them to avoid the inefficiencies and emotional baggage that plague our own sexed-up method. How they managed to continue to evolve without the genetic randomization provided by sexual reproduction is not explained. Most likely an intelligent, advanced species like theirs would have been using CRISPR and gene drives to engineer themselves. Wells, writing pre-double helix, could hardly be expected to have come up with that kind of outlandish scenario.

The book is quite fair-minded about the Martians. To them, we humans are a handy food source on what seems to be a pretty darn livable planet. "The bare idea of this is no doubt horribly repulsive to us," observes the narrator, "but at the same time I think that we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit." Indeed, one of the narrator's interlocutors, the artilleryman, figures that the Martians intend to domesticate and raise the humans like sheep, and that the average sheep-like human might not find such an existence all that disagreeable.

Upon finishing the book, I re-watched the Spielberg movie, starring Tom Cruise and a bug-eyed, high-pitched Dakota Fanning. The film is quite true to the novel in most respects, right down to the protagonist's fight with the curate, although the tone is more action film than philosophical drama. Of course, it being Spielberg, there's also a broken family to be fixed.

Spielberg's Martians, whose big heads and long, knobby fingers suggest some common ancestry with ET, are more agile than Wells's gravity-bound, sluggish creatures. Although Wells provides descriptions of the Martians themselves, it's clear that he is much more taken with their various machines and devices. It's hardly surprising. Darwin was in the air by the 1890s, but it was the machine age, and it must have been logical to think of future progress in terms of more powerful, capable devices and the means of building them. Those spindly, three-legged killing machines, with their dextrous tentacles and deadly ray-beams and poison gas, are the archetype for sci-fi killing machines and nasty robots up to the present day.

The book hints that the Martians may have sent another crew to Venus, no doubt a much less hospitable joint, which raises the possibility of more trouble ahead for us earthlings. One difference between then and now is that nowadays this prospect would be a clear signal of a sequel, but Wells refrained from writing it. Too bad for us.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Buffy, again

Watching Season 1 from scratch. Within four episodes you know the main characters as if they were your best friends in high school too. You know they live on the hell mouth. You know that upon first laying eyes on each other, Buffy and Angel have fallen for each other hard, eternally, like the Juliet and Romeo they are. You know that Buffy loves and respects her mom, and vice versa, no matter how bad it's been... and it's been bad. You know that Willow and Xander would willingly go to hell and back and even transcend their stereotypical teenage selves for their new best friend Buffy... and not just because– in spite of being so much cooler and beautiful than they are– she treats them like human beings, but because, yeah, she is the Chosen One, and that's, like, really really important. You know that Giles is smart, lonely, and (mostly) platonically smitten with this strange creature he is nominally in charge of. Most of all, you get Buffy, TV's single greatest creation.

Meanwhile, as a bonus, you also get ridiculously clever plots, and even more ridiculously clever dialogue. This is the TV show that loves our crazy English language more than any other.

Our old DVDs are a bit fuzzy on our ridiculously large screen. And apparently the HD versions are insultingly badly rendered. Mr. Whedon, this is your claim to immortality, so why don't you spend a few of your well-earned dollars and give us the definitive version that we, and you, deserve?

Rachid Taha, RIP

Project Cybersyn

Driving around with the radio tuned to KALW the other day I stumbled across a great episode of 99% Invisible on Project Cybersyn, which first aired a couple years ago. Project Cybersyn was a plan to use networked computers to connect and coordinate Chile's factories under Allende's socialist government. I had no idea. The whole scheme reminded me of the earlier Soviet plan that inspired Francis Spufford's Red Plenty.

As a believer in the virtues of market coordination, I'm pretty skeptical that Cybersyn could work under the best of circumstances, and it's clear that even frontier computer technology of the early 1970s was not remotely up to the task of coordinating an industrial economy. Regardless, in 1973 the generals, with a little help from the CIA, put the kibosh on the whole episode.

Still, you have to wonder. Once Amazon is the intermediary for all transactions between producers and consumers, will decentralized markets still play a role as a coordinating device? Or will Amazon's AI set the market-clearing prices to match orders on both sides? Red Plenty, by capitalist means?

Monday, September 10, 2018

Martina on Serena

I agree with her completely. Just because the men get away with bad behavior more often doesn't make it right. On the other hand, I can't help thinking the umpire should have shown more forbearance and refrained from administering the one-game penalty, rather than have risen to the bait. When it comes to refereeing, I generally favor the more minimal "play on" school of thought... especially when being a stickler for the rules ends up tainting the innocent opponent's victory, as it did in this case. Osaka sure didn't need that game to win the match.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Yes, scholars in the past had it worse...

... After all, they pay me pretty well to teach supply and demand and regression discontinuity and write my little papers. Then again, the ghost of Cold Mountain can take some comfort in the likelihood that another thousand years from now, not just the homeless dogs but the clever computers who succeed us will probably still be reading his wry poems, translated to some machine language they understand. For now, Burton Watson will do quite well.

By Cold Mountain (Han-shan), translated by Burton Watson.
Here we languish, a bunch of poor scholars,
Battered by extremes of hunger and cold.
Out of work, our only joy is poetry:
Scribble, scribble we wear out our brains.
Who will read the works of such men?
On that point you can save your sighs.
We could inscribe our poems on biscuits
And homeless dogs wouldn't deign to nibble.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Serena quote of the week

“I just feel like not only is my future bright, even though I’m not a spring chicken, but I still have a very, very bright future,” she said. “That is super-exciting for me.”

Tuesday, September 4, 2018


"Ah, but I was so much older then... I'm younger than that now." (Photo credit)

Sex and pop culture

I'll get to that momentarily...

Laura and I spent four nights in beautiful Ashland, OR, last week. Lovely place, even as the oppressive smoke from various wildfires drifted in and out. We took in a couple plays, rafted the Rogue, and shopped for local crafts, wine, and peaches.

Smoke is a serious issue. Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival has had to cancel many of their outdoor performances this season, taking a $2 million hit. We had tickets to Romeo and Juliet, which was moved to the local high school auditorium due to hazardous smoke levels. We opted instead to trade in our tickets for their indoor production of Oklahoma!

This Oklahoma! came with a trendy twist: both of the lead couples were same-sex. I'm not fond of musicals; I prefer my Rodgers with Hart; and politically correct theatre generally leaves me cold. Three strikes... but I loved it. The performers were first-rate and the staging was brilliant. I couldn't help thinking that the bawdy, leering, but good-natured double entendre and physical theatre (think butter churn operated vigorously between trans legs) would be considered distasteful if not oppressive in a "straight" production... but the LGBTQ version was liberated, and liberating. Bravo!

Meanwhile, we've been watching The Innocents on Netflix. It's mostly a snooze. Perfunctory plot involving some shady researchers and reluctant shape-shifting human guinea pigs. Beautiful locations squandered. But the leads, a couple of innocent teenagers in love, keep your attention. Spoiler alert: In Episode 4 they finally do it. Tender– a little bit of heat, a little bit of flesh. True love. Then by Episode 5 we are back to the standard fare of smart characters acting dumb. So disappointing.

While in Ashland, we also escaped the smoke one night to watch BlacKkKlansman. I liked it a lot... but that's a topic for another post. Suffice to say that there is less exothermal chemistry between the two leads in Spike's joint than there is between the kids in The Innocents, or between the same-sex farmers and ranchers in Oklahoma! Thank goodness for the youngsters and gay folk who are keeping sex safe for entertainment.

Christgau on Reagan

From the latest installment of his occasional Q&A series, Xgau sez. He sez it right.
[Q] Politically "rock critics" run in a hopey-changey herd. Take Greel. During Ronald Reagan's presidency he caterwauled about how America--a nebulous abstraction in which Greel has a vested interest--had betrayed him. No doubt voting Carter/Mondale then Mondale/Ferraro. Yet a recent historians' poll--did you miss it?--ranked Reagan as the most "influential" 20th century president after FDR, with some placing him third after Wilson or Teddy. A president is not a human being but an image, personality, character, idea, platform, administration, record, legacy, cop or crook, mix of both, legend for good or legend for ill, etc. Complicated. Alone the deep focus of time reveals a president's place in history. Which, face it, is academically sanctioned fake news. So, Dean Christgau, over time has your own opinion of Ronnie changed--especially in light of the exhausting dramedy of President Donald "Spankee" Trump from our beloved Queens? -- Coco Hannah Eckelberg, Long Island City, New York 
[A] The historians' polls I've missed are without number, but the word "influential" is a typical non-normative academic/journalistic evasion--"most humane" is so ideological, and "best," fageddaboutit. Of course Reagan was influential. But he was also the most evil of 20th-century presidents. He began the evolution of the Republican Party into the amoral pack of Ayn Rand-worshipping, Jesus-perverting Repuglican empathy deniers it is today. He used the air traffic controllers strike to kick into gear an ongoing attack on the union movement that has done untold harm to most Americans. He empowered the entire Oliver North school of rightwing dark-op specialists who infest both government and the ever vaster private security infrastructure. He wasn't as bad as Trump because Trump is truly a special case--a barely sane megalomaniac who is among other things immensely more dangerous than Christianist hypocrite Mike Pence. And though I could go on, I have other things to do, so I'll stop except to say that rooted in racism though its promise will always be, I still believe in America too.